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date: 03 March 2024

Reading Culture in Japanfree

Reading Culture in Japanfree

  • Andrew T. Kamei-DycheAndrew T. Kamei-DycheKanda University of International Studies


Reading in Japan has a rich history replete with transformative moments. The arrival of Chinese logographs by the 5th century necessitated the development of reading mechanisms adapting the logographs to the Japanese language which had previously lacked writing. In the Heian (794–1185) court, reading was often a social activity incorporating performance. Small reading communities read romances aloud to one another, while poetry competitions involved intense bouts of composition and reading. During the medieval era (1185–1600), literature spread through the recitation of epic tales with musical accompaniment, while in early modern times (1600–1867) the gradual expansion of literacy combined with a print revolution fueled the emergence of socially and geographically diverse communities of readers. Alongside studies of medicine and Neo-Confucian thought a market in popular fiction flourished. The arrival of modern printing technology at the end of the 19th century ushered in mass-market readership. Cheap printings of classic texts competed with popular serial fiction, both of which were encouraged by newspapers. During the early 20th century, reading came to be seen as an act of self-cultivation but retained a social element as students and educated urbanites read together and discussed literature. Contemporary Japanese society retains a strong emphasis on the social values of reading, understanding reading not primarily as an individual engagement with one’s interests but rather as a means to acquire a consciousness of one’s group and nation. Newspaper readership continues to be enormous, and the influence exercised by newspaper corporations and prominent publishers in Japanese society is significant, shaping not only what is read but how. Japanese manga, meanwhile, continue to enjoy a diffuse range of reading communities that represent considerable wealth and influence. Such communities vary by gender, age, and political leanings, and demand media suited to their own particular reading practices and identities. Technological innovation has also facilitated new reading experiences, such as visual novels, a type of interactive fiction game popular among Japanese gamers. The Internet has given rise to virtual reading cultures, embracing both traditional print readerships and visual novel fandoms, further enhanced by ubiquitous smartphone use among readers of all ages. Tokyo’s book town, Kanda-Jinbochō, is a thriving cultural center, and book fairs and other events are widely celebrated.


  • Asian Literatures
  • Cultural Studies
  • Print Culture and Digital Humanities

The Origins of Reading

The history of reading in Japan has been shaped by the shifting contours of Japanese culture as well as the extensive interactions with China in ancient times and the West in the modern era.1 The trajectory of reading culture follows the course of Japanese history, from the development of the earliest writing in ancient times until the birth of virtual reading communities in the present, considering the shifting forms and social roles of reading.2

The earliest written sources about Japanese civilization come from China over the first several centuries bce. While the ancient Japanese tribal communities developed complex pottery and agricultural techniques, their language lacked a written component. Chinese logographs (漢字‎, kanji) were gradually adopted by the Japanese elite, who had initially recruited foreigners to record inscriptions as evidenced by grave goods and other early sources.3 While employing logographs in this way was one matter, adapting their use to suit the Japanese language was quite another.

Because the structure of spoken Japanese was so different from that of classical Chinese, mechanisms were developed that permitted one to read the logographs, based primarily on mentally shifting the order of the logographs to assemble them into structures comprehensible to Japanese grammar. Reversing the process, in turn, enabled Japanese speakers to write, producing sentences that could be more or less understood by literate Chinese.4 The term kanbun (漢文‎, lit. Han-Dynasty writing) originally referred to Chinese texts but came to mean writing produced by Japanese speakers entirely in Chinese logographs using these methods. These are still taught in Japan today, enabling children to read ancient Japanese writing recorded in this way as well as classical Chinese texts, such as poems. Internalizing the mechanisms takes time, and most educated Japanese remain at the level of limited comprehension without guide markers to assist them with reading the characters.

The heritage of classical Chinese logographs also enables Japanese speakers to deploy them either for meaning or just for phonetic value. Centuries of writers down to the present have delighted in punning or playing with logographs for their meanings and sounds, a form of humor shared by intellectuals and consumers of mass-market manga (漫画‎, comics) stories alike.

However, for all its benefits, the system of reading and writing Japanese with Chinese logographs was also rather complex and time consuming to learn—as generations of students can attest. Eventually several phonetic syllabaries called kana (仮名‎) developed from the short-hand writing of logographs, enabling faster and simpler reading and writing of Japanese as well as opening up literacy to those who lacked the time or opportunity to master the vast number of logographs.

The historic usage of kana in relation to kanji is a contentious topic, having been informed by both issues of gender and the distinction between public and private writings.5 The conventional view is that the cursive hiragana (平仮名‎), one of the kana syllabaries, was largely the domain of women, who lacked the opportunity to learn many kanji. The script was thus also known as onnade (女手‎) or “woman’s hand.”6 This gendered distinction in writing is also traditionally coupled to a view of public and private spheres: official, important texts were rendered using kanji, while personal writings or works of entertainment were rendered with kana, runs the logic. However, these generalizations break down quickly when considering the documentary evidence from the early Japanese court. Official records and some diaries were indeed often rendered in kanji, and almost always by men because males dominated officialdom. Yet elite women were clearly proficient with kanji too, and literature in kana was enjoyed by both male and female readers.7 Nor was it the case that literature was seen as a frivolous activity undeserving of careful composition and consumption.

During the 7th and 8th centuries, in addition to a large number of works arriving from China, there was a great increase in the number and variety of texts being produced within Japan.8 There is also evidence that writers may have assumed either a local or foreign readership when composing, given that kanbun texts could be read by elites not only in China but also all across East Asia. Extant texts from this era have survived largely in the form of mokkan (木簡‎, wood strips).9 Another significant development was that of early printing using woodblocks or metal plates, but the potential of the technology went unrealized and it languished, employed only occasionally by temple complexes.10

From the Classical to Medieval Eras

In the highly literate court culture of the Heian period (平安時代‎, 794–c. 1185), a solid knowledge of the Chinese and Japanese classics was essential. This was particularly the case with poetry, because classical poems continually drew upon a deep pool of imagery and terms assembled from a large number of works dating back centuries. While fresh styles and insight were appreciated, it was the effective use of literary allusions that marked one as a skilled poet and this only worked so long as the audience was sufficiently well read to recognize the allusions in play. In daily court life, this recognition needed to be immediate because people would allude to poems in routine conversation.11

A high degree of familiarity with poetry represented considerable cultural capital in the court, where such expertise was taken as a mark of intelligence and sophistication. As a particularly desirable sphere of knowledge among elites, poetry was associated with politics and could open doors to career advancement. Poetry competitions were sites of simultaneous literary and political jousting for influence.12

The praise accorded being well read in works of both poetry and prose was by no means limited to men. Rather, it was also seen as a most desirable quality in elite women. The powerful regent Fujiwara no Michinaga (藤原道長‎, 966–1028) made a wise choice in recruiting Murasaki Shikibu (紫式部‎, c. 973–c. 1014), author of Genji Monogatari (源氏物語‎, The Tale of Genji), to tutor his daughter Shōshi. The latter was competing for the affection of the sovereign with another royal consort, Teishi—the daughter of Michinaga’s rival, his elder brother Michitaka—who was herself suitably equipped with a learned author among her ladies-in-waiting in the form of Sei Shōnagon (清少納言‎, c. 966–c. 1017), author of Makura no Sōshi (枕草子‎, The Pillow Book). The literary rivalry between the two women authors was directly bound up with the political rivalry between their male patrons.

