A journalist and a teacher, Wayne Lionel Aponte was educated at the University of Rochester and the University of Southern Queensland (Australia). His writing has appeared in several publications, including “The New York Times,” “The Washington Post,” “The Wall Street Journal,” “The Financial Times” (London), and “The Nation.” He has lived in Japan for almost twenty years. His new book is his personal account of struggling and rallying himself in Tokyo, during Japan’s worst financial crisis since World War II.
Tyler: Welcome, Wayne. I’m pleased you could join me today. To begin, what actual year are you referring to in your title, and what caused the economic problems at that time?
Wayne: Thank you, Tyler. It’s a pleasure to be here.
“The Year of No Money in Tokyo” refers to 1995. During that year, Japan was in an economic recession similar to the current global financial crisis of 2009. There were many factors that contributed to it. A short version is that, in the mid-1980s, the strong Japanese stock market enabled borrowers to repay lenders with their own shares, rather than in cash. They did it by using bonds that a holder could convert into a set number of shares. With that money, a lot of Japanese companies expanded operations and added more jobs.
But the crash of the Japanese stock market forced Japanese companies to repay all of their loans in cash, not stocks. That was an impossible thing to do, since the plunge in share prices wiped out hundreds of billions of dollars in a day. The result hit companies first, which were burdened with extraordinary amounts of debt, as well as the banks, many of which went bankrupt, and others were forced to merge. Then, the damage spread to the rest of the economy.
Tyler: Wayne, how did you come to live in Japan?
Wayne: I got a chance to work for a year at a Japanese company in Tokyo and I accepted it.
Tyler: Would you say that you embraced Japanese culture from the beginning, or did you experience culture shock when you first arrived?
Wayne: Every new employment experience requires a kind of adjustment period regardless of where you are. Japan was no different. I adapted in an average amount of time. Tokyo made the transition period rather smooth, since it’s one of the largest cities in the world, with all of the amenities of a cosmopolitan capital, in a country that has the second largest economy.
But the main shock was how modern and efficient things were. I had expected the opposite because I hadn’t been exposed to contemporary Japanese culture prior to coming here. Another shocker was how one could function in Tokyo without Japanese-language fluency.
Tyler: What was the reason for your unemployment during the year that you write about?
Wayne: The primary reason was that I quit my full-time job during the Japanese economic recession, in 1995, which left millions of local people without work. A second reason was my initial unwillingness to explore employment opportunities aggressively in all business sectors. I found part-time jobs during the course of the year, but not any full-time jobs right away.
Think about Lehman Brothers declaring bankruptcy in the U.S. in late 2008. All of those people lost their jobs. Some of them had advance degrees from prestigious universities. But a lot of them had—and are still having—difficulty finding similar positions in the same sector. Indeed, the global financial crisis of 2009 has made it rather hard for them to find new jobs in all areas of business because companies are cutting back, and in extreme cases closing shop.
My book, “The Year of No Money in Tokyo,” captures the mood of the current international recession and how people are adapting to high degrees of financial uncertainty.
Tyler: Wayne, why did you quit your job in Tokyo, and were you aware of the economic crisis at the time when you decided to do so?
Wayne: I had assumed that finding a better one wouldn`t be so difficult with my background and savings. Hindsight places the Japanese economic crisis in a clear historical context. But, in 1995, no one was really aware of how bad things would get. In 1997, for example, Yamaichi Securities, which was Japan’s third largest brokerage, went bankrupt. The news was as shocking as Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in 2008.
Tyler: As a foreigner who was no longer employed, why did you not have to return to the United States? Can you explain the terms of your residency in Japan?
Wayne: It’s not like Dubai, where jobless foreigners lose their working visas and have to leave the country within a month, if they don’t find another job. In Japan, the validity of the working visa is separate from the business relationship employees have with their companies. Your working visa status remains the same, even if your business relationship with the company changes, due to bankruptcy or layoffs, quitting or dismissal. In “The Year Of No Money in Tokyo,” the narrative unfolds within the legal confines of the working visa I had in 1995.
Tyler: As an American, and therefore, a foreigner in Japan, was it even more difficult to find work?
Wayne: No. I don’t think so. The English language is a kind of commodity in Japan. People from English-speaking countries with qualifications and skills are usually able to find work. But, if they limit their work searches, or, worse, lack the qualifications and skills to contribute to a company’s bottom line, then, they will have a hard time finding a job, especially during a recession.
Tyler: Why did you remain in Japan? Did you consider returning to the United States?
