Ghosts of the Eastern Capital15 min read

Trawling Chinese Bookstores in Tokyo – Dylan Levi King


The accounts of the life of an overseas Chinese student in Tokyo almost universally mention bookstores. But if you go to looking for traces of these early exiles, you will be disappointed. The Ginza cafes that Tian Han and Yu Dafu met in to drink wine and talk Ibsen and Hamlet disappeared not long after the Chinese students left. The theaters and bookstores that brought the Chinese students to Kanda are gone. The blooming banks of the Sumida River that Yu Mantuo wrote about in his poetry have been poured over with concrete. Not much is left standing in Tokyo that dates to before the Showa period (1926–1989) and most of the city was turned to rubble in the Second World War and then rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s. But one place worth visiting, if you’re making a pilgrimage, is the cluster of bookstores in Jinbocho in Kanda.

Kanda (now within Chiyoda Ward) was the center of Chinese life in Tokyo, replacing Yokohama (and then being replaced by Ikebukuro and Ueno). From an account of Zhou Enlai’s time in Tokyo:

Zhou’s life in Tokyo was for the most part confined to the Kanda district. Located in the center of Japan’s capital, the Kanda district was the “Latin Quarter of Tokyo.” Just like the Quartier latin in Paris, the area teemed with universities, bookstores, bistros, boarding houses and other establishments, and was filled with the lively atmosphere of student life. …the Chinese students made the Kanda district what it is today–the “antique bookstore district.” They made Japanese antique bookstore owners aware of the value of Chinese classics and made them specialize in Chinese literature.

Zhou Zuoren, the brother of Lu Xun and an important essayist in his own right, remembers: “Lu Xun often went to used bookstores, and when he had a bit of money he also went to look at new books. We found Western-language books at Maruzen in Nihonbashi and at Nakanishiya in Kanda, and German books at Nankodo in Hongo. … Lu Xun also went to Tokyodo to read newly released Japanese books and magazines.”

Even those that lived outside Kanda visited the area. From Tian Han’s diary, October 11th 1921:

It was 4:30 in the afternoon. I went to Kanda for French lessons. Lingering rain had stopped, and the firelike setting sun with its golden light was shining on the glass windows of each household. Taking the streetcar, I passed Iidabashi. Looking outside the streetcar window, I saw a rainbow showing off its colors from an opening in the red clouds. On the way back from my lesson, a bright sun was still hanging in a perfect blue sky. Why I reached the sports field at Waseda, the moonlight seemed to be already within reach and the night air surrounded me: I could hear the sound of music and singing leaking from the brightly lit hotel windows. Climbing a hill and turning back, I saw the Waseda terminal and the colorful electric lights at the Imperial Cinema. The lights shone like a string of luminescent pearls draped around the face of a beautiful woman.

And so, on a grey October morning exactly 96 years after Tian Han visited Kanda for his French lesson, I took the Hibiya Line from Minowa Station to Ueno. The streetcars that the Chinese students rode are now mostly gone (the last runs from Minowabashi Station, a short distance from my apartment, to Waseda Station in Shinjuku). I was headed to Kanda by way of Ameyoko and Akihabara, in search of a book that I thought one of the shops there – or on the way – would be likely to have.

Although it doesn’t hold a candle to Nanjing in terms of bookshops, or Panyu in blunt poetic inspiration, Ueno is one of the centers of the growing Chinese Tokyo. According to the Japan Student Services Organization, there are currently almost 100,000 students from the People’s Republic of China studying at schools in Japan. Many of them study in the areas around Ueno, Nippori and Ikebukuro Stations in north-central Tokyo.

My nomadic lifestyle and the wages of a freelance Chinese translator mean that I don’t buy many books. I make a living translating Chinese fiction, but I live in Tokyo. I always make sure there is a note in my biography about my continuing connection to China – I like to say I split my time between Nanjing and Tokyo – but the truth is that my time on the Chinese side of the East China Sea is always temporary.

Things could have gone differently. There’s another timeline running: Dylan Levi King wakes up hungover in an unfurnished apartment in Panyu, rolls over and shakes the last Hongtashan out of the pack, lights it, walks to the window and looks out over the river to the towers of Haizhu. In this timeline, I translate stories set in remote villages in Shanxi Province or in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and am quietly startled to emerge from my apartment onto the streets of a working class neighborhood in Tokyo’s northeast. I sometimes feel as if I’m – almost – in exile from China. It’s not my country and the choice to live outside of China is my own but I’m stuck with the nagging feeling that I belong there.

With soft rain falling, I headed down one of the alleys off of Ameyoko, nobody around but a pair of Taiwanese tourists pulling suitcases. In the empty street, the rattle of the plastic wheels on the cobblestones sounded like automatic small arms fire. A few yards up the arcade, Iranian construction workers stood in the smoking section outside Family Mart, pulling on menthol Marlboros. A green Yamanote train thundered overhead. The alleys feel like canyons: three and four and five story towers in yellow stucco and grey tile and fake red brick siding and polished concrete rise on both sides. On the top floors, there are hostess clubs, and pachinko halls that bleat with each slide of their doors, even this early. I stopped at one of the kissaten at the end of the alley. After a cup of coffee and a few cigarettes, I went out again to the Ameyoko stalls, which had begun to open.

Here, the language of the city is no longer Japanese. On that morning, I heard: Cantonese, the men in rubber boots going to the food market under the tracks; Fujianese, girls done work in the red light district at Yushima and cutting through the alleys on their way home; and an unplaceable northern accent from a gang of tourists stepping off a hissing double-decker tour bus. In the alleys of Ameyoko, you can order a plate of liangfen and roujiamo with cilantro and peppers and eat it on a bench alongside the Chinese students and tourists and sex workers that come to the neighborhood for a taste of the motherland. In the basements of Ameyoko, there are shops run by men from every one of China’s provinces, autonomous regions and special administrative zones.

In one of the nondescript and mostly abandoned buildings along the alley, on the same floor as an antique camera store and a travel agency, there is a store that sells mostly Japanese language books, alongside a handful of fashion magazines from Taiwan and Hong Kong, second-hand books in hundred yen boxes andthe reason I am being circumspect about naming the shop or being more specific about its locationsome obviously pirated new books. I spent a few minutes in the shop, thought about buying a Chinese translation of a Higashino Keigo novel to be polite, and then went back onto the alleys of Ameyoko, continuing on toward Akihabara.

After the Second World War, Akihabara was a link in the chain of black markets that ran from Ueno Station in the north to Kanda in the south. Later, it transformed into the shopping hub of Akihabara Electric Town, and then it was maid cafes and otaku culture. When I arrive, it’s still too early for the young women in uniforms standing under overpasses flyering for maid cafes, and other, younger women in schoolgirl outfits touting for the JK rifure rooms. The strip of electronic shops are lifting the shutters. The block of Plywood stalls staffed by Gujaratis selling Acer laptops is now dwarfed by the high-tech mega-department stores that attract mainly tourists. Akihabara, like much of Tokyo is now mostly a tourist and shopping district.

Over the Kanda River in Kanda-Ogawamachi, the bright colors of Akihabara fade and both sides of Yasukuni-dori are lined with ski and snowboard shops. A short distance away, another district: the Musical Instruments Town, which occupies the streets around Ochanomizu Station.

Kanda was built around the universities constructed in the neighborhood during the reforms and modernization of the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926). Fire, natural disaster and war destroyed or forced the relocation of some of the schools. The Musical Instruments Town to the north developed following the founding of the Toyo Conservatory of Music in 1907 and the bookstores in Jinbocho began to be established around the same time.

While the bookstores that Lu Xun and Yu Dafu would have frequented are long gone, the Chinese bookstores that remain in Jinbocho in Kanda proved heartening to someone that makes a living translating and writing about Chinese literature. Most of the Chinese bookstores in Tokyo are not meant strictly for the Sinophone diaspora but for Japanese aficionados of Chinese literature and culture. Many works in Chinese are part of the Japanese literary canon. Japan is the birthplace of Sinology, where the study of Chinese literature and philosophy is still taken seriously. The history of cultural exchange between the peoples of Japan and China stretches back to at least the 6th century, when Japanese missions brought back Chinese art, literature and philosophy.

The Isseido Booksellers in particular has a magnificent selection of Chinese books, many of them dating to the late-Qing. They also have one of the finest collections of early Sinology. You could spend days browsing rare books that include volumes by Sir George Staunton and Joseph Needham and obscure 19th century and older works like Stephen Weston’s 1812 Siao-cu-lin; or a Small Collection of Chinese Characters and James Legge’s translations of Mencius and Confucius.

But Uchiyama Shoten was my true destination in Kanda.

Uchiyama Shoten, although founded by a Japanese bookseller is an export from Shanghai. As Japan turned toward nationalism and war, Uchiyama Kanzo, a Christian convert and a pacifist with leftist sympathies was looking for a chance to escape. After the Revolution of 1911, he saw a trip to China as a patent medicine salesman as a good way to stay out of trouble. Beginning with a box of religious tracts and paperbacks packed in a Kirin box, he started a Christian bookstore.

Japan’s one-yen book boom and an appetite in Shanghai for Japanese books allowed Uchiyama to expand his operations. The bookstore became a conduit for avant and leftist books into China and a meeting place for Shanghai literati, which included local writers and translators as well as Japanese exiles and Korean intellectuals taking refuge in Shanghai following Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910. Although Lu Xun never visited this store, he frequented the bookseller’s literary salons, held on the upper floors of the building. Lu Xun became particularly close with Uchiyama Kanzo and once hid out in the bookstore for a month after hearing rumors of plans to arrest him.

