Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Michael Pronko, author ofMotions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo
FQ: I thoroughly enjoyed Motions and Moments. The work flowed and I found myself often feeling as though I was engaged in endless conversation with you. Given this is your third compilation of essays on the subject of Tokyo, what inspired you to write the first (and continue the series)? Was it more a journey for you to understand its people (or a mission to explain the culture to the world)?
PRONKO: I’m glad you enjoyed it. I wanted readers to hear the conversation between Tokyo and me, but also to join in the conversation, too. I started writing these essays because Tokyo overwhelmed me when I first started living here. I wanted to pick apart my reactions, to not lose them, but also to understand what I was experiencing, which felt very intense. And still does! Then, I got lucky to find a couple of publications, Tokyo Q (which sadly died) and Newsweek Japan that were interested in publishing my thoughts and musings. That kept me writing. A lot of Japanese readers wrote in over the years, and I got invited to be on TV, so that was encouraging that Japanese wanted to hear what I thought. And Tokyo never runs out of topics to write about. So, it’s both to understand myself and to understand Tokyo. Explaining it to the world comes in third maybe, but that’s been interesting, too.
FQ: As a native of the Midwest in America, how difficult was it to assimilate to Tokyo when you first traveled there?
PRONKO: Difficult, I would say, in most ways, the language, ways of doing things, the flow of life, and cultural values are all hard to get your mind around. But in other ways, it’s felt natural, and easy even. I’ve always liked strange experiences, and Tokyo has plenty of those. But Tokyo’s also a very huge, open place that encompasses all kinds of people and attitudes and lifestyles. I could find music, food, books and other sustenance. Italian food one night and Japanese the next is not the hardest assimilation anyone’s ever had.
That said, I’m not sure I’ve assimilated altogether. Friends and colleagues who are Japanese language or culture specialists, or who married a Japanese person probably assimilate better than me. Strangely, as a writer and as a professor, I’m paid to be American in some way, to see and teach from that slightly outside position, though with an understanding of the Japanese side, too. I’m used to things here, comfortable with them, but I still find a lot of them weird. That seems a productive balance.
FQ: In line with Question 2, when you travel back to Tokyo after spending time in the States, do you find you adapt more quickly each time to return—to the pace? Culture? Environment? Is there a specific process you implement to adapt?
PRONKO: Less and less quickly, I think. It’s always confusing to switch cultural situations, but I notice differences more and more. I think the only process I use is to write down observations and reactions as fully as I can. Going both ways is weird, so I jot down what I feel. The times when I switch cultures are the times when I get the most ideas. I like to observe my observations. And maybe more importantly, I’ve developed much more of a sense of humor about the differences, which helps immensely!
FQ: I particularly enjoyed your essays on the quakes. I cannot imagine not only experiencing such a catastrophic occurrence, but how do you cope with the notion the next one can happen at any time?
PRONKO: Total denial is very helpful. It covers the day-to-day of lingering anxiety. Sort of. After the most recent disaster in Kyushu, though, I was reminded again of how possible a big quake in Tokyo really is. And how lucky Tokyo has been so far. I try to calm myself with facts, emergency bags, and a pre-set plan. That kind of constant unconscious awareness is there all the time, so you get used to the idea. Each small quake, and there are a lot of them, really gives me a start. Each time on hits, and the whole building starts bucking and jolting, I get flooded with adrenaline, and then I wait to see if it gets worse, try to stay calm and ride it out. I wanted to get some of that feeling into the essays.
FQ: What life experience or experiences stands out most in your life in Tokyo?
PRONKO: The people here. Tokyo people are so different from me, I feel at times, but exactly the same at other times. People are hard to write about, as they’re so complex, but they’re the ongoing experience that stands out. My students are really intriguing, and the experiences with them are ones I value. My students talk with me a lot and invite me to their weddings or out for drinking parties long after they graduated. I write about jazz, too, so I know a lot of musicians, jazz fans and club owners. They’re different from business people, who are the vast majority of Tokyoites. There are a lot of other things that I love always, like just walking around the city. I went on TV a few times, which was interesting doing this completely different activity, being ordered around by a director, filming in the streets and performing in the studio (with make-up!). Still, people are the best experience.
FQ: How difficult (or easy) was the adjustment to the cuisine? What is your favorite dish?
PRONKO: Very, very easy. I love Japanese food, which is generally healthy, and served with great attention to detail. Eating is deeply integrated into general life here in ways that makes America seem like a culture that scarfs down food out of necessity. I like the whole culture of cuisine here. It’s ritualized, overly so at times, but always respectfully and humanly. Meals with friends stretch out over hours, talking, drinking, ordering after discussing what to order. And there’s lots of quick eats, too, like ramen, which I love, and ton katsu, deep-fried pork cutlets, which I grab on the run between classes. Probably, my favorite is just fish, both raw and grilled, which is just marvelous here, done simply. But there are so many other cuisines here, too, Chinese, Italian, French, Thai, everything, so that makes it easy to adjust by just diversifying.
FQ: I have often thought the Asian culture is quite respectful and adheres to protocol. What is one of the greatest ‘foibles’ you orchestrated during your time abroad? How did you overcome the faux pas?
PRONKO: One thing I used to always do was to wear the toilet slippers out of the toilet. In Japanese homes, the toilet area has different slippers, which you change into and out of each time you go in. No outside shoes in the house, right? I would always forget and just wear the toilet slippers back out around the house. But the toilet is even more outside than the outside, so it’s disgusting, by Japanese standards! The words for “having an affair” and “gardener” sound similar, so one time I spoke to a gardener working in a garden nearby my house, but switching the words, I asked him if he was an “affair” person who could come have an “affair” in my backyard. Seeing I was a foreigner, he took a big breath, and figured it out. Fortunately.
