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Translated book of the month: Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles (Tilted Axis Press)

Our translated fiction recommendation for March is the short novel Tokyo Ueno Station by Zainichi (Korean-Japanese) writer Yu Miri. From such an outsider’s point of view, Miri is able to see deeper into modern Japan’s contradictions and social problems. Japanese history from the 1930s to the present day is re-told through the compelling, miserable life story of Kazu Mori, a poor worker from a village in the Fukushima Prefecture, later a social outcast in the modern metropolis of Tokyo, overwhelmed by fate and bad luck.

Miri’s novel is definitely original. Not only are her perspective and themes innovative, but also her narrative style. Harsh topics such as the reality of life, poverty, sacrifice, disappointment, calamity and death are explored calmly, delicately, but bluntly. Tokyo Ueno Station is a story of life and death. Readers learn this very soon, in the first pages. They may be surprised, shocked or confused to read the protagonist saying:

“I used to think life was like a book […]. But life is nothing like a story in a book. […] There may be an ending, but there is no end.” 

But what is innovative is actually the fact that this novel is not just a story of life and death, life and afterlife, but rather a reflection on life’s meaning, conditions and injustices. It is an evaluation of Kazu’s past, arguably as an expedient for questioning Japan’s socio-economic history. Similarities may appear between the perspectives of author and protagonist, a Zainichi writer and doomed Kazu, as they can both bring a new angle into their reflections and re-exploration of the last decades as part of outsiders’ communities.

Many curious leitmotifs intermingle in the novel. Central is a particular place in the metropolis, the park near Tokyo Ueno Station. But place is not a concept, it is a crucial element in people’s lives. The park is seen, crossed, experienced by different groups through the years, it is where they can come together, but also where their divergences are emphasised and revealed. Though changes occur through time, the park remains a constant out of various metaphors of inequalities – perhaps this is what Kazu means when he tells us (or is he denouncing?) that “there is no end”, or that “[t]ime never ends”?

Ueno Station is a gateway to the city. People arrive there. People leave from there. Kazu arrives there for the first time in 1963 to join the construction works for the Tokyo Olympics, leaving in his small town his two young children, wife, parents and younger siblings, for whose better future he has always worked hard. His and his family’s life are made up of sacrifices. They struggle with hunger, poverty and daily difficulties. Many of my favourite passages in the book deal with this recurrent theme. The life of the poor is opposed to the life of the rich in moving scenes, poignantly presented to the readers while Kazu rethinks his life. In particular, Kazu’s vicissitudes seem to be linked in many ways to the Imperial family. He was born in the same year as the emperor; his first son was born on the same day as the emperor’s son. Yet, their experiences of fatherhood are incomparable, as are their sons’ dramatically different futures.

Much is revealed, for example, from Kazu’s memory of the day of his son’s birth. He says:

 “[…] I waited, hearing a cry and then, her voice as she told me: "It’s a boy, congratulations. And born the same day as the prince–what a blessing."

[…] But the first thing I saw was not the baby, it was Setsuko’s arm, bent like a sickle, muscles defined and skin tanned from working in the fields.” 

Ueno Station is where Kazu arrives again as an old man, after a life of sacrifices and grief. The park near the station is his last stop, his place in life, as a homeless man since he is sixty-seven, and later in death. Again, in the cycle of recurring parallels, while the emperor comes to visit the museums in what is actually, ironically, called Ueno Imperial Gift Park, rough sleepers are forced out to help the country win the next Olympics bid.

Yu Miri (1968) has written several novels from her Zainichi outsider’s perspective, even attracting controversy with her novel Kazoku shinema (Family Cinema), which won the Akutagawa Prize in 1997, a Japanese semi-annual award for fiction for emerging writers. It is such a perspective which makes Tokyo Ueno Station unique. Also, it is critical, political, current. It’s a must-read for everyone because it bravely discusses themes which pertain to us all. Well done to the translator Morgan Giles and Tilted Axis Press for translating and publishing this novel in English.


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