Yen for Books

Shelves at used-book stores in Japan more resemble the cat-food aisle at Wal-Mart than they do the cramped and haphazard arrangements in their American counterparts: row after row of gleaming books, identically thick and tall, differentiated only by the color on the label. Tokyo’s most notable secondhand-book store, Book Off, even employs in its logo an insipid smiley face similar to the Evil Empire’s.

After we spent a day strolling beneath cherry blossoms in Tokyo last spring, an American friend of mine who lives there brought four of us to Book Off to search for the first title in his favorite manga series. He made it sound as rare as Action Comics no. 1, but we looked anyway. Or my friends did. Able to read no Japanese, I’d be little help navigating shelves. No matter. Even when I don’t read the local language, I visit bookstores incorrigibly on vacations. I can glimpse the zeitgeist of a different culture most easily through its books, my own genie’s lamp.

And rubbing the lamp proved easy in Japan because of the ubiquity of what we call graphic novels. This means I can peruse the books’ pictures and follow their plots for whole pages at a time. But the Japanese have what some call an endearing, and others an annoying, habit of disregarding the boundaries of genre fiction—as I found when I pulled down a title called Babel II (manga about Genesis). Things start normally, like in Sunday school: burly fellows constructing a tower of stone and hubris; God smiting them with thunderbolts; the survivors scattering around the world, literally babbling. Within two pages, we leap forward to modern Japan, where a spiky-haired teenager is quarreling with his parents about being grounded. Pretty soon, a twenty-ton pterodactyl springs him from his room. All before page 30. Of 300.

I decided to buy the book for 1,160 yen, about ten dollars. As bizarre as Babel II may be (and it gets way weirder when the intergalactic star cruiser visits on page 38), some publishing house backed the book because it calculated the book would appeal to readers. And indeed, someone in Tokyo had bought and presumably read the copy in my hands. No matter how chimerical the book looked, this genie has something to say. I had my first souvenir.

But again, I had arrived from a cherry-blossom festival, and I felt ashamed reducing a country as delicate and solemn as Japan, home of origami and the tea ceremony, to a comic book. Luckily, probably strategically, a pile of novels sat next to the cashier. One of them especially transfixed me as I moved up to pay. Its cover was a spare watercolor of a tiny girl, half an inch tall, staring up at an immense white house. A forest to the right was a verdant green, but the single tree near her had shed its leaves, brown dots, at her feet. Somewhat like a pastel El Greco (bear with me), the cover had patches of vivid color: orange hair, pink dress, red and yellow windows. But unlike in El Greco, the mood was not black anguish but a simple, lonely poignancy expressed in white.

The typeface inside mirrored this delicacy. The Japanese use a special script, kanji, for serious writing, and unlike Japanese advertising, which often reads horizontally, Japanese literary works read vertically. This made each page of the book—which I found myself laying open on the cashier’s counter—tumble along like a cascade, black characters dangling above perilous white space. And each kanji character comprises one or more calligraphic pictures, allowing writers to fuse art and poetry. Incidentally, this potency is what made Ezra Pound go gaga over Asian writing.

Only after paying fourteen hundred yen did I come to—and realize I had no idea what this book was about. I didn’t even know its English title, which is remarkable for any product in Japan. Somewhat like organic in the States, English words lend sophistication to Japanese goods (Babel II quotes the Bible on its cover) even when their literal meaning is silly or nonsensical. One pasta chain in Tokyo calls itself Italian Tomato Café Jr. Teenagers strut around in hoodies that read gustavus adolphus and mesh trucker hats that say rude in sequins. People there make a fetish of English, like Tolstoy’s dilettante Russian aristocrats chattering in French.

Yet a few items have escaped. My new book betrayed no hint of its contents beyond the fairy-tale girl on the front. And to preserve that purity, I decided that the book would remain unnamable, at least to me.

• • •

All this happened early in my ten-day trip, and despite a lingering sense that I hadn’t yet captured the sensibility of Japan, my purchases inspired me to make an amateur anthropological survey of Japanese reading. My findings:

First, I adjusted quickly to people opening books from what we consider the back—yet simulating how their eyes scroll up and down, not across, pages gave me cross-eyed headaches. Second, the Japanese appear to read fewer newspapers than do Americans on public transportation, though the newspapers they do read pander more to sports stars. Third, disappointingly, no one carries sleek, paperless e-books.

Research also compelled me to visit collectors’ shops with “vintage” American reading material. In one, behind a red wagon spilling over with authentic Happy Meal toys, I discovered a magazine rack labeled “American Comic Books.” From it, I picked out a pristine June 1996 issue of Seventeen, with a cover shot of Liv Tyler’s cleavage. Beneath it appeared a yellowish, relatively tame cover from 1966 of that other pioneering American comic, Playboy. This was good data: an informative (if inscrutable) peek at how the Japanese regard American escapist reading. But it inflamed the itch that my view of Japan might be equally awry.

On my penultimate night in Tokyo, my friends and I traveled to Ueno, a picnic park with a lane of cherry blossoms surrounding a lake. After a moonless stroll around the shallow, still black water, we came upon a cluster of itinerant vendors in tents, people selling wooden statues of raccoons and antique keys and what looked like, well, brass genie’s lamps.

And books. In one man’s trunk, I found twenty hand-sewn volumes with coarse green covers that had no spines and from which the titles had been effaced. All of them looked a hundred years old and well used, like your grandfather’s Latin grammar. The vendor, startled at someone showing interest, climbed over my back and offered to sell me the lot for (I think) four thousand yen. I held out a handful of change, pointed and nodded at various coins, and haggled him down to one for two hundred. Before walking away, I asked my friend who spoke Japanese to probe the vendor about what I’d bought—which prompted an animated monologue. It turns out my book was volume 17 of a series about the clan history and eventual unification of Japan.

Listening to the translated dynastic struggle was the first time I had really connected Tokyo with anything historical. For the city, aside from a few pockets, has effaced its past in favor of neon skyscrapers and ephemeral gadgets. Even secondhand goods there gleam. My trips to shrines and museums should have countered this and educated me. Yet not until I had a third wish, another book—the first shabby thing I’d seen in Tokyo—did I feel my ignorance.

To make sure another title wasn’t effectively effaced, that night before bed I caught my friend and showed him the book with the little girl. Though it took him a minute (and a computer) to decipher the characters, he eventually translated the title: Having Prepared to Cry Aloud.

Aloud. I wrote the title on a piece of paper, folded the note, and slipped it inside the watercolored cover.

Sam Kean is a writer living in Washington, DC. He is at work on a book of essays titled I Failed Ethics.