Susan Karen Burton

Japanese Bookshop Buzz


In Japan after dark, the big chain second-hand bookshops buzz with activity. Bright and clean and ringing with the tinny sound of J-Pop music, they are literary supermarkets, their shelves crammed with paperback novels, business handbooks, holiday guides to Guam and Hawaii, calligraphy practise books, educational primers, and of course manga in all its exotic forms. Like most Japanese stores, they stay open late, sometimes until 11pm, so they are perfect places to kill time. In the early evening, sailor-suited high school students line the aisles, speed-reading classic copies of Dragonball and Naruto before heading off to cram school. Their places are taken by salarymen with thirty minutes to spare before the obligatory after-work drinking session. There are even one or two gaijin – foreigners – like me, searching for the English-language section, hoping to find cheap reads from home.

In a country where everyone is frantically working, studying or eating, or else commuting long distances to do these things, its people always seem to find time to read, visibly more so than in Britain. Section managers perch at station kiosks gulping down bowls of rice and beef, their golf magazines propped up against the napkin holders. Commuters on packed trains fold their morning newspapers into origami shapes so as not to disturb other passengers. People rarely have the opportunity to sit and do nothing in Japan. If they’re not reading, it’s because they’re asleep.

The Japanese publishing industry makes it easy for people to read. Mass-market paperbacks are published in A6 (148mm x 105mm), smaller than British A-format paperbacks (178mm x 110mm) and conveniently sized to fit into any handbag or suit pocket. Longer works are sold in two volumes. Even encyclopaedic manga comics are surprisingly light due to the chip wrapper-courseness of their recycled pages.

A stand of books or magazines by the entrance to any shop is an effective way of attracting a crowd. In neighbourhood convenience stores, magazines and manga comics are purposely arrayed along the outer glass windows so that passers-by can notice customers doing tachi-yomi – standing and reading – and be enticed in to join them. Reading can be a group activity here.

A lot of reading is actually studying. Japanese students, continual test-takers, huddle in groups in Freshness Burger around their books of mock examination questions, memorizing English vocabulary or translating sentences. In their crammers, the questions are written in black and the answers in red. Students read them through a ‘check’ sheet of transparent red plastic which renders the answers invisible until they whip it away like a magician revealing a trick. Sometimes, they’ll lean across to my table and shyly ask me to confirm a grammar point. Perhaps they really want to know. More likely they want to check that what they are learning in the textbooks works in the real world. Then I show them my Japanese language workbook and they giggle at the amateurishness of my kanji calligraphy.

There’s always so much to reading to be done in Japan. And if you don’t keep up, it accumulates. Tsundoku is the Japanese word for that tower of books by your bedside waiting to be read.

Japan’s biggest second-hand chain is Book Off. Book Off is visible in every neighbourhood because of the giant red and white 本 ‘hon‘ – book – character on the roof of its stores. Founded in 1990 just as Japan’s bubble economy burst, it is one of the few businesses to have thrived in the recession. There are over 900 stores in Japan plus branches in the USA, Korea and even two in Paris.

In cities, Book Off can cover several floors, or even more now that they also stock used CDs, DVDs, games, consoles and watches. It has even expanded into other second-hand areas: Mode Off (for clothing and fashion), Hobby Off (for collectibles, action figures and toys), Off House (for household goods) and Hard Off (for audio-visual, musical instruments and home computers). They are mini department stores. You never have to buy anything new in Japan.

The 25-year recession has cured all but the wealthiest Japanese of their erstwhile distaste for used items. When I first arrived in the early nineties, many Japanese insisted on the latest electronic gadgets and would replace them every six months, leaving their unwanted goods in the neighbourhood sodai gomi (large rubbish) area where they would be spirited away by students and poor foreigners before they could be loaded into the council van. I procured a television, a VCR and an electric piano this way. Or else they sold them cheaply to local ‘recycle’ shops, small shacks which were often managed by young Japanese men with dreadlocks and faded Waikiki Surf Club tee-shirts. On Saturday mornings, I would wander around these treasure houses weaving in and out of bamboo furniture, top-loading washing machines, aircon units, electric fans, Mahjong sets, giant onyx ashtrays, and those little statues of big-bellied laughing Buddhas that Japanese believe will bring prosperity. Somewhere nearby there was always an old-style second-hand bookshop, dark and narrow, their books curled like autumn leaves and stained liquorice-brown from years in the sun. These places hang on in rural areas where Book Off has yet to expand its empire. But not for much longer.

Surprisingly, Book Off has not yet wiped out conventional bookshops. Japan’s Resale Price Maintenance System, commonly known as the saihan seido, forbids the discounting of new books. Bookstores may not offer discounts without the publisher’s permission, so there is no financial advantage in buying a new book from Amazon. This has helped to sustain the traditional bookstores, especially those with integrated coffee shops. Since the Japanese traditionally do not entertain at home, places to relax, to browse and to meet up with friends are always popular.

You might think that publishers would feel threatened by Book Off but they are more than tolerant. In fact, a consortium of four publishers own a 30% share. This means that they can profit from the resale of both their own and their competitors’ books multiple times.

Others profit from resales too. On trains, speedy readers often discard books and manga comics in the luggage racks. Weathered old men in grey track suit bottoms and tabi – split-toe – socks wander up and down the trains retrieving them or extracting them from the stations’ recycling bins with long metal cooking tongs, to resell from blankets outside busy stations. With the dole limited to six months these men, many of whom are unemployed, can earn a few extra Yen from Japan’s need to read.

There are cultural reasons why the book trade works this way in Japan. Japanese people generally live in small houses or apartments with little space for items which are not regularly used. It makes sense to sell on what you no longer need. You can always re-buy at a later date. There is also the issue of safe storage in an earthquake-prone country. Books are heavy and are often the first things to be hurled to the floor in even a relatively minor shake. Bookshelves must therefore be fixed to walls, a problem in rental homes. These factors encourage a rapid turnover of both new and used books.

The Japanese are taught from any early age look after their possessions. They demonstrate care by giving or receiving even the cheapest item with both hands. They don’t doodle in books or rip out pages to make airplanes. When they make notes, they do it in HB pencil. On public transport you often have to guess what your fellow passenger is reading because their book may be protected with a cover, either the complimentary brown paper cover you receive from the bookshop or something more crafted in felt or fabric. This aids the second-hand market because Book Off only accepts goods that are ‘as new’ quality. Books with slightly frayed edges are trimmed. Consoles, watches and collectibles are repackaged and shrink-wrapped. You can’t tell the used from the new.

With my departure imminent, I recently sold all my quality books to a branch of Book Off with an English-language section. The rest, the torn and tattered novels and the well-thumbed dictionaries, I parcelled up with string and left outside for the paper-recycling truck which took them away to be turned into pages for manga comics. As is Japanese custom, they left several rolls of toilet paper in return.

Like its people, Japanese literature is always on the move. It is continuously sold, repackaged, resold and recycled. There is a lightness and a speed to reading materials in Japan, almost as if they will fly out of your hands the moment you have turned the last page. They are literary fast food, rapidly consumed and promptly discarded. But just like fast food, they soon leave you hungry for more.


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