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Friday, Nov. 3, 2000

Throwing out complication to embrace simple life


Reflecting the downbeat mood in Japan, book sales continue to be sluggish, especially of hardcover books and serious fiction.

This year there have been few literary best sellers other than the Japanese translation of the German novel "The Reader" by Berhard Schlink.

One prominent trend has been inspirational autobiographies, and the Yomiuri (Sept. 9) notes that associated with such titles has been the emergence of a new type of book jacket featuring a large photo of the author on the front.

Such titles and covers started two years ago with the huge seller "Gotai Fumanzoku" by the wheelchair-bound Ototake Hirotada, and now include "Ikitemasu, 15-sai" by Inoue Miyuki, a 15-year-old blind girl born prematurely; "Fight" and "Issho ni Fight" by Takeda Mayumi, a deaf-mute woman; and "Dakara, Anata mo Ikinuite" by Ohira Mitsuyo, a woman who overcame ijime and yakuza life to become a lawyer.

The editor of the last title thinks that in an age where the future is uncertain and goals are blurred people receive encouragement from stories of strong people who have overcome various adversities. It is only natural that they would want to see the author's face.

Similarly, the editor of "Inochi" by the novelist Yu Miri believes that the cover photo by noted photographer Shinoyama Kishin played a large role in making it a best seller. Certainly the Madonna-and-child-like photo of Yu holding her infant son is very striking.

Also selling fairly well are nonfiction paperbacks, bunko-bon and the larger size shinsho. Just last month and this month three new such bunko lines are being launched with large promotions: 30 titles for Gakuken M Bunko (mainly light history), 50 titles for Shincho's Oh! Bunko and 30 titles for Nikkei Business-jin Bunko.

According to an analysis in the Yomiuri Sept. 30, such large launches are an effort to stand out in the flood of competing bunko titles and the fierce competition for the limited shelf space in bookstores. It quotes a Shuppan News representative who thinks publishers are trying to make up for reduced sales per title by issuing more titles in increasingly specialized genres, while the popularity of lighter nonfiction (zatsugaku) reflects the needs of readers seeking more wide-ranging, easily accessible information in a time of rapid change.

The 50 titles in Oh! Bunko are a diverse lot, mixing reprints with paperback originals. One I can't resist mentioning is a classic example of Nihonjinron, "Harvard Daigaku de Nihon wa Ko Oshierarete Iru." In what other country in the world could you publish a full-length book about how one's country is treated at a foreign university?

One shinsho which seems to have hit a nerve is " 'Suteru!' Gijutsu" by Tatsumi Nagisa, which has sold a million copies since April. As the title indicates, this consists of practical steps one can take to overcome one's psychological resistance to throwing things away.

In an interesting dialogue between Tatsumi and the social commentator Sataka Makoto in the Asahi (Oct. 16), Sataka reveals that his original instinct was to be suspicious of a book urging that one throw things away, especially in light of the author's background in marketing. Doesn't this simply serve the interests of manufacturers who need a throw-away culture in order to sell new goods?

Tatsumi denies any such motive and instead sees the postwar consumption society as now reaching its limits. She calls for examining one's possessions and thinking hard about which ones are really necessary for a rich life.

The two agree on the importance of making conscious choices rather than mindlessly following the latest fad, such as the current rush to buy computers.

Sataka, however, still has some reservations, preferring not buying in the first place to throwing things away.

In Shukan Asahi (Sept. 8), the success of " 'Suteru!' Gijutsu" is seen as part of the recent boom in "simple-life" books. This started with "Setsuyaku Seikatsu no Susume" by Yamazaki Eriko in late 1998 and has continued with "Sukunai Mono de Yutaka ni Kurasu" by Ohara Shoko, many translations such as Sarah Breathnack's "Simple Abundance," and simple food (soshoku) books. As pointed out by one editor, this re-examination of postwar lifestyles was started by authors who had experience of life in countries with different consumer attitudes: Yamazaki in Germany and Ohara in England.

DaCapo (Oct. 18) also sees an end-of-century re-examination of postwar materialism, as well as generational changes. Tatsumi, born in 1965, is from the generation which grew up in affluence, taking material goods for granted. The magazine reports that skills in sorting through and organizing belongings are not being passed on in childhood as the generation raised in the age of high growth is now starting to have children of their own.

It wonders about the wisdom of resorting to simply throwing things away and also compares the current spate of special features on interiors in women's magazines to diet articles: Just as women often gain back the weight they lose in diets, won't their newly organized rooms soon fill up again with the same old clutter?

Finally, translators will be interested in a new shinsho, "Honyaku Yawa" (Bunshun Shinsho, No. 129). This consists of workshops which Murakami Haruki and Shibata Motoyuki held with young translators, as well as both their translations of short stories by Raymond Carver and Paul Auster along with the original English texts.

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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