As with poets, authors of prose assumed that their readership had a thorough grounding in the classics: one of the challenges of works like Genji for modern readers is how Murasaki trusts her audience to be intimately familiar with this body of knowledge and continually employs subtle references with no explanation. Even the most popular of today’s editions rendered in modern vernacular thus require elucidation of material that would have been second nature to Murasaki’s contemporary readers.

The same principle often applied to diaries. It is important to note that classical diaries were generally intended to be read by others and should be understood as carefully constructed works of self-fashioning conveying messages to one’s contemporaries or descendants.13 This was a trend established by Tosa Nikki (土佐日記‎, The Tosa Diary) in 935, a fictionalized travel account that marked a significant departure from the dry accounts of previous courtier diaries.

This does not mean that diary literature employed consistent structure or avoided frank, genuine self-expression. The author of Kagerō Nikki (蜻蛉日記‎, The Kagerō Diary), Michitsuna no Haha (道綱母‎, c. 935–995) powerfully expresses her pain and bitterness as her husband drifts to other women and leaves her alone. Readers were clearly expected to sympathize with her plight.14

She also offers us some insight into how the literature of the time was seen, as she is well-acquainted with the romances and poetry popular at the time, but contrasts her real experience with the idealized courtly love they depict. Quite a different response to contemporary literature is offered by Sugawara no Takasue no Musume (菅原孝標女‎, c. 1008–after 1058), who depicts her youthful self in Sarashina Nikki (更級日記‎, The Sarashina Diary) as a passionate reader consumed with stories.15 Having earnestly prayed to be able to read Genji Monogatari in its entirety, and finally receiving it from an aunt, she describes her reaction:

Carrying [the volumes] home, the joy I felt was incredible. With my heart pounding with excitement, I was able to read, right from the first chapter, the Tale of Genji […]. With no one bothering me, I just lay down inside my curtains, and the feeling I had as I unrolled scroll after scroll was such that I would not have cared even if I had had a chance to become empress!16

However, later in life, the author regrets having spent so much time buried in tales and blames this for how her life turned out to be less than happy. She uses her life story as a warning to others not to indulge in enjoyable reading to such an extent that they lose their grasp on reality.

The descriptions in the Sarashina Nikki recall our typical view of a reader poring over a beloved book in private. However, this was often not the case in Heian Japan. With printing by then limited to monastic institutions, which occasionally used it to duplicate study texts for initiates and so forth, writings at court continued to be circulated in the form of scrolls (巻子本‎, kansubon) and bound booklets that needed to be painstakingly copied by hand. As with personal letters, the choices of paper and calligraphic style when producing a copy were serious considerations. Only the wealthiest families could afford substantial collections of texts. Large works therefore often circulated in fragmentary form. Lending a book to a friend could be a deeply serious matter, and gathering together materials for anthologies represented an arduous and time-consuming process.

Readers would often gather together in small groups where they could read works aloud and enjoy responding to them together. Reading was consequently a social activity that incorporated performance aspects as readers tried to bring listeners into the work and evoke reactions. Writers would assemble their friends to hear their newest work and gauge their responses. Some romances were prepared in an almost episodic fashion, with readers eagerly awaiting the next installment of the story. The reading communities that sprang up to some extent transcended lines of gender and rank, while at the same time serving as locations for both the reinforcement and problematization of gender and social hierarchies.

The medieval era (中世‎, c. 1185–1600) witnessed the beginnings of a broader diffusion of literature throughout society and a corresponding growth of readerships.17 The rise of warriors in the political realm—culminating in a series of military governments (幕府‎, bakufu) that initially shared power with, and later supplanted, the Kyoto court—represented a significant development.18 On the one hand, warriors favored accounts of battles past and present that celebrated martial valor and prowess, known as military tales (軍記物語‎, gunki monogatari).19 On the other hand, as a social elite, many warriors also read court literature, which continued to represent a considerable source of cultural capital. While the former distanced warriors from the courtly tradition by establishing that they constituted a distinct readership with its own genres and literary styles, the latter bound them up with it by framing them as a new readership for the classical works. Courtiers were sometimes recruited by warrior officials to come and impart their literary skills and knowledge, while several of the shoguns gained a reputation as leading connoisseurs of classical culture.

Whether among courtiers or warriors, literature continued to circulate mainly in manuscript form. While there was an expansion of printing in scale, it remained limited to the temple complexes. As Pure Land Buddhism—a tradition of Buddhism that prioritized faith over doctrinal knowledge and asceticism—grew, its adherents employed printed texts to aid proselytizers in taking their message to the largely illiterate masses. The inclusivity of medieval Buddhism, which was more accepting of women and the lower classes, put a new emphasis on conveying Buddhist tales to non-elites and those outside the major centers of political and cultural power. There were also influential literary works produced by Buddhist practitioners, notably the Hōjōki (方丈記‎, An Account of My Hut) by the hermit Kamo no Chōmei (鴨長明‎, 1153/1155–1216) and Tsurezuregusa (徒然草‎, Essays in Idleness) by Yoshida Kenkō (吉田兼好‎, 1284–1350) s. Yoshida was something of a curmudgeon. At one point, he complained about all the imports from China, with books being one example of a commodity so widespread in Japan that more were hardly needed:

Even if we were deprived of Chinese goods, we should not miss them, except for medicines. Many Chinese books are available all over the country, and anyone who wishes can copy one. It is the height of foolishness that Chinese ships should make the dangerous journey over here, crammed with cargoes of useless things.20

The shifts in literature were paralleled by the more general recognition in society of the masses as an audience for literature, which necessitated new reading practices. What developed was a focus on the performance of texts for a primarily illiterate audience. One method practiced even by literate elites was to read aloud to another person who would enjoy looking at a series of accompanying illustrations. Another highly popular method was that of the biwa hōshi (琵琶法師‎), itinerant and usually blind monks who would memorize epic tales and then recite them for an audience with musical accompaniment provided by a biwa (Japanese lute).21 This had the effect of creating a shared experience among audiences in different towns as they became acquainted with the canons of heroic figures, producing a form of what might be termed medieval popular culture. A similar shared and inclusive experience grew up around renga (連歌‎, linked verse) poets, many of whom had fled from the capital during the chaotic years of intense warfare beginning with the Ōnin War in 1467, and who took their art form into many smaller towns. This too contributed to the spread of classical literary tropes outside of urban elites.

Reading in Early Modern Japan

The Edo period (江戸時代‎, 1600–1867), Japan’s early modern era, has long been considered by scholars a high point in Japanese print culture.22 After over a century of internal warfare, the era was characterized by a relatively peaceful and ordered society with a growing economy and a flourishing urban culture. Literacy spread due to the proliferation of schools, including the terakoya (寺子屋‎) that enabled even a considerable segment of the peasant population to acquire basic reading and arithmetic.23 In the cities, the townspeople (町人‎, chōnin) represented an important new readership roughly analogous to a middle class and possessing both wealth and an insatiable appetite for reading material.

