Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (tr. Morgan Giles).
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
When I first went to Tokyo, I made a habit of walking through a large park in Shinjuku. It was just down from the Tokyo Park Hyatt (as featured in Lost in Translation) and the park was exceptionally groomed – in the same way much of Tokyo was.
Unlike a lot of the other places I’d seen, though, it featured a lot of homeless people. It was ordered and quiet and a little hidden away: visible, but visibly ignored by most others walking through the space on their commute.
Invisible people, see.
That’s the focus of Yu Miri’s novel, even through the parkland of the title is in a different location. Invisible people. The sort of people that capitalism and success are keen to move to the margins; who, alive or dead, become liminal – a thing unnoticed unless pursued. People subject to constant uncertainty, continual change. People so tangentially involved with the wider community – though their own thrives – that they might as well not exist.
The story within focuses on a man named Kazu. Through a series of flashbacks and dreamlike present, we’re told of his life – a life begun in 1933, and which was swept along in the torrent of Japan’s postwar growth, and times of economic miracles. We learn of the losses that could lead to dropping out from society, as well as the joys – sometimes simple, sometimes not – which fill all lives, even those who find themselves destitute. We’re let into the support networks which help communities of homeless survive, and are given an almost dreamlike sense of an altered reality, for reasons which become all too apparent by the short novel’s end.
Tokyo Ueno Station is at once social commentary and fever-dream tale. It’s a sketch, detailed, of people who are considered as un-people by much of society. It’s something elegiac and beautiful. It’s sad, but it’s also whole-hearted in its embrace of life, and conveys a longing for connection and peace which sears.