In 1995, Wayne Aponte left his well paying sales job in Tokyo with the expectation of soon being able to find new work. However, a search that he thought would only take weeks turned into months; and the university-educated (Rochester, New York, and Queensland, Australia) African-American from New York City soon found himself running out of money and luck. The Year of No Money in Tokyo, published in 2009, is a collection of short, frank, first-person essays detailing Aponte’s decent and self-redemption in a foreign country.
Using unabashed descriptions of his feelings about his and others’ situations, Aponte writes a captivating story that, although taking place more than a decade ago, easily feels it could have happened last year. Readers will be taken into the mind of a man whose personal pride prevents him from giving up early on, and later learns how, when that ego is nearly stripped completely away, he transforms into a person more conscious of himself and his own actions.
The Year of No Money in Tokyo runs 168 pages and is a relatively quick read. The book is divided into eleven chapters describing Aponte’s self journey, but each chapter is then divided into even shorter, often only page-long, diary-like entries which allow the book to be picked up and put down with ease. Aponte writes in a manner that is down to earth, yet shows his linguistic understanding and ability. Quotations from various texts are inserted freely throughout the book, adding a thoughtful extra dimension to Aponte’s feelings on his situation.
Where the book falls short is in its overall depiction of Japan. Aponte wrote admittedly in an email interview,
“Prior to coming to Japan, I hadn’t been able to find a similar book by an English-speaking person that didn’t write about the country in glowing terms. After living in Tokyo for a few years, I realized that there was a Japan for tourists and a Japan for locals. I thought it was important to give readers an underreported aspect of what it’s like to live here.”
He accomplishes that goal almost overzealously. It often feels that he is blaming Japanese prejudice for his inability to find a new job. He writes of his suspicions of those who stare at him, including Japanese waiters and police. Even the multiple simultaneous girlfriends of whom he seeks help are treated as if they are just returning some sort of unspoken debt for his previous generosity to them. It comes across as ironic that some of the most seemingly sincere and accepting Japanese citizens he meets end up being the crooks he encounters during his brief stint in jail for getting in a drunken fight with an ex-coworker. While Japan certainly is no better a place than any other first world nation, a reader who has never been to the country may easily come away with the idea that Japan is just a nation filled with two-faced, fickle, and xenophobic people.
Yet at the same time Aponte’s negativity is actually spread fairly evenly. He is quite critical of other foreigners he meets in Tokyo, as well as of the people from his hometown. When he finally returns to America on vacation after several years of living in Japan, he seems to experience a sort of reverse culture shock that echoes sentiments he felt early on in Japan; it becomes clear that Aponte has found a love for Japan, despite its failings in his eyes.
The book is billed as a travelogue, but this may not be the best of descriptions. Aponte only flirts with attempts to describe things Japanese. He notes, for instance, that his room during much of his unemployed time was closet-sized, or about three tatami mats in size – but he does not lay out what size a tatami mat actually is. He mentions various regions of Tokyo he goes in and out of, but never actually describes them beyond name. Early on in the book he does some brief translations of Japanese terms, such as food and common phrases, but ceases these attempts as the book moves on. Someone who has never been to Tokyo or Japan will likely not learn much of anything of use for actually traveling around the city or nation.
While the book may not be the best source to learn about Tokyo, Japan, or the Japanese, Aponte does succeed at bringing insight into the mind of a man struggling with himself in a foreign culture. He is able to show that there is hope in hard situations, if people are willing to be humble and persistent in their efforts. This, more than showcasing Japan, was his aim. Aponte wrote in an email interview,
“Helping others had always been [my] main goal. Men normally don’t advertise their individual struggles and how they recover from them. By drawing attention to my own bouts of adversity, I had thought I could inspire other people, especially amid a recession.”
The Year of No Money in Tokyo is available in both hardback and digital editions. More about Wayne Aponte and his book can be found on his personal website: wayneaponte.com.
Also check out: Tokyo travel interview with author Wayne Aponte
Read more about Japan by the Japan Travel Examiner