Motions and Moments is the third book by Michael Pronko on the fluid feel and vibrant confusions of Tokyo life. These 42 new essays burrow into the unique intensities that suffuse the city and ponder what they mean to its millions of inhabitants.
Based on Pronko’s 18 years living, teaching and writing in Tokyo, these essays on how Tokyoites work, dress, commute, eat and sleep are steeped in insights into the city’s odd structures, intricate pleasures and engaging undertow.
Included are essays on living to size and loving the crowd, on Tokyo’s dizzying uncertainties and daily satisfactions, and on the 2011 earthquake. As in his first two books, this collection captures the ceaseless flow and passing flashes of life in biggest city in the world with gentle humor and rich detail.
Targeted Age Group:: Any
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I live in Tokyo, so that’s inspiration enough. It’s a strange, huge, confusing, marvelous place to be, live, work, and write. At times, it’s an urban theme park, at others, it’s a gritty reality, at others again, a stress test, but always it’s the biggest city in the world. It drives me crazy, by which I mean, it drives me to write.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
City of Eyes
The other day, for the first time, a young woman sitting on the Chuo Line train won the contest of “who will look away first.” In the past, I could always stare longer than anyone in Tokyo, but this Tokyo woman outstared me. I felt surprised, and maybe a little humiliated, that she could hold the eye contact longer than me–a Westerner!
When I first came to Tokyo eighteen years ago, I felt bewildered because no one met my eyes. At the time I wondered: was something wrong with me? I felt alienated, anonymous, unseen. Shopping, teaching or walking around, it was hard to get a clear look into the heart of the city since people’s eyes quickly shuttered.
Of course, I knew that in Asian countries eye contact carries vastly different meanings than in America where I’m from. In Asia–Japan especially–downcast eyes express humility and respect. But when eyelids clamped down, I felt the human side of the city was veiled and hidden from me.
That frustration whetted my curiosity to peer inside Tokyo life, always hoping to join that elusive, secreted Tokyo life to mine. But, I gradually noticed there was a lot of freedom in that looking away too. I could look around all I wanted. I started to care less if people “saw” me. I had too much else to look at in Tokyo to worry about that.
Now, eighteen years later, when I make a purchase or look around on the train, people’s eyes linger on mine as they hand me my bag, sit across from me on the train, or cut in front of me up the escalator. Has Tokyo changed, or have I? Tokyoites have always been masters of the side-glance and the stolen glance. But these days, Tokyoites are starting to master the direct stare too. I’ve had to re-up my eye game.
I suppose some of this change comes from more Tokyoites going abroad. I can almost always tell when Tokyoites have spent a lot of time overseas. Their eyes holler out, “Hey, how ya doin’?” Along with foreign words, foreign eye contact has crept into Tokyo life. Recently, when I order a coffee at one of the foreign chain stores invading every corner of Tokyo, I was startled by the way young, part-time workers looked directly into my eyes. It made me think, “Where am I? New York?”
It’s a strange thing for a westerner to have western culture shock in the middle of Tokyo, but I still have plenty of the regular kind, too. These essays are one way I big-eye back at that ongoing shock and pick through causes and ponder meanings. E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” But for me in Tokyo, I always wonder: How do I know what I see until I read what I wrote about what I saw.
Trains always help me see the city, so that is where most of these essay ideas were hatched. Tokyo trains are a standing refuge, a place for thought and observation. The solitude of the train, even when elbow-to-elbow, back-to-back, bag and butt at rush hour, is strangely contemplative. But it also forces you to look, and to see.
There are many excellent books about Tokyo that draw tight topographies of the city’s architecture, history or politics. I often pour over my Tokyo books about journalism, history, editorial, maps and more maps, urban studies and anthropology, but I don’t discover my essay topics by reading. I find essays springing from the day to day, or rather, the train to train of life here.
Each day, each train ride, presents its own topic in pleasingly random ways. A book of essays about Tokyo should cohere, but not too perfectly, I feel. Once it coheres too well, it loses the delight of diversity. And that would be less Tokyo.
As just one more person jammed onto another crowded train, I always feel connected to humanity, but sometimes pretty far from humans. Tokyo seems to push one deeper into oneself and to strip away the pretensions of the self. What with all those other selves wandering around, it’s hard to feel too special.
