We first meet Kazu Mori, the protagonist of award-winning Japanese author Yu Miri’s newly translated novel Tokyo Ueno Station, after his death. Unable to move fully into the afterlife, Mori seems condemned to merely observe his former abode, its visitors and its inhabitants. Through his eyes we learn about the park’s history as, variously, a battleground, a disembarkation point for immigrant workers from its train station and, in modern times, a hub for museums and galleries.
Mori is an itinerant labourer from Fukushima who comes to Tokyo to find employment on the city’s various construction projects in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics. After a series of tragic events, including the death of his 22 year old son, he drifts into vagrancy and takes up residence in the homeless “village” in Ueno Imperial Gift Park.
Importantly the park, as its name suggests, was given to the city in 1924 by the then Emperor. This is not the only parallel with the royal family. Mori is born in the same year as Emperor Akihito while his son, Koichi, is born on the same day as the Crown Prince.
Despite these similarities, the contrast between the two men’s circumstances could not be more marked. Mori suffers a lifetime of hard labor and disappointment, while the Emperor enjoys all the comforts which riches and position allow. Yet underneath, both are just men. As Mori spectates during a royal visit to the park, he realises that “only tape separated me and Their Majesties”.
As Tokyo once again gears up to host the Olympic Games in 2020, this novel is a pertinent intervention.
Identifying that “tape” which divides rich from the poor is the subject matter of this book. One theory is voiced by Mori’s mother who tells him “you never did have any luck, did you?” Certainly fate plays a part in the characters’ outcomes but it is evident that Yu believes other factors are to blame.
In Mori’s case, poverty is seen to drive wrongdoing, as she demonstrates with a scene from his youth. In order to stall the bailiffs from taking the household possessions, Mori’s parents instruct his younger brothers to tell the collectors they were out of town. Yu writes:
I thought what a thing of sin poverty was, that there could be nothing more sinful than forcing a small child to lie. The wages of that sin were poverty, a wage which one could not endure, leading one to sin again, and as long as one could not pull oneself out of poverty the cycle would repeat until death.
In comparison, Yu describes the Emperor and Empress as having
innocent faces, ones which had never known sin or shame.
Her inference, however, is that they can afford to be good.
Tragically Mori is so subjugated by the system that, when he has the chance to shout something to the Emperor from his position in the crowd, he finds his “throat is empty” and he remains voiceless. To underline the point, Yu sets this moment just after the park has been temporarily cleared so the royal visit is untroubled by the sight of shanty houses.
Do we sin because we are poor or are we poor because we sin? As Tokyo once again gears up to host the Olympic Games in 2020, this novel is a pertinent intervention. Yu makes it clear that the denizens of Ueno Park are not homogeneously evil, they are just disadvantaged. Yu shows intellectuals, unemployed salarymen and divorcees, namely people like us, living among the tarp-and-cardboard population. In this way she makes it clear we are all only one slip away from joining them.
For this reason, a solution to breaking the poverty trap, other than merely evicting the homeless, must be found.