The emergence of private printers in the cities, aided by more affordable mass-produced paper coupled with drastic improvements in woodblock printing technology, led to a print revolution. The most obvious and oft-studied aspect of this was the beautiful ukiyo-e (浮世絵‎, floating world pictures) prints.24 The product of innovative techniques utilizing a series of blocks to produce multicolor works, these prints depicted prominent actors and courtesans, scenes of town and country life, pornographic scenes, and all manner of other topics to fascinate and titillate viewers. While artistically impressive and collectible, they were also treated as a disposable commodity—as was the popular literature of the era—and thus can be understood as reflecting the dawn of early modern consumer culture. Along with ukiyo-e prints, illustrated stories and poem collections featuring an interplay of text and image continued to develop.25 Whereas literature had previously circulated primarily in the form of scrolls, these now gave way to bound softcover books (冊子本‎, sasshibon), the stitching techniques of which continue to be pursued as a traditional hobby today. As paper sizes became standardized, these books began to appear in several standard size formats.

Fueled by the demand for reading material among the literate urbanites and enabled by the new commercial printing industry, the genres of literature proliferated.26 The townspeople readership was primarily interested in three broad categories of literature. First, townspeople wanted literature that focused on them and their world, that is to say, the ups and downs of the colorful city life led by merchants and craftspeople. Second, they desired to read about the samurai, whom they simultaneously disliked and desired to emulate. This explains why popular works included both tales of heroic warriors and literature that poked fun at the samurai and their pretensions. Finally, the townspeople enjoyed escapism, such as stories of shocking scandals, wondrous monsters, and strange events.27 Beyond these, there was also a plethora of other works such as city guidebooks, study books and manuals on everything from flora to painting techniques, and philosophy texts. A major component of the world of reading at the time was translation, as translations from Chinese and from classical Japanese into the contemporary vernacular proliferated.28 While imports of foreign texts on certain topics deemed dangerous by the government were prohibited, other books were brought in from Europe by the Dutch and then translated by Japanese scholars.29 There were also kawaraban (瓦版‎, slate prints), which were news broadsheets, circulated despite the censorship laws.30

Bookstores came in a variety of types, including not only local shops but also traveling merchants and jihontonya (地本問屋‎, book wholesalers).31 However, because many popular works spanned a large number of volumes, most families had neither the finances nor the space necessary to own them. They would therefore turn to the lending libraries called kashihonya (貸本屋‎), which lent books for a small fee. These enabled the population to access a much wider variety of reading material than had heretofore been possible. The growing readership over the course of the late Edo period was paralleled by the growth of lending businesses. Lending became the primary method by which even affluent families acquired books. Readers would often make their own copies of books borrowed from friends or libraries, which they too would then share with others. This meant books enjoyed an expansive circulation in the cities but also made publishing a risky business venture because the publisher bore all the costs of the process. Consequently, print runs were often fairly small.

Easier access to books meant that urbanites spent more time reading alone, but reading together in groups and/or reading aloud to an audience remained popular pastimes. Fictional and historical stories alike often inspired dramatic performances and vice-versa, while both popular literature and theater inspired collectible prints. This resulted in a sort of multimedia experience whereby the readership could partake in the same literary world through a range of modes. Communities of readers evolved that were no longer bound by space; able to share and celebrate their values through the printed word, they felt a sense of shared consciousness emerge. For example, merchant readers felt connected as a community beyond that of their immediate town, and many works were produced that aimed to celebrate their businesses and lifestyle, including attempts to articulate a distinctively merchant school of philosophy. Some scholars have even posited that the sense of shared culture brought about by reading may have fostered an early consciousness of national community.32 In any event, by the mid-19th century, Japanese across the country were increasingly partaking of the same rapidly expanding body of literature.

The Modern Era

In the Meiji period (明治時代‎, 1868–1912), Japan, having embarked upon a program of modernization, engaged in the enthusiastic importation of foreign books and technology.33 Motoki Shōzō (本木昌造‎, 1824–1875) and his students were involved in introducing modern Western moveable type and the development of Japanese typefaces and printing presses during the 1860s and 1870s. By the 1890s, modern industrial presses had become standard in the industry.

Scholars and the highly educated elites from the new school system read European texts imported by dedicated bookstores that grew up around educational institutions. They also themselves produced Japanese translations of foreign works, and a new body of scholarship on them.34 Student groups based at universities and groups of writers or public intellectuals would often produce coterie journals, but these had small print runs and limited circulation, as was the case with many of the academic books produced at the time. The expense involved in acquiring foreign or specialized books prompted students to lend and resell books, giving rise to a flourishing used books market.

Books aimed at a mass readership were printed in larger runs and at much reduced cost. This was particularly so with fiction, but in the early Meiji era, such books were often works of premodern literature. Indeed, even toward the end of the 19th century many bestsellers were classical and medieval tales.35 New fiction often appeared in serial form in newspapers and magazines. By the start of the 20th century, literary works and criticism were a staple in these venues. Works that proved popular were often republished as books after the conclusion of their initial run. This process applied not only to new writers or marginal figures on the literary scene but was also generally the case for established writers and major literary figures of the day such as Ozaki Kōyō (尾崎紅葉‎, 1868–1903), Yamada Bimyō (山田美妙‎, 1868–1910), and Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石‎, 1867–1916).36

The birth of modern newspapers had a significant effect on reading for two reasons. First, newspapers bound together—or at least attempted to bind together—the social classes into one large, varied readership engaged in civil society, the values of which the press articulated and reproduced, prompting the authorities to regard the power of the modern media with both respect and suspicion.37 Second, newspapers played a key role in fostering the production and consumption of literature, providing a venue for writers to publish and critique, for publishers to advertise their new releases, and for readers to access works and respond to them through discussion among friends and letters to the editors or authors. By the 1920s, magazines and journals had come into their own, providing more specialized content to segments of the general news readership. One of the most significant examples was women’s magazines, such as the domestic lifestyle magazine Shufu no Tomo (主婦の友‎, The Housewife’s Friend) and the literary magazine Fujin Kōron (婦人公論‎, Ladies’ Review). These magazines—which were usually published and often largely written by men—provide a window into the social expectations of women at the time. Women responded to these expectations and their treatment in magazines in a variety of ways, including by producing their own periodicals.38 There were also general interest magazines which were widely read and influential among the urban middle class. Some were immensely popular with rural farming families as well as urbanites, such as Kingu (キング‎, King), known for its romantic and heroic stories, and Ie no Hikari (家の光‎, Light of the Home), which remains in print today.39

The modern school system introduced in the 1870s placed enormous emphasis on reading and the acquiring of literacy as a prerequisite to becoming a modern citizen.40 Reading was held up as more important than written or oral communication because it was believed that only through reading could children come to understand the national essence and their duty to safeguard it. In other words, reading was taught not as a way to expand horizons or pursue interests but rather to inculcate students with the social and political values deemed appropriate by the authorities. Because teachers and older students were aware of this intent, there was a degree of dissent and at times even full-scale movements calling for more progressive educational reform. The value of reading itself, however, was widely accepted across society as a means of self-improvement and potential social elevation.

This concept reached its pinnacle in the late 1910s and 1920s with the Kyōyōshugi (教養主義‎, self-cultivation) movement which accorded reading a special status as the key to bettering the self intellectually and culturally.41 This was held to be especially true of reading works of philosophy, thus a good grasp of philosophy became seen as vital to the future of not just the individual but the nation. During the “philosophy boom” that took off in 1922, concerned parents even badgered teachers and school officials to ensure the inclusion of philosophy in their children’s curricula. In addition to philosophy, literary classics from both East and West were celebrated as sources of insight. This cultural trend drew upon a fusion of traditional Confucian educational norms and Western “great books” notions, and fueled a new reading culture. On the one hand, students and intellectuals partook in a cultural elitism that demanded familiarity with a large body of literature. On the other hand, theoretically anyone could gain access to those works, and both schools and publishers actively sought to encourage reading among the masses.

