Books

Tokyo's Jimbocho neighborhood won't close the chapter on books

by Manami Okazaki

Contributing Writer

Thousands of bibliophiles are expected to descend on Tokyo’s Jinbocho neighborhood over the next week or so as the city celebrates the 60th anniversary of its largest secondhand book fair.

Some even claim the Kanda Used Book Festival, which this year runs through Nov. 4, is one of the largest book festivals in the world, with booksellers in the area placing hundreds of thousands of titles sitting in shelves and bargain bins outside their stores.

Bookstore owners in the area, which is commonly called Jimbocho based on traditional Hepburn romanization, will naturally need to keep a wary eye on the dark clouds that are partially expected in the skies at least through Wednesday, as festivities will be canceled in the event of rain.

Should the rain stay away, however, book lovers can trawl through the bargains that line a stretch of 500 meters along Yasukuni Street in a bid to find something to their liking.

Featuring every conceivable genre from lush photography tomes and books on philosophy to military bibliographies and Showa Era (1926-89) children’s books, the neighborhood is a literal treasure trove for collectors.

Bookstores can be found on almost every corner of Tokyo's Jimbocho neighborhood. | MANAMI OKAZAKI
Bookstores can be found on almost every corner of Tokyo’s Jimbocho neighborhood. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Bountiful books

More than 150 mostly secondhand bookstores lie in close proximity to Jimbocho Station. Many stores are positioned along the southern side of Yasukuni Street in a bid to to avoid the direct sunlight that would naturally concentrate on the opposite side of the road. The remainder line nearby Suzuran Street or are tucked inside adjacent lanes and on the upper floors of buildings.

Author Alex Johnson, who has traveled the world documenting renowned bookshop neighborhoods, is impressed by the sheer volume of titles on offer.

“The volume and density of bookselling in Jimbocho makes it unique,” says Johnson, who wrote a book titled “Book Towns: Forty-five Paradises of the Printed World.” “There’s so much activity there.”

Indeed, the neighborhood’s official website claims that more than 10 million titles sit in inventories in the area. It’s an incredible selection of books that includes rare titles and collectibles. Some artifacts date back as far as the Nara Period (710-94).

Takehiko Sakai, owner of Isseido, a bookstore in Jimbocho that was founded in 1903, says that many titles are auctioned in silence, with bidders having to rely on experience in order to make accurate offers.

“It’s a silent bid,” Sakai says. “You don’t raise your hand and it requires experience and knowledge to know what prices to suggest. Anyone can enter if they’re part of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. There can sometimes be up to 150 people participating.”

Among Isseido’s recent acquisitions are an exquisite world map by Kokan Shiba that was published in 1792 and “Honzo Zufu,” an illustrious reference book by botanist Tsunemasa Iwasaki that was published between 1916 and 1921.

Jimbocho is also a center for prints, with bookstores such as Hara Shobo gallery specializing in ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the Edo Period (1603-1868), as well as contemporary works from the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras.

The oldest bookstore in the neighborhood is Takayama Honten, which was established in 1875 and specializes in books on noh and kyogen theater. Other bookstores opened in the area in the years that followed, including Yuhikaku in 1877 and Tokyodo in 1890, which helped cement the neighborhood’s identity as a center for books. Shigeo Iwanami founded Iwanami Shoten Publishers in 1913 and released writer Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro” the following year.

Several buildings in the area, including the four-story Isseido store and its elegant glass entrance, retain a charming aesthetic of the early Showa Era. Built in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the Isseido building was completed in 1931, and was the first bookstore to reopen in the Kanda area following the disaster.

Kitazawa Bookstore also impresses, boasting stately architecture replete with a lofty facade and a spiral staircase. Its mahogany shelves showcase a selection of its 12,000 books, with collectibles such as the “Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan,” which was published in 1856 and documents Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s expedition to Asia.

Jimbocho was also the stomping ground for a number of high-profile domestic literary figures of the 20th century, including Ichiyo Higuchi, Ranpo Edogawa and Junichiro Tanizaki.

Soseki went to a primary school in the area and local landmarks such as the Byzantine-style Nikolai Church feature in his work. Shoueitei, an old-school eatery in the neighborhood, still serves Soseki’s favorite dish — a pork-and-onion cutlet fried in lard.

