Yu Miri's "Tokyo Ueno Station," winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Award, has been translated into English and published from Tilted Axis Press. It was translated by Morgan Giles from Kentucky, USA. The two had an opportunity to meet in the UK in February, at an event called "Japan Now."
"Tokyo Ueno Station" came out in 2014. According to the author Yu, the novel is a study of poverty, how places accumulate memory and become part of what we call the past. In 2006, Yu began meeting the homeless in Ueno. She listened to their stories and learned about their lives before they came to live in the park.
One such man is Kazu, the main character of the novel, who looks back on his hardscrabble life. Born in Fukushima in 1933, the same year as the Emperor of Japan, he leaves his wife and children in search of employment, first in Tokyo, where he works in construction for the 1964 Olympics, then in Sendai. After the death of his son and wife in the 1980s, Kazu spirals into despair and homelessness. In a tent village in Ueno Park, he meets other laborers who once helped Japan’s postwar boom, spending their lives building highways, hospitals, and schools.
“Translating the dialogue, much of which is in the Tohoku dialect, required a lot of work and help from friends,” says Giles in an interview. “The main challenge was that the novel drifts between present and past, blending the two with pieces of overheard conversations and poetic descriptions. It was hard to achieve this effect in English, which needs to be much more explicit than Japanese.”
Since the book was originally published, Yu sold her home outside of Tokyo and moved to Soma-city, Fukushima. It is one of those once-deserted towns after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the nuclear power plant disaster. After the relocation, she renovated the house to open a bookstore-cafe called "Full House," which has become a lively gathering place for the local residents.