Rating 4 stars
Tokyo Ueno Station is a ghost story, an alternative history of Japan and a critique of Japanese society. Beginning among the homeless community who live in and around the busy commuter station near Ueno Park, it reaches back through time to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the post-war economic boom, the migration of workers to Tokyo to help build the Olympic park in 1964, and the devastating tsunami of 2011.
The narrator of the tale is called Kazu. Through him, we see a different Japan to the one portrayed in travel programmes and newspaper articles. It’s a harrowing story of loss and abandonment.
Across the novel, alongside Kazu’s personal account of recent Japanese history, we learn about more ancient Japanese history, as Kazu’s friend Shige explains the significance of the statues, shrines and temples located in Ueno Park.
The park is scathingly given its full name of Ueno Imperial Gift Park by Kazu in relation to the regular clearance of the homeless from the park whenever a member of the Japanese Imperial family makes an official visit. The irony is that the park was gifted by Emperor Hirohito to the people of Tokyo in 1924, in recognition of its role as a place of refuge for those displaced by the 1923 earthquake and as a place of hope for those searching for missing loved ones.
Kazu is one of the migrant workers who came to Tokyo in 1964. He grew up in Fukushima. He left his family there while he laboured in Tokyo, visiting them only twice a year and sending back money each month that he wouldn’t even have earned in a year back home.
Gradually we realise that he became one of the homeless. Yu Miri presents his view of the world in a nuanced way. His sense of defeat mingles with his anger at how life turned out for him and the others that Japanese society let down.
I was struck by one of the opening paragraphs, where Kazu’s philosophical sorrow is made clear.
I used to think life was like a book: you turn the first page, and there’s the next, and as you go on turning page after page, eventually you reach the last one. But life is nothing like a story in a book. There may be words, and the pages may be numbered, but there is no plot. There may be an ending, but there is no end.
This made me think about the narrative that is etched into Japanese society and culture, that says each citizen must do their best, must take their place in the national structure, must play their role in the story of Japan. It made me reflect on how often that narrative must fall away. Whenever we have visited Ueno on our trips to Japan, heading back at night to where we were staying, I’ve been struck by the number of homeless people who bed down in the pedestrian subways that lead into the station. I haven’t noticed any homeless people in the park, but perhaps that’s because we’ve visited during the cherry blossom season. Perhaps the homeless people were tidied away behind the “metal panels with pictures of trees on them” described in the novel.
I’ve read books that include homeless characters living under the bridges that span the Sumida river in Tokyo. I watched a film on a plane over to Japan about a salary man who loses his job and is too ashamed to tell his family, dressing for work each day and heading to one of the soup kitchens that feed the homeless of Tokyo. I know that homelessness is a major issue in Japan. I’ve never read or watched anything that puts across so well the hows and whys of someone falling through the cracks or the way it makes them feel. This book is important because it presents this perspective. At home, I pass at least one homeless person sleeping on the street every day on my way into work. Numbers are increasing. The reasons why people become homeless are changing. It’s nothing to be proud of, but I don’t stop, I keep walking, like everyone else. Perhaps we do it because we don’t want to acknowledge that it could so easily be us. Perhaps that subconscious awareness makes us anxious to keep our own lives on track. There has been some research released this week that suggests our brains are programmed to protect us from thoughts of our own death. Perhaps we think of homelessness as a sort of death, and our brains make it easier to look away than to become involved.
Yu has Kazu explain why people become homeless in Japan. Reasons range from running up debts to meet the cost of living, going to prison and being unable to return to their families, and being divorced from a wife who keeps the children and family home, to being fired from a job late in life and becoming addicted to drink or gambling. Much the same as anywhere. Kazu also explains how homeless people make ends meet. It made sense of something I’ve seen on more recent trips to Japan. Japan has an excellent recycling system, but I’ve seen people on bicycles with trailers or on foot pushing handcarts collecting up aluminium cans from recycling bins or the bags left outside on recycling days. It puzzled me at the time, but Kazu explains in the novel that a homeless person can make money from selling these harvested cans.
