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Sunday, Oct. 13, 2002

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

You're never too old to read a good self-help book


The best-seller list currently features three volumes on living and aging well: "Oite Koso Jinsei" (Nothing Is More Human Than Aging), by novelist/politician Shintaro Ishihara; "Unmei no Ashioto" (The Footsteps of Approaching Fate), by novelist Hiroyuki Itsuki; and "Ikikata Jozu" (How to Live Well), by Shigeaki Hinohara. The last has been particularly successful, selling 1.2 million copies since its publication last December and bringing many other titles by Hinohara to bookstores.

The advice of Hinohara, a 90-year-old doctor at St. Luke's Hospital in Tokyo, is unexceptional: Have a positive attitude, form healthy habits, don't be afraid of new challenges, look for a model for how you want to be in 10 or 20 years, and take responsibility for your own life. However, the prose style is very accessible, like a personal talk from the wise old family doctor everyone wishes they had, and Hinohara's obvious sincerity shines through in a refreshing change from the commercially calculated titles that increasingly fill the best-seller list.

And judging from the letters quoted in a new volume, "Ikikata Jozu Taiwahen" (Dialogue Edition of How to Live Well), Hinohara's message has helped many, many readers. No longer able to respond personally to the letters and prepaid reader cards coming in at the rate of 100-200 a day -- 14,000 so far -- he decided to publish this book to let readers know that they weren't alone in the problems they faced or the feelings they had.

One couple, in charge of an isolated mountain temple where a number of elderly people had committed suicide, hoped the book would help them to counsel the many seniors living alone in the area and prevent further tragedies. A middle-aged teacher reports that it encouraged her to focus on reforming her own bad habits rather than just complaining about her students. The book also helped a mother stop dwelling on the death of her 9-year-old daughter from a brain tumor 30 years earlier, and encouraged another couple, who had both endured bouts with cancer, to overcome their fears and re-engage with the outside world.

According to a profile in Aera (Sept. 16), Hinohara himself has been surprised by the runaway success of "Ikikata Jozu." He feels that Japan has become affluent, but something is lacking; people are searching for something more.

Hinohara's own life was changed by two events: the eight months he spent in bed with TB during his college years, which took him off the career track to a professorship in the medical school at Kyoto University, and happening to be on a plane in 1970 that was hijacked by Japanese Red Army members attempting to go to North Korea. On his way to a medical conference, he spent four days on the plane fully aware there could be a shootout at any time (at one point he decided to stuff the 100-page manuscript he had with him into his shirt as a makeshift protective vest).

Emerging alive from the ordeal, he resolved to use his new lease on life to give back to others what he had learned in his life so far, rather than just striving to further his own professional status.

As a doctor he was changed by his exposure to American medicine during the Occupation, struggling for 35 years to update the system for training doctors and nurses in Japan (he promises a book next year about this struggle). He also has been active in establishing hospices in Japan, and two years ago started the shinrojin (new elderly) movement, which helps the elderly to live a healthy and productive life and to pass on their experiences to others. He feels that old age no longer starts at 60, but at 75; his book royalties are going to a foundation for gerontology research.

Why are these three titles on aging best sellers now? Beyond the obvious concern with aging in a graying nation, people seem anxious for hints as to how to cope in a time when the old certainties are no longer so certain. Ishihara has no lack of self-confidence, to put it mildly, and Hinohara, vigorous at 90, is an enormously appealing figure whose serenely smiling face is prominently displayed on his book covers.

In other book news, the November issue of Henshu Kaigi has a special feature on books and reading. One of the articles, on book reviews, reports that there is much speculation in the book world as to the identity of "Mushi" (pest, worm), who does a deliciously acerbic -- but dead-on -- book review each month in Shukan Asahi. Actually, not too long ago (Aug. 30), s/he skewered Ishihara's book on aging, criticizing his macho posturing and continual recycling of the same old autobiographical incidents and personages in all his books.

It seems only two people at Shukan Asahi know the identity of Mushi and they aren't talking, although the creation of a special bank account for anonymous payment suggests it might be someone well known.

Another article, a discussion among four representatives of leading bookstores (selling new books) in Jimbocho, makes clear the hard times for publishers and booksellers today. One large bookstore used to have a daily turnover of 5-6 million yen but recently only has sales of 2 million yen. Good books are still being produced, but a title that would have sold 50,000 copies before now only sells 10,000.

The bookstore reps wonder if a combination of factors isn't responsible -- the overall drop in consumer spending, management problems and the gap in consciousness between publishers and the younger generation. The low profit margins of bookstores also lead them to rely on student part-time workers without any special book expertise. Considering the flood of new titles (some 100 each day), one of them suggests that regular bookstores should specialize like the used bookstores in Jimbocho do, perhaps fully stocking the books of one publisher or one genre.

Henshu Kaigi also commissioned a survey about the book-buying habits of 1,000 individuals working in publishing, mass media and printing, with rather unhappy results. Almost a quarter only went to a bookstore once or twice a month, 78 percent spent less than 500 yen a month on books, and over half (54.2 percent) owned fewer that 100 books themselves.

Other articles include an examination of the fierce competition in nonfiction shinsho titles, reading recommendations from several booksellers, and a look at the history and designs of the paper-book covers provided by Japanese bookstores.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.


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