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Winter 1994
City Journal Winter 1994.
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  I deas and Observations

A Touch of Tokyo
Edward Fielden
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A few blocks up from Grand Central Station on Vanderbilt Avenue at 45th Street, a new bookstore stands out from among the typical midtown storefronts of office supplies and lunch plates. Lit up from within by fluorescent lights behind large clean windows, the Asahiya Bookstore looks like a glass aquarium. From the sidewalk you can see the whole of the store’s square space—the off-white walls, the straight rows of wooden bookcases and neatly stacked magazines. But being this conspicuous goes beyond an intelligent degree of self-advertisement: the bookstore is Japanese, and its owners have painstakingly reproduced the store to be as familiar to its customers as any in Japan. Even its location is part of the plan. “In Japan there are many bookstores near the train stations. It is where Japanese expect a bookstore to be,” Kazuo Chiba, the general manager, told me while we sat in his office at the store.

If there is a common location for an American bookstore these days, it is down a long stretch of hallway in a suburban mall. And a really good bookstore, one with a deep selection such as a Pageant, or a Strand, or a Powell’s out in Portland, is usually in a neighborhood that once bustled a little more: a good bookstore in America is truly a find. Moreover, it usually has a Dickensian sort of charm—its quarters cramped and poorly lit, its stuffed bookstacks mismatched in size and out of reach.

Asahiya couldn’t be further from our form. The books in a Japanese bookstore are displayed as if they had been spaced by a ruler and balanced by a compass. Most Japanese books are the same size, and are arranged spine out in a tight geometry of squares. Employees in uniform—the men in dark trousers and ties and the women in glen-plaid vests and shorts—constantly sweep the aisles to tend the stacks, reordering shelves that have been browsed through, restocking loose rows for a tight fit.

When I asked Mr. Chiba what he thought was the greatest difference between the two types of bookstores, he took out a cigarette and there was a long pause. Finally he said, “The owner of a Japanese bookstore doesn’t pay for the books outright. He pays the publisher a percentage only for the books that are sold, and the rest are returned.” American publishers and booksellers have the opposite arrangement: unsold stock is usually not returnable. He went on, “But our way is only good to a point. It can make you lazy, and sometimes too relaxed.”

Translations of American authors are brought out quickly if they are likely to succeed in the Japanese book market. Adjusting his dark-framed glasses, Mr. Chiba named the two most popular American titles in the store, The Bridges of Madison County and Rising Sun, both of which are currently at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. There are plenty of translations of other English titles in the store, everything from King Lear to American Psycho. Another popular title is Il Pendolo di Foucault. “Umberto Eco is very famous in Japan, more than any other European author I can think of,” Mr. Chiba said. The store also carries Japanese authors familiar to English speakers, such as Banana Yoshimoto, author of Kitchen, Ryu Murakami, a science-fiction-murder-mystery-and-romance-writer, and Haruki Murakami, who, I was told, is “mainstream, like Fitzgerald or John Irving.” But Mr. Chiba said there aren’t any Japanese Stephen Kings or Tom Clancys or Michael Crichtons. In Japan, that kind of giant success belongs to the comic books and to one of their creators, Osama Tezuka.

Japanese comic books are small, good-quality paperbacks, and they take up about a third of the Asahiya Bookstore’s space. The comic book craze is so sweeping and entrenched among the Japanese that there are also weekly comics in the form of magazines. According to Mr. Chiba, the overall best-seller in the store is a 300-page weekly magazine called Jump that contains about two dozen serialized comics. And if that’s not enough, there’s a monthly edition, and a weekly Jump for children, too.

When Chika Kariya, one of Asahiya’s employees, gave me a tour of the store, she began by taking me to the back corner where the aisles were crowded with customers reading the comic books. She showed me two bookcases of volumes handsomely bound in white covers with black trim and a number on each spine circled in red. “These comics are by Osama Tezuka. He just died, but his books are very famous in Japan,” she explained, and pointing to one of the rows, she continued, “These are about Buddhism. His comics are deeper than the others.”

At the front of the store, magazines are placed in a long row on both sides of an aisle. These are the store’s most popular items. “Most of our customers live in this country, but they want to know what is going on in Japan. So they come here to buy the magazines and read the gossip and see the fashions,” Mr. Chiba said. Besides Jump, the other big selling magazines are Hot Dog, a men’s fashion magazine; Nonno, a fashion magazine for teenagers; Alba, a golf magazine; and Bungei Shunju, a thick magazine with drawings of flowers on the covers, a kind of Reader’s Digest or Modern Maturity.

After 7:00 P.M. the bookstore starts to fill up with people. Asahiya is open seven days a week, but its busiest time is after Japanese work hours. Many of its customers work for Mitsui, a Japanese insurance company, and Tokyo Bank, both within a few blocks. Mr. Chiba, the store’s manager, began to have a restless look on his face and put his cigarettes in the top drawer of his desk. It was time to go back to work, though I could see he didn’t know exactly how to extricate himself in a polite manner. I remembered his earlier remark about how he hadn’t been in the States a year yet. But any efforts I made to conclude our conversation didn’t seem to work. When I said, “Thank you very much,” he just nodded his head and was silent. The translator coughed.

Then the manager’s face changed—he seemed to have forgotten something. He had shown me an authentic Japanese bookstore, but he hadn’t shown me the place behind it all. He reached for a little cardboard calendar on his desk and pointed to a snapshot of the Japanese coastline with its blue water and white sands. Suddenly no translation was necessary. For the Japanese in New York, Asahiya is more than just a bookstore—it’s a link to their homeland half a world away.

 

 


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