As a work of post-tsunami literature and a protest against the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this novel is of utmost importance to this moment, a powerful rebuke to the Imperial system and a sensitive, deeply felt depiction of the lives of Japan’s most vulnerable people.
Kazu is dead. Born in Fukushima in 1933, the same year as the Emperor, his life is tied by a series of coincidences to the Imperial family and has been shaped at every turn by modern Japanese history. But his life story is also marked by bad luck, and now, in death, he is unable to rest easily, haunting the park near Ueno Station. It is here that Kazu s life in Tokyo began and ended, having arrived there to work as a labourer in the run up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics before ending his days living in the vast homeless villages in the park, traumatised by the destruction of the 2011 tsunami and enraged by the announcement of the 2020 Olympics.
I seem to have read a lot of Japanese fiction this year and out of all the books that I’ve read so far, Tokyo Ueno Station is perhaps my favourite.
I cannot even begin to comprehend the challenges faced when translating a novel, so what I’m about to say isn’t a criticism of translators.
I often find that a book’s intent can be lost in translation. Different people will translate the same text in different ways. Maybe a word-for-word translation of a sentence doesn’t work, so the translator will tweak it somewhat. Maybe a word or saying has no direct counterpart in the language that the book is being translated into, so the translator tries to come up with a similar alternative. I commend translators. The work that they do is crucial; they ensure that fantastic works of literature are accessible to people outside of the author’s homeland. However, when reading a translated work, I do often feel as though I’m not having the same experience as someone reading the original text.
I didn’t feel this way when reading Tokyo Ueno Station, though. I haven’t read the original Japanese novel and even if I had a copy, I don’t understand enough Japanese to be able to read it anyway. However, Morgan Giles’ translation of this novel conveyed the sadness of protagonist Kazu perfectly. I felt as though Kazu was speaking directly to me and his sadness, heartache and frustration became my emotions too.
For me, Tokyo Ueno Station is a story about circumstances. There are parallels between Kazu’s life and the life of Japan’s emperor. Both were born in 1933 and both of their sons were born on the same day. However, they are born into very different circumstances. While the Emperor is born into a life of luxury, Kazu is born into a life of poverty. While the Emperor lives in a palace and has staff at his beck and call all day, every day, Kazu is forced to work himself to the bone for very little reward. A lack of job opportunities in his village sees him having to move to Tokyo in his early adulthood and during this period, he’s only able to return to his village twice a year, something which has a detrimental impact upon his family life. Even when he eventually retires and is able to return home, what could be dubbed as the ‘prime’ of his life is behind him. There’s no way for him to get back all the years that he missed out on with his wife and children. As I said, there are parallels between Kazu and the Emperor, but the circumstances into which they were born mean that their lives take vastly different paths.
Tokyo Ueno Station is also a discussion about how Japan treats its homeless and I can see this treatment mirrored here in the UK. When the Emperor’s motorcade is passing through Ueno Park, park management clear the area of homeless people, ensuring that none of their tents are visible to royal eyes. A similar thing happened in the UK not too long ago. When Princess Eugenie got married in 2018, homeless people in the area in which the wedding was set to take place were asked to move. Security for the wedding allegedly cost taxpayers around £2,000,000. If millions can be spent on a royal wedding, why can’t millions be spent on helping the homeless? When living in Manchester, I volunteered in a homeless shelter for a few months. While working there, I learnt that it was the only shelter in Greater Manchester, which is horrifying when you take into consideration that an estimated 5,564 are currently homeless in that part of the country. The vast chasm between the lives of Japan and the UK’s royal families and the lives of both countries’ homeless is staggering. While princesses get millions spent on their weddings and emperors get parks cleared for their cars, there are people sleeping on cardboard boxes under tarpaulin sheets.
The inequality is sickening, isn’t it?
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