As a high school dropout, a single mother and a Japan-born ethnic Korean, Yu Miri has always been a controversial yet surprisingly popular cultural outsider in Japan. Her first novel was banned by the courts. Her second novel, published in 1996, won a prestigious literary award for young writers. In her brief, moving, poetic new novel, Tokyo Ueno Station, Miri remains focused on Japan’s marginalized people.
Kazu, the central character, is a homeless man who haunts the perimeter of Tokyo’s Ueno Imperial Gift park, the largest and most important cultural park in the city. The park lies adjacent to Ueno metro station, not far from what was once known as the demon’s gate at the unlucky northeast edge of the city.
Kazu is an impoverished and uneducated laborer from the rural northern province of Fukushima who must live, for most of his life, far from home to earn money to support to his family. He arrives in Tokyo to work on the construction of the site of the 1964 Olympics. Successive misfortunes send him to the homeless encampment at the edge of the park. Now Kazu drifts along the pathways of the park, overhearing snatches of conversation and remembering conversations with a more learned homeless friend who explains the meaning of the museums and nearby historical monuments.
All this we learn indirectly, slowly, in pieces. Time collapses in this novel, with the present, past and historical past interwoven. There is a mesmerizing, wavelike tumult and calm in the story’s movement. We gradually surmise that the isolated Kazu is now a ghost. Kazu reflects that he was born in 1933, the same year as the emperor. And his ill-fated son is born on the same day as the emperor’s son. This is supposed to be fortunate, but Kazu’s mother repeatedly tells him that he has no luck. That seems true regarding Kazu’s personal journey, but a thoughtful reader must wonder if bad luck alone explains the sorry fate of this wandering soul.