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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the December 2018 issue

Tokyo Ueno Station

In this excerpt from Yu Miri's Tokyo Ueno Station, forthcoming in 2019 from Tilted Axis Press, a homeless man remembers a parental failure.  
 

There’s that sound again.

That sound—

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?

Was it 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.

Left behind—

Like a sculpted tree on the vacant land where a rotted house has been torn down.

Like the water in a vase from which wilted flowers have been removed.

Left behind.

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, or when I escaped from it.

I did not live with intent, I only lived.

But that's over.

***

I watch slowly, like always.

It’s not the same scene but it is similar.

Somewhere in this dull scene, there's pain.

In this seemingly familiar time, there are moments of 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 anyone would have gazed at.

My reticence and my incompetence troubled me more than my appearance, but most intolerable was my unluckiness.

I had no luck.

I hear that sound again. Just that sound, like blood coursing—like a vivid current—back then, I heard nothing but that sound, running 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, trap it, or lead it far away.

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.”

***

When you go out the ticket gates at the Park Exit of Ueno Station, there are always homeless people sitting on the enclosure around the thicket of ginkgo trees opposite the crossing.

When I sat there, I felt like an only child who had been orphaned, but in fact both of my parents, who had never left their village in Sōma, Fukushima Prefecture, had lived into their nineties, 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-dori 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.

The man leaned forward at the sight of the people crossing the road—people with beautiful 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 with a large translucent trash bag full of scavenged aluminum cans between his legs clung in his sleep to a clear vinyl umbrella as if it were a cane.

A woman with white hair tied up in a bun with a rubber band lay face down on the maroon backpack at her side, using her arms as a pillow.

The faces had changed, and the numbers had gone down.

After the asset bubble burst the population swelled, and the park was so blanketed with tarp huts everywhere beyond the paths and the facilities that you could no longer see the ground or the grass.

When an eviction, a “hunting expedition,” took place before members of the Imperial family were due to visit one of the museums or galleries in the park, we would be forced to take down our tents and driven out of the park, and when we would return after dark to our former site, they had erected signs saying, “Lawn maintenance in progress—please keep off the grass,” and our choice of where we could build our huts would further shrink.

Many of the homeless in Ueno Imperial Gift Park came from the North East.

“The Gateway to the North”—during the post-war economic boom, young people from the North East had taken overnight trains en masse to search for work in the capital, and they all first set foot at Ueno Station. And when they went back home for the holidays with only the bags they could carry, they had caught their trains at Ueno.

Fifty years had passed; parents and siblings had died, and the family homes we should have returned to had disappeared for the people passing day after day 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 down 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 had closed for the night, many places did not lock their back doors. Inside, clearly set apart from the food waste, the unsold food would be divided and put into neat bags.

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 that day, 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 which said, “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 night-time 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 white paving stones, 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?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“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 got 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 ground sheets they leave behind we get brand new roofs and walls for our huts, replacing tarps which have crumpled and begun to leak over the past year.

Today is Monday, the zoo is closed.

I never took my children to the zoo.

I came to work in Tokyo at the end of 1963. Yoko was five and Koichi was three then.

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 half-hearted responses felt indistinct as if I were in a fog, while the train cut through the endless landscapes of sky, mountains, farmland 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 Hamakaido Road with Yoko’s hand in my right and Koichi’s in my left.

Koichi, 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 one hundred fifty yen then. Yoko brightened up immediately, but Koichi 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—
 

From Tokyo Ueno Station, forthcoming in 2019 from Tilted Axis Press. Translation © 2019 by Morgan Giles. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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