The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Michael Pronko about 'Motions and Moments'

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Michael Pronko about 'Motions and Moments'


Summary: Last year Rebecca enjoyed Michael Pronko's first book of essays on Tokyo life and she was delighted to be able to review his third book, Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo. She had quite a few questions for Michael when he popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.
Date: 3 February 2016
Interviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

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Last year Rebecca enjoyed Michael Pronko's first book of essays on Tokyo life and she was delighted to be able to review his third book, Motions and Moments: More Essays on Tokyo. She had quite a few questions for Michael when he popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us.

  • Bookbag: Compared to other world cities, you find Tokyo impeccably clean and surprisingly quiet. Do you attribute this to stricter regulations, national character, or something else?

Michael Pronko: It’s mostly expectation. When everything’s clean, you expect everything to be clean. And you don’t want to be the person to mess it up! People would be ashamed to be seen dropping trash or dirtying things. I certainly would be. Keeping every place clean is kind of an ongoing public works project, as it employs people and creates a good atmosphere. Japanese are proud of being clean, so cleanliness feels like an ethical category, a way of acting in the world. People sweep up in front of their homes. School kids are taught to clean up their own classrooms. It’s just an important value taught early, and naturally followed.

  • BB: You often experience a 'ritual language dance': you approach people in Japanese, but they might respond in English if theirs is better than your Japanese. Yet you do not describe this as stressful or humiliating. What do you think that says about you and/or the Japanese you meet as strangers?

MP: Daily life in Tokyo involves a lot of code switching of all kinds. It can be a bit tiring at times to keep switching from English to Japanese, from traditional to ultra-modern, from archaic rituals to technological marvels, and back again. I find deciding on a language to be a bit comic if anything. Everyone speaks a smidgen of English, but we have to bumble around to figure out how much. I mean, I AM a foreigner, but that involves a little pre-negotiation before the actual exchange. Japanese is precedent obviously, but since Tokyo is also an international city in part, English holds sway in some realms. Both languages, with their different modes of interaction, exist side-by-side. Whatever language the conversation ends up in, it’s interesting to me.

  • BB: Despite technological advances, you note that Japanese society is still manners-driven, what with parting rituals and a culture of gift-giving. How does this contrast with the seemingly inherent narcissism of social media?

MP: I’d hate to think how Japanese society would be WITHOUT the force of traditional manners and politeness! Social media’s me-me-me focus would take over! Japanese are super-polite, but they can be narcissistic, rude and arrogant when they want to be, let me assure you. But, I think the way Japanese use social media is more manners-oriented. Students organizing a party will use social media scheduling apps to be sure everyone can come! Social media is also about sharing, too. Students always share photos of a party, for example, everyone contributing to make a huge photo album accessible by everyone. Accessible forever! They have their own pages and aren’t afraid of a bit of self-promotion, but maybe it’s more about working in groups here.

  • BB: You write that a constant online presence means people are perpetually engaged in a battle of image vs. reality. How do you see this played out on the streets of Tokyo?

MP: I see that played out when I smash into them! They can’t see me because they’re staring at their screen as they walk, and expect everyone else to get out of their way! It’s gotten so bad that signs are posted imploring/demanding people to not walk and text message at the same time. I must bump into someone every time I commute. There’s even a term for it, “nagara.” That means, for example, walking while text messaging, but basically doing anything while using the cellphone. I guess they prefer mediated, technologically processed, re-presented reality because the raw, direct reality of the city is too intense.

  • BB: Two of your book titles (Beauty and Chaos, Motions and Moments) read like pairs of opposites. How and why do you use paradoxes to capture Tokyo?

MP: Paradox seems basic to the experience of Tokyo. It’s hard to catch the disparate, contradictory aspects of life here. They are slippery to catch and even more slippery to articulate. But those titles also point towards fascinating tensions in Tokyo life. Beauty arises from chaos, and motion comes from connected moments of time. It’s the contrasts and tensions that create the textures and energy of the city. Maybe all big cities are built on paradoxes, or run on them, but Tokyo has more than its fair share. I wanted a title that would help find the endpoints of experience, and offer a kind of focal point to see Tokyo more sharply.

