[REVIEW] “Critical Social Commentary of Modern Japan: A Review of Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station” by Susan Blumberg-Kason

{Written by Susan Blumberg-Kason, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Yū Miri (author) and Morgan Giles (translator), Tokyo Ueno Station, Tilted Axis Press, 2019 (first published in 2014). 197 pgs.

Kazu Mori is an elderly man who lives in Ueno Park among a sizeable homeless population. Ueno Park is the burial site of 7,800 victims of the US bombing of Tokyo during the Second World War, but also a pleasant outing now for tourists and the well-off in Japan. Middle-class and wealthy people rest on the benches in the park, chatting about material goods and fancy dinners, all while blocking out the homeless all around them. Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles and is the winner of National Book Awards 2020 for Translated Literature, takes Mori’s story and the park setting to provide critical social commentary of modern Japan. Her story also gives voice to people who are often invisible in Japan.

Throughout the novel, Mori-san reflects back on his life that began in 1933 in a village in Fukushima Prefecture. He leaves school at the age of 12 to earn money for his family. In 1963, he takes a train to Ueno Station in Tokyo to help build the infrastructure for the 1964 Olympic Games, an event he could never afford to attend. Death is a prominent theme in Tokyo Ueno Station, as is the blood, sweat and tears that went into building modern Japan after a brutal war.

For the next four decades, Mori travels back and forth between Fukushima and Tokyo, yet during this time, he and his wife Setsuko probably spend a total of one year together. There is money to be made as a migrant worker in Tokyo and Mori sends most of the money he earns back to his wife and their two children, a son named Koichi and a daughter named Yoko.

It’s not until the year 2000 that Mori becomes homeless and moves into the community at Ueno Park. By that time, he’s a widower living in Fukushima with his granddaughter Mari and a dachshund named Kotaro. He doesn’t want to be a burden on her and leaves once again for Tokyo.

Food is not an issue for the community at Ueno Park, as restaurants and shops diligently set aside leftovers and gently expired food their businesses can no longer use. But violence, even at the hands of middle-school students, is rife and rain storms can send the residents of the park running for cover at a nearby porn cinema, the only place that will tolerate their overnight stays. It’s no wonder that Mori thinks about death and wonders what will happen afterward.

If time could pass so slowly that its passage was imperceptible, then—is death where time stops and the self is left all alone in this space? Is death where space and the self are erased and only time continues?

—Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated into English by Morgan Giles. 

There’s also a parallel story with Japan’s royal family, which shows the great disparity between a family that has never had to work and a stratum of society that knows nothing else. Setsuko gives birth to Koichi on 23 February 1960, the same day Prince Naruhito is born. Koichi suffers greatly compared to Prince Naruhito, and it’s not just because they were born into different social classes.

Decades later, in 2006, Mori and his fellow homeless population must evacuate Ueno Park by a police order because the Emperor and Empress—Prince Naruhito’s parents—are to make a visit to the park from the safety and comfort of their “Toyota Century Royal with the Imperial Standard, a gold chrysanthemum with sixteen petals, on the bonnet”.

Yū Miri is herself the daughter of Korean parents who grew up in Japan. Her father worked in a pachinko parlour and her mother as a hostess in a bar. One of the most endearing scenes in Tokyo Ueno Station takes place at a hostess bar Mori visits long after Setsuko passes away. He seeks conversation and when he meets Junko, a woman also from Fukushima, he feels like he has met a long lost friend. Happy to simply talk to her about their home prefecture, he’s taken aback when Junko asks him to dance at the hostess club. He has never danced before, not even when he was married. But he gives it a try and realises how much he’s missed the human touch.

As predicted, Mori also encounters death. Yet for all of the sadness in his life, there’s a ray of hope as he finds he’s more in control than he previously thought. Not only that, perhaps all along he has taken what little he had and gave a happiness to his family and himself of which he could be proud.


Also see this review in Cha:

How to cite: Blumberg-Kason, Susan. “Critical Social Commentary of Modern Japan: A Review of Yū Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 27 Feb. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/02/27/tokyo-ueno-station/.

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Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair With China Gone Wrong. Her writing has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China Blog, Asian Jewish Life, and several Hong Kong anthologies. She received an MPhil in Government and Public Administration from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Blumberg-Kason now lives in Chicago and spends her free time volunteering with senior citizens in Chinatown. (Photo credit: Annette Patko)

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