Sunday, February 9, 2020

Next Stop: Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station

Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station (JR Ueno-eki Koen-guchi), which I read in Morgan Giles’s translation from the Japanese, is a novel that examines absence and presence. A first-person narrator, Kazu, tells the story of his adult life, most of which is spent away from his wife, son, and daughter, as he works in Tokyo as a laborer. His account is alternately harrowing and oddly soothing.

Yamanote Line platform 2 at Ueno Station in Tokyo
Tokyo Ueno Station is neatly constructed, nesting multiple inserted voices into Kazu’s narrative. Kazu, for example, quotes his father’s account of “the trials of our ancestors” and offers the reported speech of museumgoers and people on the street. The novel is temporally framed by two Olympic years for Japan, 1964 and (looking ahead) 2020, as well as births in Japan’s imperial family. Although locations play key roles in the novel, too, pinpointing places like Fukushima and, of course, Tokyo’s Ueno Station (with history!), the book balances concrete details with an otherworldly sense of abstraction, an abstraction born largely of the contrast of the absence and presence I already mentioned. Buddhism also plays a significant role.

On the plot level, Tokyo Ueno Station is primarily the story of a homeless man, yes, Kazu, who lives in Ueno Park. The stories that make up his life story feature gaping absences. These absences are physical – Kazu works away from his family and there are deaths – but they are also mental:
My children held little affection for me, the father they rarely saw. And I never knew how to talk to them, either.
We shared the same blood but I meant no more to them than a stranger.
Kazu seems to feels closer to a fellow resident of Ueno Park, Shige, who invites him into the cardboard hut he shares with his cat, Emile. Shige offers a drink of hot sake to celebrate his son’s birthday. He, too, knows little of his family:
He was ten when I left. I guess he has his own family now. I might even be a grandfather.
Families, particularly sons, play a large role in Tokyo Ueno Station, despite their brokenness: the novel parallels lives like Kazu’s and Shige’s with those of the emperor, who was born in the same year as Kazu and whose son was born on the same day as Kazu’s son. The imperial family is a constant in Kazu’s life for reasons beyond those coincidences (this being literature, though, there are no coincidences) because when members visit the park area, the authorities clear the homeless encampment. Absence/presence as well as stability/rootlessness – we’re right by the mobility of the train station – contrast again, this time through a monarchy that dates back many centuries.

The contrasts that Yu Miri depicts are cruel, particularly set against the backdrop of a park with beautiful cherry blossoms or the pageantry and expenses of Olympic games or the demands of the imperial family. The book’s sense of absence/presence feels real thanks to Morgan Giles’s translation, which read flawlessly to me. She treats this polyphonic text with care, establishing a distinct, matter-of-fact voice for Kazu and letting him tell his own story while incorporating the words of others. Her careful work with the text ensures that this slender but very substantive novel builds quietly, gathering momentum and ending (how to put it to avoid spoilers?) one-on-one with Kazu. Tokyo Ueno Station is a book that I’d recommend to a very broad swath of readers for its stark and evocative depictions of life, passing, homelessness, relationships, and contemporary sociopolitical issues in Japan. It feels both very concrete and very elusive, rather like Kazu himself, who says:
To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past, while still being in full view of everyone.
P.S. On February 12, 2020, Morgan Giles won the TA First Translation Prize for her translation of Tokyo Ueno Station. I also noticed on Giles's Twitter feed that the book will be out in the U.S., from Riverhead Books, in June of this year.

Disclaimers & Disclosures: None, I bought my copy of Tokyo Ueno Station.

Photo credit for “Yamanote Line platform 2 at Ueno Station in Tokyo”: Nesnad via Wikimedia Commons.