Kazu shares with us his life story, with its coincidental and bitter connections to the Imperial family. He shares his birthday with Emperor Akihito, his son with the child who became Emperor Naruhito, but Kazu’s life is not as comfortable as that of his regal contemporary. His family is poor, his childhood framed in debt and working to try to clear that debt. Working away from home damages his relationship with his children, particularly with his son. Kazu’s adulthood is framed in regret for this loss of closeness.
One memory that Kazu shares is of his encounter with Emperor Hirohito two years after the end of the war. The description captures the change in attitude to the Emperor, forced in his statement of surrender to admit that he’s just a man, not a god.
At the moment that the Emperor, dressed in a suit, descended from the royal train and touched his hand to the brim of his fedora in greeting, we cried out, “Long live the Emperor! Banzai!” as if it were being wrung out of us …
I started to read this book a few days before the current emperor, Naruhito, is to be formally enthroned. There’s an interesting account of the three sacred ceremonies that make the ascent of the emperor official on the History Girls blog. I am both fascinated and repulsed by monarchy, both for the same reason. It doesn’t sit well with me that one person should elevate themself above everyone else and claim that they are a deity or represent a deity on Earth. And yet so many people living under monarchies accept this as a regular state of affairs. Even those who have abolished the monarchies they laboured under in the past hold onto a fascination with the monarchies of other countries. It’s an odd state of affairs.
For that reason, I appreciated Kazu’s view of the Imperial family in Japan and the way Japanese society, as with British society, clings to certain feudal aspects of a hierarchy built on knowing your place, to the detriment of those who lose their place in that hierarchy and become invisible.
Yu’s writing captures the loss and anger of being a social outcast. She uses place, environment and emotion to build a picture of Kazu’s life.
When she has Kazu recall his encounter with Hirohito, Yu describes the hyperreal brightness of the day, the unspoken subtext that this was tantamount to a religious experience but utterly lacking in ecstacy.
The sky was oppressively blue … The liquid sunshine quivered and licked at us, and the green leaves and white shirts on people’s backs were also bright that I struggled to keep my eyes open …
Observing a pair of homeless people chatting in Ueno Park, Kazu focuses on a line of ants climbing a tree. The subtext here is that the homeless don’t belong and, like ants, have to keep moving.
A line of ants marched past her feet, climbing up a tree one by one, but ants don’t make their homes in trees. In Ueno Park – this imperial gift – each tree has a round, plastic tag attached to its trunk, like a locker key does. This tree was labeled Green A620 – I try now to remember the feeling of its smooth, dry bark, the feeling of ants crawling across my skin – but ants don’t make their homes in trees. The ants marched back down the tree.
Central to Kazu’s story is the death of his son, Kōichi. In the telling, Yu describes grief in a way that will resonate with anyone who has lost someone close to them; a child, a sibling, a parent. Kazu’s frozen pain is tangible, his regret at not having known his son better palpable. His mother commiserates with him by telling him that he has never had any luck. For Kazu, this seems true; his impoverished upbringing, his going to work from the age of 12 in places that took him far from his home, his resulting status as a stranger in his own family, and then the death of his son all knit together as evidence of his lack of good fortune. Kōichi’s death changes Kazu’s life from making an effort at work to making an effort to live. In the Japanese language, making an effort or doing your best is expressed as ganbaru/がんばる/頑張る. It has a depth of meaning that is lost when translated into English.
On the day before Kōichi’s funeral, Kazu realises that he is tired of trying, but in line with the ethos of doing your best, he carries on. It’s the death of his wife that finally defeats his will. He turns the corner that leads to homelessness in Ueno Park. The last 45 pages are packed with the intensity of Kazu’s final years.
The saddest thing, I felt, was that Kazu led the best life he could in the context of the society he grew up in. It’s a society where people seem often to feel that their best isn’t good enough and where family bonds are often looser than the bonds formed through employment. When things fell away for Kazu, he didn’t have the kind of support that meant he could survive the hard things life threw at him. It’s tragic.