A homeless ghost puts focus on the forgotten

Rumaan Alam

THE WASHINGTON POST – Earlier this year, an anonymous public records request revealed that London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, often prevailed upon the city’s police department to roust groups of homeless people from neighbourhoods where mayoral business had taken her.

Breed had long maintained that it was city policy not to “sweep” tent encampments, so the hypocrisy was glaring.

It’s satisfying to be angry at the mayor, but the very existence of people grappling with homelessness is a moral failing, one in which the rest of us are complicit.

“To be homeless is to be ignored when people walk past while still being in full view of everyone,” Yu Miri writes in Tokyo Ueno Station, a slender novel which has just appeared in English, in a translation by Morgan Giles. It’s an obvious point; why is it so powerful?
Miri’s book isn’t about poverty and dispossession – those are subtext in a fable about the nation of Japan, the author’s home. Kazu, the novel’s narrator, lives in a park outside the titular rail depot: “After the asset bubble burst, the population swelled and the park was so crowded with tarp huts that you could no longer see the grass, only the paths and facilities like bathrooms and kiosks.”

Like contemporary San Franciscans, he and his compatriots are sometimes shuffled along: “Whenever a member of the imperial family was due to visit one of the park’s museums or galleries, a mass eviction would occur.”

Our favourite way to solve a problem is to put it out of mind.

Kazu is dead, a realisation that dawns on the reader only slowly, though he laments, early in the book, of life itself: “There may be an ending, but there is no end.”

A homeless ghost puts the focus on the forgotten in Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station. PHOTO: RIVERHEAD

Instead of some nebulous limbo, he continues to dwell in the nonexistence that defined his life: invisible or simply overlooked. Don’t misunderstand this magical flourish; though often discomfitingly dreamlike, the book is a critique of damnably real power.

Kazu’s life is shaped by history, as all of ours are. “There was no time for abjection, for feeling sad that we lost the war – all I could think of was eating or feeding others,” he says of his youth. He’s itinerant, leaving his family for months at a stretch for work harvesting kelp and rice.

In 1963, he arrives in Tokyo, one of the efficient bodies who will build the facilities to host the following year’s Summer Olympics. Kazu literally constructs modern Japan, though finds in it no place for men like himself.

Kazu shares a birthday with Akihito, the emperor; by coincidence, his son shares a birthday with Naruhito, the current occupant of the Chrysanthemum Throne. Of course, Kazu barely gets to raise his son – he’s on the road, working – and then the boy dies at only 21, so great a shock his mother cannot even weep. “I hadn’t cried since I’d heard about Koichi’s death either. I could not comprehend it.” Despite the book’s surreal pitch, it’s capable of eliciting real feeling.

Fate and coincidence are the book’s true interests. Why do some live for decades and others perish in their youth? Why are some born to inherit a throne, others destined to inhabit a shack? Miri’s novel is too fleet and elusive to offer an explanation, or maybe it’s just clever enough to understand there’s no real answer.

Though locked into the specific geography of one Tokyo park, the novel telescopes from the 17th Century to the modern day. This will mean more to the reader with some grasp of that country’s history, but nevertheless the novel yields to those of us less versed in those particulars.

Tokyo Ueno Station eloquently indicts the myth of Japan as an awesome power of cultural and economic might.

Japan is revealed as a sad failed state, like so many others, in which a man can be wholly forgotten by the world: “The three sparrows that were perched on the lamppost before have now gone. I am haunted by this day, today, and regardless of what I am now, I would have liked to exchange a glance with someone, anyone, even a sparrow.”

And Kazu, in turn haunts this place, unnoticed in death as he was in life by the fashionable urbanites who come to appreciate the park’s rose gardens and art museum. Though set in Japan, Tokyo Ueno Station is a novel of the world we all share – not what we expect from a ghost story but frightening all the same.