Literature Tour on well-trodden path

The Guardian’s “World Literature Tour” has now hit Japan, and while the comments are just getting started, one can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that most of the tried and true names are really all that’s being trotted out for recommendation: Oe, Mishima, Tanizaki, Murakami (Haruki), Kawabata. Obviously there is a problem in that we’re limited to works available in (English) translation, but still. No Osamu Dazai, Ryotaru Shiba, or Ogai Mori just to name a few of the “classic” variety, all of whom are available in translation. (Alright, someone has now added Dazai since I first wrote this up, though with no comment as to why one should read him).

And what of contemporary authors, which is where you would think an open call for recommendations such as this one would have the most worth? Of course the two Murakami’s are mentioned several times (the aforementioned Haruki, and the no-relation Ryu), as is Banana Yoshimoto, but what about Koji Suzuki (of Ring fame), Natsuki Ikezawa, Jun’ichi Watanabe (who’s apparently popular in China as well), or Kaori Ekuni.

Book buying on the cheap


Once again, I intended to go out taking photos and ended up shopping instead. This time it was Kinokuniya‘s Foreign Book Sale which was held this past weekend in the Shinjuku Takashimaya department store. About two-and-a-half hours after getting there, I was loaded down with books, less loaded with cash than I was before, and hungry and not in the mood for pictures.

Nevertheless, like last week’s sojourn to a suburban 100-yen shop, I did notch yet another ii kaimono (“good shopping”) experience. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much, a few remaindered titles by authors I had no interest in reading, you know, Anne Rice or John Grisham books or the like. However, I was pleasantly surprised, and frankly, at least in terms of fiction, the “good” books outnumbered the mass-market paperbacks (all in my humble opinion, of course). And though I ended up spending more money than I wanted to, I took solace in the fact that I saved a bundle doing so. Here’s what I bought:

Norwegian Wood (special edition), by Haruki Murakami
A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami
The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi & Arrowroot, by Junichirou Tanizaki
The Key, by Junichirou Tanizaki
Runaway Horses, by Yukio Mishima
Shipwrecks, by Akira Yoshimura
Five by Endo, by Shusaku Endo
When the Emperor was Divine, by Julie Otsuka
Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan
Speed Tribes, by Karl-Taro Greenfield
The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett
Pagan Babies, by Elmore Leonard
Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard
The Music of Chance, by Paul Auster
Eyewitness Travel Guide Japan (2001)

I was particularly happy to discover that there were some Japanese-authored fiction among the offerings, and regret a little not picking up more than I did. Though I’m non-plussed on Haruki Murakami, on the basis of one novel (Sputnik Sweetheart) and comments from folks whose opinions I respect, it was hard to pass up the special edition of Norwegian Wood, published by the UK’s Harvill Press, which presents the work in its original red and green two-volume format. Especially hard when it was only ¥700, compared to its original sticker price of ¥3200 (£15.00 in the UK).

The whole experience was like that, constantly doing mental calculations in my head as to how much I was saving, which was probably my way of justifying what I did spend. In point of fact, having to content myself for now with reading Japanese literature in translation, if I want these books while living in Japan I’m relegated to having to buy these books at import-enhanced prices, or ordering them from Amazon which after international shipping costs, comes to the same thing. In furtherance of my rationalizating, when I got home I popped in the titles and prices into an Excel spreadsheet:


The upshot of my calculations was that I spent exactly ¥10,000 for the above-listed 15 titles, which works out to ¥666 ($5.64) average per title cost. Compared with the books’ sticker prices, I saved ¥19,096 (or roughly $161). If I had bought the books new in the countries they originally came from (either the US or UK), my ¥10,000 still ended up being ¥12,797 less than what I would have spent. (Of course, if I was still living in the States, I wouldn’t have bought this many books at one time, nor would I have bought them new).

I’m not exactly sure why Kinokuniya was selling off so many good books at bargain prices (I passed up a few wonderful coffee table photo/art books in the ¥1000 – ¥2000 range, which I now regret), nor if this sale is a regular occurrence. Interestingly, after I finished at the sale I went over to one of the Kinokuniya branch stores nearby (trying in vain to find one of Natsuki Ikezawa’s two books translated into English), and sitting on the shelves of their foreign books section were some of the same books, in the same editions, that I had just bought, with no mark-down of course.

As is my wont at these types of book sales (the annual San Francisco Friends of the Library book sale at Fort Mason was always something I looked forward to), my eyes are always much larger than my actual capacity to read all of my purchases, and though I tell myself that this time it’ll be different, I won’t at all be surprised if some of these books remain unread 10 years from now. (At least, unread my me. Who knows what future generations of Easterwoods will make of them? Speaking of which, I did buy a few children’s books at the sale as well.)

With 10 out of the 15 titles Japanese works or Japan-related, what should I have selected for my first read? Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man!

