Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Mitsuo Nitta

Mitsuo Nitta

My father started in the book trade when he was fourteen years old, working for Ganshodo, in its day the Foyle’s of Japan. It was an enormous business in Jimbocho, the bookselling district of Tokyo, and had branches all over Japan and one in Korea and Taiwan. My father was educated at Ganshodo’s own school, which enabled him to work part-time in the business before becoming a full-time employee at the age of seventeen. In 1932, when he was in his mid-twenties, my father left the firm to start Yushodo, his own bookshop. This way was a rather traditional way of independence at that time when starting from zero.

My parents acquired very small premises in Jimbocho and started selling new and secondhand books on economics and political science. Their customers were mainly young professors at the universities in Tokyo, who would spend their free time browsing in the bookshops in Jimbocho. My father became something of a patron of young scholars, lending them money for their book collecting.

At the height of the Second World War, the shops in Jimbocho went out of business when the area was closed for military reasons and was burned down during the bombing of 1943. My parents moved to the country where they were born and my father found work at the local library. In 1950 he returned to Tokyo to find Jimbocho completely devastated by enemy action. He decided to start a mail-order business from home, having wisely stored two tons of books from his shop in the safety of the country before he had to close his shop in 1943 to take refuge away from Tokyo.

While I was at High School, I used to help my father by delivering books on my motor cycle. I had no particular interest in the book business and wanted to become a Certified Public Accountant. After graduating from Waseda University in 1956 with a degree in Accountancy, I had the chance to receive a scholarship for a short time as an exchange student to the University of Michigan’s Summer Library Studies Session. A number of my father’s clients had suggested that I should go to the United States before deciding on my future.

It was a most unusual experience for a young Japanese as only eleven years had passed since the War, and I felt very privileged. On the journey to Michigan, I stayed with Muir Dawson’s family in Los Angeles. Dawson’s Book Shop had a great reputation for selling Japanese books and was well known in Japan. Muir and his family made me very welcome and we’re good friends to this day. After two months in Michigan, I moved to Hackensack, New Jersey, the home of Fred Rothman, bookseller and publisher of law books. All the time I was improving my English and learning new aspects of the book business as well as having a lot of chances to visit university libraries.

Perhaps my most valuable experience was yet to come – three months with Kraus Periodicals in Marmoneck, NY, learning the back numbers and scholarly reprint business. H.P. Kraus and his family and the Kraus staff were very kind and introduced me to the world of American business. There was tremendous business to be done in buying library duplicates and it was with this in mind that I returned to Tokyo after one extremely formative year abroad.

By the time I got home in 1957 the Japanese economy was showing the first signs of recovery. All attention was focused on the United States where tremendous advances were being made in science, medicine and technology. The Japanese were keen to study these developments and there was a huge demand for American academic publications. From 1939 to 1950, the import of academic journals and printed books published overseas had been more or less suspended, with the result that there were many vital gaps to be filled. From my experience with Kraus Periodicals, I realised that the gaps in Japanese collections of foreign periodicals could be filled from American duplicates. In most cases these could be bought for a dollar a time and easily sold in Japan for US$10.00. Through the support of my father and many active librarians and the American dealers, I had the good fortune to be able to establish Yushodo Co. in 1960 in Yotsuya. This location is now the site of our main office.

Between 1962 and 1970 I made many trips to the United States, developing the back numbers business. Towards the middle of this period, the Chinese Government began to take an interest in stocking its university libraries, and we were able to act as agents between the United States and China at a time when they were barely in contact. For many years after the War, our business was almost entirely restricted to institutional clients. There were enormous problems in making foreign payments, for which permission had to be granted by the Japanese government, which necessarily favoured requests on behalf of institutions. To this day, university libraries account for 80% of Yushodo’s turnover.

Inevitably the supply of American duplicates began to run out and, by the 1960s, I was turning my attention to the scholarly reprint business. The market for such material was growing all the time. From the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, around 200 or more new universities opened in Japan, all having to build a library from al- most nothing. I collaborated with the Kraus-Thomson Organisation, as it had then become, and other strong American and European dealers and reprint houses and we invested in numerous joint publishing ventures. Most of the modern Japanese universities now possess complete runs of essential academic journals in reprint. Yushodo also pioneered microfilm publishing in Japan, this business having been learned from Gene Power of UMI when I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We also pioneered the development of digital archives.

Apart from the standard academic literature, newly founded universities also wished to possess a rare book collection. For the sake of prestige, they wanted to own primary sources of important texts in the history of Western culture, for example, the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare, a copy in original boards of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, a complete set of the Kelmscott Press and so on. I’m not surprised that the Japanese edition of Printing and the Mind of Man was one of Yushodo’s most successful and influential publishing ventures for the creation of the occidental rare book market in Japan.

