As I continue rereading my favorite Japanese literature to prepare for my trip to Japan, I had to revist Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri. I had read this in the build up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the beginning of the pandemic. It was just as powerful the second time around, but rather than focusing on the opulence of the Olympics and the harsh differences between the different economic realities of the modern world, I found my self drawn to the sense of loss and the struggle to communicate and understand the experiences of the people around us.
Here is what AI says the book is about:
“Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri is a novel that explores the lives of the homeless in Tokyo’s Ueno Park and the experiences of a Korean-Japanese man who lives there. The novel delves into themes of identity, belonging, and memory as the main character grapples with his past and present. The station serves as a symbol of the intersections of different peoples’ lives and the complexities of the city.”
I only partially agree with such a generic explanation. It isn’t so much a novel as it is a novella at 170 pages and much of the book is about what happened before and after the man was living in Ueno Park. Reading Yu’s thoughts on the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 and the COVID lockdowns in 2020, it seems that the book isn’t so much about identity, belonging, or memory at all – but rather the trials and tribulations of living. As the narrator explains in the beginning of the book:
“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.”
Perhaps this is why the book has such low ratings on Goodreads (currently a 3.5) – people are expecting something about identity and belonging of a specific ethnicity, in this case Zainichi Korean-Japanese, only to find something universal in its messaging. Regardless of what the others think, I can’t wait to read more of Yu’s books in translation, starting this August.