A Ghost Story: Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

I like to use TBR Stack as an opportunity to find books that I might not otherwise read. Either to try titles that are maybe more SFFH-adjacent than straight up SFFH, or to finally read older genre classics that I’ve missed. My hope is that maybe I’ll find a book that you, person reading this, has never heard of, or just never gotten around to, and maybe I’ll nudge you into adding it to your own TBR stack. Every once in a while, I get to a book I’ve been meaning to read and realize that I have to write about it. That was the case with Piranesi—that book built a new support wall in my brain right before last winter Got Really Bad, so I couldn’t help writing about it. This month’s book is kind of like that.

I added Tokyo Ueno Station to my list right after it won a National Book Award last November, and then when I finally got to it I read it over the course of a few hours and was so haunted by it that I wanted to try to talk about it here. Is it SFFH? I’m not sure. It’s certainly a ghost story, but kind of a true ghost story? Let’s see how this goes.

Tokyo Ueno Station was written by author and playwright Yu Miri, a Zainichi Korean—i.e., a person of Korean descent who was born and raised in Japan, but is still a citizen of South Korea. She had a rough childhood, and has been the subject of racist threats in Japan, which seems to have led to her focusing on the lives of “outsiders” in her work. After a series of personal traumas, Yu moved to Minamisōma, Fukushima, and began documenting the experiences of people who were living in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake, ensuing tsunami, and the catastrophe at Fukushima’s nuclear plant. Tokyo Ueno Station follows a main character from the neighboring city of Sōma and glancingly mentions the plant, before the 2011 tragedy becomes more of a plot point toward the end of the book. The book came out in 2014 in Japan, and Morgan Giles’ English translation won the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2020.

Why am I writing about it for Tor.com? Well, it’s a ghost story. But not a fun, spooky, M.R. James style-ghost story, or a terrifying-but-ambiguous Jac Jemc/Shirley Jackson situation. Tokyo Ueno Station is gritty ghost realism.

If you fall into a pit, you climb out, but once you slip from a sheer cliff, you cannot step firmly into a new life again. The only thing that can stop you from falling is the moment of your death.

Kazu tells us his story from beyond the grave. He grew up poor in Sōma, born just early enough that he bore the full weight of growing up in wartime Japan, but late enough that he didn’t serve in the Army. With the war over, and the economy cratered, he took whatever jobs he could, and worked relentlessly to keep his family fed. A family he barely got to see, as the best paying jobs were in Tokyo. We follow him as he works, copes with constant poverty, and finally becomes homeless. His homelessness is somewhat his own choice—he’s kind of dropping out of society after a lifetime of backbreaking work. But it’s also obvious that after a life of just barely making it, he feels no connection to society or even to his family, and sees no real meaning in his life.

Now, as a ghost, he’s unstuck in time. The book reflects this beautifully by flowing between memories from decades earlier straight into conversations he’s overhearing in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, then into moments he shared with other homeless people in the park while he was alive, then back to the past, then back to the now—all without ever announcing when we are, chronologically. Yu expects her readers to come on the journey and pick up what they need through context clues, and this works beautifully. The reader is forced to keep up, and to experience consciousness the way Kazu does.

As a ghost, Kazu is free-floating, able to hear conversations and read over people’s shoulders with no effort beyond attention. He observes without judgement (though you as the reader can draw your own conclusions about the middle-class people who visit the park) and we float along hearing people talk about work, watching the homeless care for pet cats, watching people looking at art, mourning their children, complaining about distant husbands, planning dinner. From Kazu’s vantage point as a ghost, the experience of life is flattened into a series of incidents that don’t have any inherent meaning or weight to them—the best way I can describe it is as reading a Seurat.

The book revolves around death, as Kazu is sort of looking back on his life as a temporary state. Yu gives us a long, wrenching account of a funeral, with mourners chanting “Namu Amida Butsu” and a priest reassuring a grieving mother that her son would be reborn in the Pure Land. Yet Kazu doesn’t find any answers in his death:

“I thought something would be resolved by death … But then I realized that I was back in the park. I was not going anywhere, I had not understood anything, I was still stunned by the same numberless doubts, only I was now outside life looking in, as someone who has lost the capacity to exist, now ceaselessly thinking, ceaselessly feeling…”

There’s this Hirokazu Kore-eda movie, After Life. It’s one of my favorite films, one of those that you watch it and it’s not even that you can’t stop thinking about it, it’s that you can’t shake the mood it put you in, like it’s lodges in your chest. Movie-as-splinter. In After Life—which I literally can’t recommend enough, and which I will probably write about at some point—the newly dead  are asked to inventory their lives and choose a memory to stay in. A crew of people exist in a sort of purgatory interviewing the dead, and once each one picks their memory this crew recreates it, like it’s a movie scene. Then the dead person enters the scene, relives it, and that memory is what they take with to… um, whatever’s next. Which the movie does not show us. (Yes, I’ve spent way too much time debating about what my memory would be. No, I haven’t picked one. I think I have it down to a Top 5, though.)

