There’s something about local bookshops that irks even Japanese people

When you’ve lived in one country all your life, it’s easy to take things for granted and accept the everyday as “normal”. However, once you travel overseas, your eyes are opened to an entirely different way of life with new rules and systems, and while some may be better and some may be worse, some may have you scratching your head as to why they came about in the first place.

It’s a topic that’s fascinated our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa ever since he went to England to find fame with the spirit of Yngwie Malmsteen last month. Over in London he found ramen unlike anything he’d ever tasted before, and an unorthodox sushi joint that opened his eyes to a different kind of “normal”, so when he struck up a conversation with an American in Tokyo recently, he couldn’t wait to ask him if there was anything that he found unusual about Japan.

▼ Seiji’s American friend, who’s been named “Atsugiri Dave” for this story.

“Atsugiri Dave” — whose name is a play on “Atsugiri Jason“, an American comedian who comments on weird quirks of society on TV with the question “Why Japanese people?” — has been living in Japan for five years, so he’s gotten used to a lot of Japanese quirks by now. However, there’s one thing he still hasn’t gotten used to — in fact, it’s something that’s so annoying and frustrating that it still makes him livid just thinking about it, and it’s got to do with Japanese bookstores.

Atsugiri Dave’s “Why Japanese people?” question:

“How come books by the same author are located on different shelves in Japanese bookstores? I don’t know the meaning of this, yo!”

Tacking the Japanese “yo” particle at the end of the sentence, where it adds extra emphasis, Atsugiri Dave was obviously perturbed by this Japanese quirk. And when Seiji heard this complaint, he could relate immediately. It is, in fact, true that books by the same author are located on separate shelves in Japanese bookshops, and it’s something that gets on Seiji’s nerves as well.

However, there’s a reason why book sellers arrange their paperbacks this way, and it’s because they’re arranged not by the author’s name, but by the name of the publisher.

Atsugiri Dave’s response to this was:

“Even though I can speak Japanese, I don’t know where books by a certain author are. The publisher has nothing to do with the end customer. Foreigners can’t find books in bookstores here.” 

Seiji agreed that this is an inconvenient way of arranging books, as there are so many different publishers it’s hard for even Japanese people to find the title they’re looking for. In contrast, there are small bookstores in small towns that do arrange their books by author instead of publisher, and finding a book in those places is super fast and stress-free.

This got Seiji thinking, “Why was it decided that books should be separated by publisher anyway?” After all, it makes it difficult even for Japanese people to find the book they’re after, so who came up with this organisational system in the first place?

He decided to get to the bottom of this conundrum by talking to Kinokuniya, one of the country’s leading bookstore chains. He headed to the chain’s head branch in Shinjuku and asked them, “Why are paperbacks separated by publisher instead of author?”

They replied:

“If the publishers are scattered all over the place searching becomes difficult.”

Seiji couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing.

“Huh? Difficult for who?”

Kinokuniya replied:

“The customer.”

Wow. So bookstores arrange their paperbacks by publisher instead of author so that books are easier for the customer to find. Seriously? Well, it’s a kindhearted gesture that’s certainly backfired.

For some reason, in a land of convenience like Japan, some things are surprisingly inconvenient, like looking for a book by your favourite author at the bookstore. On the bright side, though, we suppose this system does force readers to go one step further and pay more attention to the publishers of books.

And we’re thankful at least that they don’t stock books piled high in massive displays resembling swirling towers. Oh wait, they do 

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