Scholar interns at old bookstore

Harvard literature major focuses on business of antiquated texts


Students of literature often find themselves among old books in the dark reaches of a library. But Harvard University student Peter Bernard has taken another tack, spending most days for the past two months combing the antiquated works at a 106-year-old bookstore in Tokyo’s Kanda Jinbocho district.

Bernard, 20, from Massachusetts, is not searching for old books to purchase but instead is serving as a summer intern, hoping to learn how Isseido Booksellers runs its business. Rather than taking the usual intern path at a conventional business, it was either a bookstore or a publishing house for Bernard.

“Students tend to observe books and literature from the scholastic points of view, but I wanted to obtain a new perspective toward literature,” said Bernard, who has finished his second year at Harvard. “I wanted to learn how they are marketed, as well as the relationship between books and readers.”

Hosting an intern was a first in the 106-year history of Isseido Booksellers, but President Takehiko Sakai, 63, happily accepted the request.

“We wanted to be of help to someone who will become a scholar of Japanese literature,” Sakai said.

He decided to treat Bernard as an employee while showing him how the business is run.

The unique internship stems from the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard, which coordinates and sponsors summer internships in fields related to Japan. Bernard’s professor, Edwin Cranston, has been a longtime customer at Isseido.

Having worked at the store since mid-June, Bernard said the experience has enhanced his appreciation of the world of Japanese literature.

An antiquarian bookstore operates in ways that are hard for outsiders to comprehend. Bernard’s internship began by shipping orders to customers overseas, including the university libraries at Harvard, Columbia and Stanford in the United States and schools in Europe where Japan studies are available. This made Bernard aware of what literary collections were being used abroad.

A frequent activity Bernard engaged in was to follow Isseido employees to Jinbocho’s old book market to see what was available and to learn about the bidding process for old works.

“I was really impressed to see that there are so many precious old books from the times like the Edo Period (1603-1867) in the market. And I was very excited to see the tradition of the bidding,” he said.

Initially Bernard felt all the old books were valuable but eventually developed an eye to distinguish which works were in better condition than others.

Meanwhile, Sakai wanted to show Bernard the history of Japanese books, including the transformation of the bindings and the printing. The selections included a sutra called “Hyakumanto” from the eighth century considered the oldest printed material in Japan, a copy of “The Tale of Genji” that was made in the Kamakura Period of the 12th century and illustrated popular fiction books called “kusazoshi” from the Edo Period.

As a major fan of Kyoka Izumi, a novelist from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bernard said he was fascinated when Sakai showed him some of his manuscripts and the first editions of his published works.

In fluent Japanese, Bernard explained that the first editions contained lots of illustrations that were similar to those seen in the popular novels from the Edo Period, and noted Kyoka wrote his manuscripts with a brush, not a pen, like his predecessors.

“Kyoka is one of the most prominent writers among modern Japanese novelists, but at the same time I realized he valued the writings from the Edo Period,” Bernard said. “You won’t realize these things if you were only reading the recent paperback editions.”

Sakai has been impressed by and excited about the discussions he has had with Bernard while working.

“We buy and sell books as a business, but working with someone who is going to be a scholar and seeing how he absorbed new knowledge is actually very inspiring, and I thought we need to learn from his attitude,” Sakai said.

Among the undergraduates majoring in East Asian studies at Harvard, Bernard said he is the only one focusing on Japanese literature, as history and political science are the more popular pursuits.

“The internship was really full of rare experiences that will help me as I continue my studies in Japanese literature,” said Bernard, whose stint at Isseido ends this Friday.