The pressure of people around all the time is like weights at the gym. Pushing against Tokyo psychologically, and sometimes physically, keeps the brain muscles in shape. Tokyo is always a workout. One to write up.
I started writing essays about Tokyo fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve written and published over 200 of them. When I started, I was writing jazz reviews for an online magazine about Tokyo and I proposed short essays to round out the concert listings, restaurant reviews and practical what-to-do’s.
My editor at the time saw Tokyo as objective information. I saw it as subjective enticement. He wanted broad coverage. I wanted to ponder the urban experience. He wanted correct addresses. I wanted juicy stories. We soon parted ways. He kept on filling in the blanks. I continued essaying Tokyo’s elusive meanings.
Despite the years and the essays, and the visa renewals, Tokyo has never completely normalized for me. I realized little by little that though I am very much in Tokyo, I would never quite be of Tokyo. That’s a good place to write from–and in Tokyo maybe the only place to write from.
I feel more fluidity between my self and the city than I did when I first came eighteen years ago, but as Virginia Woolf said, the essay writer’s central conflict is: “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.” The irresolvable problem, I’d say, is how to be myself and yet also be a Tokyoite, a trick I’m still mastering.
For ten years, I wrote a monthly column about Tokyo for Newsweek Japan, reactions and opinions from my point of view. My early columns were collected into three well-received books in Japan, and two of those are now in English: Beauty and Chaos and Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens.
For this new collection, I am drawing from my later columns in Newsweek Japan published mainly in the four years after the 2011 earthquake. I added a few new essays as they arrived in my head–on the train mainly.
I let some of the essays in this book grow a little beyond their original size, but I kept most around Newsweek Japan’s one-page max because Tokyo life is about spatial limitations. In Tokyo, efficiency of time and space is paramount. Entire stores are devoted to getting things to fit inside closets, kitchens, drawers, bags and six-tatami-mat apartments. In Tokyo, things have to fit. Words are the same. Fewer words do more—and different–work.
In his book on Paris, Adam Gopnik has written, “The essayist dreams of being a prism, through which other light passes, and fears ending up merely a mirror, showing the same old face.” Writing in first-person, I do check the mirror of my own creations from time to time. But I don’t look too long. These essays are less mirror and more prism.
Most of my days in Tokyo are suffused with the white light of daily experience. But from time to time, it hits the prism at the right angles and explodes into meanings, ideas, associations, directions. With a slight tilt, Tokyo diffracts wild spectrums of meanings.
Living in Tokyo over the years, teaching, writing, agonizing through the earthquake and tsunami, and riding out the economic downturn, political protests, attitude shifts, and odd westernizations, I feel Tokyo’s careening meanings and beguiling contradictions continue to multiply and beg to be written about.
A few years ago, NHK–Japan’s PBS or BBC–invited me to help make videos on the topics in my essays. A director, small film crew and I made short English-language videos on Tokyo’s maps, shop signs, drinking joints and other topics. As I stood around waiting to jump in front of the camera on side streets, I started thinking about how words and images are two different ways of exploring and re-presenting the world. Tokyo on TV and Tokyo in essay are two different cities.
I started to wonder if the visual images were getting closer to the real Tokyo than my words were. I felt videos caught the city from different angles and in different patterns than essays did. Words do such different work, no matter what language they’re plucked from. Video captures the visual surface in all its splendor, while essays push beneath. Neither explains away the confusions of Tokyo, but essays hold them up for a longer look.
As an American who has made Tokyo home, I’m used to confusion, of course, but then again, maybe “home” is a confusing word no matter what size city, no matter what intensity of urban experience, envelops you.
Being contradictory might be Tokyo’s only consistency. Writing about it is like writing about two sides of the same coin at once. The immensity and weirdness of the city makes it hard to get a foothold, or a “pen-hold.” Essays seem a trifling tool with which to take on the immense project of Tokyo. But they catch the surging energies and fleeting instants of life here.
As the Zen Buddhists say, the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The essay pointing at Tokyo is not Tokyo. But then again, a finger or two pointed towards the motions and moments of a fascinating city makes it easier to glimpse them before they slip away.
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