Wayne: Well, I felt that I had a principle to prove. Returning to the U.S. poorer than I was before I had left wasn’t in line with how I perceived myself at the time. A return home would have been read as a failure and I wanted to regard my time abroad as a success story.
Tyler: Wayne, not only are you American but also African-American. In the United States, we understand that African-Americans have been subjected to discrimination, but did your race cause you any difficulties in Japan? Did you experience discrimination because you were American, or because you were African-American?
Wayne: No. My race has not caused me any difficulties that I know of in Japan. Race is such a narrow way to define a person. Readers will find in “The Year of No Money in Tokyo” that issues of class and nationality overshadow and are more dominant than racial ones.
Let me not be misread. I am not—repeat, not—insinuating that Japan is free of xenophobia and various kinds of discrimination. What I hope my book will reveal is that the issue of foreignness in Japan is more complicated than just racial factors. You will simultaneously have to consider class, nationality, and personal qualities.
Companies want to know about your qualifications, skills, and personality before offering you a job. Let’s say, for example, that you are Japanese, but you have no skills, you have never attended university, and you are unreliable. You will not be able to find a white-collar job simply because you are Japanese, whether the domestic economy is strong or weak.
Tyler: In the book, you describe some of the people you had relationships with and who helped you through these difficult times. Will you tell us about some of those relationships?
Wayne: The most important point of those connections is the realization that we all need the help of others to overcome adversity. We can’t recover fully alone. More details on those relationships are in the book.
Tyler: Wayne, what made you decide to write and publish your story about your hard times in Tokyo?
Wayne: I felt that I could motivate others to overcome their individual cases of adversity by drawing attention to my personal experiences with—and success over—being broke, in Japan. My case was financial. Others may have experienced being dumped in a relationship, having a serious illness, sustaining job insecurity, and the like.
As you probably know Tyler, men are four times more likely than women to fall into depression following a drop in social status. For that reason, it is important, especially during the world’s current global recession, to show people by example that they can recover from their problems, regardless of their situations.
Another reason for shining the torchlight on my unemployment and underemployment in Japan is that it made for a fresh, original story that had not been written before. George Orwell has written about his days of poverty in London and Paris. But, prior to the publication of “The Year of No Money in Tokyo,” no one had written a first-person, true story about how an American male struggles and rallies himself, in Japan, during the country’s worst recession since the Second World War.
Tyler: What advice would you give to any American going to live and work in Japan, or any other country for that matter?
Wayne: Americans interested in working in Japan should come with skills, qualifications, and favorable personal qualities, and they will do just fine, even if they cannot speak Japanese. But if they travel to Japan without any skills, qualifications, and take themselves too seriously, they will have a hard time finding work and making friends.
Tyler: I won’t ask how the book ends, since I don’t want to give away the ending, but I understand you continue to live in Japan today. Would you tell us what your life there is like now?
Wayne: Sure. I just want to repeat that the book is set in 1995 and represents a limited period of reduced financial circumstances. Now, in 2009, I teach English as a second language at a Japanese university and at domestic companies, as well as proofread English-language documents at a Tokyo-based translation company.
Outside of work, I play sports, travel, watch movies, go to concerts, and have meals with friends. Typical stuff.
Tyler: Wayne, may I ask why you remain in Japan rather than returning to the United States?
Wayne: The Internet and new technology changed everything. The world seems smaller than before. It used to take two weeks to communicate with family and friends in the U.S.A. by standard mail: one week for my letter to arrive from Tokyo and another week for a reply. Now it takes a day or less. Telecommunications is cheaper. Video conferencing in real time is possible.
I return to the States about once a year. Were I living in Los Angeles, I would return to the east coast once a year. And native New Yorkers would probably ask: “Why do you remain in LA rather than return to live in New York?”
Tyler: Thank you for letting me interview you today, Wayne. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information may be found there about “The Year of No Money in Tokyo”?
Wayne: Thanks you, Tyler. My website (www.wayneaponte.com) features some postings from the audiobook; a soundtrack for the book; videos that inspired me to write the book; photos of ordinary style icons in Japan, to give readers a sense of the Tokyo atmosphere; an excerpt; a sample chapter; and the book jacket.
Tyler: Thank you again for the interview, Wayne. I wish you much luck with “The Year of No Money in Tokyo.”
The Year of No Money in Tokyo
Wayne Lionel Aponte
Watkins and McKay, LLC (2009)
Reviewed by Ron Standerfer for Reader Views (12/08)