I’m not sure if books have the power to change minds, let alone the world. Nor do I buy into the power of books or other forms of entertainment as primarily escapist ventures, means of avoiding the world around you and its harsh realities. In fact, it’s often in illuminating the harshness of life that books find their strength.
If books have any magic at all, it’s the ability to bring a reader so seamlessly close to another’s lived experiences and memories – even fictional ones – that it’s as if some of the wisdom, power, and overall emotional tenor of that life was your own. It’s this empathetic space, between memories and dreams, in which books seem to be most potent to me.
Tokyo Ueno Station, written by Yu Miri and translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, lays bare the depth of sorrow for those society deems too pitiable to even see. While the poignancy of the novel is palpable, its refusal to look away actually softens the blow, as there is little joy to weigh it against. Still, Tokyo Ueno Station is a beautiful look at life too often unobserved, and one whose resonance only seems to grow by the day.
The novel follows Kazu, a man who spends the last days of his life living in the tent city inside Ueno Park, near the eponymous train station. We see through Kazu’s eyes as he drifts around the park observing, until something triggers a memory or idea, often the rain, leading us to see another facet of Kazu’s tragic life.
The path that led Kazu to spending the last years of his long life in the park is a circuitous one, punctuated by sadness. Kazu left home at the age of 12 to find work doing hard labor jobs across the country. The work kept him busy and paid him little, only leading him to need to work more. Despite getting married and fathering two children, Kazu continued to spend the vast majority of his time away from home, sending money back, and only visiting for a few days out of the year.
As harrowing as this is, Kazu sees it as part of the struggle of life, though he does feel regret for not being able to spend more time with his family. But his son’s tragic death at 21 breaks something in Kazu. His son Koichi had been living in Tokyo, and had recently passed the radiology exam; by all accounts, Kazu’s son was set to have a bright future ahead of him, vastly unlike the life Kazu himself had. But the loss is so sudden, so unexpected, Kazu struggles to recover. He laments his time away, how little he knew his children and they know him. At the funeral, a classmate of Koichi’s tells Kazu a story about his son, only highlighting what a stranger he was to his father. Later, Kazu’s mother, grieving the loss of Koichi, tells Kazu, “You never did have any luck, did you?” which seems to encapsulate and pervade every aspect of Kazu’s life.
He never quite recovers fully, and another death in the family brings Kazu to his knees. All his life, he’d thought that hardship and suffering were inherent to life, and such a struggle would lead to a future for his family, or pay off in the form of rest in his old age. But Kazu never finds any respite, no matter where he turns. Finally retired and cared for by his granddaughter, Kazu decides to flee home out of fear he would become a burden to her, though he knew that doing so would leave him destitute. Still, he packs his things, leaves a note telling his granddaughter not to come looking for him, and catches the train into Tokyo.
Kazu falls into the community of the homeless in Ueno Park. One of the only named characters is Shige, another homeless man, whom Kazu considers an intellectual due to his wide knowledge and inclination towards teaching. Even with him, however, Kazu struggles to make a true connection, unwilling to open up to Shige in a moment of vulnerability, or to really listen that intently.
The greatest strength of the novel is how well it leverages its construction to convey empathy. Reading Miri’s book almost feels like being taught a memory. She delicately weaves between Kazu’s observations in the present, the memories of his difficult life, and his musings about others and the world around him. Even though Kazu is somewhat detached towards others, he is a thoughtful and caring person, and the glimpses into his mind go a long way towards illuminating that. Miri has an innate ability to convey the experience of memory, in a way that reminds me of Ishiguro’s somber novels. The translation by Giles sings as well, even faced with difficult passages such as the teachings of a Buddhist priest and Shige’s historical monologues.
In the West, Japan is often viewed as something of a utopia: clean, technologically advanced, polite. But in all countries, there are people who have slipped through the cracks that society has failed to protect. As Kazu notes, far too often society pretends to simply not see those experiencing homelessness. But Miri sees them, feels their pain, and asks if you can too, by highlighting the harshness of life on the streets, and the suffering that might have brought them there in the first place. In fact, the novel’s prime weakness is that in its tenacity towards showing the pain Kazu has experienced, there’s little room left for joy.
It’s difficult to point to any singular moments of happiness in the novel; instead, readers are left to weigh their own experiences against Kazu’s to feel the depth of his sorrow. No life is without some happiness, but even Kazu’s brief retirement with his granddaughter is downplayed. This shrinks the range of emotions on display. The effect is still powerful, but perhaps no one has shown how breathtaking a contrary moment can be than Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day.
Tokyo Ueno Station is an evocative and moving book. Miri’s skills are on full display, as emotionally resonant in moments as intimate as a conversation and as large as a lifetime. Over only a few lines, Miri is able to make you feel the full loss of a life unknown not only to us, but to his absent father in Kazu. In the time since reading it, I’ve felt its resonance grow in my mind. As people worldwide are listening to the disenfranchised, the disadvantaged in a new way, Miri has shown us that we all have a lot to learn, and a long way to go.
Tokyo Ueno Station
By Yu Miri
Published June 23, 2020
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.