Reading on the train or streetcar became something of a national pastime. Students formed circles both on and off campus to read together and discuss literature. There were also reading circles among laborers, housewives, and farmers. Some circles developed at bookstores, the latter having proliferated due to the availability of a wide variety of affordable books.42 Reading had become a social glue that bound together groups in modern society, but it also incorporated an element of social performance: identifying oneself, and being identified, as a reader carried with it an air of sophistication. To be seen as a reader was to be marked as a member of the modern cultural elite. It was not long before books themselves came to function as badges of identity, carried around like a sort of fashion accessory indicating the interests of the holder as well as signifying their membership in a particular readership, of which there were now many.

One of the largest new readerships was children. The idea of literature for children was in and of itself not a new phenomenon.43 Folklore stories read aloud to groups of children and accompanied by evocative illustrations had become a common type of performance, and simplified texts and reading guides enabling children to read literary works dated back to at least the early modern era. What was new was the notion that children represented a distinct readership deserving of its own works rather than just simplified versions of adult texts. This concept was itself bound up with the new ideas about reading and education elaborated above. A key role was played by Suzuki Miekichi (鈴木三重吉‎, 1882–1936), often referred to as the father of Japanese children’s literature. A disciple of Sōseki’s, Suzuki wanted to produce original stories aimed specifically at children, and started the magazine Akai Tori (赤い鳥‎, Red Bird), which ran from 1918 to 1936, for this purpose. Other magazines aimed at young readers, such as Shōnen Kurabu (少年倶楽部‎, Boy’s Club) and Shōjo Kurabu (少女倶楽部‎, Girl’s Club), were also popular.

Of course, all this was a godsend to publishers, who, through the 1920s and 1930s, were able to produce more works at a cheaper cost than ever before.44 The reconstruction following the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, far from destabilizing Tokyo as the center of Japan’s publishing world, reinforced it.45 Buoyed by the cultural and educational trends emphasizing reading, publishers became prominent actors in society. Kōdansha (講談社‎) and other large-scale publishers produced great numbers of books and magazines for mass consumption, while high-brow publishers like Iwanami Shoten (岩波書店‎) were able to influence the prevailing discourse through molding literary canons.46 Iwanami in particular was so successful that the book formats it developed—bunkobon (文庫本‎, pocketbooks) and shinshobon (新書本‎, new paperbacks)—soon became industry-wide standards and have remained so until today. These small, cheap books dovetailed with the emphasis on reading anytime, anywhere, enabling even readers of modest means to amass a collection. A new generation of used bookstores with large inventories of these books sprang up, further facilitating collecting and exchanging volumes. At the same time, publishers produced anthologies and extensive collections of writers’ works known as zenshū (全集‎, collected works), providing an essential service for dedicated readers and scholars alike.47

Reading suffered the effects of growing censorship, which substantially increased under the 1925 Peace Preservation Law and further intensified during the 1930s and the war years (1937–1945). Books and other reading material deemed threatening to the spirit of the nation were prohibited altogether, while large numbers of works underwent extensive cuts or alterations.48 Paper rationing also hurt the publishing industry, which had to make do with less, and far lower quality, paper.

After the end of the Pacific War, families took solace in sharing books and magazines as the publishing industry got back on its feet.49 Local lending libraries, often consisting of just one or two small rooms crammed with bookcases of popular books and manga, proliferated. With new technology and better distribution channels, magazines and academic journals expanded in numbers and reach during the 1960s, while newspaper readership continued to grow at an exponential rate. Cheaper and more widely available printing plus the rising standard of living brought about a publishing boom in both popular and more academic works. Because little printing was done in-house—Japanese publishers usually depended on dealing with a separate, specialized printer—the same circumstances enabled even small publishing outfits to flourish, ushering in new directions in niche publishing.

Contemporary Reading Culture

Late postwar society retained the notion that reading represented a social good, functioning as a method to better the self and acquire a consciousness of Japanese identity and nationhood. In contemporary Japan, the education system and mass media continue to perpetuate this idea, with the limited reading among young people representing a source of consternation for educators and public intellectuals. At the same time, the variety of reading material available has never been greater.

Japan today produces an enormous amount of print and online reading material. This includes a range of translated works from around the world, particularly from the English-language world.50 Indeed, most popular fiction or nonfiction works written in English, including scholarship on Japan, eventually finds its way into Japanese translation. Unsurprisingly, there is also a range of reading communities. In addition to the expected large-scale readerships, such as mass-market fiction consumers, there are also the otaku—dedicated fans of various pop culture media, first and foremost the enormous manga market.51 Some reading communities specifically celebrate books and print culture. For example, there is an enthusiastic community of used book lovers associated with Tokyo’s book town, Kanda-Jinbochō.52 The town contains almost two hundred used book shops and manages its own searchable database of inventory to help collectors on the hunt—who have themselves developed other tools as well. In addition to regular book fairs and events, there is also a major used book festival every year.53 Nationwide there is the annual Reading Week (読書週間‎), in conjunction with which many libraries, bookstores, and publishers organize events.54 There are also periodicals relating to publishing and books, such as the weekly newspaper Shūkan Dokushojin (週刊読書人‎, The Weekly Reader).55

Newspaper readership in Japan today remains the largest in the world—the circulation figures for the largest daily, the Yomiuri Shinbun (読売新聞‎), are at almost nine million (2016).56 Circulation has gradually been declining due to the younger generation preferring to read their news online—although overwhelmingly from the online editions of the same daily newspapers. The newspaper corporations, which also own many of the main television stations, continue to exert great influence in Japanese society, having established themselves so thoroughly as voices of authority that digital-only alternative content providers find them difficult to challenge. This influence includes shaping reading practices, not only pertaining to news media but also to books. Book publishers have long invested significantly in newspaper advertising. Right from the dawn of modern newspapers in the Meiji era, advertisements for books were a constant presence and this has persisted until the present. It is not uncommon on any given day for the bottom fifth of the front page of the Yomiuri Shinbun to be dedicated to advertisements for new books. Advertisements for books—still largely for print editions, but increasingly for ones published in digital formats—are also common on news websites, as well as in trains and elsewhere.

Another enormous reading community in contemporary Japan is that comprised of manga readers.57 This readership itself consists of multiple layers. At the top is the mainstream readership of weekly and monthly manga magazines carrying primarily serial fiction, representing circulation figures of several million in total. There are over fifty regular mainstream manga magazines, ranging from Shūkan Shōnen Janpu (週刊少年ジャンプ‎, Weekly Shōnen Jump) with a circulation of some two million, to magazines with figures around just ten thousand.58 These magazines are divided into broad categories based on the target gender and age of their readers. Popular stories are often republished as collectible volumes for fans to purchase, and there are publishers that specialize in precisely this market. There are also numerous smaller manga readerships that consume only specific genres or manga that reflect particular political leanings—there are communities made up of fans, for example, of leftist protest manga criticizing the government, or of nationalistic manga celebrating Japanese identity and patriotism. There are also manga creators and publishers who increasingly specialize in providing material for these diverse readerships, counting on their continued loyalty rather than the more mainstream readership with its embrace of waxing and waning fads.

