FINALIST FOR THE 2020 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN TRANSLATED LITERATURE
A surreal, devastating story of a homeless ghost who haunts one of Tokyo's busiest train stations.
Kazu is dead. Born in Fukushima in 1933, the same year as the Japanese Emperor, his life is tied by a series of coincidences to the Imperial family and has been shaped at every turn by modern Japanese history. But his life story is also marked by bad luck, and now, in death, he is unable to rest, doomed to haunt the park near Ueno Station in Tokyo.
Kazu's life in the city began and ended in that park; he arrived there to work as a laborer in the preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and ended his days living in the vast homeless village in the park, traumatized by the destruction of the 2011 tsunami and shattered by the announcement of the 2020 Olympics.
Through Kazu's eyes, we see daily life in Tokyo buzz around him and learn the intimate details of his personal story, how loss and society's inequalities and constrictions spiraled towards this ghostly fate, with moments of beauty and grace just out of reach. A powerful masterwork from one of Japan's most brilliant outsider writers, Tokyo Ueno Station is a book for our times and a look into a marginalized existence in a shiny global megapolis.
Release date: June 23, 2020
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Print pages: 192
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Listen to a sample
Tokyo Ueno Station
There's that sound again.
I hear it.
But I don't know if it's in my ears or in my mind.
I don't know if it's inside me or outside.
I don't know when it was or who it was either.
Is that important?
Who was it?
I used to think life was like a book: you turn the first page, and there's the next, and as you go on turning page after page, eventually you reach the last one. But life is nothing like a story in a book. There may be words, and the pages may be numbered, but there is no plot. There may be an ending, but there is no end.
Like a sculpted tree on the vacant land where a rotted house has been torn down.
Like the water in a vase after wilted flowers have been removed.
But then what of me remains here?
A sense of tiredness.
I was always tired.
There was never a time I was not tired.
Not when life had its claws in me and not when I escaped from it.
I did not live with intent, I only lived.
But that's all over now.
I watch slowly, like always.
It's not the same scene, but it's similar.
Somewhere in this dull scene, there's pain.
In this seemingly familiar time, there are moments that hurt.
I look closer.
There are lots of people.
Each and every one different.
Each and every one with different minds, different faces, bodies, and hearts.
I know that, of course.
But seen from a distance, they all look just the same, or similar.
Each and every face looks like nothing so much as a small pool of water.
I'm watching for myself on the day I first set foot on the platform at Ueno Station, in the throng of people waiting for the Yamanote Line inner-loop train to arrive.
I used to look at my appearance reflected in mirrors, glass panes, and pictures, and I had no confidence in myself. I do not think I was especially ugly, but I never had the kind of looks that would have attracted anyone's attention.
My reticence and incompetence troubled me more than my appearance, but worst of all was how unlucky I was.
I had no luck.
I hear that sound again. Just that sound, like it's blood coursing-like a vivid current flowing-back then I heard nothing but that sound, rushing around inside my skull, like there was a hive in my head and hundreds of bees were trying to fly out all at once, it buzzed and burned and hurt, I could think of nothing anymore, my eyelids twitched and trembled as if they were being hit by raindrops, I clenched my fists, all the muscles in my body tensed-
It ripped me to shreds, but the sound wouldn't die.
I couldn't catch it, and trap it, or lead it far from me.
I couldn't close my ears to it, and I couldn't get away.
Ever since then that sound has lived with me.
Lived . . . ?
"The train now approaching Platform Two is for Ikebukuro and Shinjuku. For your safety please stand behind the yellow line."
If you go out the ticket gates at Ueno Station's park exit and look over the road to the grove of ginkgo trees, you'll always see homeless people there.
When I sat there, I felt like an only child who had been orphaned, despite the fact that both of my parents had lived into their nineties, never leaving their village in Sma, Fukushima Prefecture. And following my own birth in 1933, my parents had four daughters and three sons: Haruko, Fukiko, Hideo, Naoko, Michiko, Katsuo, and Masao.
The fourteen years between Masao and me made him more like my child than my brother.
But time had passed.
