Imagine: you’re at a large bookstore in Osaka one afternoon, browsing titles. The selection is heavy on coffee table books on ikebana, long-dead Japanese authors in dated translation, and the usual Grishams and Clancys. Then something catches your eye: something new! You pick it up with interest, then drop it like hot oden when you see the price. You march out indignantly, and on the subway ride home, you see a grown man in a suit and tie, reading a giant comic book called Shonen Jump. Japan, you conclude, is a reader’s dead-end street.
Well, get over it. Living in the expat fishbowl, with a shaky grasp of the local language, it’s easy for us to miss parts of the culture which are hiding in plain sight – we’re so stunned by the guy with the manga (which says more about our culture than his) that we fail to notice all the people around him absorbed in their novels, biographies, brain-twisters. The Japanese are avid readers. Even in this iPod age, you can still see an amazing number of commuters helping pass the time with a book (or, yes, manga) during their often mind-numbing journeys to work.
But not only on the train – other than at a desk during office hours, there are few places where Japanese are not seen reading. I once went to a hot spring resort and saw a man sitting in the outdoor tub, the steam rising and fogging his glasses, attempting to finish just one more chapter. Although his fellow bathers might have thought him eccentric, he was not criticized by anyone. Unlike some cultures, bookworm is not a negative term in Japan.
Those who do not read Japanese tend to miss the range of bookstores everywhere. There’s one at or near almost any train station. Hardcover Japanese books are relatively cheap (about 1500 yen), but my Japanese friends – unless they’re rabid fans – tend to wait for the paperback edition.
Paperbacks are one of the last things in modern Japanese culture which are allowed to be functional and not merely accessories. They are small and plain-covered and quite cheaply-priced (between 400 and 700 yen). Unlike what weﾕve come to expect in the English-speaking world, they easily fit into your pocket (the over-sized English paperback is often just too big or too wide to put anywhere but a backpack). Long Japanese novels are still broken up into two or three volumes, so you don’t sprain your wrist while reading a translation of War and Peace, say. The garish covers we love in the West are irrelevant here (and admit it – given two different editions of exactly the same novel, exactly the same price, youﾕre going to choose – like me – the bigger one with the cooler cover). A paper dust-jacket with the bookstoreﾕs logo is folded onto the book by the clerk as soon as you buy it. As a result, the coffee shop poser, conspicuously reading his James Joyce, has no real equivalent here, although that’s no great loss. Here, to be reading is enough.
You’ll often notice people reading paperbacks which look even older than they do. Second-hand bookshops are a major industry here, and their goods usually cost no more than 200 yen. One of the largest chains in Kansai bears the name “Book-Off”, which sounds like something cross librarians shout at each other.
How does any of this help the unilingual foreign resident? Well, if it’s any incentive, Japanese books are an awful lot cheaper than those Japanese textbooks you’ve been ignoring. And manga don’t have a lot of words. No time like the present – start here: 本.