They say that life flashes before your eyes just before you die. Korean-Japanese author Yu Miri has provided a neat spin on this by writing a novel in which the main character recalls the key events of his life after he has died. It’s a strange conceit but one that works wonders, enabling the reader to fully sympathize with the ill-fated protagonist on each step of his tragic journey, from homeless man to restless spirit.
“Tokyo Ueno Station” opens in that very place. Kazu, our ghostly guide, remembers when he first set foot on the platform. However, a more significant landmark turns out to be Ueno Imperial Gift Park across the road, home to a huge village of the city’s destitute. It was there, on a concrete enclosure around a grove of ginkgo trees, in a hut made of tarp and cardboard — “things that someone else had once thrown away” — that Kazu spent his days.
Although not all of them. Kazu’s story begins with work and a roof over his head. As a young man he goes out to sea in a fishing boat and also harvests rice and kelp. When there are other mouths to feed he leaves his wife and two children in Fukushima and heads to Tokyo to build stadiums for the 1964 Olympic Games. Rapid urbanization results in more backbreaking construction work, but after a while low wages and rising debts take their toll. Then disaster truly strikes when one of his sons dies. Kazu is overwhelmed by grief but also by guilt for having been a distant father.
“You never did have any luck,” his mother tells him, unaware that her son is about to lose everything and that one misfortune after another is just around the corner. As if living in a makeshift shack and begging, hawking and scavenging isn’t bad enough, Kazu comes up against violence and constant evictions. “We were always on edge,” he reveals, “dogged by danger and the anxiety that if we had something even for a moment, it could be taken away.”
Kazu’s Job-like suffering is heart-rending. Mercifully, his tale is not so bleak that it is off-putting. His catalog of hardships serves a purpose, laying bare perennial social concerns such as the seismic gulf between Japan’s rich and poor. Yu underscores that inequality by having Kazu born in 1933, the same year as Emperor Akihito, and showing how both lives loosely dovetail and wildly diverge. There is additional color, vibrancy and insight as Kazu’s spectral self haunts his old stamping ground, eavesdropping on conversations and reminiscing about absent friends and other lost souls.
Morgan Giles’ skillful translation from the Japanese brings out dark strains but also pockets of beauty. “Life had its claws in me,” Kazu declares. His candid, hard-hitting story results in a devastating and affecting novel which illuminates a swath of society subsisting on the margins.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Tokyo Ueno Station
By: Yu Miri, translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles.
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 192 pages, $25.