Literary wanderings: The ghost of Ueno Park

"JR Ueno Station Park Entrance" is plastered on the wall of a station.
Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 explains how “Tokyo Ueno Station” powerfully highlights inequalities in Tokyo. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Parks are a window into the soul of a city. While sitting on a bench and people watching, the living, breathing heart of the city unfurls before you: A parent pushes a stroller down the path, an elderly couple walks slowly arm-in-arm, someone paces talking animatedly on the phone, another sits in the grass reading a book and at least in Ueno Park, forgotten ghosts linger on the margin. 

In Yu Miri’s “Tokyo Ueno Station,” the stark inequalities of one of the world’s most developed cities is brought sharply into focus with a dash of magical realism. While the book’s central character, Kazu, is an apparition, his experiences in the city are carefully drawn from reality. 

When the story begins, Kazu is already invisibly wandering the paths of Ueno Park. As the book unfolds, Miri tells you how he got there; what comes to light is a tragically realistic portrait of the disintegration of a life. 

In an inverted timeline that slowly marches the reader backwards through Kazu’s life, the heart-wrenching path that led him to his ragged tent in Ueno Park is revealed. The book illuminates the serious topic of homelessness in a city revered for its futurism without tactlessly slapping the reader in the face with the issues at hand — it is quiet and unassuming but ultimately potent. 

“Tokyo Ueno Station” is a slender book: 180 small pages compiled into a nearly weightless package that could easily slip into a jacket pocket. It is a spectacular marriage of beauty and economy. 

That is why it so utterly took me by surprise. Miri draws together a strikingly vivid world in an incredibly brief window. Within the first ten pages, the landscape of Ueno Park bursts into the mind of the reader as Miri describes the bustling train station, the groves of ginkgo trees, the man “sleeping with a large translucent bag of scavenged aluminum cans tucked between his legs,” or the woman “[sleeping] prone, using a maroon backpack as a futon and her arms as a pillow, her white hair tied up with a rubber band.”

It is a book so deeply rooted in a particular place that it could not have been written with such clarity and grace from anywhere else. Miri, a Zainichi Korean novelist and playwright, has lived in Japan her entire life, and it is her perceptive gaze and keen awareness for the complexities of the country that gives “Tokyo Ueno Station” its power and poignancy. 

In Ali Smith’s introduction to “The Door” she begins with a somber and quite shocking fact: “The proportion of books published in the English-speaking world that are translations, from all languages (including best-selling crime novels), is currently about three percent.” While a stunningly low portion on its own, this statistic felt even more egregious after reading “Tokyo Ueno Station.”

“Tokyo Ueno Station” was originally published in Japan in 2014, but was translated from Japanese into English last year. Miri’s novel went on to win the National Book Award for translated literature in 2020, an award that was only just revived three years ago. 

With the revival of the award after a 38-year dormancy, one would hope that the literary world is headed into something of a renaissance for translated literature. While the numbers remain dismally low at present, smaller presses like the New York Review of Books are garnering increased interest in the genre, giving hope for change in the future. 

In the meantime, “Tokyo Ueno Station” is a worthy ambassador for the genre. Miri chooses a small slice of Japan and uses it as a canvas for painting all of the bursting beauty, crushing grief and quiet moments that make up a life. 

In every sense, “Tokyo Ueno Station” is a decidedly melancholy book, and yet, that is not the foremost emotion the reader is left with. In the face of immense loss, the reader also encounters the simple, unadorned beauty of life’s most ordinary moments, spent alongside the people with which we become so comfortable. Simple, everyday rituals like cleaning the house, cooking breakfast or walking in a park, which are distinctly unremarkable now, become infinitely valuable once they have passed forever — to be treasured all the more now for their ephemerality. 

Ryan Lillestrand PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. He is in the process of making an overly-ambitious list of books to read over Thanksgiving break.

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