Rich material found in penury


It is 1995, that defining year of the Kobe earthquake, the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the year a man in Osaka confesses to dismembering the bodies of three women at his home in Osaka; the year a Buddhist priest is arrested for raping over 100 women. The times are out of joint, and the author finds his own personal hell in a painful financial nadir.

THE YEAR OF NO MONEY IN TOKYO by Wayne Lionel Aponte. Watkins & McKay, 165 pp., 2009, $19.95 (cloth)

The author’s fall from grace, from a regular job, expensive apartment and lifestyle to go with it, initiates him into the unsettling world of the Tokyo guesthouse, or gaijin houses as they are known. Cohabitation of a tiny room with a mostly absent Irish hostess, more or less works out for the now unemployed writer; sharing a six-mat room with a space-hungry, drug-taking Japanese female “artist,” does not. When Aponte finally moves out to his own three-mat room, his newfound privacy is intoxicating.

Touching bottom implies a prelude to renewal, but in Aponte’s case there are several low points in his year of no money. One is having his application for a dishwashing job at a Japanese restaurant rejected on the grounds that they only hire foreigners married to natives. That, Aponte notes, is “when the walls started caving in. That’s when this room began resembling death.”

In tracking his route of reverse mobility — luxury digs to gaijin house — the tone becomes rueful: “I squandered energy, money, and my mid-twenties on perfumed Japanese fantasies.” Aponte is frank about both his old and newly impoverished self. Switching women as often as addresses, and with an equal lack of remorse, he notes, “During my first months of poverty, I moved in with a woman in an effort to cut my cash-burn rate.” Simultaneous dating becomes an existential necessity, the writer compelled to accept that “The choice between homelessness and using people for access to their homes and food is a matter of survival.” In addition to the free rooms and cash handouts, he provides company, sexual companionship, and a sympathetic ear to women who are battling their own demons. His plight reminds us that, before we condemn we should realize how easily circumstances make us behave out of character. As he puts it, “missed-meal cramps relieved me of any contrition.”

The more depleted his funds, the more menacing the city appears. Along with Rey Ventura’s “Underground in Japan,” this may be the best firsthand account of grubbing out an existence in Japan’s hostile labor market. As a black American in Tokyo, he is appalled at the crude forms racism takes: the offensive caricatures on domestic television, the comedy skits that are little more than “tutorials in discrimination.”

To his credit, Aponte converts misfortune into the hard currency of ideas. When frustration boils over into an assault on a former colleague, the action lands him in jail for several nights. Observing the grinning guards watching him eat, he turns humiliation into an opportunity to nurture more profound doubts about the way the Japanese regard black people. Thrown back on his own resources, he seizes upon detention as “the ultimate phase in a long process of inner purification.”

As penury deepens, Aponte becomes an authority, a voice worth listening to on the financial, emotional and psychological effects of prolonged unemployment. His timely book reminds us how suddenly a dish of sumptuous food can turn into a mendicant’s bowl. Aponte’s resurrection comes with a steady job and the respect that a teaching post confers. If living lean turns you mean, job security mellows the writer and promotes a more positive view of Japan. The final pages, where he reviews what his year of no money has taught him, are less compelling, reading a little like a self-help list of ways to rebuild the mind and soul.

Though we wish him well in his new quest to save money and “seek a relationship with God,” it is the more flawed, craven character that dominates his year of no money and makes the deepest engraving.