Saturday, November 7, 2009

The World Largest Bookstore Town

The World Biggest Book Festival
Jinbōchō, Tokyo

Don’t you just love bookstores? I haven’t confirmed it, but I think the Jinbōchō Used Books festival must be the world largest for the size of the area and the number of customers and book sales. It was from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3. It was amazing. Jinbōchō boasts 159 bookstores, publishing houses, and good restaurants. I spent four full days there including the last day. Nov. 3rd was Cultural Day, a national holiday. The town was packed with people on sidewalks and alleys, operators snaked through the crowds with their push-carts piled with books.

The first day I went, I headed to Yamamoto Shoten. The shop sits facing north at the corner of Yasukuni and Sendai streets. It is the west edge of the town. All bookstores face north to protect their books from long sun exposure. My plan was to walk eastward and check every bookstore. But that was impossible.

Yamamoto Shoten carries Chinese and Japanese classics and rare books. Most of the books there are expensive. I looked around and found a small bookcase filled with used paperbacks. I prefer paperbacks. They are light and cheaper. Top of that, I prefer old used paperbacks because they are even lighter in weight although the price will not go down for the kind of books I like. They are about 800 yen each.

In the small bookcase, I found “Languages” by Jaspersen and also by Sapier. I also found a complete twelve-volume collection of Rojin or Lu Xun (1881-1936). I didn’t think I could finish reading 12 volumes, so I bought the first and the last. He was a bilingual Chinese writer. I became interested in his works when I read “Yusen-kutu” which belongs to China’s Tang period. The last volume of the Rojin collection contains his letters in Japanese. That’s precious.

I also bought Kaizuka Shigeki’s translation of “The Analects of Confucius” and “Meng Zi.” And I picked up a very thin paperback, “Lao-Tse,” by Ogawa Tamaki. He is a younger brother of Kaizuka Shigeki. And I also I found “Japanese” by Kindaichi Haruhiko. He is a well-known Japanese linguist. Mmm, I’m happy.

On the second day I went to the Jinbōchō festival, I bought a few books here and there. I walked through alleys and stopped by at a few shops showing drama books. I also went to see Suiheisha. The shop specializes in civil rights on Ainu and Okinawan. I didn’t know until the recent years that Okinawans have been discriminated against severely. I have an Okinawan friend, and my old high school friend married an Okinawan man, but the subject never came up. I have a lot to learn about my country. But I’m glad I missed such negativity growing up.

On my third visit to the festival, I went to listen to a talk. The writer’s name was Atouda Takashi. He wrote a surreal fiction called “Napoleon Crazy.” He was funny playing with words in both modern and traditional ways. He talked straight about Nobel prizes on Japanese literature. Thank goodness. Someone agrees with me. He said, “I’m not against anyone getting the prize. But how can the members of the Novel committee decide on whom to pick? They don’t even speak or write Japanese.”

I also have a similar feeling about the popular Japanese writers known to foreign countries. But of course, this cannot help in a way because not enough books were translated and not many people can read Japanese. Translating books is not easy like making scones. But still, I want non-Japanese readers to be aware of this situation. There is much more to it than what readers see about Japanese literature. I’m sure others language writers see the same situation. I’d like to hear from the writers from other countries.

Anyway, I finished reading “Japanese” by Kindaichi Haruhiko. It was the first edition. The book was very lightweight, and the written language was in an old format with the older version of kanji characters. Today, younger people do not or cannot read those books. Even the people of my generation do not bother reading this style of books. I can read them because I had those books at home growing up, and I don’t give up easily. In other word, I’m stubborn.

Nevertheless, the book offered great benefits to me not only because of its rich content, but also the writer’s POV from the pre-WWII era. For an example, he used “Shina-go” instead of “Chugoku-go.” Both mean Chinese language. I asked my young hair stylist the other day if she knew the word “Shina.” She replied she had never heard the word. How fast words fade away. It used to be an offensive word. But I have a feeling that “Shina” will come back in the original form. I’m sure of it. This will be a good thing.

