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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Twist on the Foreigner's Memoir, July 14, 2009
This review is from: The Year Of No Money In Tokyo (Hardcover)
Memoirs written by "gaijin" who've lived in Japan tend to fall into two categories: the "floating world" odyssey involving varying degrees of success at getting up close and personal with the locals (mostly by male writers, with a recent infusion of bar hostesses joining in the bacchanal); or the tale of a more thoughtful anthropologist-style adventurer who tries to learn a traditional art or make a life in a remote village (mostly female, but some male). To my surprise and pleasure, Wayne Aponte's YEAR OF NO MONEY IN TOKYO was a refreshing, if sobering, departure from the usual Westerner's encounter with Japan. After resigning from a boring job selling English language courses to college students, the narrator discovers work is scarce in post-bubble Japan, and he settles in for a hungry lesson in self-knowledge that is an education to the reader as well.

From the start, Aponte shines the harsh light of reality on our culture's romantic preconceptions of the country. For example, if you thought all Japanese women were sweet and submissive, meet Mamiko, his assigned roommate in a Tokyo guesthouse, whose rude self-absorption reminded me of too many of my own English students in Japan. Or how about the poignant Kumiko, one of the narrator's mainstays during his dark months of unemployment, who is only looking for a man to take care of her, but ends up supporting first her husband who suffers a mental breakdown from overwork and then her American lover who seemed to promise what her husband could not? Kumiko's wail of disillusionment when her "savior" lover confesses he needs a loan is one of the most memorable moments of the memoir. Her subsequent generosity is all the more touching because of it. A definite highlight of the book is Aponte's portraits of his girlfriends, which give a fascinating glimpse into how various Japanese women deal with their frustrations with society's restrictions.

Aponte definitely takes you on a tour of a Tokyo few tourists see. While I've read plenty of accounts of seedy encounters in hostess bars or hazing as part of the study of Japanese pottery or Zen, this narrator actually spends time in a Japanese jail after punching an acquaintance on a subway platform. Again, the brief encounters with his cellmates provide a glimpse into a hidden world of rebellion that humanizes the supposedly robotic Japanese. Not that Aponte isn't critical of Japan's self-generated myths about its purity and safety and its particular brand of racist treatment of foreigners of color. At times you do wonder why he stayed in the country, in spite of his stated desire to turn his Japan sojourn back into a "professional success story."

Ultimately, after his jail time, he does reinvent himself and decides to return to his Harlem home for a visit. The last chapter of the book is an enlightening record of reverse culture shock. Aponte's insights into the limited views of both his middle class and underclass African-American friends highlights the hard-won benefits of his own struggles with economic disadvantage and efforts at greater tolerance. The final portion of the memoir strikes a different note with a journalist's catalog of Japanese cultural differences and list of lessons learned. However, this stylistic departure is smoothed over by the deeply personal and unflinchingly honest nature of the story as a whole.

While the more romantic depictions of a foreigner's life in Japan have their charms, if you're hankering for a taste of the real Japan, Aponte's lean memoir is just the fare to satisfy your craving.
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