I am a big fan of memoirs in general and especially travel memoirs.
Wayne Aponte , a black American, quits his job in Tokyo at just the wrong time. He had been living a hedonistic lifestyle, not worrying about his spending, but in 1995 Japan suffered a major economic downturn. This is The Year of No Money in Tokyo. Rather than going back to the US, he decides to stick it out, sure that he will find something. As his money dwindles, he moves to shabbier living quarters, sharing a six mat room. It is here that the book is born.
"I have no job prospects. I have no idea how to lift myself from the edge of the underclass, from the edge of starvation in Tokyo, umpteen miles away from my home in New York City. So, I shall dedicate the early morning hours to telling the story of this period of my life in Japan- to pass the time, to keep from going insane in the year of the wild boar, the year of no money."
The book begins with a series of descriptions and vignettes detailing the prejudice he faces as both a foreigner and as a black foreigner. I found these sections eye opening.
I also found myself questioning why he chose to stay, when he was clearly very unhappy. He states his need for privacy, yet has chosen to live in one of the most crowded cities in the world. He seems to have adopted the Japanese value of saving face.
"Going back home to America, of course, might help. Some kind of work would turn up. At the very least, I wouldn't worry about a place to stay. But returning home poorer than when I left, or even mentioning my condition on the phone, would look like defeat. It would be an utter embarrassment. A person must maintain his sense of self, such as it is; and for me, portraying my time abroad as a professional success story was important."
So, to avoid that embarrassment, he decides to contact women he has had relationships with in the past.
"The choice between homelessness and using people for access to their homes and food is a matter of survival. I do what is necessary to live better, without compromising my principles completely. If that means relying on others, so be it."
It is here that I found Aponte's choices unpleasant and abhorrent. His choice to save face in America by using women in Japan is selfish and self serving.
When Aponte returns to the US for a visit, he is upset that he is asked for money! Hasn't he been doing the same thing in Japan?
"I want to relax during my rare visits home in a calm and tranquil environment, without having to feel that acts of kindness are a prelude to inquiries for money....I can't spend money on people because they'll think that they can use me. They'll read my kindness as weakness. They'll regard my visits home as a potential payday. And when I'm in need, who can I call? Who can I run to for assistance? Who's got my back? I'm on my own. That partly explains why remaining in Tokyo broke is much easier that returning home broke: You can manage to get help in Japan.
The book is well written and Aponte definitely has a way with words. He has worked as a journalist in the past. I applaud his honesty and candor in telling his story. Once he does find a job, he seems to take a second look at his life.
" I can trace almost every catastrophe in my life to the distractions of lust."" Maturity can be a rough and painful path, but I commit to beginning a more productive relationship with myself."
To that end, he has added a coda as the last chapter - a collection of lessons learned and resolutions to live by. "My rehabilitation is nearly complete."
Aponte stayed in Tokyo, having lived in Japan for two decades according to the author note. Although the book really covers the one year, I wonder how the intervening years in Tokyo have treated the author. Definitely an intriguing read.
Read an excerpt of The Year of No Money in Tokyo.