BKAS ESSAY SHORTS No. 6 (March 2021)

Japanese Book Advertising: Tactics, Tropes, and Taboos*

Peter Robinson (Japan Women’s University) 

This BKAS Essay Short is a work in progress, which will be expanded and updated as the research progresses.  In the first part, consideration is given to book advertising produced by the Japanese publisher, Hokuseido Press. Founded in 1914, the Kanda-based publisher, in Tokyo’s famous “book street”, was well-known for its English-language publications, yet its company history remains opaque and little researched. Nevertheless, it published a large number of important works about Japan and Japanese culture by a wide range of Western writers and cultural figures, including Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), and the Japanophile Reginald Horace Blyth (1898-1964), famous for his work on Zen Buddhism and Haiku poetry. The Hokuseido Press was also important for its role in spreading the popularity of Japanese folklore through its English translations, a distinctive genre that emerged after the success of Algernon Betrand Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan (1871). Analyzing the surviving book advertising ephemera of a Japan-based publisher, publishing in English, for a mixed English and Japanese readership, is likely to shed further light on the adoption of Western print culture and printing practices in the lead up to WWII. While book advertising takes a wide range of forms, including on dust-jackets, as batter-matter, at literary festivals, and in reviews, the most direct and targeted were often fliers produced on cheap paper, which would be inserted in newspapers, other publications, and sometime as fly-bills posted on walls. They are nevertheless characterized by their ephemerality and poor survival rate. In the case of Japan, the fires following the Great Kanto earthquake on the 1 September, 1923, have exacerbated their scarcity. Nevertheless, the rare survivors featured in this paper give some insight into the degree to which Japanese print advertising practices adopted and adapted Western consumerism, and the extent to which Japanese readers differed from their Western counterparts. 

*The book advertising fliers for Hokuseido Press featured in this article are courtesy of the Shadowlands Archive. Permission to reproduce any of the images is required in writing from the author. 

Brief Overview of the Hokuseido Press

Bilingual advertisements 

Three of the four fliers featured in this short paper are bilingual. English on one side (in the case of the two fliers) and Japanese on the reverse. Clearly, Hokuseido Press were targeting a mixed readership of English and Japanese. A very interesting question that will be explored in this Essay series, is the fidelity of the translation, and the degree to which effectively a “different book” is being sold to different readers. Here we have parallel advertising narratives. Figures 1a & 1b show a small but vivid orange attention-grabbing flier for the book A Japanese Omelette: A British Writer’s Impressions on the Japanese Empire (1933), by R.V.C Bodley. Although one side is given to English and Japanese respectively, they are not of equal weight or visual complexity. The English side, in addition to bearing all the key information, such as price and availability, also features the image of Major Bodley, in British Army uniform adding to the publication’s credibility. Price in pounds is given in bold, and a Japanese equivalent in smaller, un-bolded font. On the reverse, the Japanese is merely a text description of the work.  Thus, there is a readership hierarchy being established here, which either says something about the readership distribution, or the relative importance of the readers.  A succinct summary of the contents of the volume, a description of Major Bodley’s travels in Japan, is given, ending with the comment, “the volume makes a really entertaining reading”. The contents summary is then followed by six short extracted reviews of the book by British and American newspapers: The Washington Post, The Times, The Daily Sketch, The Aberdeen Press and Journal, The Observer, and The Manchester Guardian. It is from these reviews that the reason why the Hokuseido Press published the volume becomes clearer as his view is sympathetic to Japanese imperial claims and possessions. The Observer notes, “His commendation of Japan’s treatment of the Mandated Islands deserves attention”. 

Figure 1a
Figure 1b

On the reverse side of the flier, the Japanese text is very different. It gives a much fuller biography of Major Bodley, describing his military career and campaign experience. It seems to build up the credibility of the Major’s views on Japan given within the text, a man with understanding of Japanese culture as 'oriental' correspondent of The Sphere. It contrasts the Major’s experienced-based account with recent foreign writers, who are not well regarded or known in their own country, but who write critically of Japan. 

最近海外に於いて認識不足の無名の外人によりて書かれたる我々日本國民の讀むに忍びざる國辱的日本關係出版物が續々發行される時、英國軍人にして小説家、而かも倫敦 「スフィーァ」誌の東洋特派員として日本研究に見識あるボードレー少佐の日本觀?滿州國觀?南洋委任統治諸島の印象?などなど近來稀に見る一快著を得たる事は欣快に耐 えざる次第であります

Whilst recent overseas publications about Japan written by unknown foreigners who lack knowledge of Japan are utterly unbearable for their contents and insult our nation, we are extremely honoured to have one of the finest books in years on the perception of Japan? or Manchukuo? or The South Sea Mandate?, etc., by Major Bodley, who is a British military officer, novelist and the oriental [Asian] correspondent of London's "Sphere" magazine, and who is a person of considerable insight in Japanese studies.

The Japanese text also explains the meaning of the title, which is not explained in the English version of the advertisements: the Omelette refers to the fact that the book is very varied in contests and chapters, rather like an Omelette. 

