Books

'Tokyo Ueno Station' shows the dark side of the postwar boom

by Nicolas Gattig

Contributing Writer

Most people associate Ueno Park, the most-visited park in Tokyo, with a springtime canopy of cherry blossoms, or the zoo and its fabled pandas. But strolling down the picturesque alleys that crisscross the park, you are also in the presence of history, perhaps walking on human remains buried during World War II, and never too far from the sobering camps of the homeless that live within its gates.

Tokyo Ueno Station, by Yu Miri, Translated by Morgan Giles.
180 pages
TILTED AXIS PRESS, Fiction.

In her new novel, “Tokyo Ueno Station,” published in English on March 4, writer Yu Miri connects Japan’s modern past with the homeless in Ueno Park, giving faces and voices to the dispossessed. In the manner of classic writers such as Emile Zola or Charles Dickens, the novel is a study of poverty, showing how places accumulate memory and become part of what we call the past.

“In 2006, Yu began meeting the homeless in Ueno,” explains translator Morgan Giles, who collaborated closely with the author. “She listened to their stories and learned about their lives before they came to live in the park. Many of the men were from Fukushima Prefecture and had come to Tokyo during the time of economic growth, to work and send money home to their families.”

One such man is Kazu, the main character of the novel, who looks back on his hardscrabble life. Born in Fukushima in 1933, the same year as the Emperor of Japan, he leaves his wife and children in search of employment, first in Tokyo, where he works in construction for the 1964 Olympics, then in Sendai. After the death of his son and wife in the 1980s, Kazu spirals into despair and homelessness. In a tent village in Ueno Park, he meets other laborers who once helped Japan’s postwar boom, spending their lives building highways, hospitals and schools.

Historically, Ueno Station was “the gateway to the North,” where young men arrived from Tohoku into the capital. In the personal stories of the homeless, often revealed in conversation, Miri shows a continuum of displacement that stretches through generations, ending with destitute evacuees from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima.

“Translating the dialogue, much of which is in the Tohoku dialect, required a lot of work and help from friends,” says Giles. “The main challenge was that the novel drifts between present and past, blending the two with pieces of overheard conversations and poetic descriptions. It was hard to achieve this effect in English, which needs to be much more explicit than Japanese.”

Giving a voice to the voiceless:
Giving a voice to the voiceless: ‘Tokyo Ueno Station’ author Yu Miri. | COURTESY OF TILTED AXIS PRESS

Some of the past lands with a heavy hand, as characters launch into random speeches about Buddhist rituals or Japanese history. But the periods revisited are dramatic, such as the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945, when almost 8,000 bodies were brought to the park and buried there. Likewise, a retelling of the Great Kanto Earthquake, the disaster of 1923, is alive with period detail:

“Ueno Park had not burned, largely due to the water in Shinobazu Pond. The Matsuzakaya department store opposite the park was completely destroyed. Local residents, and even people from as far as Nihonbashi and Kyobashi flooded into the park, seeking refuge from the flames. Some had brought everything they owned in large handcarts hoping to return to their families in the countryside. So many flooded in that they blocked the roads around the station, as well as the tracks, so no trains could move.”

Born to Korean parents in Japan, Miri has written before about belonging and the search for a home, bringing an outsider’s perspective to her stories. She has been acclaimed as a playwright and novelist, winning the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for her novel “Family Cinema.” But she has also received threats from Japanese right-wingers who see her as defaming the country. Her first novel to be translated into English was “Gold Rush,” a surreally violent story of children lost in a dysfunctional family.

“I felt there was no place for me in the real world,” Miri said at a recent appearance at the University of Chicago. “So I started to write, with the aim of building a place of belonging for myself, outside the realm of the real.”

At times, “Tokyo Ueno Station” seems one-dimensional in its focus on rain-soaked misery, like a lament in need of a variant. But as the Olympic Games return to Japan and the country invites new migrant labor from overseas, it is important to consider the cost of growth and the human labor that fuels it.

“Tokyo Ueno Station” will be published in English on March 4 by Tilted Axis Press.

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