Ebeltoft, DENMARK – As many of us settle into lockdown, the novelty of Netflix binges may be wearing off. Perhaps your bed is becoming a little too comfortable, and cabin-fever has started to strike. For those of you desperately starting at your bookshelves, Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yū should be at the very top of your reading list.
As you may have guessed, Tokyo Ueno Station is set in Japan. We follow the ghost of Kazu, a hard-working laborer grappling with poverty and a lot of ‘bad luck.’ He is our lens through a thin sliver of Japanese society. We learn about his experiences during the 2011 tsunami, the 1964 Olympics, poverty and grief.
There are no chapters in this book. Instead, the restless spirit of Kazu, now haunting the station, guides us through his life as his un-ordered thoughts come and go. Kazu’s stream of consciousness feels like a very real dream. Yet, even within the fluid writing, we can see how Yū has carefully engineered the novel. We are told just enough of each fragment to leave us wanting the next.
Yū is bold enough to take up entire pages with snippets of stranger’s conversations – strangers who never interact with our protagonist and serve no use for the plot. While an overly rational or focused reader may skim over these pages, it highlights the care and dedication with which Yū choses to build her world. Kazu, as a homeless man, will never be spoken to by these people, and these snippets force us to feel his isolation.
My cultural knowledge of Japan is restricted to that of travel documentaries, one or two geography lessons, and news articles. The principal location of the novel, (Tokyo Euno Station), was one unknown to me, as were many aspects of the story. Yet the novel manages to speak to a foreign audience in a way that is simple, but never patronizing. Even the most culturally ignorant reader – myself, for example – is able to immerse themselves into Tokyo.
It works so well because Yū’s storytelling is relevant to any society. We all know the upsetting divide between the ‘homed’ and the homeless. We are all aware of how governments can brush away the most vulnerable. Most of us know how it feels to have a loved one be unjustly taken away from us.
Yū’s storytelling is world class, and I, like many others, am in awe. She manages to walk the fine line of being artistic, but never pretentious.
Although covid-19 may be hindering your travels, a trip to Miri Yū’s Japan is most likely one of the best, and most thought provoking substitutes.
Amy Goodman is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.