A Bookworm's Tokyo

By Nigel Pomsworth, PhD.

More than 99% of Japanese can do as you are doing right now. In fact, for voracity, they are said to lead the world at it. Admittedly, not everyone can read English, but a longstanding thirst for foreign knowledge has produced in Japan many more readers of English (and foreign tongues) than there are speakers.

The happy result is a market for non-Japanese books that is much, much larger than our minuscule foreign community. This affords greater choice to the resident foreigner. Thus no need to dread that a Tokyo posting will be a bookless purgatory. The books one desires are available, if one knows where to look.

Tokyo’s Akihabara district is by now famed from Clapham to the upper Congo as the fountainhead of anything and everything electrical. If the rest of the world read Japanese, Jimbocho would be similarly renowned. For in this compact area more than 130 booksellers are to be found offering everything conceivable in print.

Naturally, the vast bulk of these publications are in Japanese. And there are indeed so many that one may be glad one doesn’t read the language; that the choice remains manageable. Where should one start? Sanseido’s fifth floor offers abundant foreign publications: bestsellers, magazines on topics from gardening to motorcycles, French lithographs and hefty metaphysical tomes. Tuttle bookshop has everything for the budding Japan expert. Matsumura Shoten has new and used art books. The elegant Kitazawa shop has new imports on the ground floor. Upstairs are used books, prints and a display of rare first editions.

Even if one cannot read Japanese, it is edifying to browse the vernacular booksellers. One may find old wood-block prints, maps, cinema posters and other collectibles. An excellent starting point is the Kanda Kosho Center (comprising 11 shops in a lane behind the Iwanami Bldg.). For purely anthropological reasons, one might peruse Haga Shoten, a notorious “adult graphic” outlet.

The Kinokuniya Set

There are times, however, when Jimbocho is simply too much. Or else one wishes to blend book-browsing with more mundane shopping or with social activities. For such occasions, the sixth floor of the giant Kinokuniya bookstore at Shinjuku is highly recommended. They have a fairly wide English-language stock, plus excellent magazine and newspaper racks (also French and German titles).

The second floor of Maruzen at Nihonbashi offers stock and service that may equal or better Kinokuniya; and in more spacious surroundings. (See also a splendid library of books on books on the fourth floor).

A Note on Costs

To those coming from over-priced Britain, books here may seem expensive. Americans will find the prices extortionate. To save money; avail yourself of the American catalogue services (in the NY Review of Books).

Then again, if one may borrow, why buy? The British Council has a splendid library, as does the Tokyo American Club. One must be a member, of course. At ¥3,500 to join, the Council is certainly the more affordable of the two.

A further alternative is to recycle one’s books. Good Day Books near Jiyugaoka offer a commendable selection and will buy old books for cash or give credit on future purchases. The latter choice yields excellent value.

Whichever sources you choose, I am indeed certain Tokyo can meet your reading needs.

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