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.
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…