Gender plays a significant role even at the most mainstream level where manga are divided between male and female readers and specifically marketed with those audiences in mind—even being shelved in separate areas in bookstores.59 These readerships in turn demand stories that suit their own views, particularly when it comes to gender relations and romance.60 Many fans, both at the mainstream level and in smaller readerships, produce self-published works (同人誌‎, dōjinshi) featuring established characters or their own creations. While this is a worldwide phenomenon in popular culture, the enormous size and range of print works produced by Japanese fans is staggering. There are both local and national conventions held for these independent creators to showcase and sell their material, often generating still smaller readerships in the process.

Beyond a means of entertainment, manga also functions as a tool to explain or elucidate. Everything from school textbooks and self-help books to advertisements and even official government publications incorporates manga stories, and illustrations of manga-style characters are ubiquitous throughout Japanese society. In this way, everyday consumers are also routine readers of manga texts even if they do not read the magazines or otherwise constitute part of a manga readership. Manga illustrations are also a feature of “light novels” (ライトノベル‎), short dialogue- and action-heavy juvenile fiction works that draw heavily on character archetypes, plot structures, and themes from the manga tradition. These originated in the 1980s but began to enjoy widespread success in the 2000s.

The role of digitization and the effects of new media on established reading spaces is complex. Public libraries, for instance, remain popular among all age groups. One often finds seniors’ reading circles alongside student study groups, as well as many individuals stopping by regularly to read. The larger libraries often hold considerable amounts of expensive collected works, reference material, and academic works that may enhance their value in the community.61 However, the tiny local kashihonya (貸本屋‎) lending libraries—named for their Edo-era predecessors—that had flourished in every neighborhood in the early postwar era, offering mass-market fiction and manga, have all but disappeared. In the 1980s and 1990s, manga kissa (漫画喫茶‎, manga cafes) became popular, but by the 2000s, these had largely transformed into, or been supplanted by, netto kafe (ネットカフェ‎, Internet cafes), which offer manga selections alongside Internet access. Whereas kashihonya and even early manga kissaten were often colorful social spaces where friends and families could read together, the netto kafe tend to be dark places comprised of individual cubicles with computers. An argument could be made for the decline in the sociality of the popular reading experience, but the active reading circles, school clubs, libraries, and online reading communities show this is clearly not the case. Rather, the spread of new media has served to diversify the reading experience.

In spite of this, the major publishers, both of manga and books, have shown comparative reluctance to wade into the online pool. Only in the past few years have manga publishers actively begun to release material online, including their valuable back catalogs. This was understood to be a grudging response to the demand of smartphone users to read on their devices, but was also at least partially a move forced on publishers by the fact that pirates had already flooded the Internet with their own scanned versions. Book publishers remain skeptical, and while self-help books and popular fiction now routinely appear online and in Kindle editions—the latter having been aggressively marketed by—the bulk of nonfiction publications remain in print editions.62 The love of print among Japanese consumers no doubt plays no small role in supporting the established publishing system.63 This is not surprising given the long history of celebrating books as physical objects of art and the authority accorded the printed word, neither of which carries over into the digital realm.

Aside from the Internet, other forms of technological innovation have led to the development of new reading experiences. When cellular phones first began to enjoy widespread use in Japan in the 2000s, “cellphone novels” (携帯小説‎, keitai shōsetsu), became popular—short, punchy stories of less than a hundred words designed to be read on the small screens of the flip-phones common at the time. A more enduring cultural product is the “visual novel” (ビジュアルノベル‎), a type of interactive fiction game that presents a storyline accompanied by illustrations, animation, and sound. Character dialogue and sometimes narration are provided by voice actors. Visual novels were originally designed for computers but soon migrated to video game console systems as well and have remained a staple in Japan, where popular visual novel genres include romance and horror. These works exist in a space between short fiction and video games per se, in that they follow a set storyline with predetermined character arcs and plot points but allow a degree of freedom such as choosing multiple possible endings. However, the degree of interaction required of the reader is usually so minimal as to discourage their being accepted as “games” except in the strictly formal sense. Despite being mainstream entertainment in Japan, they have struggled to find an international audience. An argument could also be made that conventional computer or video role-playing games, with their increasingly elaborate storylines and enormous amounts of text enabled by improving technology, also represent a form of reading material consumed by gamers.64

Finally, the Internet and widespread smartphone use has given rise to a range of Japanese virtual reading cultures. In their earliest form in the 1990s, when Internet access was still limited, these consisted merely of forums where readers discussed their favorite authors or genres and circulated their own fan fiction. However, these have since evolved into complex and multilayered communities of content creators and consumers who expand fictional worlds far beyond the offerings of the initial author. While active online fandoms producing their own content is hardly unique to Japan, the vast number of passionate communities—each with their own intracommunity narrative constructs to which thousands of fans may contribute in some way—is enormous.

Moreover, these communities remain fully engaged with print, smoothly moving back and forth between books and dōjinshi renditions on the one hand and digital works on the other, never willing to abandon the traditions of the former for the latter. The new frontier in reading culture is thus communities of engaged readers perpetually deconstructing and reconstructing their world in cyberspace—a world, nonetheless, still strongly informed by a heritage of print and paper.