Japanese Culture

Figure 2a
Figure 2b

The second flier, featured in Figure 2a & 2b is also bilingual, and advertises the book, Dolls on Display: Japan in Miniature by G. Caiger (1933). In this case, the publication is very clearly directed to the Western Tourist. In large orange print the advertisement screams, “The Best Souvenir for Visiting Tourists”. This marketing spiel is followed by more soundbites, “A Book for All ages to Read and Look At!”, and finally, “A Charming Introduction to Japanese national Character!” The advertisement notes that the books is available in “Artistic Japanese Binding” and has more than 80 illustrations, “with several Japanese Prints”. The book itself is a study of the dolls and the legends and stories surrounding them that are used for the celebration of Girls Day (桃の節句 Momo no Sekku) and Boys Day (端午の節句 Tango no Sekku), traditionally celebrated on the 3 March and 5 May respectively. The pushy sales techniques are all evident here. Next to an iteration of the title is a picture of one of the warrior dolls with the caption “Wonderful Value for Such a Low Price”. The price is listed as being [¥] 3.50 plus 32 sen postage, with extant copies showing the dollar price of $2.80. In addition to pitching the illustrations, the artistic binding, and the low price, another selling point was that: “The legends, traditions, and fair stories which surround these decorative little figures, are collected for the first time either in English or Japanese [original emphasis]". At the time, there was a considerable industry in creating small illustrated books featuring Japanese fairy tales, which are now highly collectable. They usually utilised Japanese bindings, paper, and ukiyo-e-techniques, to have an attractive “oriental” flavor for Western visitors. 

The reverse of this advertisement (Figure 2b), is oriented in landscape, and unlike the advertisement for A Japanese Omlette, also includes illustrations. If the warrior figure seemed likely to appeal to Western reader's tastes, the Japanese version features a female doll holding the actual book itself. It is in this sense a highly sophisticated piece of self-referential advertising. In this period, it was common for American products to feature in advertisements, but here we have the content of the book holding and reading the book. The doll in a sense stands in for the Japanese reader, looking at herself in the mirror: it is a way of overcoming the awkwardness of being lectured to on your own culture which was very much a taboo (and hard to admit in a period when Japan was being increasingly culturally assertive on the world stage, with companies such as Yamanaka Shokai). It is an interesting cultural reflection, but worth remembering, however, that many of Japan’s unique artistic customs and art forms were being jettisoned in the pell-mell rush for modernization, and Westerners, especially Europeans, played an important role in studying and protecting marginalized artistic forms that were being lost to modernity. This extended towards preservation of folk culture, as well as the Ainu language here. 

The advertisement also appears to be much more in the style of a Japanese book advertisement of the period, which appeared in newspapers. Use of font and banners as eye catchers and to separate information was already prevalent. 

Figure 3a
Figure 3b

The third and final flier (Figure 3a & b), using the same luminous orange ink and cheap glossy paper as the preceding example, is for the book A Tokyo Calendar (1934) by Frank H. Lee, Prof. at the Peers School (Gakushuin University). In this case, the double-sided flier is mono-lingual in English. The book is essentially a guide to the events and important dates in a Tokyo year, written in a humorous way, with “quaint sketches” by three Japanese artists in the Japanese brush style.  Again, given Lee’s very favourable account of living and working in Japan, it is unsurprising that Hokuseido wished to publish it. A hagiographical extract taken from the book is used on the advertisement which, speaking directly to the would-be-visitor, advises that “Japan is a perfectly charming country in which to live. The people are charming, the climate is charming, everything is charming”. One suspects that Mr. Lee was also charming. Given the intended audience of the book, it is perhaps not surprising that the advertisement was not translated into Japanese. On the reverse, however, there is an interesting review of the book in The Observer, by none other authority than Edmund Blunden no less. It is reproduced in full. Blunden, an important poet, and former teacher in Japan, Oxford Don, and at this time, still very much still engaged with English-language education in Japan (though from the UK), producing several recordings of his poetry for use in Japanese schools and universities. His most pertinent line in the review is, “he [Lee] has seen beyond the occasional bothers and misunderstandings which occasionally embitter some foreigners in Japan; and tells us that as he has not sought out bad aspects, they have not sought or found him”. Blunden was well-qualified to write the review of the rose-tinted book, laced with sentimentalism, summarizing with the words, “a shrewd reply to silly (or worse) misrepresentations of life in Japan”. So, this is an advertisement for a book targeting expats and Westerners soon to stay in Japan, written by a man with 15 years in Japan, recognized as an author, but more often a “sensei”, endorsed by a man of great literary merits and credentials, who had also directly experienced Japan. In a period when the honeymoon period of Anglo-Japanese relations was well over, with the infatuation with all things Japanese waining, he advertisement echoes the sentiments of the book, a carefully choreographed  view of Japan as “misunderstood” and a “victim” of Western Powers. 

Author's note: Research is necessarily pedestrian due to the scarcity of original advertising fliers, and issues of translation. 

Reposted and reformatted with minor revisions, 23 January 2023.