January in Japan: Tokyo Ueno Station

Yu Miri: Tokyo Ueno Station, transl. Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press, 2019.

Ueno Park is an oasis of beautiful greenery in the heart of Tokyo. It houses several museums and cultural venues, a zoo, a Shinto shrine and is the site of the most exuberant cherry blossom gazing in the Japanese capital. When I first went to Japan in the summer of 1989, it was one of my favourite places to escape to from the humid heat of the city.

However, when the Japanese economy stagnated in the 1990s, the park became notorious for its large population of homeless people, who have created a makeshift town of blue tarp tents and cardboard boxes under the unusually large, sheltering trees. On my most recent trip to Japan in 2015, I was shocked to see how vast this community of the disenfranchised was. Japan has a tendency to sweep this problem under the carpet – for the longest time they wouldn’t even admit to having any homeless people. Nowadays, the problem is acknowledged but there is very little effort to deal with it in a concerted and humane way. The only positive is that the restaurants and shops in the neighbourhood give them their surplus, about-to-expire food. The police periodically disperses the homeless people, particularly when there is a formal event at one of the Ueno venues, with imperial attendance, but since there is nowhere else for them to go, they slowly drift back there. With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon in 2020 (now 2021), the past two years or so have seen widespread attempts to ‘discourage loitering’, i.e. setting up of camps.

Yu Miri’s book gives us the life story of one of these marginalised people (and, in his company, we get to meet others from this community, which is by no means as homogeneous as you might expect). Kazu is a labourer in the construction industry, who left his family in Fukushima to make money in the big city in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics.

I never took my children to Ueno zoo… I didn’t take them to the zoo, nor to the amusement park, the seaside, the mountains; I never went to their beginning-of-the-year ceremonies or graduations or to a parents’ open day or to a sports day, not even once. I went back only twice a year, in summer and in winter…

Unsurprisingly, his children grow very distant, and he feels completely disposable and superfluous when he goes back to his home village. But things are no better in Tokyo: as a member of the homeless community, he is well-nigh invisible. ‘To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past while still being in full view of everyone.’ Of course, we soon find out that Kazu is in fact a ghost, so he is literally invisible and can eavesdrop on the conversations of those wandering through the park. There are interesting contrasts between the visitors to the park and museums, and the homeless community. We also get to know other homeless people like Shige, extremely well-educated, who spends a great deal of his day in the public library, but is so ashamed of one single event in his past, that he can never return to his family.

Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum of Art

However, it is Kazu’s memories, his guilt and pain, that are at the forefront of the book. Kazu has always felt a special bond or affinity with the Emperor Akihito (who has since the writing of the book abdicated in 2019 in favour of his son Naruhito).. They were born in the same year (1933), they had their first son born on the same day in 1960, and Kazu even saw the old emperor (Akihito’s father) up close back in 1947. Despite his hard work, his submission, his feeling that he has done everything he was supposed to do, Kazu’s life has been full of bad luck. I want to avoid spoilers so I won’t say anything more specific here, although you are probably not going to read this book for its suspense. The narration glides from one conversation to another, from past to present, so that we often lose track of who is talking and what is real, what is experienced and what is merely observed and overheard.

There are some parts of the book where the author gets sidetracked into lengthy descriptions of a historical event or person, or descriptions of different types of roses interspersed with the dialogues Kazu hears in the park. I have to admit I was not quite sure what the author intended with these digressions. It might be to add to that overall effect of no escape, no enlightenment for Kazu. He is stuck in limbo and there is no end to his suffering and no meaning to his life or that of those around him.

I thought that once I was dead I would be reunited with the dead. That I could see, close up, those who were far away, touch them and feel them at all times. I thought something would be resolved by death. I believed that at the final moment, the meaning of life and death woudl appear to me clearly, like a fog lifting…

But then I realized that I was back in the park. I was not going anywhere, I had not understood anything, I was still stunned by the same numberless doubts, only I was now outside of life looking in…

Time does not pass. Time never ends.

Critics have made much of Yu Miri’s own outsider status – as a Japanese of Korean descent, she belongs to a group that is heavily discriminated. She herself has said that she wants to give voice to those who are voiceless and marginalised, but resists being stereotyped as a ‘minority writer’. Her only other novel to be translated thus far into English Gold Rush is about a less obvious kind of outsider. [You can read an excellent review of it on Tony’s blog.] Another writer who also struggled with this tension between giving voice to the type of experiences often unacknowledged by Japanese society is Kenji Nakagami, who was a Burakumin, so-called hereditary outcastes of society because they engaged in ‘unclean’ trades.

P.S. I should also add that I had the pleasure of discussing the book in December 2020 at the Borderless Book Club organised by Peirene Press, a wonderful initiative that introduces books published by small independents, translated from all over the world.

So my first two January in Japan reads have shown the darker underbelly of Japanese society. Will my next one live a little more up to the expectations we might have of this country? I’ll give you a clue…

31 thoughts on “January in Japan: Tokyo Ueno Station”

    1. It is more the story of an individual than of the homeless community as such, but this is to my mind what makes it even more powerful – showing us they are all people with their own individual, unforgettable stories.

  1. I’m interested in reading this, especially as the author is of Korean descent – with all that back-story of conquest and destruction that the Japanese imposed on Korea through the centuries. TBR – when I can source a copy!