Further Reading

  • Abel, Jonathan E. Redacted: The Archives of Censorship in Transwar Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
  • Aoyama, Tomoko, and Barbara Hartley, eds. Girl Reading Girl in Japan. London: Routledge, 2010.
  • Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
  • Berry, Mary Elizabeth. Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
  • Birtle, Robin. “The Development and Future of the Japanese Ebook Market.” Publishing Research Quarterly 27.4 (December 2011): 345–353.
  • Brownstein, Michael C. “From Kokugaku to Kokubungaku: Canon-Formation in the Meiji Period.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47.2 (December 1987): 435–460.
  • Clements, Rebekah. A Cultural History of Translation in Early Modern Japan. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Coutts, Angela. “Gender and Literary Production in Modern Japan: The Role of Female-Run Journals in Promoting Writing by Women during the Interwar Years.” Signs 32.1 (Autumn 2006): 167–195.
  • Davis, Julie Nelson. Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-e Market. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015.
  • DeNitto, Rachel. “Return of the zuihitsu: Print Culture, Modern Life, and Heterogeneous Narrative in Prewar Japan.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 64.2 (December 2004): 251–290.
  • Ebersole, Gary L. Ritual Poetry and the Politics of Death in Early Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Farris, William Wayne. Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1998.
  • Formanek, Susanne, and Sepp Linhart, eds. Written Texts—Visual Texts: Woodblock-Printed Media in Early Modern Japan. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005.
  • Frederick, Sarah. Turning Pages: Reading and Writing Women’s Magazines in Interwar Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006.
  • Groemer, Gerald. “Singing the News: Yomiuri in Japan during the Edo and Meiji Periods.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 54.1 (June 1994): 233–261.
  • Hayek, Matthias, and Annick Horiuchi, eds. Listen, Copy, Read: Popular Learning in Early Modern Japan. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.
  • Heldt, Gustav. The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell East Asia Series, 2008.
  • Hockley, Allen. The Prints of Isoda Koryūsai: Floating World Culture and Its Consumers in Eighteenth-Century Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.
  • Huffman, James L. Creating a Public: People and Press in Meiji Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1997.
  • Ingulsrud, John E., and Kate Allen. Reading Japan Cool: Patterns of Manga Literacy and Discourse. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.
  • Jacobowitz, Seth. Writing Technology in Meiji Japan: A Media History of Modern Japanese Literature and Visual Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016.
  • Kamei-Dyche, Andrew T. “The History of Books and Print Culture in Japan: The State of the Discipline.” Book History 14 (2011): 270–304.
  • Kasza, Gregory J. The State and the Mass Media in Japan, 1918–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Kinsella, Sharon. Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000.
  • Kornicki, Peter F. The Book in Japan: A Cultural History from the Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001.
  • Kornicki, Peter F., Mara Patessio, and G. G. Rowley, eds. The Female as Subject: Reading and Writing in Early Modern Japan. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2010.
  • Lurie, David B. Realms of Literacy: Early Japan and the History of Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Mack, Edward. Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
  • Marks, Andreas. Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks, 1680–1900. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2010.
  • Marra, Michele. Representations of Power: The Literary Politics of Medieval Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1993.
  • Myojo, Kiyoko. “The Functions of Zenshū in Japanese Book Culture: Practices and Problems of Modern Textual Editing in Japan.” Variants 10 (2013): 257–267.
  • Rubinger, Richard. Popular Literacy in Early Modern Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007.
  • Sarra, Edith. Fictions of Femininity: Literary Inventions of Gender in Court Women Memoirs. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Seeley, Christopher. A History of Writing in Japan. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1991.
  • Shirane, Haruo, and Tomi Suzuki, eds. Inventing the Classics: Modernity, National Identity, and Japanese Literature. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
  • Shirane, Haruo, and Tomi Suzuki, with David Lurie, eds. The Cambridge History of Japanese Literature. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Townsend, Susan. “Lost in a World of Books: Reading and Identity in Prewar Japan.” Literature Compass 4.4 (2007): 1183–1207.
  • Vande Walle, W. F., and Kazuhiko Kasaya, eds. Dodonaeus in Japan: Translation and the Scientific Mind in the Tokugawa Period. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2001.
  • Wakabayashi, Judy. “Foreign Bones, Japanese Flesh: Translations and the Emergence of Modern Children’s Literature in Japan.” Japanese Language and Literature 42.1 (April 2008): 227–255.


  • 1. Japanese names are rendered in Japanese order (that is, family name first) except in cases where the person is an author and the work in question is in English.

  • 2. On the history of books and reading in Japan generally, see Peter F. Kornicki, The Book in Japan: A Cultural History from the Beginnings to the Nineteenth Century (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001); and Yamamoto Nobuyoshi, Kotenseki ga kataru: shomotsu no bunkashi (Tokyo: Yagi Shoten, 2004). Also see Heibonsha’s Hon no Bunka-shi (A Cultural History of the Book) series, of which three volumes are currently in print: Yokota Fuyuhiko, Dokusho to Dokusha (2015), Suzuki Toshiyuki, Shoseki no Uchū: Hirogari to Taikei, (2015) and Wakao Masaki, Shoseki Bunka to sono Kitei (2015). By “reading community” is meant a collective in which the social relationships and group identity are mediated by the shared consumption of texts.

  • 3. Archaeological findings have been of immense value in understanding the development of writing in ancient Japan. For example, there is the Inariyama Sword, a grave good discovered in 1968 that later revealed an inscription concerning a Yamato king. The English-language world first became acquainted with the findings in Murayama Shichirō and Roy Andrew Miller, “The Inariyama Tumulus Sword Inscription” The Journal of Japanese Studies 5.2 (Summer 1979): 405–438. For a more recent treatment, see David B. Lurie, Realms of Literacy: Early Japan and the History of Writing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 94–99. On the archaeology of ancient Japan generally, see Gina L. Barnes, Protohistoric Yamato: Archaeology of the First Japanese State (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Center for Japanese Studies, 1988).

  • 4. On ancient Japanese reading and writing practices, see Christopher Seeley, A History of Writing in Japan (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1991); Tōno Haruyuki, Sho no Kodaishi (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1994); and especially Lurie, Realms of Literacy.

  • 5. Some scholars have taken these gender language associations as descriptive (e.g., Ivan Morris), while others have argued they were prescriptive and/or contested spaces (e.g., Chino Kaori); still others have argued that “masculine” and “feminine” were not prescriptive forms based on the sex of the author at all, but rather modes of inscription available to both men and women (e.g., Mizuta Noriko). Edward Kamens’s “Terrains of Text in Mid-Heian Court Culture” offers an informed perspective helpful in understanding some of the key issues in Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries, eds. Mikael Adolphson, Edward Kamens, and Stacie Matsumoto (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007), 129–152.

  • 6. On the one hand, such a view could be seen as liberating for women in that it enabled them to express themselves and partake in the literary world as writers and readers. On the other hand, the association of kana with women because of their supposed inability to handle kanji could be seen as marginalizing and infantilizing.

  • 7. Consider, for example, the case of Sei Shōnagon, who in her Makura no Sōshi refers continually to poetry and prose works from China.

  • 8. For example, the mytho-historical chronicles Kojiki (古事記‎, Records of Ancient Matters) and Nihonshoki (日本書紀‎, Chronicles of Japan), and the poetry collections Kaifūsō (懐風藻‎, Fond Recollections of Poetry) and Man’yōshū (万葉集‎, Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves).

  • 9. On mokkan, see, for example, Joan R. Piggott, “Mokkan: Wooden Documents from the Nara Period,” Monumenta Nipponica 45.4 (1990): 449–470; William Wayne Farris, Sacred Texts and Buried Treasures: Issues in the Historical Archaeology of Ancient Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1998), and Lurie, Realms of Literacy.

  • 10. On early printing, see chapter 4 of Kornicki, The Book in Japan, and Brian Hickman, “A Note on the Hyakumantō Dhārani,” Monumenta Nipponica 30.1 (Spring 1975): 87–93.

  • 11. A famous example comes from Sei Shōnagon, who understood her mistress Teishi’s reference to a poem by Bai Juyi and correctly interpreted it as an instruction to lift the shutters of the room (The Pillow Book, trans. Meredith McKinney (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 238).

  • 12. On the connections between poetry and politics, see Gary L. Ebersole, Ritual Poetry and the Politics of Death in Early Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); and Gustav Heldt, The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell East Asia Series, 2008). On poetry competitions and gender dynamics, see Roselee Bundy, “Men and Women at Play: The Male-Female Poetry Contests of Emperor Murakami’s Court,” Japanese Language and Literature 46.2 (October 2012): 221–260, and for a consideration of how the poetry-politics link continued into the medieval era see Robert N. Huey, Kyōgoku Tamekane: Poetry and Politics in late Kamakura Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989). Finally, also consider Thomas Lamarre, who in Uncovering Heian Japan: An Archaeology of Sensation and Inscription (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000) offers a rethinking of Heian poetics as reflecting a diverse world of experience in contrast to the conventional modern view that articulates the emergence of a singular Japanese cultural tradition.

  • 13. For example, regarding the fashioning of gender in diaries see Edith Sarra, Fictions of Femininity: Literary Inventions of Gender in Court Women Memoirs (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

  • 14. See Sonja Arntzen, trans., The Kagero Diary: A Woman’s Autobiographical Text from Tenth-Century Japan (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1997). The work is occasionally referred to in English by the title The Gossamer Years, after a translation by Edward Seidensticker (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1974).