Founded in 1939, Komiyama Tokyo is a bookstore that places an emphasis on photography books. | MANAMI OKAZAKI
Founded in 1939, Komiyama Tokyo is a bookstore that places an emphasis on photography books. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Tough times

While Jimbocho might appear to be flourishing with a rich legacy and a constant buzz of activity due to its proximity to Senshu and Meiji universities, times have been tough for bookstores in the neighborhood. With more and more consumers buying reading material online and preferring to read on electronic platforms such as Kindle, physical bookstores are closing in record numbers across the country.

While almost 22,300 bookstores were in operation nationwide in 1999, according to the Japan Writer’s Sales Promotion Center, this figure had dwindled to 12,526 by the middle of 2017.

Kitazawa Bookstore was once one of the country’s biggest suppliers of English-language books. Owner Ichiro Kitazawa recalls that foreign books were cherished objects when the business first started. He used to send letters to publishers overseas in order to find titles, a process that could take up to a year to complete.

These days, however, Kitazawa sees the writing on the wall.

“Information has gone online, so the content of a regular book doesn’t need to be in the form of a book,” Kitazawa says, adding that he can foresee a day when many universities would possess a bookless library.

Antiquarian booksellers are also concerned about the ascendancy of curriculum that no longer needs the printed word.

Isseido also has a wide selection of English-language books and once had strong ties to universities. The dynamics are certainly changing, Sakai says.

“Many universities have no budget and so they no longer buy books,” Sakai says. “Computer schools might have money but they can find information on the internet.”

Increasingly, bookstores in Jimbocho are experimenting with a raft of new ways to attract customers.

A number of bookstores in the area, including Tokyodo and Jimbocho Book Center, now double as cozy cafes.

The flagship store of Sanseido books sells interior goods, folk toys, ceramic plates and other such things, while secondhand bookstores such as Bohemians Guild and Komiyama offer exhibition spaces for art.

Isseido was the first bookstore to reopen in Kanda after the 1923 earthquake. | MANAMI OKAZAKI
Isseido was the first bookstore to reopen in Kanda after the 1923 earthquake. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Survival specialists

Many bookstores in Jimbocho are seeking to cater to a niche customer base in an effort to survive.

One such shop is Magnif, a small bookstore established in 2009 that is crammed with a colorful array of fashion titles and magazines from the 1950s and onward. As a result, it attracts style mavens interested in trends stretching back to the glory days of American fashion.

Another successful bookstore is Nyankodo, which stocks more than 2,000 titles on cats and feline-related topics.

“We were once a regular bookstore selling new books and decided to focus on books relating to cats around seven years ago,” Nyankodo Manager Fumio Anegawa says. “We were really looking at all our options. Books weren’t selling and we even considered closing, as we couldn’t survive.”

Komiyama Tokyo, which was founded in 1939, is a bookstore that places an emphasis on secondhand photography books. Spokesman Takashi Umezawa says the store’s lavish tomes attract a younger demographic, who also have an interest in subculture books on topics such as graffiti, erotic art and tattoos. The store recently hosted an exhibition on Yukio Mishima that featured rare editions, with some titles selling for as much as ¥1.2 million.

“Not everyone understands it, but people who buy such expensive books usually don’t read them,” Umezawa says. “You can buy a regular (Yukio) Mishima novel, but collectors want the first edition or a signed copy. They are also partial to things such as the sleeve on particular books.

“Collectors enjoy hunting for the titles. You can find books on the internet but you can find more interesting things if you actually come to Jimbocho. You won’t find lots of publications in the neighborhood online.”

The recent rise in tourism numbers has also affected the way bookstores in Jimbocho market their titles. Kitazawa Bookstore, in particular, has made an effort to stock titles on Japanese culture.

“Visitors from places like America come in and they find our selection interesting.” Kitazawa says. “They can’t find these titles in their country and people living outside of cities might not have a single bookstore in their town, so it’s a novelty for them.”

There’s also been a recent rise in interest from Chinese tourists.

“A lot of old books have disappeared from China but, in Japan, even books from the Kamakura and Heian periods are well-preserved and in good condition,” Sakai says. “Japanese monks studied Chinese literature and sutras, and we are traditionally a culture that takes care of books. Over the past 10 years or so, many Chinese brokers have expressed an interest in buying the books back.”

Kitazawa Bookstore was once one of the country's biggest suppliers of English-language books. | MANAMI OKAZAKI
Kitazawa Bookstore was once one of the country’s biggest suppliers of English-language books. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Paper pleasure

Many book lovers simply prefer the tactile feel of printed matter over digital formats, while the quality of older sheets of paper has actually helped to preserve them.

