My name’s Tony Malone, of the Tony’s Reading List site, and as a fan of Japanese Literature, I’m happy to be introducing the next choice for the Litfest International Fiction Book Club to you all, Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles and published in the UK by Tilted Axis Press.
While the book was overlooked (criminally, in my view) for the International Booker Prize longlist, the American edition won the Translated Literature category of last year’s National Book Awards, testament both to the quality of the novel and the superb work done by Morgan Giles in what was her first full-length translation.
Yu Miri is a Japanese writer of Korean descent, and this has meant she has faced a lot of criticism and even racist abuse over the course of her career, and her books often focus squarely on the disadvantaged and helpless members of society.
Despite winning several awards in Japan, including the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for Family Cinema, only Gold Rush, a psychological drama involving a teenage boy and his rather disturbing actions, had previously made it into English.
Fortunately, the writer’s profile has been lifted by the success of Tokyo Ueno Station, and her next novel in English, The End of August (again translated by Morgan Giles), is set to be released by Tilted Axis in 2022.
Tokyo Ueno Station, then, is the story of an old homeless man, Kazu, but it isn’t long before he tells us he’s actually dead. The story, then, follows Kazu’s spirit around the area of Ueno Park, located next to one of Tokyo’s biggest and busiest train stations, as it wanders the place it used to call home.
Of course, it’s not long before we learn more about our friend, with the story taking us back to his youth. Born in 1933, on the same day as Emperor Akihito (who recently abdicated), Kazu is an everyman who allows the writer to look back at twentieth-century Japanese history from a slightly different angle.
Yes, we still learn about the war, the post-conflict years of hardship and then the economic boom, with the arrival of the bullet train and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, but we also see the flip side, the sacrifices made by the little people to ensure this progress.
That might be the way they flood to the capital from the impoverished provinces, missing out on years of family life, or even the many workers who literally give their lives to the project of nation rebuilding, the collateral damage the Olympic stadium is built upon.
The story of Kazu’s life is contrasted with the present situation in Ueno Park, one of the biggest magnets for homeless people in Japan.
Yu shows the daily lives of those living there, showing how they are at the mercy of park officials who temporarily evict them whenever there’s a need to show the park in a more favourable light – for example, when a member of the royal family decides to visit one of the park’s museums.
No matter that they have nowhere to go – theirs is not to reason why, theirs is just to pack up and come back later, dismantling makeshift huts of cardboard and tarpaulins and hoping for a day without rain.
These scenes of the homeless people are contrasted with quick glimpses of the others, the ‘ordinary’ capital dwellers, and brief snatches of conversations overheard as they go about their day. These are beautifully done, and Giles catches the tone nicely, showing us people about to spend more on their lunches than the people they walk past have seen in a month.
Overall, Tokyo Ueno Station is a wonderful work, and one that has taken on even more significance as the disaster in the making that is the Tokyo Olympics has developed. As you can imagine, if the homeless folk of Ueno Park can be evicted just because of a fleeting royal visit, the upcoming event is unlikely to leave them unscathed. One of the messages the writer is trying to convey in the book is how much of a waste of money and resources the Olympic project is, and that solving the country’s real problems would be a far better use of people’s taxes.
As we’ve seen, it’s going to take a lot for the Japanese government to admit defeat here, but anyone who reads Yu’s novel will have mixed thoughts if and when the games finally get underway.
Anyway, I hope you all enjoy the book. Unfortunately, owing to time zone issues, I won’t be able to discuss it with you live, but I’ll be more than happy to see if I can respond to any questions you all might have after the event.
Thanks for your time, and happy reading 🙂
Tony Malone is an occasional ESL teacher and full-time reader who has been publishing his thoughts on literature in translation at the Tony’s Reading List blog for just over twelve years now. One unexpected consequence of all this reading in translation has been the crafting of a few translations of his own, with English versions of works by classic German writers such as Eduard von Keyserling and Ricarda Huch appearing at his site. While his translation efforts focus on German, his main literary interests lie in Asia, with a keen focus on Korean and, especially, Japanese fiction. The hundreds of reviews of Japanese fiction at his site range from contemporary novels to classic works from the Heian Era.