  • 15. This work is also occasionally referred to in English by the title As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, after a translation by Ivan Morris (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).

  • 16. Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan, trans. Sonja Arntzen and Itō Moriyuki (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 112. Although Arntzen and Itō use the term “scroll” in their translation, extant evidence suggests scroll copies of Genji Monogatari were rare and it is much more likely that the volumes in question were bound booklets.

  • 17. On books and reading in the medieval era, see Gomi Fumihiko, Shomotsu no Chūseishi (Tokyo: Misuzu Shobō, 2003); and Ogawa Takeo, Chūsei no Shomotsu to Gakumon (Tokyo: Yamakawa Shuppansha, 2009).

  • 18. It should be noted that warriors at the time were not full-time professional soldiers, and they did not comprise a distinct social class until the early modern era.

  • 19. The most famous gunki monogatari was Heike Monogatari (平家物語‎, The Tale of the Heike), an epic account of the Genpei War (1180–1185). The tale became so well-known that it could even be seen as an early example of something akin to a widespread popular culture.

  • 20. Yoshida Kenkō, Essays in Idleness. The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, trans. Donald Keene (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1967), 101.

  • 21. See, for example, Barbara Ruch, “The Other Side of Culture in Medieval Japan,” in Kozo Yamamura, ed., The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 3: Medieval Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 500–543, esp. 531–541.

  • 22. For an overview of literature and print culture in the Edo era, see, for example, Ichiko Natsuo, Kinsei Shoki Bungaku to Shuppan Bunka (Tokyo: Wakakusa Shobō, 1998), and Fuji Akio, Edo Bungaku to Shuppan Media: Kinsei Zenki Shōsetsu wo Chūshin ni (Tokyo: Kasama Shoin, 2001). On early modern books and reading practices generally, see Nagatomo Chiyoji, Edo Jidai no Shomotsu to Dokusho (Tokyo: Tokyodō Shuppan, 2001); and in English, see Henry D. Smith II, “The History of the Book in Edo and Paris,” in Edo and Paris: Urban Life and the State in the Early Modern Era, eds. James L. McClain, John M. Merriman, and Ugawa Kaoru (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 332–352. On reading and writing practices among early modern women, see P. F. Kornicki, Mara Patessio, and G. G. Rowley, eds., The Female as Subject: Reading and Writing in Early Modern Japan (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2010).

  • 23. Early modern literacy has been a major topic in Japanese scholarship since the work of Ishikawa Ken in the prewar era, although judging how functionally literate people actually were is a difficult conundrum. See Richard Rubinger, Popular Literacy in Early Modern Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007). On early modern education, see Ronald P. Dore, Education in Tokugawa Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965); Richard Rubinger, Private Academies of Tokugawa Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982); and Matthias Hayek and Annick Horiuchi, eds., Listen, Copy, Read: Popular Learning in Early Modern Japan (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014).

  • 24. On the production and consumption of early modern art prints, see, for example, Allen Hockley, The Prints of Isoda Koryūsai: Floating World Culture and Its Consumers in Eighteenth-Century Japan (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003); Andreas Marks, Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks, 1680–1900 (North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2010); and Julie Nelson Davis, Partners in Print: Artistic Collaboration and the Ukiyo-e Market (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015).

  • 25. For many examples of illustrated books offering glimpses of the flavor of the print culture of the time, see the Gerhard Pulverer Collection, owned by the Freer and Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian.

  • 26. On new genres of late-era early modern literature, see Jonathan E. Zwicker, Practices of the Sentimental Imagination: Melodrama, the Novel, and the Social Imaginary in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006).

  • 27. Popular authors included Ihara Saikaku (井原西鶴‎, 1642–1693), who wrote about the love affairs and scandals of townspeople; Ueda Akinari (上田秋成‎, 1734–1809), who wrote tales of ghosts and mysterious happenings; and Kyokutei Bakin (曲亭馬琴‎, 1767–1848), who wrote epic stories about the virtues and adventures of the samurai.

  • 28. On early modern translation, see Rebekah Clements, A Cultural History of Translation in Early Modern Japan (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

  • 29. Because knowledge about the West was almost entirely mediated through the Dutch enclave at Nagasaki, studies of science and other areas of knowledge from the West were known as Rangaku (蘭学‎, Dutch studies). For more on this, see Annick Horiuchi, “When Science Develops Outside State Patronage: Dutch Studies in Japan at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century,” Early Science and Medicine 8.2 (2003): 148–172; W. F. Vande Walle and Kazuhiko Kasaya, eds., Dodonaeus in Japan: Translation and the Scientific Mind in the Tokugawa Period (Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2001); and Terrence Jackson, Network of Knowledge: Western Science and the Tokugawa Information Revolution (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015).

  • 30. On kawaraban, see, for example, Gerald Groemer, “Singing the News: Yomiuri in Japan during the Edo and Meiji Periods,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 54.1 (June 1994): 233–261; and Sepp Linhart, “Kawaraban—Enjoying the News When News Was Forbidden,” in Susanne Formanek and Sepp Linhart, eds., Written Texts—Visual Texts: Woodblock-Printed Media in Early Modern Japan (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005), 231–250.

  • 31. On bookstores at the time, see Suzuki Toshio, Edo no Honya, 2 vols. (Tokyo: Chūkō Shinsho, 1980), and on book collectors, see Okamura Keiji, Edo no Zōshoka (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 1996). Jihontonya can also be read as Jihontoiya.

  • 32. See, for example, Mary Elizabeth Berry, Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

  • 33. On modern technology and its effects on reading and writing, see Kan Satoko, Media no Jidai: Meiji Bungaku wo meguru Jōkyō (Tokyo: Sōbunsha Shuppan, 2001); and Seth Jacobowitz, Writing Technology in Meiji Japan: A Media History of Modern Japanese Literature and Visual Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2016).

  • 34. On translation in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, see Konosu Yukiko, Meiji Taishō Honyaku Wondaarando (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2005).

  • 35. Moreover, many modern writers drew on the premodern tradition, and some devoted considerable time to working on it. For example, as G. G. Rowley points out, Yosano Akiko (与謝野晶子‎, 1878–1942) is known principally for her poetry but devoted a considerable part of her career to work on the classics and in particular Genji Monogatari (“Making a Living from Genji: Yosano Akiko and Her Work on The Tale of Genji,” The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese 25.1 [April 1991]: 27–44).

  • 36. While some popular writers of serial fiction like Sōseki remain well-known in Japan today, others like Nakarai Tōsui (半井桃水‎, 1861–1926) are all but forgotten. Serial novels remained a popular literary format well into the mid-20th century, as evidenced by the work of writers like Yoshikawa Eiji (吉川英治‎, 1892–1962).

  • 37. On newspapers and the civil society, see James L. Huffman, Creating a Public: People and Press in Meiji Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1997).

  • 38. On women’s magazines at the time, see Sarah Frederick, Turning Pages: Reading and Writing Women’s Magazines in Interwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006), and on women producing journals see Angela Coutts, “Gender and Literary Production in Modern Japan: The Role of Female-Run Journals in Promoting Writing by Women during the Interwar Years,” Signs 32.1 (Autumn 2006): 167–195.

