Friday, March 4, 2016
Review: Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo by Michael Pronko
A collection of essays on Tokyo originally written for Newsweek Japan and expanded and revised for the book.
Michael Pronko lives in Tokyo, Japan, where he teaches American literature, film, music, and art at Meiji Gakuin University. For more info about Mr. Pronko check out his website.
Michael Pronko has that rare voice of one who has lived and studied long enough in an “exotic” environment to get it right, but is still able to present a fresh vision. As I have noted in an earlier review, I’ve lived in Japan for thirty years straight, not including a one-year stint as a Marine and three years as a copy editor for the Mainichi Daily News. I went to Mainichi right out of University of Texas J-school with a concentration in Asian studies and three years of Japanese language.
Reading Motions and Moments was in some ways seeing Japan in brightened light that had dimmed over years of familiarity. My thoughts on walking through throngs of humanity run to “It’s crowded. Deal with it.” Pronko makes walking in Tokyo, if not an art form, an accomplishment of some virtuosity. Perhaps I still haven’t learned properly as I find it can also be blood sport. In Shibuya station, I was in a hurry to make a train connection, saw a gap in the crowd, and quickly stepped into it. A young man coming from the other direction had the same idea and we banged into each other. I grunted and continued on my way only to be shoved from behind. I turned around to return the gesture, and we settled into a bout of accusations laced with words that literally mean “you” but are insulting when spoken to a stranger. A passerby stopped for a moment then explained to me that my speech was impolite. It became a humorously only-in-Japan moment as I found myself saying I knew my language was naughty, but in this case appropriate as I was having a fight with a ruffian.
Pronko’s eloquently droll writing style is all the more enjoyable as he presents oddities of Tokyo life with negligible hyperbole. “Every time I use a public toilet, it’s being cleaned.” Well, probably not every time, but any other wording would not have given a feeling of the frequency of such events.
I found that the chapter on plastic actually understated the complexity of trash. One might be forgiven for thinking a PET bottle was plastic garbage, but at least in my neighborhood, those containers are bagged separately and put out on the day for glass bottles and cans. PET bottle caps, however, are also sacked separately but are put out on the day for regular plastic trash, which includes the plastic labels that must be peeled off PET bottles.
I don’t find the “Language Dance” as awkward as described, but that may be because I seldom speak to strangers. Decades ago, I would often be shunned by store staff who, I suppose, assumed they would be expected to speak English. Now Japanese speaking foreigners are common, and most Japanese have no problem engaging in conversation. There are throwbacks to the bad old days, however. I was working for Bloomberg’s Tokyo bureau and had an interview with a Goldman Sachs quantitative analyst about an investment strategy involving extreme PE ratios. I asked if he preferred English or Japanese. He said he didn’t speak English, so Japanese it was. All is good. That evening in a Tai Chi class a substitute teacher, whom I hadn’t met before, nervously told me my foot wasn’t properly positioned. While I checked my foot, another student interpreted. The teacher thanked him profusely, and said she’d had trouble with foreigners in the past who couldn’t speak the language. I resisted the urge to ask the teacher, in financially technical Japanese, whether she agreed a specific filtering of stocks with PER’s in the upper/lower 5 percentile would produce profits with a long/short strategy.
Pronko writes that he finds Tokyo depressingly ugly after returning from Paris or Rome, which raises the question of exactly what cities he would find relatively attractive in comparison to those two. To be fair, he wants to contrast the hidden nooks of serene beauty in Tokyo to the overall appearance of the city, and he is hardly the only foreigner to call the city ugly. I think it’s a bad rap, perhaps because my first time in Tokyo was in the mid-1970’s when buildings in the Marunouchi business district were little more than rectangular-blocks no taller than seven stories. I find the transformation to aesthetically modern skyscrapers and a street lined with whimsical statuary, wine shops and sidewalk cafes extraordinary. In another part of town, Shiodome is a futuristic complex of quirky architecture with multi-level outdoor walkways connecting buildings and a railway station that seems to hover three stories above ground. Meanwhile, Paris keeps its one-room tenements with communal bathrooms and dingy paint hidden behind walls and locked gates.
One final contrast between the view of a Japan hand and an old Japan hand. Pronko writes that he enjoys the slowdown of life during the New Year break, which lasts three days or so. This past New Year’s Day, my wife and I were lamenting how busy the country remains these days and how we missed the time when Japan didn’t just slow down. It stopped. There were no convenience stores or supermarkets, which stay open year-round now. Retail shops and restaurants in the old days were mom and pop affairs and were shut. Period. If you didn’t stock up with three days of food, you went hungry. The only people working were railway employees and maybe a scattering of taxi drivers, firemen and policemen. If you needed a doctor, good luck. Days of preparation enhanced the spiritual gravitas of the period of relaxation, housecleaning and prayers for a new beginning.
Motions and Moments is Pronko’s third book of essays and is a wonderfully sensitive depiction of aspects of Tokyo life, but for readers who are interested in the grittier side of Japan, I know of no better source than the writings of the late Jack Seward (a fellow Texan and Japan specialist for military intelligence in WWII. He got the job for having learned elements of the language from Japanese cowboys while working on an Oklahoma ranch.) For anyone considering a move here, his book Outrageous Japanese should be required reading if for no other reason than verbal self-defense if you ever get shoved in a train station.
Rating: ***** Five Stars