Michael Pronko has a natural talent to spin out words and astute perceptions in concise, steady and refreshing prose wherein every word counts and nothing is extra. This is quite in evidence in his most recent tome Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo where we are taken to various areas that few have seen and savored.
His approach to writing the essays about Tokyo and its inhabitants is an unexpected delight, both clever and insightful where he depicts not only the blemishes of Japanese culture but also the finer things it has to offer. On the other hand, as he mentions, he may be very much in Tokyo, however, he would never be of Tokyo which has never completely normalized for him.
Divided into five parts, the collection covers a great deal of ground and is drawn from Pronko’s later columns in Newsweek Japan that were published in the four years after the 2011 earthquake and emanate from his daily train rides, each devoted to a particular subject matter in a delicious random way providing readers with fascinating portraits of Tokyoites. A glossary at the end of the collection is provided translating some of the Japanese words that are sprinkled throughout the essays. As Pronko mentions, these words are better left in their original Japanese as they work better.
Quite impressive is Pronko’s familiarity with Tokyoites although he was born in Kansas City, which no doubt is a very different world. Incidentally, he has also lived in Beijing, China for three years.
One of the joys in reading these essays is that the language is precisely crafted. For example, Pronko is frugal with his adjectives but nonetheless draws lively, animated and sometimes comical pictures concerning a variety of topics. These are filled with details such as finding a language to converse that “can be confusing as interpreting the dance of a honeybee,” being stopped four times by the police while biking when wearing ratty jeans and a frayed shirt, watching a young woman trying to pick up her cell phone on a crowded train where people are packed like sardines, interpreting Japanese body language, the Japanese obsession with form filling, the skill in squeezing stuff into one place and learning space conservation, plastic recycling, getting lost in Tokyo where you need more than a map or GPS to find your way and a host of others.
One essay that I found particularly fascinating concerns the preoccupation with cleanliness where as Pronko states: “Forty million people in the Tokyo, Yokohama and surrounding areas should mean forty million producers of trash. Yet, it feels as if a giant vacuum cleaner and sponger are run over the city every couple hours.”
Another that I can personally relate to is, “The Language Dance.” I live in Montreal, Quebec where people converse both in French and English. Very often if you are an English speaking person you can start a conversation in French and wind up speaking in English as the person you are talking to speaks a better English than your French, even though French may be their mother tongue. Pronko describes this similar experience he encounters in Tokyo where he describes the ritual language dance which entails beginning a conversation about the weather in Japanese, then a few questions as to where he is from and why he is in Japan, and gradually, the other person inserts a word or two in English to kind of test the waters, and if he catches the hint and asks a question in English then they switch to English.
Splendidly produced, Pronko has provided his readers with an engaging view of Tokyo life and to quote him, “after living and teaching in Tokyo for many years he still feels that its careening meanings and beguiling contradictions continue to multiply and beg to be written about.”
Follow Here To Read Norm’s Interesting Interview With Michael Pronko