Or perhaps more to the point, what books are given the chance to sell? The other day I was in a local chain bookstore and took the following photo of the “World history” shelf ostensibly dedicated to China (and thus also Japan). I wanted to look in more detail at the books that are given shelf space in places like Borders and Barnes and Noble.
As you can see, the following books appear:
- Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Perennial)
- Milton Meyer, Japan: A Concise History (Littlefield Adams)
- Manabu Miyazaki, Toppamono: Outlaw, Radical, Suspect, My Life in Japan’s Underworld (Kotan Publishing)
- W. Scott Morton, J. Kenneth Olenik, and Charlton Lewis, Japan: Its History and Culture (McGraw Hill)
- Thomas Cleary, Soul of the Samurai (Tuttle Publishing)
- Liza Dalby, Geisha (University of California Press)
- Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan (Belknap Press)
- [Book that is impossible to make out but that was clearly published by Osprey, which means it must be one of those books on the samurai or on famous battles of Japan]
- Mark Ravina, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori (John Wiley and Sons)
- Edwin Reischauer and Marius Jansen, The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity (Belknap Press)
- George Sansom, A History of Japan, vol. 2-3 (Stanford University Press)
- R. H. P. Mason and J. G. Caiger, A History of Japan (Tuttle Publishing)
- Paul Varley, Japanese Culture (University of Hawaii Press)
So, judging from this shelf, the types of writing about Japan that bookstores are willing to try to sell are:
- books about geisha
- books about samurai
- books about yakuza
- books about Emperor Hirohito
- textbooks and general histories
It is also interesting to note that only one of these books is by a woman author (Dalby’s popular geisha book); only one is by a Japanese author (the new translation of Miyazaki’s popular autobiography); and only two of these books are published by academic publishers (the Varley textbook, which I use but which my students sometimes complain about [not a reflection of the book so much as of the students, alas], and the Sansom books, out of which Stanford UP must have gotten an incredible profit over the years). I guess the two Belknap texts, one by Jansen and one by Reischauer (updated by Jansen), should also be included, as Belknap is an imprint of Harvard UP.
There are some fine books here, to be sure, but I can’t help but notice how many of these books are by scholars who are either no longer alive or who have long been retired. The youngest scholar represented here is Mark Ravina, associate professor of history at Emory University, whose previous book, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, probably cannot be found on the shelves of ANY chain bookstores, much like most serious scholarship on Japan. Mark is a great historian and absolutely deserves to have his most recent book sold to the general public, but I wonder why many other books that would probably be equally popular are not also found here or on similar shelves? The serendipitous tie-in with Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai is of course the answer.
I know that as an intellectual I’m not supposed to care about popular perception of my field, my profession, or for that matter my research, but I do. In practical terms, the extra income would really help in a profession that pays poorly in the early years. Plus, it would be nice to know that in addition to the 100 or so students whom I encounter in the classroom each year, someone other than my fellow Japanese historians was benefiting from my attempts to write interesting and innovative histories.