Commentary / Japan

Stay-home request spurs a reading revival

by Takamitsu Sawa

Contributing writer

In many urban areas of Japan, people were recently urged to stay home for weeks on in the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19. Most big bookstores in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto were closed through the end of the Golden Week holidays, making it difficult to buy books.

As adults were told to work from home and children to study at home, many of them had more free time than they knew what to do with. Many of the adults are said to have recalled the joy of reading, and spent their time in seclusion reading.

People living in suburban communities were able to buy books at large stores that remained open, but those in big metropolitan areas had no choice but to order books online since most bookstores were closed.

Suddenly the 1947 novel “The Plague” by Albert Camus became a bestseller among paperbacks, which is unusual for such serious fiction. Also on the list of top-selling books were nonfiction works about epidemics, along with cook books and light novels. Children, meanwhile, were buying study-aid publications and exercise books.

Because so many people started reading at home, the overall sales volume of books has remained steady. More orders for books are placed on e-commerce sites than in bookstores, leading even large bookstores to open online shops in a bid to boost their sales.

After suffering from a long period of declining sales, the situation may be turning around for the publishing industry thanks to the stay-home request. Recently I was taking a train to the institute where I work and found that while there were only 10 or so passengers in each car, three or four of them were reading paperbacks. As someone who writes books, I felt a sense of relief that Japanese people are once again interested in reading.

But then I realized that that I was being simply optimistic. It appeared that the books they were reading were mostly related to the COVID-19 pandemic or their respective fields of business. I would have assumed that people who have grown tired of their daily lives would want to read literature, philosophy, history and natural sciences. It is a pity that people do not seem to be showing much sign of interest in such books.

The internet is often blamed for people losing interest in books. The new “common sense” among the younger generation is it's outdated and inefficient to search for information in books when that information can be quickly found online.

The traditional mental process followed by old-time intellectuals has been to read books, think deeply and arrive at their own conclusion. Depending on the internet for collecting information is tantamount to halting the thinking process on the relevant subject.

In both the administrative and business sectors, statements are made in abundance that are not based on plausible thinking processes. In their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, policies and actions taken by Japanese politicians and bureaucrats do not appear to be backed by deep thoughts or foresight.

The internet has not only exacerbated the loss of interest in reading books among the Japanese, but has served to lower the intellectual standards of Japan’s business, administrative, journalism and academic sectors.

The aversion to reading that has taken root in Japan has not occurred in the advanced nations of the West or in China, Taiwan or South Korea, all of which have digital technologies more advanced than that in Japan. In Europe and North America, it is mandatory for high school and university students to read Western classics as part of their liberal arts education.

Before the turn of the century, even in Japan it was deemed essential for a university student to read Japanese and foreign literature as well as Western classics. Especially for graduate students majoring in humanities and social sciences, reading constituted their entire academic activities. Students aspiring to become economists had on their bookshelves highly reputed classics such as “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith (published in 1776), “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx (1867) and “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” by John Maynard Keynes (1936), at least in Japanese translation, if not in their original.

Itsuro Sakisaka (1897-1985), a Marxian economist and professor emeritus at Kyushu University, decided early in life that the money spent on purchasing Japanese, English and German books constituted expenses necessary for his academic pursuits. He persuaded his wife not to have children so that he could spend more money on books, and collected a mountain of books.

In his later years, when he lived in Tokyo, he built a reinforced concrete library in his backyard, and stored 50,000 books there. After his death in 1985, his wife donated the books to the Ohara Institute for Social Research of Hosei University. The institute’s librarians spent 10 years sorting through those books before placing them in the library.

In this column last month I said that I can gain nothing more than piecemeal knowledge from reading the electronic version of a book, and that what the author is trying to say to the readers cannot be fully comprehended unless the book is read in its original printed form.

Yet I make it a rule now to buy the electronic versions of new books I find interesting. The reason is that I don't have enough space in my house to store all the printed volumes. My library is already full and books I purchased recently are scattered all over the living room.

After retiring from my university job, I classified my books into two categories: those I need to keep and those I do not. I have sold the latter to a secondhand bookshop at a cheap price, and placed the former in storage.

Because e-books do not require physical storage space, they have added value given the housing conditions in Japan in general, and those of a retired university professor like myself.

Takamitsu Sawa is vice director of the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Kizugawa, Kyoto Prefecture.

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