Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles
One of the best things a book discussion group can do is help you appreciate aspects of a book that you didn’t understand or enjoy when you read the book on your own. A good book discussion brings a book to light and to life in a way your individual reading didn’t; it enhances and enlarges what you were able to get out of the book on your own. Sometimes a book you didn’t enjoy reading will nonetheless lead to an enlightening discussion, leaving you glad you read the book after all.
This is what my Hot Off the Press book discussion class often does for me. After one of our talks, I quiver with new insights, things I wouldn’t have come to on my own. Exploring a book with my literary comrades is so much better than doing it alone.
This week we discussed Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles and winner of the 2020 National Book Award for translated literature. And yes, as you may have surmised from my comments above, this was a book that I found difficult to read, not only because of its bleakness, but because of the way it jumps around in time and its many references to history and tradition with which I am unfamiliar. But all of that can be a good and welcome challenge in the right context, i.e. in my book discussion class!
This book took us deep into another culture, led on our journey by Kazu, an elderly Japanese man who has had a difficult life. When we meet him, he is homeless and has been living for years in Tokyo’s Ueno Park as part of a large contingent of homeless people. His life has been full of the struggle of the underclass to make a living and feed his family, full of hard labor mixed in with great tragedy (not giving you any plot spoilers!). The book is also a comment on this often-unseen side of Japan, a country which prides itself on its polished and clean exterior. But is this image achieved by hiding the underside?
The book offers a look at Japanese culture and history, reflecting on centuries of Japanese tradition as well as on contemporary trauma in the form of the Fukushima nuclear accident brought on by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. But it also offers a strong universality in how it looks at struggle and grief. It is part of what the givers of the National Book Foundation award called a global literature. And if we can turn our gaze around the world and partake of a shared literary experience, we can grow our literary and social horizons. How exciting to think of a global literature which can cross national divisions and achieve some kind of shared understanding and experience. Just like we do with all the various voices and opinions in my book discussion classes!