In addition to those kinds of mistakes, other things were tougher. One colleague yelled at me in the hallway, I mean really screamed, about my introducing an essay section to our entrance exam. I was on the committee and just added it, American style! Which was absolutely wrong in Japanese culture, as it was a singular action taken without extensive group discussion. The Japanese way would have been to discuss it in meeting after meeting, listening to everyone’s opinion, checking with other universities to see what they did, sending a formal proposal to the Education Ministry, waiting for the reply, announcing and discussing it at more meetings, and…well that would have taken years and ended up with nothing at all. What I did was “wrong” but it worked.
The number of other similar foibles, faux pas, and foul-ups could fill another volume of essays. Just worrying about trying to find the right way can be a huge pain. Japanese culture is super-strict about polite, passive adherence to accepted ways of doing things. Some of those ways are efficient, smooth and have their own internal logic. But others are inane and even Japanese hate following them! Many Japanese would even feel a certain envy at my not feeling obligated to do things in the correctly, long-accepted, Japanese way. However, on the flip side, I learned to be respectful and patient as the first response to whatever happens or is said. That attitude of take-a-breath and wait-and-see cuts down on most faux pas.
FQ: I have never been to Tokyo, but have friends who have traveled there and relayed a similar observation you touched upon often in your essays: It’s incredibly clean! What DO they do with all the refuse?!
PRONKO: Well, places in the public eye are amazingly clean, but there are dirty, unkempt, abandoned places too, here and there. It’s just this deep-set cultural value to be clean, neat, and tidy. At some places like old temples or funky drinking places, it’s OK to just let things fall into a kind of beautiful disrepair. In the right place, dirt is relaxing. It always seems to me that the cleanliness is so much work. I guess if it is clean already, it’s easier to keep it clean. It’s a kind of ongoing, constantly enacted purification, I suppose, like washing your hands before entering a temple. It’s a way of maintaining consideration about space and people. To have a lot of dirt, trash or disorder in front of your store or your home would be considered rude to customers, neighbors or passers-by. So, you clean it up. That happens on a small scale and on a large scale.
FQ: In line with Question 8, I (think) you mentioned strict adherence to recycling, but I don’t recall if lofty fines are imposed on violators. How serious is the penalty to those who violate the codes?
PRONKO: We have a trash calendar to remind us what days are set for throwing out glass, PET bottles, random plastic, non-burnable, burnable, paper (3 kinds) and dangerous things like batteries. It’s very tightly organized. Basically, I think violation is just not done. When I’ve gotten my trash category wrong outside my house, the trash collectors will peer into my trash bag (special bags purchased from the city), and then tape on a little form note with boxes to check off with my specific error. They just leave that out in front of the house. It’s SO embarrassing to come home from a long day and find that all day long everyone in the neighborhood has been glancing at my trash mistake as they passed by! Shame is the ultimate penalty. But I think, too, people feel connected to public space, and do not want to inconvenience others. So, it’s maybe less actual penalty than social expectation. I once spent the equivalent of a couple hundred dollars to haul off some old heaters, shelves, laundry poles and this and that. You have to pay to play the garbage game. It adds up, but on the other hand, it makes you super-aware of how much each little this and that will cost to dispose of. So, you pay attention to that end cost. Fair enough.
FQ: When in Tokyo, what is the one comfort from home you cannot obtain (and how do you overcome the desire to have it)?
PRONKO: Most creature comforts are now easy to come by in Tokyo. Somehow someplace, you can find almost anything. Tokyo’s very big. Some things, you might have to search out, like a good hamburger. Mexican food is in short supply. There are some fancy places, but not the kind of casual, authentic Mexican food I really used to love. So, I’ve learned to make it myself at home. Bookstores in English are good, but not like the local indie places you’d find in America. But, I have a library at school where I can order what I like. What I really miss is little, casual exchanges, like with a store clerk or wait staff or even someone in my university office. Those kinds of interactions tend to remain extremely formal here, stiff and restrained by American standards. I miss easy, light banter with passing strangers.
FQ: Tokyo seems to be the city of constant motion. Is there ever a time when the streets sleep (other than December)? What is that like?
PRONKO: It is a city of constant motion, of necessity or regularity or just to avoid the exhaustion of stopping, but things do slow down, too. I think the streets are the place for energy and motion, so the slowing down tends to take place more in private spaces. Japanese take a bath at night, so that’s a real still point for most people. An individual and private stillness. There are plenty of calm coffee shops, restaurants, parks and other places, where sitting quietly doing nothing is the norm. But, the main streets tend to stay active. There are plenty of quiet neighborhoods, and those can be very tranquil. In the early morning hours, before the trains start back up, it’s very quiet most places, but still not quite asleep. There’s no daylight savings time in Japan, so the sun comes up early and it’s light by 5 am in summer. It’s quiet then.
FQ: I thank you for your captivating essays. Is there another in the series in the works or are you on to a different project? If so, could you share a bit?
PRONKO: I finished two novels set in Tokyo, noir-like mysteries, so I hope to get one of those out this year. They’ll be my main focus this year. I’m working on more essays, as there is so much more in Tokyo to write about, but it takes time to build up enough for another full collection. I work on those little by little and don’t want to force them. The new ones seem to be focusing on Tokyo people, their lives, passions and what they tell me and do. I’m also working on a book about Japanese jazz, as that is a real passion of mine, with my own website as the starting place, Jazz in Japan. As always, the problem is finding enough time to do them all.
To learn more about Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo please read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews.