Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


Things You Find in a Japanese Used Bookstore

Posted in Books,Japanese literature,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 28th, 2019

In his 1931 essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting,” Walter Benjamin writes that to a book collector, the attraction lies not so much in the fate of a book as a work, but rather in the fate of one specific copy of that book. For a collector, “the most important fate of a copy is its encounter with him” (Harry Zohn trans.). In other words, a collector gathers up stories of encounters with books as much as she does books themselves. So here’s a story.

Last December we visited Tokyo. Our last afternoon in the city, I was killing time in Kichijoji and wandered into Yomitaya, a used bookstore not too far from the train station. After browsing the stacks, I had to check out the locked glass cases up front, where they keep the good stuff. Immediately catching my eye was an elegant letter, several pages thick and composed in classical style with a writing brush, sent by the novelist Nogami Yaeko (野上弥生子,1885-1985) to yet another novelist, Oba Minako (大庭みな子, 1930-2007). A remarkable find: modern Japanese literary history, connecting Natsume Soseki’s Thursday afternoon salon from the 1910s (where Nogami occasionally visited) to the revival of feminist writing in the 1970s and 80s, was sitting there right in front of me. The price tag said 150,000 yen, roughly $1400–well out of the price range of this collector.

But then I noticed a postcard sitting next to it, wrapped in clear vinyl: a New Year’s card, sent from Oba to Nogami. There was no price tag on it. It was almost time for me to leave and meet up with the rest of my family, but idle curiosity wouldn’t let me go. I approached the clerk at the cash register.

“I’m sure I can’t afford it, but how much is that Oba Minako postcard?”

The clerk at first didn’t know what I was speaking about. We walked over to the glass case and I pointed it out. She unlocked the case and pulled the vinyl wrapper out, looking for a price tag. Finding nothing, she slid the card out–and it turned out that there were actually two different New Years greeting cards in it, both from Oba to Nogami. But still no price tag.

The clerk explained that the owner of the shop was away just then, and he was the one who would know the price. She turned to another clerk and explained the situation. He picked up the phone and tried calling the owner to ask the price. I felt bad, because I almost certainly wasn’t going to be able to afford the thing. I did, however, start asking myself about how high I was willing to go. I had no idea what the price would turn out to be, but decided that I could spend up to 5,000 yen (roughly $45).

They couldn’t reach the owner on the phone, alack. I thanked the two clerks and made to leave the shop when their telephone rang, and of course it was the owner. The male clerk spoke for a minute or two with the owner, then opened up a file on his computer to confirm the details of the item.

He looked up at me and said, “3,000 yen.”

I had my wallet out in an instant, wanting to make the purchase and get out of there before they decided that the price was a mistake. How could I not buy them after all of that?

Below you can see images of the little scrap of Japanese literary history that I picked up in that used bookstore. I have no idea what I’ll do with them, but I knew in the moment there was no way I could leave that shop without them.


1984 postmark

(「新年おめでとうございます。一九八四年元旦。いつも伺ったときのことを思い出しております。大庭みな子」)
“Happy New Year. New Year’s Day, 1984. I always think about the time I visited you. Oba Minako”


December 1982 postmark

(「新年のよろこびをもうしあげます。元旦」)
“Felicitations on the New Year. New Year’s Day”

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