An Interview with Tsuyoshi Toyota, Founder and Owner of Doyosha (土曜社), the Japanese Publisher of “Books With An Attitude”

Tsuyoshi Toyota, founder and owner of Doyosha, an independent publishing house in Japan

Doyosha is a small independent publishing house in Japan. Its motto is “books with an attitude”. Some of the books Doyosha has published include Cowboy Kate & Other Stories, the pioneering photographic essay by Sam Haskins and a Japanese translation of A Cloud in Trousers, a key work in the Russian Futurist movement by Vladimir Mayakovsky.

A Doyosha title @ Bleak House Books (Build Your Own Independent Nation by Kyohei Sakaguchi)

Bleak House Books recently started to carry some of Doyosha’s unique titles, including Build Your Own Independent Nation by Kyohei Sakaguchi, a polemic of sorts against the problems that plague Japan and other industrialized nations today.

Unlike car or computer makers, most publishing houses are unknown to folks outside of the specialized circles in which they operate. For a publisher like Doyosha, however, the task of reaching an audience is even harder. For one Doyosha is comparatively small (its startup capital was 3 million yen or the rough equivalent of HKD $213,000.00).  And it specializes in titles that are in Japanese and mostly outside the mainstream as far as literary trends or tastes go.

We wanted to change that and decided one way to do so would be to give the founder and owner of Doyosha, Tsuyoshi Toyota, a platform here at Bleak House Books. Hence this interview, which we conducted with Tsuyoshi over email.

Tsuyoshi was nice enough to agree to do this interview even though we would be asking him questions in English rather than in Japanese, his native tongue. He responded to our questions in English and asked us to edit his answers for readability and clarity, which we did. We then sent Tsuyoshi the edited responses and sought his approval for our edits, which he gave us. What follows is the result of that process.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself — where you grew up, where you went to school, your favorite subjects in school, kinds of jobs you’ve had during and after school, your favorite baseball team or player if you have one, and anything else you want to share about yourself with our readers.

I was born in 1977 in the valley of Koga, a hidden village of Ninja. It was a place without any bookshops of any kind. So my family and I lived without books for a long time. The only reading material we had regular access to was the national paper, delivered every morning by post.

I remember my grandparents had put up photos of Japan’s Imperial Family around the house, and I used to think that the people in the photos were relatives of ours. Little did I know!

When I turned eighteen I went to Tokyo to start my university studies at Keio University. I majored in economics. I lived very close to campus — about five minutes by foot. My living quarters were small and sparsely furnished. It consisted of a single room, about nine or ten square meters with no kitchen, bathroom or air conditioning. But none of that mattered to me since I spent most of my waking hours in the university library, staying until closing time, which back then was 10 pm.

After I graduated Keio University, I got a job at the university press. The best part of the job was getting the same special access to the university library that professors had. Floors that were closed or books that were off limits to me as a university student were now up for grabs. It was a wonderful feeling!

Although I’ve been an independent publisher for the last nine years, my dream is to run a private library of my own one day.

 

I assume you read a lot for school. Did you do any reading outside of school as well? If so what kinds of books, comics, or other material did you read? Did you have a favorite writer or illustrator growing up? What about now?

When I was in school I worked in two bookstores part time. I’ve also worked in publishing for almost twenty years. So I’ve done a lot of reading, yes. Up until now, however, I feel like I don’t have a favorite book. You can say that I’m still on the hunt for that “great” book. To me that search is what makes life interesting and meaningful.

 

What led you to start your own publishing house?

Doyosha’s (土曜社) logo; Doyosha means Saturday in Japanese

There was never any question in my mind that I would go into the book business. The only question was how to go about doing it and where I would get the money. I had a few options like opening a library, a bookshop selling new or second hand books, or starting my own publishing house. I knew I didn’t have enough money for the first two options. But I had just enough — around 3 million yen — to publish 2 or 3 books, which is how Doyosha came into being.


Doyosha means Saturday in Japanese. Is there a story behind that name and if so what is it?

Coming up with a name for a publishing house in Japan is not a terribly creative activity, I’m afraid. A lot of it is based on tradition. Some names come from old time China, others from the West. Doyosha is a traditional Japanese name. In Japan some publishing houses are named after the days of the week.