In 1970 it was possible to open our rare book business. At about the same time, Warren Howell of San Francisco and Nico Israel of Amsterdam came to Japan and suggested that we should get together to form the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Japan. This enabled us to participate in the activities of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, of which I am very proud to hold the title of ILAB Member of Honour. I believe that Yushodo was the first Japanese bookseller to take part in a foreign antiquarian bookfair when we exhibited in New York in 1970. By 1975 we had established our own Yushodo international and antiquarian bookfair, to which we continue to invite distinguished foreign dealers. They send us their books and we manage the fair on their behalf.
 From 1975 to 1995, Japan was a tremendous force in the global market for antiquarian books. Our economy was booming and universities were competing against each other to acquire treasures for their rare book collections.

Many Western dealers regarded Japan as one of their most important clients. But it remained very difficult for foreigners to sell directly to Japan, and the business was largely conducted through Japanese dealers. Most of the clients were institutions whose budgets were partially granted by the government. Complicated negotiations were often required, and there was a lot of paperwork that was easier for local dealers to process. These were the boom years for the Japanese trade, and an enormous amount of foreign rare books crossed the Pacific, for example, I bought from dealers such as John Fleming, H.P. Kraus, Jake Zeitlin, Colin Franklin, Heritage and Quaritch over forty Shakespeare Folios.

At one stage I owned so many copies of the first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations that dealers suspected me of trying to control the market price. Yushodo also handled five complete sets of the publications of the Kelmscott Press. Amongst all the private presses, the Kelmscott, established by William Morris in 1891, holds a special attraction for the Japanese. The output of the press is well documented and there are only 53 books, which makes it an attainable goal for the wealthy collector who aims at completeness.

A good reference library is essential for foreign bookselling in Japan. I have always encouraged my staff to buy reference books. Japanese librarians are greatly reassured if we can show them relevant bibliographical literature before they make a purchase. Over the years Yushodo has amassed a large bibliographical library on Western books. Named after Konrad von Gesner, the father of bibliography, the Gesner Library is open to the public for research. In 2002 we published an annotated catalogue of the collection which runs to over a thousand items, com- memorating Yushodo’s 70th anniversary since its foundation by my father in 1932. The catalogue spans bibliographical literature from J.R. Abbey’s Life in England in Aquatint and Lithography to Zeitlin & Ver Brugge’s catalogues. To encourage the study of Western books in Japan, we inaugurated the Yushodo Gesner Award, given every three years for outstanding works in bibliographical studies.

Training for the rare book business in Japan largely consists of watching the boss. For many years, our present Antiquarian Book Manager Tomoaki Kagota, who succeeded Kiyonori Araki, watched what I was doing. He noticed that I was not good at Latin or French and set himself to learn them. He also mastered the use of reference books and the Internet, having surpassed me in both skills. Now he is my antiquarian manager in charge of a department of four people with a turnover of £2 million a year in imported antiquarian books. We now sell about five percent of our stock from our website, but the vast majority of Japanese clients prefer to come into the shop or to visit bookfairs. They want to handle a book before they buy it although, of course, they consult the Internet to compare prices.

By and large the taste for collecting Western antiquarian books is confined to the older generation in Japan, who have money to spend and often the experience of living abroad. The book collecting mentality hardly seems to exist among young Japanese. The present state of the economy is not the only reason, as plenty of young people still have a lot of money to spend.

I’m always trying to encourage the taste for book collecting. A few years ago we founded the Grolier Club of Japan, and the Japanese Association of Bibliophiles of which I am the Secretary. The Grolier Club of Japan aims at a younger audience and has around 300 members. The Bibliophiles is a very exclusive organisation with only thirty-five members, most of whom are distinguished collectors, librarians and writers. The President is Professor Shoichi Watanabe, who has an internationally renowned collection of books on English philology. I collect private press books printed on vellum, and signed copies of 20th century French literature, an interest that began when Pierre Berès sold me the library of André Maurois.

Since becoming 70 this year, I have been thinking deeply about how Yushodo should survive into the future after my period, and I have listened carefully to the suggestions and advice of my family, our managers, our clients and especially our overseas friends. I don’t want to follow the example of so many great book businesses where the boss becomes indispensable and the company dies with him. The Yushodo group of companies has 80 employees with a total turnover of nearly US$30 million. Many of my employees have families to support, and I feel a great responsibility toward them. In 2002 Yushodo celebrated its 70th anniversary, which is considered a significant milestone in Japan. In the words of Tu Fu, the eighth century Chinese Poet, ‘It has been rare since old times that one lives to be seventy’. I am deeply grateful to all my friends and colleagues who have given me so much support over the years, and made it possible for me to handle occidental rare books in the very different cultural context of my own country.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in October 2003



Mitsuo Nitta

A Poland & Steery Co-production