“Paper was originally imported from China. Japanese manufacturers studied paper-making and, over time, significantly improved the quality. They then began to export to Europe as well,” Sakai says. “Many very old books in Japan are well-preserved because of the washi used to produce them. Some have even lasted for more than 1,000 years. After the Meiji Era (1868-1912), occidental paper made of pulp became the norm.”

Some subjects naturally lend themselves to being published in print. Umezawa believes photography books, in particular, look much better in print than they do in a digital format.

“Photography books are only valuable in a paper format,” he says. “The physical act of turning pages is something you can only do with books and photographers are constantly thinking of creating their stories accordingly.”

Bohemians Guild is a bookstore in Jimbocho that focuses on publications relating to visual art. It has a loyal fan base and a large stock of collections, including those on early 20th-century artist Yumeji Takehisa.

Sitting proudly inside a glass cabinet in Bohemians Guild, Kikuji Kawada’s “The Map” (1965) is an excellent example of the narrative potential of the paper format. High-contrast photos showing the aftermath of World War II are presented on panels that open up, requiring the viewer to contemplate each image slowly. One photo shows the macabre textural details of the Atomic Dome in Hiroshima in the wake of the nuclear blast, another shows a crumpled Japanese flag and a pack of Lucky Strikes, a U.S. tobacco brand that was once symbolic of the American Occupation. The interactive title was lauded by photographer Martin Parr as being “the ultimate photobook-as-object.”

It is this spirit of experimentation that is also prevalent in the titles found in Loco Shobo, a store that exclusively stocks miniature-sized books. These adorable collectibles explore the possibilities of book-binding and often feature textured washi paper and fabric covers. Limited in number, they’re not distributed through mainstream channels and yet they’re created by iconic artists such as printmaker Shiko Munakata and photographer Ken Domon.

One title by novelist Tomiko Miyao includes a cover made from pieces of her own kimono, while another by Giichi Fujimoto features a rooster on the cover and is housed in a bamboo cage. It’s museum-like shop also features miniscule books that require a microscope to read, including a 4×4-millimeter Bible that was produced by Toppan Printing in 1965.

“There’s a fascination with paper,” Kitazawa says. “There’s no need for me to say it — everyone knows its value. It should be common knowledge.”

Isseido also has a wide selection of English-language books. | MANAMI OKAZAKI
Isseido also has a wide selection of English-language books. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

Digital fatigue

Despite the struggles that bookstores worldwide appear to be facing, a ray of hope continues to exist for printed matter.

“I think (books) are just more human. Wrapping up a book to give as a Christmas present is nicer than sending something to a Kindle,” Johnson says. “The physicality of them, the smell, the size, the design are all endearing. I know that people really like e-readers, but I find them difficult to use. Flicking through pages to look for something isn’t easy, nor is browsing titles, and I don’t like the way they sit in my hand.”

Other localities in the world have tried to use to books to revitalize out-of-the-way villages as literary destinations. The most successful example of this in action is Hay-on-Wye in Wales, which was initiated by Richard Booth in the 1960s. The small town is famed for hosting the Hay Festival, one of the world’s top literary events, which has been described by former U.S. President Bill Clinton as a “Woodstock of the mind.”

“We need to protect physical books,” says Gunnel Ottersten, president of the International Organization of Book Towns, which aims to raise public awareness about such destinations. “These days, a lot of things go extremely quickly and get lost in our memory because there is something new in our mind. We want to protect the written words, the stories, experiences and people’s opinions, both written and printed.”

Kitazawa says bookstores still continue to offer a unique curation role in helping direct consumers to quality publications. Their expertise means that consumers are able to filter out the unnecessary noise on the internet and make new discoveries.

Yasunori Nakadake, owner of Magnif, believes that bookstores help create “unexpected encounters.”

“There’s a lot of information on the internet but I feel as if it’s hard to come across information aside from what you are specifically looking for,” Nakadake says. “In a fashion magazine, for example, there’s also material on other cultural topics such as music and film, so as a document it’s quite useful to examine when looking back over a certain era.”

Sakai says that there is a certain legitimacy to the information that is found in books, adding that people these days can write “whatever they want” on the internet anonymously.

“No matter what happens, books won’t disappear,” Sakai says. “People will go back to books and, if all the bookstores disappear when that happens, it will be problematic and so we must persevere. That will be beneficial for us — the consumer and society at large.”

Nyankodo stocks more than 2,000 titles on cats and feline issues. | MANAMI OKAZAKI
Nyankodo stocks more than 2,000 titles on cats and feline issues. | MANAMI OKAZAKI

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