photo bookstores

Inside the bookstore Morioka Shoten


In this day and age, when you can see almost anything imaginable on YouTube or Flickr, it”s a wonder people still plunk down money on something so 20th century as a photo book.

But in Tokyo, at least, the genre is alive, despite the fact that photo books are a decidedly minor niche in the greater publishing world.

Whether you’re just looking for something for the coffee table or are a serious collector searching for a hard-to-find and even harder-to-afford original of Kikuji Kawada’s “Chizu” (The Map) chances are you can locate it here in the city.

The logical place to start is the traditional bookstore neighborhood of Kanda where two long-serving shops–Gyozando and Book Brother Genkido–have the biggest collection of photo books in the city. It’s possible to spend an entire day browsing through the stock at either store–but I find the staff there a bit too vigilant for comfort.

Thankfully, there’s Shelf, located in the hip Jingumae area of Shibuya Ward. Surrounded by photographers’ studios, apparel, design and publishing firms, its stock reflects the arty pursuits of its neighbors. Many of the titles are imports from small presses–some out of print and hard to find in their original countries–but there are also local indie productions, books put out by Japanese fashion brands and Lomo and Holga camera gear in a corner.

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A hot steaming mini-towel. If you’ve ever been to a Japanese restaurant, then you know you get these things handed to you as soon as you settle in. You can wipe your fingers daintily or give yourself a full face and neck abrasion, salaryman-style, and when drinks spill and soy sauce flies, you can use it as a sop.

For television scriptwriter Isamu Sasagawa, however, these hand towels, called oshibori, are the stuff of art. Give him a minute and he can wring a hand towel into duckling or a bunny, a sailboat or a supplicating man. Think of it as origami, only damp.

All in all, he can make up to 150 different figures from a single hand towel, all of which are diagrammed in the two-volume Cho Ukeru Oshibori-hiyoko no Tsukurikata (How to make super-cool hand towel chicks, look for the link here on this page) that he’s put out by Ikeda Shoten, a publishing firm better known for its origami books.

“This isn’t something I can claim to have invented,” he says. “But I’ve probably gone farther with hand towels than any other person.”

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a blurb blurb


Yesterday a designer friend of mine showed me a photo book he’d bought over the Net from someone he knows but has never met in person. They know each other on flickr, and the book was put together from flickr photos and printed through blurb. If he hadn’t told it came out of blurb, and if there hadn’t been a huge blurb logo inside, I wouldn’t have known. The printing quality was as good as some photobooks in the store and the content better.

I looked at the software and it’s good, but chances are the service won’t catch on here: It doesn’t feel Japanese enough, and anyway big makers have already staked out the market. Camera makers and printer makers — which are one and the same — enlist buyers into online clubs where they can store data, make prints and print books. Thirty-minute and 45-minute print labs have also retooled, offering book-printing services right in your neighborhood.

Still, the blurb bookstore is an excellent place to find amazing images of Japan, as these titles show, that most Japanese will probably never get to see.


yokai attack! (the birth of cute)

You have to be pretty lucky to get to play games for a living. But then again, a job is a job and slaying monsters all day can get to be a drag. When that happens what you need to do is cut loose. Clear the mind. You need a creative outlet.

For Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, a Tokyo-based pair of “game localizers”–that way out is writing books.

Hiroko and Matt already have one title under their collective belt: “Hello Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan,” described by the jacket blurb as an on-the-street expose of Japanese cute character culture. By now the world is well aware that Japan is peopled–if that’s the word for it–by all sorts of creatures cute or cloying. What Matt and Hiroko did, however, was travel the length of the country, snapping photos of signs, store shelves and instruction manuals that show just how deep go the roots of the cult of cute.

With their second project, “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide,” released by Kodansha International Ltd., the pair are burrowing even further into the psyche that creates cute–although that’s not what the book is about on the surface.

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igocochi: comfort zone

book igocochi cover

Not many Japanese look back with fondness on the so-called “lost decade” of recession that followed the collapse of the bubble in the early 1990s. But could the era, marked by downsizing, outsourcing and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, in fact have led to an artistic flowering?
That’s a question that comes after looking too long through Atsushi Miura’s latest book, “igocochi” (published this April by San-ichi Shobo).

Forty-something marketing planner, director of culturestudies, a “think tank that researches consumerism, culture and cities,” and number-crunching trendspotter, Miura is best known as the writer of “Karyu Shakai” (Lower classes, from 2005), the title of which has become a media byword for our times. With “igocochi,” he’s now also something of a photographer.

In “Karyu Shakai,” Miura summed up the motivations — or rather their lack — of a generation of young Japanese who have given up on standard-issue dreams. Instead of lifetime employment and a family life in the suburbs, these “freeters” (as members of this underclass are called) prefer to flit from one temporary job to the next, settling for little more in life than a dinner of cup noodles and a tiny garret.

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miniature books whisper

Mame-hon or “bean books”–as miniature books are called here — have become slightly big over the past couple of years. You can find them on display in specialized shops and galleries like Noraya, in plastic balls inside vending machines and on the shelves’ of serious book collectors. A lot of the popularity is due to two women with very different temperaments: Shiori Tanaka, who teaches how to make them, and Miyako Akai, an amateur whose works have honors at the international level.

Tanaka is the prime mover in Japan’s mini-book world. She travels across the country to give bookmaking workshops and she runs the Mame-hon Festa, an annual gathering devoted to miniature bookmaking that attracts hundreds of aficionados.

She’s been doing this for over two years, although her appreciation for books as objects goes back over two decades. Before she was a book editor who one day was assigned the memoirs of Teinosuke Endo–a manuscript restorer to the Imperial Household Agency for 60 years–to turn into a book. Tanaka was so inspired by the him she decided to turn herself into a book artisan. Continue reading