  • 39. On mass magazines and Kingu in particular, see Satō Takumi, “Kingu” no Jidai: Kokumin Taishū Zasshi no kōkyūsei (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 2002).

  • 40. On education, see, for example, Donald Roden, Schooldays in Imperial Japan: A Study in the Culture of a Student Elite (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980); and Benjamin Duke, The History of Modern Japanese Education: Constructing the National School System, 1872–1890 (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

  • 41. For a general treatment of Kyōyōshugi and its long-running impact particularly on the education system, see Takeuchi Yō, Kyōyōshugi no Botsuraku: Kawariyuku Eriito Gakusei Bunka (Tokyo: Chūō Kōron Shinsha, 2003).

  • 42. On bookstores in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, see Ozaki Hotsuki and Munetake Asako, Nihon no Shoten Hyakunen: Meiji, Taishō, Shōwa no Shuppan Hanbai Shōshi (Tokyo: Seieisha, 1991).

  • 43. On the development of children’s literature, see Judy Wakabayashi, “Foreign Bones, Japanese Flesh: Translations and the Emergence of Modern Children’s Literature in Japan,” Japanese Language and Literature 42.1 (April 2008): 227–255.

  • 44. On prewar books and print culture, see Rachel DeNitto, “Return of the zuihitsu: Print Culture, Modern Life, and Heterogeneous Narrative in Prewar Japan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 64.2 (December 2004): 251–290; and Susan Townsend, “Lost in a World of Books: Reading and Identity in Prewar Japan,” Literature Compass 4.4 (2007): 1183–1207.

  • 45. On the effects of the earthquake on the publishing sector, see Edward Mack, Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

  • 46. In the postwar era, the culture of the prewar period was often described through the lens of these publishers and the respective readerships they served, most famously by the political scientist Maruyama Masao in Gendai Seiji no Shisō to Kōdō (Tokyo: Miraisha, 1964).

    On the creation of literary canons in modern Japan, see Michael C. Brownstein, “From Kokugaku to Kokubungaku: Canon-Formation in the Meiji Period,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 47.2 (December 1987): 435–460; Haruo Shirane and Tomi Suzuki, eds., Inventing the Classics: Modernity, National Identity, and Japanese Literature (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), and Mack, op. cit.

  • 47. On zenshū, and some of the issues Japanese literary scholars have raised about depending on them, see Yamashita Hiroshi, “Sōseki Zenshū wo megutte,” Sōseki Kenkyū 3 (1994): 184–204, and Kiyoko Myojo, “The Functions of Zenshū in Japanese Book Culture: Practices and Problems of Modern Textual Editing in Japan,” Variants 10 (2013): 257–267. Yamashita has also written an English-language critique of modern Japanese editing practices. See “Fredson Bowers and the Editing of Modern Japanese Literature,” Text 8 (1995): 85–100.

  • 48. On censorship, see Gregory J. Kasza, The State and the Mass Media in Japan, 1918–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); and Jonathan E. Abel, Redacted: The Archives of Censorship in Transwar Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

  • 49. On postwar books and print culture, see Shiozawa Minobu, Sengo Shuppan Bunkashi (Tokyo: Ronsōsha, 1987), 2 vols.

  • 50. Major Western writers have long histories of reception in Japan, often with extensive bodies of scholarship little-known overseas. For example, see Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain in Japan,” South Atlantic Review 65.4 (Autumn 2000): 5–12.

  • 51. Otaku reading practices are centered on absorbing enormous amounts of trivia pertaining to their chosen media, a characteristic that has led to their being seen as symptomatic of postwar Japanese culture as bound up with superficial images and information. In the conception of cultural critic Azuma Hiroki, they are “database animals,” and their consumption patterns, far from being marginal, reflect mainstream tendencies to absorb, and demand, systemic images and plot devices in lieu of genuine meaning. See Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

  • 52. The town, technically a neighborhood of Chiyoda Ward in Tokyo, is also rendered in English as “Jimbocho” (the “Kanda” in “Kanda-Jinbōchō” being a reference to the former Kanda Ward that existed prior to 1947).

  • 53. The festival is called “Kanda Furuhon Matsuri” (神田古本まつり‎). The 2016 one was the 57th.

  • 54. 2016 is the 70th Reading Week.

  • 55. Shomotsugaku (書物学‎, official English title: Bibliology), published three times a year, is an example of a periodical of book and print culture studies aimed at a broad audience.

  • 56. September 2016 figures, from “Hanbai Busū,” Yomiuri Shinbun advertising website. When studying newspapers in Japan, one should be aware of scandals concerning the common, though illegal, practice of oshigami, meaning (basically) overselling newspapers to distributers—a method of artificially inflating the recorded numbers of units sold for the purpose of retaining advertising revenue. The practice, however, was actually more prevalent in the 1980s than it is today, and even with the adjustments—in the region of about 15 to 20 percent—taken into consideration, the figures for newspaper circulation remain impressive. For more on this, see Scott Koga-Browes, “Oshigami: Newspapers Sales Practises Supporting High Newspapers Circulations in Japan.”

  • 57. On manga, see, for example, Shimizu Isao, Manga no Rekishi (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1991); Sharon Kinsella, Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Culture (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2000); and John E. Ingulsrud and Kate Allen, Reading Japan Cool: Patterns of Manga Literacy and Discourse (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009).

  • 58. Insatsu Busū Kōhyō,” Japanese Magazine Publishers Association.

  • 59. This makes gender a particularly fruitful area of research when considering manga as well as popular literature in general. See, for example, Tomoko Aoyama and Barbara Hartley, eds., Girl Reading Girl in Japan (London: Routledge, 2010).

  • 60. These demands become increasingly specific as one moves to smaller readerships: there are, for example, reading communities comprised of women who enjoy stories focused on male same-sex relations with particular characteristics. The meaning of the stories and online community banter among this readership is almost incomprehensible to mainstream readers or those from other, but equally-specific, readerships. See, for example, Patrick W. Galbraith, “Fujoshi: Fantasy Play and Transgressive Intimacy among “Rotten Girls” in Contemporary Japan,” Signs 37.1 (September 2011): 219–240.

  • 61. There has recently been a boom in Japanese scholarship concerning libraries. See, for example, Imai Fukuji, Nihon Senryōki no Gakkō Toshokan: Amerika Gakkō Toshokan Dōnyū no Rekishi (Tokyo: Bensei Shuppan, 2016); Ogawa Tōru, Okuizumi Kazuhisa, and Oguro Kōji, Jinbutsu de Tadoru Nihon no Toshokan no Rekishi (Seikyūsha, 2016); and Takayama Masaya, Rekishi ni Miru Nihon no Toshokan: Chi no Seika no Juyō to Denshō (Keisō Shobō, 2016).

  • 62. On the issue of digitization in the publishing industry, see, for example, Robin Birtle, “The Development and Future of the Japanese Ebook Market,” Publishing Research Quarterly 27.4 (December 2011): 345–353.

  • 63. Studies such as R. R. Bowker’s Global eBook Monitor in 2012 found Japanese consumers overwhelmingly had neither used ebooks nor desired to try them (Jeremy Greenfield, “World Catching Up to U.S. in E-Book Buying Habits, Study Says.”

  • 64. In addition to the growing body of literature on Japanese games, there are also research programs such as the Japanese Games Research Initiative at Leipzig University.