The last day of the festival was my fourth visit. On that day, I found one old collectible book titled “Novel Plays” written in the old style and edited by Kawabata Yasunari. It’s a collection of about six great writers’ novella. By the way, we Japanese say novel (shousetsu) for novel, novella, and short story. We don’t discriminate them. So I liked the title. The sepia papers of the book looked coarse. The book was published during the war. I didn’t know when I would get to read it, but I had to have it.

At 4:30 pm, I went back to Yamamoto Shoten and stood in front of the same small bookcase. A minute later, a man said, “We’re closing.” Instead of going out, I began checking the shelves. I looked and looked, but I didn’t see the rest of the collection by Rojin. Yes, I wanted the whole collection in the back of my mind. Did someone come by and purchase volume 2 to 11? What kind of person is that? People who want to buy a collection need the first and the last volume. Who would buy such incomplete collection? Now I want them more.

Lights in the back went off. I walked over to the manager and told him that I couldn’t find the paperbacks I was looking for. He said, “You’ll probably find them there,” pointing to the racks at the entrance. They are all 200 yen each.” A sales woman was pulling in a rack through the door, saying to the customers, “we are closing.” My mind raced, no time to argue or think. I knew Rojin’s books were not there, but I walked over and checked the rack anyway while they waited. I searched the word “Language” in each title. I selected all the books with “Language” and handed to the manager. He said 1200 yen. I paid and left as they closed the door.

Whew! After four days at Jinbōchō, I bought about 60 books. Now I have to read them and blog. It’s nice to blog. Thank for reading.


jiturajgor said...


marypwilkinson said...

Wow Keiko! You could start your own book store. I will be your first customer. MARES

Rebb said...

That sounds amazing, Keiko. I can’t imagine 159 bookstores in one location. I can see how you wouldn’t possibly get to all of them!

“But still, I want non-Japanese readers to be aware of this situation. There is much more to it than what readers see about Japanese literature. I’m sure others language writers see the same situation. I’d like to hear from the writers from other countries.” I would love to hear more about his, Keiko. I’m one of those readers that doesn’t know the “much more to it” aspect of Japanese literature that has been translated to English.

“How fast words fade away.” Fascinating when I ponder this. Ironically, words do fade away fast, yet they are what keep themselves alive.

And you left with 60 books! You must have had a few boxes or many bags—that’s wonderful!

Thanks for sharing your experience. It was a joy to read and learn from.

p.s. Mares, nice to see you!

keiko amano said...


What a surprise! Welcome to my site. I hope to be more active in posting. I'm glad also that I can talk about Sanskrit a little bit with you.

keiko amano said...


Welcome to my site! I'm glad you are here. I hope to see your blog soon. Let's begin a blast!

keiko amano said...


Welcome to my blog. I made it at last.

About more to it to Japanese Literature, I can't make a fabulous essay and tell you about it in the way you understand beyond doubt, but I hope you'll find it through my introdution to something I'm interested.

About fading words, you're so correct about it. That's why words thrive beyond our imagination. Anyway, Shina is an old word. According to my dictionary, it first appeared in Indian Sutra.

Vincent said...

I feel a great deal in common with what you have written, as if I am there with you in what you describe, or even that in imagination I am you. I don't know any Japanese and have not visited your country, but have absorbed some views of various traditional cultures having been interested at various times in Zen, Samurai, paper-folding, haiku, the writings of Basho, the writings of Laurens van der Post (including Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence). And when working in the City of London I liked to visit a Japanese bookshop and stationery store, feeling so frustrated that I understood nothing of the language.

So I hope for more vivid stories from you in this blog!

keiko amano said...


Thank you for reading and your kind comment. I noticed in the title of your blog post that you have interest in haiku. I was away from Japan for total of about 35 years. So I've noticed sometimes that foreigners know more about Japan than I do. I'm learning my own culture and enjoying it. I think I'm buying so many books is because I'm trying to fill my gaps.

Vincent said...

I remember the day I first heard about haiku, and have written about it in this post: , which says that it was the same time that haiku first became known in the West, through a book review in Time magazine, in February 1959.