Kanda-Jimbocho wanderings

I spent the better part of last Saturday wandering in and around my favorite Tokyo neighborhood, Kanda-Jimbocho. K-J, if you don’t know, is, for lack of a better description, Tokyo’s “booktown” (in the same way that Akihabara is Tokyo’s “Electric Town”). Within a several block radius, there must be upwards of 30 – 40 bookstores, most of them second-hand. I went armed with the indispensible Bookstores in Jimbocho (and Hongo) list from Evelyn Leeper (her list for the rest of Tokyo is here). I also went armed with a growing Amazon wish list, hoping I might get lucky and therefore avoid some prohibitive international shipping rates. And besides, virtual aisles may be dust and otaku-free but they’re decidedly not conducive to wandering.

And wander I did, from approximately 11am till 6pm. Some highlights:

Kitazawa Bookstore: This is where I started my day, it being the closest store to the Jimbocho subway exit I happened to pop my head out of. I knew they had English language books, but I was unprepared for an exclusively English language bookstore. Housed in a nice, airy building, with well-spaced out aisles, and subdued lighting, this store was comfortable, and eminently browsable, and had by far the best all-around selection of English-language books. I actually ended my Jimbocho tour back here, for they were the only store that stocked what ended up being my sole purchase on this day, Making Sense of Japanese Grammar, a small book published recently by the University of Hawaii Press, written by two linguists but in such a way that a layperson such as myself can understand the concepts.

Tokyodo. This store is dominated physically and perhaps figuratively by the looming presence of its 8-floor gorilla neighbor Sanseido, the largest bookstore in Jimbocho and the flagship for the company’s 21-store strong nationwide chain. And truthfully, with respect to English titles, on the whole Tokyodo can’t compete even with Sanseido’s fairly tepid English-language section on the 5th floor. However, forcing myself to walk amongst impenetrable stacks of Japanese language books in the hopes that I might come upon some English-language titles, what should I find almost tucked away out of sight but a huge selection of critical and theoretical English-language works, books like October: The Second Decade, Strange Weather: Culture, Science, and Technology in the Age of Limits (Andrew Ross), Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Frederic Jameson), well, you get the idea. In short, not exactly bedtime reading and not exactly the stuff I’m hankering for at the moment, but boy am I glad to know that this section exists. You know, it’s funny, but I was led to the section because while in another part of the store I could hear the Japanese women exclaiming something along the lines of “I found it, I found it” to her girlfriend. I have no idea what theoretical tome she found, but I got the distinct impression she had been all over Tokyo looking for this book. No wonder, as Tokyodo’s theory and criticism section would rival or surpass just about any American bookstore (if they even had such a section) short of a Powell’s or City Lights.

Hara Shobo. One of the reasons Kanda-Jimbocho is my favorite Tokyo district, and why I spent so much time there during my first trip to Japan in 1997, is that along with its bevy of bookstores, there are several ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) galleries and ukiyo-e related bookstores. In 1997 on a tourist budget, I returned to the states loaded down with around 20 ukiyo-e books bought in K-J (only to ironically ship these books back to Japan with the rest of my stuff earlier this year), as well as a sizable collection of cheap but suitable for framing print reproductions. Now on a resident’s budget, I could only window shop, but I was very tempted at Hara Shobo by some wonderful Hokusai diptyches for 3000 yen (they were quite beat up but at that price they must have been older reproductions rather than originals). The gallery/bookstore on the second floor of the building is quite small and narrow, but very intimate, and it was a pleasure just to flip through the various stacks of prints.

Umi kaiten-sushi. Well, there were no books here, not that I could see anyway. This is a “conveyor belt” sushi establishment, and if you know me you know that I view kaiten-sushi establishments as the ultimate all-in-one source of edification for my mind, body and soul. This particular kaiten-sushi joint, while not of the low-rent every-plate-100-yen type sushi eatery that I usually frequent, does have a decent enough section of sushi making the rounds on blue and white 120 yen each plates, enough for me to squeeze out 8 plates and only force myself to repeat my selection once, and this willingly, on two plates of perfectly chilled maguro (tuna) laid over an ample supply of the “green stuff” (wasabi) that made my sinuses open up like the Red Sea and my eyes mist over. But truth be told, I stopped in here because it maintains a special place in my Tokyo history, it being the first kaiten-sushi place that Naoko took me to during my first trip here in 1997 (though not my first ever Tokyo kaiten-sushi place; that honor goes to a relatively forgettable establishment in Roppongi). In fact, during that 1997 trip I believe I ate at Umi on something like 4 different occassions (keep in mind that my trip as a whole was only 9 days long!).

Charles E. Tuttle. Unfortunately, the store owned by the venerable publisher of many Japan-related titles was not a highlight of my K-J trip, but rather a disappointment. Much like it’s rather weak attempt to change its name to “Tokyo Random Walk” (through some marker-scribbled construction paper signs taped to one of its windows and practically unnoticeable from the outside), I just didn’t get the feeling the store was trying very hard. Actually, the place felt very similar to a musuem store, with an ample selection of large (and expensive) art, photography, design, and architecture titles, but comparatively few Japan-related titles in fiction or history categories, and whereas Kitazawa was full of Tuttle-published titles, they were surprisingly in short supply at the Tuttle store.

Pictures taken in Jimbocho on this day can be seen here (click on the July 27, 2002 link).