This is very much one of those books that I feel a person should experience for themselves, so it’s difficult to write a coherent review for it. It’s a book that should be felt firsthand.
Tokyo Ueno Station follows the story of Kazu, a Japanese migrant from Fukushima who spends most of his life working away from home in Tokyo. He typically works as a physical laborer, laying ground for new projects like the Olympics sports fields, and sending the money he earns back home to his family, who he rarely sees in person. The book is divided into two types of narrative: one, Kazu’s present observations as he drifts through Tokyo’s Ueno Station and Park, and two, ruminations on his past and his life before he ended up where he is now.
And where is Kazu now? Well, according to the back of the book, he’s a ghost, but before he became a ghost, or perhaps still, he was homeless. There is a distinct parallel between being homeless and being a ghost that the book does a good job of illustrating through the fact that you’re never quite sure which Kazu really is while he reflects on the people and things he witnesses throughout Ueno. The book also has a lot to say about society and homelessness in Japan, as it juxtaposes Kazu’s life of hardship with the seemingly easy life of the Japanese imperial family, who Kazu encounters on multiple occasions.
Tokyo Ueno Station is not an easy read. It’s short, but it’s contemplative and disjointed and tragic. As Kazu explains the circumstances that led him to homelessness, he also recounts a conversation between women in an art museum viewing paintings of roses, or he reiterates the Japanese history lessons that his friend Shige gave him about the shrines and statues throughout Ueno Park. Sadness is interspersed with mundanity. Kazu’s life history is interspersed with the history of Japan. And through it all, we learn not just about Japanese society and history, but about what it is to be a human ghost in Tokyo.
Bottom line: Evocative and wholly touching, this is one of those books that’s nearly impossible to explain and therefore which I can only say to read, read, read and experience for yourself.
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