[Ed. Note: Today's post comes from Mike Williams, a Japanese Specialist here at the Penn Libraries]
For many years, a faded assortment of colorfully-bound but unassuming Japanese books sat relatively undisturbed in the East Asia stacks, perhaps examined once or twice, but almost never circulating. These items—small, aging, and brittle—were retired from active browsing and sent to the Penn Libraries’ High Density Storage facility (now LIBRA).
The Libraries’ bibliographic records for these books were mostly bare-bones: brief catalog cards bearing limited romanized information with additional material in Japanese were soon replaced by digital records—with all of the valuable “vernacular” script stripped out. Now buried even deeper than before in storage, this treasury of early 20th century fiction lay in wait for someone to dig them up again.
Volumes of Penn’s Japanese juvenile pocket fiction collection
So dig I did. Armed with a stack of original cards from the East Asia card catalog and data freshly harvested from the Libraries’ Data Farm, I was able to get all of the books unearthed and shipped right to me. These diamonds-in-the-rough—or perhaps, roughly-hewn gemstones, given their panoply of colors and well-worn condition—proved to be much more interesting than I had imagined.
Scope of the Collection
The collection of early Taishō period (more properly, very late Meiji through early Taishō) fiction held at the Libraries is a snapshot of early 20th century Japanese publishing history. These 188 small books (roughly 12.75 cm high by 9.25 cm wide) largely contain tales of bravery and adventure: reimagined samurai swashbucklers, ninja-turned-heroes, fantastic journeys, and wars of glory. The romanticized bygone days of the post-medieval Edo period (1600-1868) provided a wealth of material for young urban readers.
Only two of these volumes stand alone as “single works”—the remaining 186 were all issued as volumes in a series (generally numbered). The Penn Libraries’ holdings of these pocket books span a few series, none of which are completely owned. The majority of these books feature a series bibliography in the form of publisher’s advertisements (found after the colophon page, generally located at the end of Japanese books). Whether or not these had been published or merely planned is not clear. Even Nichigai Associates, an information specialist company whose bibliographies are enormously helpful in identifying Japanese materials in print, draws complete blanks on some of the titles Penn holds. Of the ten series represented in the collection, Nichigai’s “Catalog of Series in Japan 1868-1944” lists only four—and none of these are without incomplete portions. In fact, some of these series and titles are truly unique at Penn, with no records of them in libraries or used book networks worldwide. With scant publication records in existence, the best source of describing what may have existed is the items themselves—many of which, of course, no longer exist.
While the Penn Libraries is still in the process of enriching our catalog with careful description and Japanese scripts, the following series bibliography with the number of volumes owned of each can be offered: Bushidō bunko [武士道文庫] (3 titles) ; Katsudō bunko [活動文庫] (2 titles) ; Kaiketsu bunko [怪傑文庫] (2 titles) ; Kodan bunko [講談文庫] (3 titles) ; Okamura kōdan sōsho [岡村講談叢書] (6 titles) ; Shidan bunko [史談文庫] (30 titles) ; Shūchin bunko [袖珍文庫] (10 titles) ; Shūchin Okawa bunko (AKA Shūchin shosetsu bunko) [袖珍大川文庫・袖珍小説文庫] (61 titles) ; Tachikawa bunko [立川文庫] (61 titles) ; Taishō bunko [大正文庫] (8 titles).
Of these, the focus of much scholarly research and nostalgic reminiscences has been the Tachikawa bunko series.
Tachikawa Bunko: Popular Fiction and the Birth of the Heroic Ninja
The stories that formed Tachikawa bunko and enthralled their readership trace their origins back to the spoken-word performance art of kōdan in the latter half of the 20th century. Kōdan featured stories of heroism and wars, delivered in a dramatic and colloquial but certainly professional style. These tales eventually formed the basis for a genre of literature called sokkibon, or to use J. Scott Miller’s term, “phonobooks”. Stenographers of kōdan used newly-imported Western techniques for shorthand (sokki) to transcribe the narratives of performers into readable texts. These printed stories, written with a decidedly oratory style, proved to be hugely successful in the greater Osaka area. With the proliferation of sokkibon as a literary genre, authors familiar with the kōdan and sokkibon penned their own stories in the same vein, conflating the functions of both storyteller and transcriber.
It was from the minds of professional storyteller Tamada Gyokushūsai (1856-1921) and his second family that the wildly popular stories of Tachikawa bunko were conceived. Born Katō Manjirō, Tamada trained as a tale-teller under the first Gyokushūsai, who specialized in Shinto religious tales. After Gyokushūsai’s death, Katō assumed the mantle of his former mentor. Tamada’s first wife and child died of cholera, but later he became acquainted with a woman named Yamada Kei (1855-1921). Kei, already a married woman, ran off with Tamada and brought her children with her, eventually settling in Osaka.
Tamada, his wife, and his stepchildren (in particular eldest son Otetsu) collaborated on creating stories for publication. Eventually, the idea of a serialized sokkibon publication occurred to the family, who shopped around the idea with little success. Finally, the proprietor of publishing house Tatsukawa Bunmeidō, Tatsukawa Kumajirō (1878-1932) received their idea with enthusiasm and began publishing their stories under the name Tatsukawa bunko, which was mostly referred to with colloquial pronunciation Tachikawa bunko.