Now, I said that current life doesn’t have much weight to Kazu, but his memory of his own life has a lot of weight, largely because he’s realizing, now, in death, that he wasn’t able to enjoy most of his life. He doesn’t have any happy memories to dwell in. If he was presented with a Purgatorial film crew, he’d be at a loss. And, as Yu twists the knife, we see why: as a just-above-subsistence-level worker, he measures his time not in accomplishments or love or family time, but in yen. The one time he recalls a pleasant day out with his kids, the thing that looms over the whole day is that he didn’t have enough money to take his children on a touristy helicopter ride a train conductor suggested to him, instead trying to placate them with cheap ice cream. Their disappointment overshadows the whole day.

He remembers going home for a family funeral, and realizing just how much of his family’s life he’s missed when he meets not just his son’s best friend from high school, but also that friend’s wife—he missed the wedding, and didn’t even realize that his own son had given a toast. He barely knows his daughter’s husband. But what can he do? There’s no work for him in town, and he has to be the head of his family, support everyone, help his aging parents financially as his wife helps them with day-to-day homemaking work. His labor enabled the triumph of the 1963 Tokyo Olympics, but his society doesn’t credit him for that, and his only lasting worth comes in the money he can send home.

Later, when he basically drops off the grid, he becomes still more invisible. As a homeless man he is literally only “seen” when the cops put up notices that the Ueno Park needs to be cleared for cleaning, and then make their rounds to drive any stragglers out. Still, better that than to be seen by the roving gangs of kids who are rumored to attack the homeless in fits of directionless violence. Now his worth is measured in the number of aluminum cans he cashes in, or the old magazines he rehabilitates for used bookstores. But at least that money is just going into his own mouth, with no need to worry about any other dependents.

One of things I’ve been obsessed with for…well, forever really, is the idea of Angel of History. I read about it when I was a kid as part of my slalom through Tony Kushner and Walter Benjamin, and their ideas about trying to record life as it happens, the idea that recording it will somehow add up to something, make thing better, something, tied in with my later obsession with Andy Warhol’s dedication to honoring the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life, the magpie storytelling of The Sandman, and, obviously, bounced off After Life pretty nicely, too. I was ecstatic to see that Tokyo Ueno Station makes this an angle in the book—but Kazu’s act of “recording history” is as flat and disaffected as his recounting of his life and death. Seeing a young marathoner leaving an ema at the Bentendo Temple, he muses: “When I was young, I had no interest in other people’s hopes or setback, but in his dark eyes, under those determined, straight eyebrows, I saw a clear sense of concern.” Through the young man’s eyes, Kazu reads some of the ema: “Please give me guidance on how to get lots of students in my English classes”; “In thanks for the lottery win”; “Praying for my daughter to wake up”; “Let the Yakult Swallows win this year at least.” We’re three times removed, watching Kazu watch the nameless young man read a catalogue of nameless strangers’ deepest hopes, and this scene acts as a tiny mirror of the entire book. The banal and the tragic jostle for space, leaving it to us whether to elevate the banal or regard the tragic as mundane.

Now in case you were wondering… no, Tokyo Ueno Station isn’t exactly a fun read. But it is absolutely engaging (I read it in one sitting) and an interesting take on a ghost story. I’m always interested in how people use genre tropes to tell stories, and in this case Yu uses a ghost story to show how different types of lives can be overlooked. Is Kazu more of a ghost now, as a dead man, than he was as a construction worker, used as a cog in a machine for other people’s glory? Can he exist less than he did as a homeless man, regarded as refuse by park-goers and a hostile police force? He lived an entire life, doing work that was necessary to his society. As an unhoused person, he gathered other people’s trash to be recycled, did work that others ignored as “beneath them”, acted as a friend and guardian to his fellow homeless when they needed him. Was he worth more when he lived in a construction workers’ dorm than when he lived in as a cardboard hut? Does his worth come from his status as a father, from what he can provide to his family, or does his worth as a person stand apart from that? How do you even measure worth when you look back at your life from a distance?

Rather than writing something spooky and fun, or even something merely existentially troubling, Yu has written a ghost story as social indictment, and given us a unique and moving novel.

Leah Schnelbach knows that as soon as this TBR Stack is defeated, another shall rise in its place! Come tell them ghost stories on Twitter!

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