Uchiyama died in Beijing in 1959 and the store in Shanghai was eventually replaced with an ICBC. The branch of Uchiyama Shoten in Tokyo was established in the 1960s in Setagaya and only later moved to Kanda. Ibuse Masuji in An Ogikubo Almanac makes the oft-quoted observation that Ogikubo was for third-rate writers, Omori was for popular writers, and Setagaya was for leftists. I’m not qualified to evaluate the accuracy of that remark but Setagaya remained a stronghold of the Japan Socialist Party through the 1960s. The late-1960s in Japan saw a new interest in China, as the leftist student movement took a fresh look at Mao and sympathetic movements in Southeast Asia and South America. But the relocation to Kanda – the former center of Chinese intellectual life in Tokyo – is fitting.

It still feels to me as if Uchiyama Shoten stocks a certain type of book, with a bias toward recent mainland fiction and friendlier toward the vision of the Chinese nation promoted by the Chinese Communist Party. It’s a different type of store than Toho Shoten and the handful of other stores in the neighborhood that sell Chinese-language books. I knew that I would find the book I was looking for at Uchiyama. Cao Naiqian’s memoir Four Times Over was waiting for me on a shelf in the corner of the store’s ground floor.

In the late afternoon, I took Cao Naiqian’s book and walked up Kokusai-dori to Minowabashi Station and took the streetcar. After Otsuka Station, I stood in the back of the car as it climbed the road beside Asukayama. I thought about the passage from Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood about this streetcar:

I sat in the last seat and watched the ancient houses passing close to the window. The tram almost touched the overhanging eaves. The laundry deck of one house had ten potted tomato plants, next to which a big black cat lay stretched out in the sun. In the garden of another house, a little girl was blowing soap bubbles. I heard an Ayumi Ishida song coming from somewhere, and could even catch the smell of curry cooking. The streetcar snaked its way through this private back-alley world.

The walk from the Toden Arakawa Line’s Higashi-Ikebukuro-Yonchome Station to the larger Ikebukuro Station is a walk from Showa Japan, Japan that the Bubble economy never really touched, to modern Japan. The station is ringed by department stores and alleys with restaurants and girls bars catering to the salaryman commuters that stop here before riding an hour into the suburbs of Saitama.

Chinese residents and sojourners have made Ikebukuro a new Chinatown. If you want to eat suancaiyu or maoxuewang, you can find it there; if you want to buy an unlocked phone with multiple SIM slots and do it in Minnan dialect, there’s a shop in Ikebukuro; in a city that seems to encourage racist landlords to fuck with you, you can find a rental company in Ikebukuro that will find you a place in no time; and when see what the rent is going to be, there are legit (and less-legit) employment agencies that will have you working the same day.

This is an essay about Chinese bookstores in Tokyo but the truth is that there aren’t many left. This is a revelation I’ve buried here, toward the end of the essay. I had come to Ikebukuro, the new center of Tokyo’s Chinese community, hoping to find at least a few bookstores, maybe in the narrow streets north of the station. I spent a few hours walking the area, asking in Chinese grocery stores about the possible location ofanything. I would have settled for a DVD shop with a few copies of Epoch Times laying around.

Ikebukuro was my last hope. I have left out of this essay the legwork I had done, trying to track down bookstores in the city based on rumors and suggestions from friends. There was a store in Kabukicho, someone insisted, near a Chinese grocery store but I never found it. I walked from Shin-Okubo Station to Okubo Station, where there was a rumor of a bookstore in Hyakunincho. Maybe I went down the wrong alleys, but I didn’t see any sign of the shop.

I was nearly back to Ikebukuro Station when I stumbled across a sign on the sidewalk announcing a Chinese bookstore on the second floor of a building that looked like every other building in Ikebukuro, with the same types of businesses: Chinese restaurants, a Chinese grocery store and a karaoke place.

Wenshengtang Chinese Bookstore in Ikebukuro looks like the type of bookstore that you find on the ground floor of suburban malls in second tier Chinese cities. The selection is varied: kids books, erotica, self-help books, racks of DVDs, fashion magazines. I leafed through a hardcover edition of Pai Hsien-yung’s Taipei People, a book I last read in university, and read the first paragraph aloud. There was nobody in the shop.

I put the book back on the shelf and took the stairs down to the street. On the streetcar home, I wondered to myself again how to end this essay. The visit to Ikebukuro had closed the loophole I’d made for myself. But it also hadn’t offered any apparent conclusion. I had been overly optimistic: Tokyo might have once been an important city to Chinese literature but it should only be written about in the past tense now. Like those students that haunted Jinbocho’s bookstores in the twilight of the Qing Dynasty, I was caught in the wrong timeline.

It’s a thought that occurs to me often, doing this kind of work, and while I am in bookstores like the ones in Jinbocho. How many of the Chinese students went from Tokyo’s cafe culture and political meetings and bookstores into exile or back home to have their dreams beaten out of them? Their poetry was consigned to the trashcan of history – or maybe to a bottom shelf hundred yen box in a seemingly abandoned bookstore in a nondescript building in in Ameyoko or Ikebukuro. ∎


Photographs by Dylan Levi King.