How many drunken salarymen does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: three. One to screw it in and two to make sure his shirt is perfectly tucked.
If you don’t want to be taken for a common gaiijin (foreigner) when negotiating the byways of modern-day Tokyo, you’d best consult this excellent guide to the traditions, customs, and many charming quirks that a visitor to Japan’s largest city might encounter.
Written in an articulate style reminiscent of George Plimpton at his best, author Michael Pronko shares 43 insightful essays that reflect his unique observations as an American expatriate living and teaching in the largest city in the world.
In the essay “The Language Dance,” for example, Pronko discusses the proclivity of Tokyoites to be formal in just about every aspect of daily life. Even those who don’t work in the many high-rises seem always pressed and tidy — from construction workers to deliverymen.
One of the few times the Japanese get really casual, in fact, is when they’re speaking English:
“The Japanese can really loosen up in English. In English, the Japanese switch not just language, but cultural assumptions, body language and mindsets, and end up telling me more in English about themselves and their lives than they ever would in Japanese.”
Another valuable tip for optimum existence in Tokyo: learn how to skillfully negotiate the extensive train and subway system. When walking through an ultra-crowded station, you must be particularly adroit:
‘You have to be controlled to shoot at high speed through the crowd and out the narrow chutes of the train’s exit wickets. One misplaced step means a bruised knee or bruised hip, or, even worse, embarrassment. ”
In addition, Pronko relates, there seems to be a national obsession not just with cell phones, but the entire concept of doing many things at once. Even the TVs carry several information streams — all at once.
“The city itself seems built on multitasking, as if that has been the basic design principle. From any single point, you can find a hundred things to do, and imagine a hundred more. You can’t just walk through Tokyo; you have to deal with it — like an email inbox that never stops receiving new messages.”
There are dozens of erudite observations in this well-written and meticulously edited book. But perhaps one of the best passages, on the end of the annual cherry tree flowering, will resonate with you as it did with me:
“On days when the spring wind blows strong, the last blossoms release and dance through the air. The few late releasing petals seem more rare and more precious, floating alone through the warmer air of spring, like the last dancer pirouetting off the stage after a performance.”
This is a memoir to be savored like a fine red wine, crafted with supreme care by a man who clearly has fallen in love with his adopted city — and we are the beneficiaries of his lyrical reflections, making us want to visit and absorb the rich megalopolis of Tokyo for ourselves.
Five-plus stars to Motions and Moments, and to its warm and witty author Michael Pronko.