Michael Pronko’s short stories about Japan’s culture and oddities are the next best thing to a visit, but don’t expect a travelogue, here. The pleasure of Motions and Moments (as in his other writings) lies not in the usual ‘things to go/places to see/I was there’ approach, but in an attention to cultural dichotomies and a depth of detail that is difficult to find elsewhere.
Take the opening, for example, with begins with a note about its glossary. One might be surprised that information explaining the glossary’s importance prefaces the collection, but in fact this is key to enjoying the work, and shouldn’t be skipped over lightly, because: “All Japanese words that work better in Japanese have been given in italicized Roman alphabet form, called romaji. The reader can flip back to the glossary to find those, or read on and experience the confusion of being in Tokyo. Check the back for the fun words, the crucial ones and sometimes the strange.”
Tokyo living doesn’t just involve a light dose of inconsistency. It embraces it. Pronko outlines this right away, letting readers know that they should be prepared for a production less linear and predictable than the usual treatise on Japanese culture: “True to Tokyo’s inconsistency, I sometimes use some English, like “cell phone,” in the essay on cell phones. But at other times, I put in keitai, short for keitai denwa, which means cell phone. English speaking friends and I rarely use the English word because that little object is so central to Tokyo life. A little inconsistency never hurt anyone, I figure, and anyway, Tokyoites switch terms whenever they feel like it, dropping a little English in here, taking it out there. Inconsistency is part of life here—or maybe its only consistency.”
This collection is in keeping with Pronko’s other exquisite essays about Japan, so prior fans will be thrilled, while newcomers need have no previous familiarity in order to see how he captures the subtler nuances of Japanese living with crystal clarity.
From Tokyo’s own peculiar brand of cell phone addiction and how it differs from other countries to the bigger picture connecting Tokyoite decisions with how the rest of the world functions, insights are thought-provoking reflections of the particular choices this modern world makes, and their impact: “But if you see a teensy photo of a bowl of ramen before you eat it, will it taste any better? There is only so much information a screen can deliver. Tokyo screen size means urban experiences become pre-planned. Checking online beforehand deflates all sense of surprise. Tokyoites start to divide between the virtual planners with expectations cooked up online and the adventurers who plunge into the unplanned and take the consequences.”
From the city’s unusual undercurrents of silence compared with the din of other urban cities in Asia (“Tokyo life goes on largely unspoken. I could get by just fine for weeks and weeks without saying much of anything to anyone. Shopping, eating, entertainment, almost everything can be accomplished without once uttering a single word, as if the entire city is set up for monks.“) to symphonies of sound, taste, and a marathon feel in which life seems to move faster and faster, nobody captures the feel of Tokyo quite like Pronko.
His writings aren’t just designed to ‘show and tell’, but to dissect the psyche and heartbeat of a city to pinpoint its unique culture, from business rituals and formalities to intersections where Tokyoites relax.
Anyone with an interest in Japanese culture in general and Tokyo in particular must acquire Motions and Moments. More so than almost any other treatment, it captures the nuances Westerners find puzzling about Japan and translates them into digestible, vivid insights no visitor should be without.