And here I sat, alone, growing older-
During my brief, light slumbers, I would snore, exhausted, and when my eyes opened now and then, the netlike shadow traced by the leaves of the ginkgoes would sway, and I felt that I was wandering directionless despite being here, despite having been here in this park, for years-
"Enough." The word shot from the man who had appeared to be asleep; white smoke rose, slowly, from his mouth and nostrils. The cherry of the cigarette he held in his right hand looked like it would soon burn his fingers. Years of sweat and grime had changed the colors of his clothing beyond recognition, but with his tweed flat cap, checkered coat, and brown leather boots, he looked like an English huntsman.
A car climbed Yamashita-dri toward Uguisudani. The lights turned green, the signal for the visually impaired bleeped, and the people coming out of the station at the park exit started to cross the road toward us.
The man leaned forward at the sight of the people crossing the road-people with beautifully decorated homes-as if he were searching for the limits of his vision, and then, hand trembling, as though this gesture took all the strength he had left, he brought the cigarette up to his mouth to inhale-his beard more white than not-then exhaled as he put the thought behind him, spreading his aged fingers to drop the cigarette, snuffing out the embers with the toe of his faded boot.
Another man, sleeping with a large translucent bag of scavenged aluminum cans tucked between his legs, clutched a clear vinyl umbrella as if it were a cane.
A woman slept prone, using a maroon backpack as a futon and her arms as a pillow, her white hair tied up with a rubber band.
The faces had changed, and the numbers had gone down.
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.
Whenever a member of the imperial family was due to visit one of the park's museums or galleries, a mass eviction would occur; we would be forced to take down our tents and driven out of the park, and on returning after dark we would find new signs reading Lawn maintenance in progress-please keep off the grass, further restricting the space we could take.
Many of the homeless in Ueno Imperial Gift Park came from the northeast.
"The Gateway to the North"-during the postwar economic boom, young people from the northeast had taken overnight trains en masse to search for work in the capital, and Ueno was the place they disembarked. And when they went back home for the holidays with only the bags they could carry, Ueno was where they caught their trains.
Fifty years had passed; parents and siblings had died, and the family homes we should have returned to had disappeared for those of us who passed our days in this park.
The homeless people sitting on the concrete enclosure around the grove of ginkgo trees are all either sleeping or eating.
A man wearing a dark blue baseball cap pulled low over his eyes and a khaki button-down shirt was eating a bento off the lap of his black trousers.
We never lacked for food.
There was an unspoken agreement with the many long-established restaurants in Ueno: after they closed for the night, many places did not lock their back doors. Inside, clearly set apart from the food waste, the unsold food would have been neatly portioned out and bagged.
Convenience stores, too, would put together bentos, sandwiches, and pastries past their best-before date in the area next to the dumpster, so if we went before the trash was collected, we could claim anything we wanted. When it was nice out, we had to eat the food right away, but when it was cold, we could keep it in our huts for days and heat it up on camping stoves.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, the Tokyo Metropolitan Festival Hall provided us with curry and rice; on Fridays it was the End of the Earth Mission Church; and on Saturdays the Missionaries of Charity distributed food. Missionaries of Charity was Mother Teresa's, and End of the Earth Mission Church was Korean. They had banners that read Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand and young girls with long hair who sang hymns and strummed guitars-women with frizzy perms stirring giant pots with ladles-homeless people would come from as far away as Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Asakusa, so often the line would be long, nearly five hundred strong. When the hymns and sermons were done with, they distributed the food. Kimchi rice with ham and cheese and sausage, rice and beans with yakisoba, sweet bread with coffee . . . Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord's name, hallelujah, hallelujah-
"I'm hungry, Mama."
"You want some of this?"
"Don't want it."
"Well, then Mama's gonna eat it all."
"No, Mama, don't!"
A little girl of about five years, in a short-sleeved dress pale pink as cherry blossoms, walks with her head turned to look up at her mother, whose body-hugging, leopard-print dress suggests a job in the nighttime economy.
Another young woman in a navy-blue suit passes them, her heels clicking.
Just then a sudden downpour strikes the deep canopy of the cherry trees and falls onto the pavement, leaving its dark footprints here and there.
Even in the rain, the stream of people never stops.
Under their umbrellas side by side, two old women in loose blouses and identical black slacks chat as they walk.
"It was twenty-two this morning, wasn't it?"
"You can't say it's cold, but it is chilly. I feel like I could freeze!"
"What a chilly rain!"
"You know, Ryuji won't stop going on about his stepmother's cooking."
"Oh, how dreadful for you."
"He thinks I could learn a few things from her."
"So awful, isn't it, this rain."
"And the rainy season's just begun. We've got another month of this to look forward to."
"Are the hydrangeas in bloom now, do you think?"
"Oh, not yet."
"And the Japanese oaks?"
"They're not in season either."
"Things have changed around here a bit, haven't they? I'm sure that wasn't a Starbucks."
"Yes, it's gotten a bit chic, hasn't it?"
This is the lane of cherry trees.
Every year in mid-April, this area is crowded with people who've come to drink and eat under the blossoms.
When the cherry trees are in bloom, we don't need to go looking for food.
We can eat and drink people's leftovers, and with the groundsheets they leave behind, we get brand-new roofs and walls for our huts, replacing tarps that have crumpled and begun to leak over the past year.
Today is Monday; the zoo is closed.
I never took my children to Ueno Zoo.
I came to work in Tokyo at the end of 1963. Yoko was five then, and Kichi was just three.
The pandas came to Ueno Zoo nine years later. The kids were both in middle school by then, past the age when they would want to go to the zoo.
I didn't take them to the zoo, nor to the amusement park, the seaside, the mountains; I never went to their beginning-of-year ceremonies or graduations or to a parents' open day or to a sports day, not even once.
I went back only twice a year, in summer and in winter, to my village in Fukushima, where my parents, my brothers and sisters, and my wife and children waited for me.
One year when I was able to return a few days before the Bon holidays, there was a festival or something, and I took my children to Haramachi for a day out.
Haramachi was only one station from Kashima, but it was the height of summer and it was hot on the train, making me lethargic. Hit by drowsiness, the children's excited voices and my halfhearted responses felt indistinct, as if I were in a fog, while the train cut across the endless landscapes of sky, mountains, farmlands, and rice fields, passing through the tunnel before accelerating. I saw my children's hands, outstretched like geckos', and their foreheads and lips glued to the window, beyond which there was only blue and green. The tang of their sweat filled my nose, and for just a few moments I let my head drop.
When we got off at Haramachi, the ticket inspector told us that we might be able to take a helicopter ride in Hibarigahara, so I set off down the Hamakaid Road with Yoko's hand in my right and Kichi's in my left.
Kichi, who saw me too rarely to even miss me and never tried to pull anything or get his way, squeezed my hand. "Daddy, I want to go on the helicopter." I can see his face clearly now in my mind, wanting to say something, opening and closing his mouth several times before he finally spoke and, in the end, turning bright red as if in anger. But I had no money. The helicopter ride cost about three thousand yen at that time, or over thirty thousand in today's money. . . . It was too much.
Instead I bought them each a Matsunaga ice cream, which cost fifteen yen then. Yoko brightened up immediately, but Kichi turned his back to me and began to cry, his body shaking with sobs as he watched the helicopter take off, full of boys with wealthy parents.
He pawed at his tears with his fists.
That day the sky was as blue as a strip of cloth. I wanted to give him that helicopter ride, but I couldn't afford it, and so I couldn't-I still regret it. And ten years later, on that awful day, that regret again stabbed my heart, it is still with me now, it never leaves-
They never move, the red strokes that spell the words ueno zoo like scratches on an arm, nor do the fingers of the children wearing red, blue, and yellow, arms raised over the fence, on the sign for the children's amusement park.
Trembling like a solitary reed, I want to talk as much as I can, but I don't know how to go about it. I fumble for a way out, I want to see one so badly, but the darkness does not fall nor does the light shine in. It's over, but it never ends . . . this constant anguish, sorrow, grief-
A gust of wind rustled through the trees, shaking the leaves and sending drops of water falling, though the rain seemed to have stopped.
At Sakuragitei, the little red-and-white lanterns swayed in the wind and a woman in a red apron stood on a stepladder, brushing off the faded pink awning, which read, in white letters, Panda Cakes.
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