The Japanese publishing industry is facing a historic crisis, with total sales now only two-thirds of that in 1997 and hundreds of bookstores nationwide shutting down every year.
The English-language market appears to have been particularly affected by this negative trend: Not only a number of magazines have recently ceased publication or have migrated online, but in March Kodansha folded up Kodansha International, dealing a death blow to what was arguably the best English-language publisher of mainstream Japanese fiction.
Luckily there are still a few brave people who keep championing quality reading. One of them is Edward Lipsett, a Fukuoka-based American who since 2002 has been running Kurodahan Press, a small publishing house specializing in translated Japanese literature, particularly genre fiction such as mystery, horror, fantasy and science fiction.
Born in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1955, Lipsett’s fateful encounter with Japan happened toward the end of his university studies. “I majored in electronics engineering, and in my final year I took a course on East Asia quite by accident,” he says. “It was fascinating, and I decided to look into it deeper.”
In 1979 Lipsett spent one year at Keio University in Tokyo under a scholarship exchange program, which earned him a degree in Japanese language and civilization. “I was sharing a small two-room hanareya (detached house) with another American going to the same university. While he, like many other students in the program, hung out with other foreigners, I went out of my way to avoid them and made a lot of friends with local people at shops, snacks and whatnot.”
Lipsett was originally attracted by the Japanese extended family, very different from the nuclear family more common in the U.S. “I am still very attracted to it,” he says, “and to the whole ‘in-group’ orientation of Japanese culture. For those on the outside — as I often was at the time — it can be cold, but on the inside there is a lot of emotional support that is lacking in most social situations in the U.S.”
After graduating in 1980, Lipsett got a working visa and took a one-year job teaching English in Tokyo, but he found the experience unsatisfying. He moved on to a major trading company. After working there for several years, though, he discovered that the Japanese work ethic was not for him.
One of the things that Lipsett found most interesting after first arriving in Japan was the way so many businesses in Tokyo were still mom-and-pop operations. “This was Tokyo, the ‘Big Mikan,’ ” he recalls, “but outside of the downtown business areas it felt more like Drowsy Acres, Ohio.” So around 1985 he decided to go private, becoming an independent commercial translator and opening his current company, Intercom.
Still in search of a more people-friendly place, he soon moved south — to the city of Fukuoka. “It certainly offers fewer cultural facilities than Tokyo, but the people are much more open and willing to speak to strangers,” he says. “It’s also very nice to be able to get to swimmable ocean and climbable mountains in only 20 minutes by car. Unfortunately there is much less industry in Kyushu, so more of my translation work has become tourism-related. At the same time, though, we began handling Chinese and Korean translation, as well as design and layout.”
In 2002 Lipsett was ready to embark on a new project. Looking for something beyond commercial translation, he talked with good friends Chris Ryal and Stephen Carter about starting a publishing company. “My original thought was that we could apply the skills we had in the field to translating Japanese literature.” The result of their collaboration was Kurodahan Press whose name comes from Kuroda-han (the Kuroda clan who were the feudal lords of Fukuoka).
A self-described book addict, Lipsett decided to focus on genre fiction. “I’ve read fantasy, science fiction and horror since I discovered the library in elementary school,” he says. “I know the field, know a lot of authors both in Japan and overseas, and really enjoy it.
“Japanese fiction — and science fiction in particular — can be quite different from other countries. As Grania Davis, one of the editors of our Speculative Japan anthology of Japanese SF, writes in her afterword, “. . . the very best Japanese science fiction and fantasy tends to be mood-driven, instead of action-driven. It is not uncommon for a Japanese story to consist of only a setting, or a single scene, with no conflict, no climax, and no conclusion. I find this particularly fascinating.”
Lipsett’s goal has since been to produce informative and entertaining translations of books (most of them relating to Japan) that can be of interest to scholars, students and general readers.
Speaking of how he chooses books for translation — and reading in general — he says, “If a book makes you feel something, or see a different side of something that you’ve never seen before, it is a successful book. You may not always enjoy what you feel or discover, but you’ve either had a new experience, or grown through a new discovery, and both are worthy.”
Both Ryal and Carter have left Kurodahan Press for work-related reasons, leaving Lipsett alone to run the company. Although he is quick to point out that this is by no means a one-man project. “There are many people I ask for opinions on all sorts of things, from choosing book for translation to evaluations of translators, cover art and layout. Once a book project begins, the manuscript will be read, criticized and edited by a number of people, with feedback to me and to the translator.”
In 10 years Lipsett’s company has slowly evolved in many respects, not least in the key production and distribution departments. “In the beginning we only used the print-on-demand (POD) technology because it requires minimal up-front costs and it’s perfect for publishers (or authors) who want to avoid having to print and store 5,000 copies of a book. Now we also print offset books here in Japan for titles we think will sell more than a few dozen copies.
“Until now the POD printers in Japan weren’t offering the kind of service we wanted, so our current POD printer is based abroad, with facilities in the U.S., the U.K., France and Australia,” he says. “The problem is, any books we want to sell ourselves in Japan we have to ship over, which costs money. We can sell to individuals, but there aren’t enough margins left to sell through bookstores here. That’s why for books we think will sell in Japan we print here. Luckily enough, the POD situation in Japan seems to be changing for good. The Sanseido head store in (Tokyo’s) Jinbocho, for instance, has a POD printing machine, and it should begin offering our books within a few months.
“Also, we will be releasing our first e-book shortly. There are a lot of production and legal issues involved in e-books and we can’t just dive in, but it is very promising. If Amazon rolls out its CreateSpace POD services in Japan, it will vastly simplify our life, and probably revolutionize the Japanese book distribution industry overnight.”
After 25 years in Japan, Lipsett is content with his life. “I like Japan, and obviously enjoy both the Japanese language and Japanese literature very much. As for Kurodahan Press, I’m achieving what I wanted to do. I’m publishing some worthy books and building up a name for the company,” he says.
“When we began, we figured we wouldn’t make any money for at least 10 years, and we haven’t. In fact only two of our books have turned a profit. But I stick with it not only because I think it does have a future, but because I love it. I would very much like to have a management partner, not necessarily even living in Fukuoka, but that isn’t the sort of thing you can just run an ad for.”
For more information: www.kurodahan.com