Clarity arrives unexpectedly, when the authorities drive out the homeless from the park, albeit temporarily, in order to prepare for Emperor Akihito’s visit. Kazu, who was born in 1933 – the same year as the emperor – never goes back to reclaim his belongings even after the imperial visit is over. Finally, in death he finds a purpose he was unable to find in life. Tokyo Ueno Station is an evocative requiem sung by a dead man, for himself, and many others like him – nameless, faceless and likely homeless, and whose hard labour literally built postwar Japan.
Miri, a Zainichi-Korean (born in Japan, of Korean descent and with South Korean nationality) is an outsider herself in Japan’s largely homogenous society where racism against ethnic minorities prevails unchecked. Because of this, perhaps, she writes about marginal people with deep understanding and sensitivity, using the location of Ueno Park to challenge the hypocrisies of a society that purports to cherish hospitality, kindness and cooperation. The emperor’s ‘gift’, she demonstrates, extends only so far. Her writing — laconic, strange, haunting and beautifully preserved in this translation by Morgan Giles — is exceptional. To read this novel is to feel possessed by Kazu’s spirit, to feel the effects of injustice, his pain and his grief deeply, and to wish better for those like him.
Tokyo Ueno Station is a social novel, but in more of a magical than a strictly realist sense. History can’t be reduced to dates on the calendar, but is grasped at elliptically. The text is full of line breaks, as if with each new paragraph Kazu is making a new attempt to understand the past, and with every new line it slips further away... Deftly translated by Morgan Giles, the novel most effectively conveys its concerns through dense layers of narrative, through ambiguity rather than specific fates. It is an urgent reminder of the radical divide between rich and poor in postwar Japan. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics just around the corner, the reader is urged to think about which kinds of endurance will be celebrated, and which will continue to be ignored.