    1. I thought I’d replied to this comment, but it seems not to have appeared – how embarrassing, on my own site! Yes, I meant to say that the Korean/Japanese relationship has certainly been very troubled over the centuries, which is surprising because they also have quite a lot of cultural similarities (or perhaps that’s precisely why). It is sad to see the discrimination they still encounter: when I was still working in the corporate world, back in 2002 accompanied an American sales manager of Korean descent to Japan. He spoke Japanese even more fluently than me, had lived in the country for a while, was more senior and male, while I was a young (and at the time heavily pregnant) woman, but guess which one of us they treated with more respect? It was completely the opposite of what I expected… and went against all of my previous experience of working with the Japanese.

      1. You’re obviously much more aware than I could be, as I’ve never been to Japan, and was in South Korea only a month – and so inevitably see things from that perspective. But Korea seems to have been a victim over many centuries – that would take some getting over. I wonder what motivates quite large numbers of Koreans to go to Japan to work? It’s OK, I don’t need an answer! But my visit certainly began my interest in seeking out Korean authors. It’s an increasingly rich field. Thanks by the way for replying again when the WP gremlins got at you!

  2. This is an excellent book, and I’m glad it’s receiving recognition after the International Booker ignored it! I think you’re leaving Tokyo behind for Kyoto next, if I’m not mistaken… 😉

        1. It’s been a very long time since I read the book and I have very ambiguous feelings now as I reread it… Review to follow next week.

        2. By the way, this particular writer seems to be following me around this month, as you’ll see in later reviews!

  3. Hi Marina — fabulous review! Your background information really helps in placing the story and understanding the historical underpinnings.
    I actually starting reading Ueno Station a few days ago, with a mind to Belezza’s Japanese Literature event (I was drawn to the notion of a ghost being bound to a subway stop, as well as the author’s outsider status) Despite the author’s skill, however, I ended up setting it aside relatively quickly as not being right for me at this particular time. I think that Kazu’s memory of his trip home, when his little son wanted the helicopter ride at the festival and he couldn’t afford the fee, was what did it for me; it was too strong a reminder of the marginal people I’ve known, including kids, and how disposable they’re regarded by the societies they live in. I’ll probably finish the book, but not just yet. I’m afraid it has to wait for better times!

      1. Yes, I read enough about the book to know, in advance, that Kazu’s society regarded him as disposable person and that he had the sort of life this implies. Normally, I’d be perfectly fine reading this, but these aren’t normal times; so I’m deferring to the summer (women’s literature in translation, maybe?). Besides, I have to let the memory of your fine review fade from my mind, before I dare attempt! Did you know the NYT included Ueno’s cover as one of 2020’s best? https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/18/books/the-best-book-covers-of-2020.html It was also one of their notable books for the year.

        1. Hmmm, I thought the cover was a little too jaunty (especially with that pastel pink), but it certainly fits in with the cutesy image that Japan often likes to depict of itself, yet when you look closely at the images, they are not all that positive.

        2. My edition has the same cover as does yours; I agree that the pink doesn’t quite match the mood of the novel. The cover choosen by the NYT is quite different: also bright colors (orange, green, blue but not as silly as the pastel pink) & far fewer images. I think it’s a much better fit for the novel.

    1. The beautiful, suave perception of Japan is something that the Japanese themselves (not just their tourist office) are keen to promote, but I am starting to see more alternative views of Japan recently, perhaps as the so-called ‘lost generation’ of the 1990s start talking about their experiences.

  4. What a beautiful place, Marina Sofia! I can see how you enjoyed it so well when you are there. And it’s an interesting backdrop to this story of what it is to be homeless in Japan, something I don’t know much about, if I’m being honest. It sounds like a fascinating look at Japan through the eyes of someone whose voice isn’t heard very much, if that makes sense.

    1. It’s one of those cases when the meaning of a place is completely changed: from being a place of calm and beauty, it has become a place of shame and discomfort (even though it’s a big park and of course there are still tranquil spots there). I found it really difficult to visit it as blithely in recent years. It’s like the tourists crowding outside the National Gallery in London but ignoring the rough sleepers in the doorways.

  5. I’ve been putting off buying this (not sure why), anyway, I’m going to get it soon now. Thank you for your always excellent reviews.

  6. That was really interesting; a side of Japan we didn’t know- we see this pictures of cherry blossom with no idea of the homeless – I just imagined Japan had such an orderly society it would not happen.

  7. (Followed you here from the Japanese Literature Challenge 14.)
    I had no idea about the homeless problem. I’ve watched a few Japanese shows/ movies, and I can’t remember them ever bringing this up. Yu Miri’s Korean origins was also interesting; that’s a loaded place to be in — and that’s something I *have* frequently seen in the Asian dramaland. Great review, as always.

  8. I also read this for the Borderless Book Club but then couldn’t make the meeting! I found it very sad, but I agree that at times it digresses in ways that don’t entirely enhance the narrative.

  9. I was so foolish as to be surprised by the homeless people in this park in Tokyo. We were there in 2018, and I remember with great sorrow the disheveled people in rags, holding on to their cats. No city can escape this poverty, this woe, and it helped me understand the book so much better when I read it after returning to the States.

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