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Motions and Moments
New Essay Collection Provides 42 Little Windows into Japanese Life
"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.'
Just a few pages into his new anthology, Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo, writer and professor Michael Pronko provides some insight on why he's now spent three books exploring the Japanese metropolis through the windows of short-form writing. In a way, Motions and Moments isn't groundbreaking, if only because Pronko has done this before. The More Essays bit of the title is a reference to Pronko's previous two essay collections about Tokyo: Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life and Tokyo's Mystery Deepens: Essays on Tokyo, both published in 2014 by Pronko's own Raked Gravel Press. Motions and Moments arrived in late December of last year through the same publisher.
The thing is, Pronko could write hundreds or even thousands of books about Tokyo and still barely scratch the surface. According to 2014 statistics, Tokyo is the world's most populous city, with a population of more than 37.8 million people. In comparison, the second biggest city—New Delhi, India—only has a population of about 25 million people. New York, meanwhile, is about half the size of Tokyo, with a 2014 population just shy of 18.6 million. Needless to say, Pronko has a lot to write about.
The groundbreaking facet of Motions and Moments—and, I presume, the same quality that made his previous two essay collections award winners and reader favorites—is that Pronko takes the sweeping size, bustle, and chaos of Tokyo and makes it small, introspective, and personal. The introduction to the book, for instance, talks about eye contact and what it means in Japan versus what it means in the United States and other western cultures. The topic is a big one, something that could easily be blown up to formal research paper length. But Pronko keeps it conversational and even a little bit funny, starting the essay with an anecdote about a young Japanese woman who won a staring contest against him on the train. Since, in Japan, "downcast eyes express humility and respect," Pronko finds himself baffled that Tokyo residents—particularly younger people—have begun to hold his gaze after 18 years of living in the city. "It's a strange thing for a westerner to have western culture shock in the middle of Tokyo," he muses.
Michael Pronko, a professor of American literature, film, music, and art at Tokyo's Meiji Gakuin University, writes about Japan's capital, but he is hardly a travelogue journalist. As he notes near the start of the collection, he views Tokyo less in terms of "objective information"—where to eat, where to shop, which sights to see—and more in terms of "subjective enticement." The result probably isn't the book you'd pick up if you were planning a trip to Tokyo and wanted to know how to spend your time, but it's absolutely perfect for getting a sense of what it's like to live in the world's biggest city as a westerner.
Even if you've never been to Tokyo—as I haven't—Pronko's essays are engaging for how they capture the atmosphere and culture of the city. From struggles deciding which language to speak with locals to confusion about the city's gift-giving traditions, Pronko's essays provide dozens of glimpses into a life turned Japanese. There is a conversation about the virtues of ramen, an ode to futons, and a piece about how odd if feels to live in such a cramped and neatly packed city after years of experiencing American sprawl. In one essay, Pronko returns to New York on sabbatical and feels like he's stepped into a post-apocalyptic thriller, so much denser is Tokyo's population compared to the biggestcity in the United States.
Such is the beauty of Motions and Moments: it tackles microcosmic moments and cultural trends that probably seem normal and mundane to those born and raised in Tokyo, but feel incredibly unique and notable to an "outsider." Of course, not everything that inspires Pronko to put pen to paper on an essay is a microcosm. One entire segment of the book is dedicated to the aftermath of 2011's cataclysmic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The 9.0 magnitude quake hit 232 miles from Tokyo, but was still strongly felt in the city and is strongly felt in these pages as well. As with every essay in this book, the earthquake pieces see Pronko finding the human truths in a subject that could easily be discussed with sweeping generality and platitude. Therein lies his talent as a writer, as well as the groundbreaking nature of his immensely readable work.
You can purchase Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo from Amazon.com, where the essay collection is available in both eBook and paperback formats.
Craig Manning is currently studying English and Music at Western Michigan University. In addition to writing for IndependentPublisher.com, he maintains a pair of entertainment blogs, interns at the Traverse City Business News, and writes for Rockfreaks.net and his college newspaper. He welcomes comments or questions concerning his articles via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.