The value of a 100-yen adventure

Book review, from Tokyo – Have you ever wondered about money and where its worth lies? It can be a difficult question to answer because of the various perspectives we can approach it. Not about the business side of things or making a living, but about the nature of money itself. It’s probably common knowledge that people first started trading things for other things, or barter trade, and then began pricing them in pretty shells and precious stones, before value became tied to precious metals and fiat currency. And so here we are today with credit and electronic payments, on the cusp of the advent of digital currencies, stablecoins and whatever else is being mooted.

Well, how do you explain all that to a child?

Multi-talented Hirotaka Nakagawa’s 『100円たんけん』 (Hyakku-en tanken, lit. Exploring with a hundred yen) puts part of that story in perspective, that is through the eyes of a child in Japan, with Yoshiro Okamoto’s cheerful and familiar-looking style and characters drawing readers in to ideas that can sometimes be complex to depict. Especially the boy’s mischief, from the part where he pesters his mother for the one more thing he wants before their jaunt through the neighbourhood to find out what 100 yen can buy, to him donning a samurai wig, a pair of sunglasses, a flashy apron, and wielding a frying pan in one hand and a bucket in another in the ubiquitous 100-yen shop.

For all his playfulness, the boy listens carefully to his mother’s explanation on barter trade before being tasked to find what he can buy for a 100 yen in the most accessible of places – his own neighbourhood.

He visits the butcher, the cake shop, the fruits and vegetables stall, the fishmonger, and the 100-yen shop. At the butcher’s, he asks how much meat 100 yen buys. It’s not easy to quickly place how many finely sliced pieces of meat can be bought with a single coin, but the difference in the amounts of beef and pork presented to him by the kind butcher is immediately apparent. The boy contemplating his third place on the podium, behind the runner-up pig and the winning cow brought a few giggles.

He visits the shops in turn and the owners explain what a 100-yen coin buys – not really enough to fill the stomach. Well, he also visits the florist, and that is where he eventually decides to use his one coin to buy a flower for his mother and gets the most precious smile in return.

More than how the book conveys the idea of money and its value to its readers in a somewhat believable story, this book mischievously turns the idea of buying things on its head – per coin value, instead of buying whatever we want in weight or value as we are accustomed to. Restricting trades per coin may be the one rule that the mother enforces for their experiment, but it ends up stopping the boy from spending on needless things and letting him experience the value of spending wisely.

I sense a much deeper message for those with deeper pockets too, especially during a season of giving, don’t you?

Title: 『100円たんけん』 (Hyakku-en tanken, lit. Exploring with a hundred yen) text by Hirotaka Nakagawa, illustrated by Yoshiro Okamoto
Publisher: Kumon Publishing, 2021