The books were marketed chiefly to a juvenile audience, mostly the poor teenage apprentices of the Osaka area. Designed to fit easily into the pockets of these working youth, the Tachikawa bunko volumes priced between 25-30 sen (a now obsolete unit valued at 1/100 yen). Although poor apprentices could not afford to spend all of their pocket money on reading material, Tatsukawa Bunmeidō offered a novel trade-in deal: a new volume could be purchased by trading in an older volume, with an additional 3 sen trade-in fee. Of course, readers borrowed and lent titles amongst their friends as well.
Frontispieces from four Sarutobi titles published in Tachikawa bunko. Art by Hasegawa Sadanobu III
Between 1911 and the mid-1920s, roughly 200 titles were produced to meet the rampant demand (the exact number of books is uncertain—see the Notable bibliographies of Tachikawa bunko at the end). The content of these books were largely jidai shōsetsu, or historical fiction. But the character that provide to be the breakout success of the Tamada-Yamada creative team was ninja Sarutobi Sasuke, or “Monkey-Jump Sasuke”, who debuted in 1913 in volume 40 of Tachikawa bunko (Penn owns a 1916 edition, and a reproduction of a 1914 edition). A fusion of historical and fictional accounts of ninja with the skills of legendary literary hero Sun Wukong (known in Japanese as Son Gokū), Sarutobi Sasuke was a new type of ninja, largely unfamiliar to his readership. Rather than serve as a villain corrupted by the dark arts of ninjutsu, Sasuke was a spritely and mischievous antihero who used his myriad magic powers for virtuous ends. Sasuke continued to appear in other Tachikawa titles, and his popularity heralded the rise of a “ninja boom” that lasted until the latter 1920s.
With the death of Tamada in 1921, the Yamada family’s literary efforts waned. Tachikawa Bunmeidō continued to operate and reprint earlier titles of the series, up until the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Tachikawa Bunmeidō continued to publish until early 1945, when an air raid on Osaka destroyed their offices, records, and all of the printing plates within.
Tachikawa Bunko in Comparison
Each volume of Tachikawa bunko was bound in cloth in one of seven colors (red, blue, yellow, green, orange, black, or purple) with spines featuring the full title in gold leaf. Almost every book featured a frontispiece by ukiyoe artist Hasegawa Sadanobu III (1881-1963). These artistic merits surely appealed to their readership and lent an air of literary legitimacy to these cheaply produced books.
Lining paper patterns from six of the ten pocket fiction series owned by Penn
As the forerunner of the “bunko boom”, Tachikawa bunko became something of a household name. Imitators of Tachikawa’s success such as Taishō bunko and Shidan bunko (both held in part by the Penn Libraries) sold well, but continued to be compared to and grouped under the generic trademark of Tachikawa bunko. Many competing series, many published in Osaka and others in Tokyo, modeled their look on the Tachikawa books. Bound in bright colors, given elaborate spine designs, and some featuring their own frontispieces, these books are on first glance indistinguishable from Tachikawa bunko volumes. Indeed, seeing all of these volumes together in bulk, I had thought they had all been published by the same company. Take a look at the photo from earlier on: the Tachikawa books each have a five-petaled flower on the lower half of the spine; the other books are all from competitors.
Lining paper spreads from three of the ten pocket fiction series owned by Penn
While Tachikawa bunko and other Osaka-based bunko sets focused largely on historical fiction and fictional historical personages like Sarutobi Sasuke, Tokyo publishers drew on the wealth of existing national literature. Shūchin bunko, for instance, reprinted many classics of Japanese literature, from the 8th century Kojiki to Edo period novels. The similarly named but distinct Shūchin Ōkawa bunko took a more middle-road approach, publishing biographical fiction of well-known warriors along with classical war stories like Genpei seisuiki and the Edo samurai tale Nansō Satomi Hakkenden.
The Tokyo-Osaka/East-West divide can be further noted in that the exploits of the Tokugawa clan, the family who held the shogunate of Japan during the Edo period, are treated with very different tones depending on the locality. Osaka area bunko stories painted the Tokugawas, particularly Ieyasu, as villains to be thwarted, while Tokyo-based bunko featured them as heroes. These conceptual differences notwithstanding, competing publishers did feature some of the same notable personages, whose exploits were unaligned with regional sentiments.
Frontispieces from two stories about legendary Zen monk Ikkyū:(left) from Ikkyū zenji (series Shūchin Ōkawa bunko), artist unidentified; (right) from Shokoku man’yū Ikkyū zenji (series Tachikawa bunko), artist Hasegawa Sadanobu III
Many more pocket fiction titles similar to Tachikawa bunko existed as well. An exhibition held at the Himeji Bungakukan in 2004 featured representative volumes of at least 18 other series. One of these titles, Poketto sōsho, measures roughly two times smaller than Tachikawa bunko, at a diminutive 9 cm high by 6.5 cm wide. See the exhibition catalog Tatsukawa Kumajirō to Tachikawa Bunko: Taishō no bunkoō for details.
The Future of the Collection
Some of these materials may not exist anywhere else in the world, and are extremely unlikely to be reprinted. Although some reproductions of Tachikawa materials exist, these are largely out of print as well, and do not offer a complete reproduction of the series as a whole. As the Penn Libraries embark on a reevaluation of the bibliographic description for these precious items, some of which Penn uniquely holds, we are exploring options for the preservation and access to their content.
I would like to thank: Joe Kishman and the staff of LIBRA for kindly and carefully shipping these fragile materials to me; PJ Smalley for scanning help; and all the ILL staff who helped me procure articles and books for my research.
For further reading and bibliographical information about Tachikawa bunko… Continue reading »