 

According to its website, the tagline for Doyosha is “books with an attitude”. Can you share with us the meaning behind that statement and more generally the philosophy behind the kinds of books Doyosha publishes? In other words, what do you look for in a book before you decide that this is one you’d like to make a part of Doyosha’s library?

The tagline “books with an attitude” is based on the name of a rap group called N.W.A. or Niggaz Wit Attitudes. The idea for the tagline came from an author whose book we published at Doyosha and we decided to use it even though I don’t really listen to rap music myself.

That doesn’t mean I’m without “attitude”. I have plenty of it if you should know. One thing that gets me worked up the most is seeing how our over-programmed, over-worked lives, coupled with heavy doses of TV and smart phones have destroyed our reading culture. But my opinions don’t factor into deciding what books we publish at Doyosha. I want our books to have “attitudes” or voices of their own.

 

What’s a typical work day like for you at Doyosha?

My day usually starts at 9 am and ends at twilight. I spend most of the day reading proofs. At around 5 pm, the courier service comes to pick up books we need delivered to our customers. Then I spend about 20 minutes cleaning up my work space, and that’s when I call it a day. Sometimes during work I walk to a nearby bookshop called Daikanyama Tsutaya Books which is about one minute away, or to Shibuya public library, about 10 minutes.

 

Where Tsuyoshi spends most of his workdays

 

 

Last question: here in Hong Kong there is often a lot of hand wringing or concern about the lack of a reading culture, especially for pleasure or self-fulfillment; not that people aren’t reading in Hong Kong, but they’re reading stuff in bits and pieces and on a wide variety of devices and media platforms, the least of which are books. Is this a concern or trend that also exists in Japan? If not then what is your take on why Japan is different in that regard? If this is a concern or trend that exists in Japan what is your prognosis for Japan as a society that reads?

When I visited Hong Kong in 2004, I had a hard time finding good bookstores or vinyl shops (the one exception on the vinyl front being HMV). At times I saw people in Hong Kong who appeared to have carefree, fun lives, but for most people there, I thought they were very busy with work and family. Busy talking about business. Busy spending time with family. And busy getting to and from work. To be honest, I liked Hong Kong as a city but found its arts and reading culture somewhat lacking.

If you ask me what we need to do to create a environment that will be less hostile to readers I would say that we need to be more careful with how we manage our time, space and money. That means people, in Japan and elsewhere, should opt for quiet lives surrounded by books and family rather than leading the life of a global consumer, always on the road or watching TV.

The ‘Google Rabbit Hole’

It probably isn’t news to most folks that we have a large collection of vintage (pre-1960s) paperbacks. They occupy a special place on our bookshelves and we occasionally feature cover art from these wonderful books.
Recently a customer from the U.S. visited our website (www.bleakhousebooks.com.hk) and bought one of the rarer titles we had in our collection: Massacre by James Warner Bellah. We asked him if he would be willing to tell his story as to how he came about this book, its author, and our bookshop.
 
Here’s what he had to say:
 
I discovered James Warner Bellah (and Bleak House Books) quite by accident. I had long been a fan of director John Ford’s western films, particularly his “Cavalry Trilogy” shot in Monument Valley from 1948 to 1950. Watching the credits of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” I noticed that one of the screenwriters had an unusual name..James Warner Bellah. As I plunged down the Google rabbit hole, I learned more about his life and writing about the Frontier West, the Civil War, his military background and his involvement with the movie industry.
 
But, his writing is hard to come by. His Western work mostly consisted of short stories that appeared in magazines in the 1930’s and 1940’s..magazine like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post that are long gone. His novelizations and short story collections (there are only a few) were put out as paperbacks and are not easy to find. It was one of my periodic online searches that led me to Bleak House Books.
 
Despite all the security and privacy concerns we share about today’s online technology, there are some wonderful things about it. Despite my visits to used bookstores, tag sales and library book fairs, it was the web that enabled me, a reader in Connecticut, USA, to find an out-of-print paperback about the U.S. Cavalry in a book shop in Hong Kong, run by an ex-Atlantan. Pretty amazing.
We think so too!