  • BB: You mention that direct stares are fairly common in Japan now, even though avoiding eye contact used to be de rigueur. What are some of the other major changes you have noticed over the last 18 years?

MP: There are more foreigners recently visiting Japan, so that really changes the dynamic. I used to rescue lost foreigners, but now, there are too many to help! I think Japanese have become much more aware of the outside world as the media open up more information, images and ideas about non-Japanese things than in the past. And about Japanese things, too! So, people’s thinking has started to accept difference, variety and foreignness. With the bad economy, many people are struggling, so they question the status quo in politics, business, and workplace or family relations. But for every step forward, there are often two steps back. The economic crunch makes people more conservative than ever before, too. Elderly people and students protesting in the streets would have been unimaginable ten years ago, and those protests are gaining force, but people are a bit more cautious even as they become more cynical and proactive.

  • BB: The earthquake essays reminded me of post-9/11 literature in tone. Has there been a flourishing of this type of reflective writing in Japan since the 2011 tsunami?

MP: Not enough. It was such a devastating experience, and thousands and thousands of people still have not recovered, found new homes, or gotten back on their feet. It continues to be a serious problem that’s really an outrage of mismanagement. Maybe it’s provoked less response because earthquakes and tsunami have always been part of Japan. Clearly, the Fukushima nuclear plant’s radiation was a disaster worsened by one company in collusion with the government. But in a larger sense, there’s a sense of shame and guilt shared by everyone, too. People have been using all the electricity they could get their hands on for years, myself included. So, people understand their gluttonous use of energy led to the nuclear power industry. The response to the earthquake maybe was more nuanced than 9/11 with a strange mixture here of personal, political, practical and unspoken reactions. It was either too horrible to process in words, or maybe Japanese don’t feel as much need, or desire, to articulate psychological pain in words.

  • BB: I love how you describe onigiri (fish, rice and seaweed balls) as 'a haiku of the entire Japanese food culture'. It strikes me that your essays are trying to do the same thing for Tokyo life at large. Does that seem a fair comparison?

MP: Yes, I think it is. I think the essays are poetic in the sense of using metaphoric language to condense or encapsulate larger issues into fewer words. I think the essays explore well-aimed topics to uncover broader themes. Haiku are marvelous poetic structures because they are so small and contained, yet so immense and far ranging. That’s their magic. Essays also condense, connect and then springboard the imagination and understanding in new directions. I want the essays to give readers a sense of the larger movements of Tokyo life, while staying rooted in the tangible, everyday feel of the city.

  • BB: A book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (by Japanese 'cleaning consultant' Marie Kondo) has been a huge bestseller in the United States and United Kingdom. Why do you think neatness has come to the fore as one of Japan's defining characteristics?

MP: I haven’t read that book yet, but I definitely need to! Neatness is something that foreigners pick up quickly in Japan. For Japanese, it’s a given. Entire stores are devoted to products for keeping your living space neat! I think Japanese have always had a very close relation to their material life. In Japan, spaces are small, and there’s a genuine delight in order. Closets aren’t for storage, they’re for stuff you need everyday. People walk into a restaurant, store or my university office, and the first thing they’ll notice is how neat it is. Not perfect order, but functional, practical, daily order. I’m always intrigued by how small a space can be used for a successful ramen noodle shop. It works because everything is in place. You can’t stumble around over batches of stuff trying to serve a hundred bowls of ramen at lunch hour inside an area an arms-width across. You can only do that by being spatially efficient. Neatness, cleanliness, smallness are all part of the same nexus of highly valued attributes in Japan. Neatness has always been part of Japanese life, but with that book, it’s drawn attention outside of Japan. And wonderfully so, I would say.

  • BB: What's next for Michael Pronko?

MP: I have two detective/mystery novels set in Tokyo. One will be coming out this year, and the other early next. I still love writing about jazz in Tokyo for my website

  • BB: There's plenty to look forward to, Michael. Thanks for taking the time to chat to us.

You can read more about Michael Pronko here.

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