San Po Kong: A Photo Essay

Because Ye Olde Bookseller has shop duty for this weekend’s San Po Kong Arts Fair/Walking Tour — Bleak House Books is a scheduled stop during Saturday’s events — he decided to go on his own walking tour through San Po Kong today. This photo essay is the result of that tour.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Pricing (Books)

We’ve noticed that folks may be wondering how we price our used books. So here’s a rough and dirty guide to what consumes a lot of our time at Bleak House Books.

First, it is important to remember that prices for commodities are almost always arbitrary. That’s true for cars, vegetables, houses and even books (new or used). There is no all powerful pricing authority that dictates what one can charge for say a 2010 orange Honda Civic or a 1949 first edition of George Orwell’s 1984, and even if there was the prices set by such an outfit would themselves be arbitrary.

The general rule of thumb is that one charges what the market will bear, and used book shops like ours are no exception.

There are important caveats to that rule, however. The most important being that the prices we assign to our used books are ones we think are fair and reasonable given the current marketplace.

That means that when we price a used book we almost always look to see what a book of the same edition is fetching on the open market. Our go-to source for that is Abebooks.com, which is a robust, respected online marketplace for used books made up entirely of independent sellers from all over the world. We won’t do that for a 2012 mass market paperback edition of The Hobbit, for which we are well equipped to price without reference to the market. But we estimate that around 70 to 80 percent of the books we sell are priced using the above method.

But looking at similar books on the open market is just the beginning. Not every book one sees listed online provides an appropriate price comparison to the book we are trying to price. When someone runs a search on Abebooks.com for a certain book the search engine will always bring up the least expensive listings of the book first. These listings usually do not have actual images of the books featured in them or descriptions of the book’s actual condition. Some might be ex-library copies or have heavy annotations in the text box. But there’s no way of knowing. Hence the attractive price tag.

What happens next is probably the most time consuming but also the most important part of the pricing process – finding the online book listing, or listings, we believe provide the best guide for what we should charge for our copy. It helps if these listings have images of the books taken by the seller but that’s not always necessary. Having a true, individualized account — not some copy-and-paste version one sees with the cheaper listings — of the book’s condition is just as good, and usually more important than having an actual image. Of course this means we need to have a handle on the condition of the book we want to price and sell which we always do, as reflected on our own online listings. It then becomes a game of match where we pick the book listing or listings which inspire our confidence and also come closest to being a mirror image of our book.

After that the last step is to take into account the book’s unique features, if any. A book that’s signed by its author or whose cover is drawn by a famous artist might have its price adjusted to reflect that. Books we’ve bought and had shipped here from, say, the U.S., might require a higher price tag to take into account our added costs, or sometimes we simply eat those costs as the price of doing business as a used book store in Hong Kong. The point is that there are a host of outside influences we take into account when pricing a book even after we have a rough idea of what it might go for online.

Our hope at the end of this whole process is to arrive at a price that will inspire confidence and trust in Bleak House Books as an independent seller of second-hand books. And if folks ever feel like we are not living up to that promise please do tell us. We are usually open to comments and critiques – it will depend on the day of the week and what mood folks here are in. But hey at least you got your two-cents in!

The Squeeze

George Orwell once described the independent bookstore business as “a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” [If you read the rest of what he wrote about working in a bookshop (Bookshop Memories 1936) you’ll find that that was about anything good he had to say about the experience; in fact his disliked the work so much that he said it caused him to “los[e] [his] love of books”.]

He was right in part. If by vulgarized he meant commercialized then yes there is a limit to how much an independent bookstore can be beholden to the corporate behemoths that have come to dominate much of the publishing and book retail industries. Indie bookstores are best when they strike off on their own path and become a part of the community in which they operate rather than becoming another faceless chain retail entity. But as we all know too well indie bookshops have fallen victim to “the squeeze” in other ways; by simply dying off and never coming back. Hong Kong is no exception.

Our hope here at Bleak House Books is to buck that trend and to show folks that an indie bookstore can eke out an existence even as “the squeeze” is still with us; indeed, infinitely more so than that which existed in Orwell’s time.

So here’s to used books, new friends and humble beginnings!

— Albert Wan