[Travel] Tokyo – the experimental bookshop Matsuoka-Maruzen

Masa Matsuoka - one of Japan's foremost men of letters - managed the experimental bookstore Matsuoka-Maruzen between Oct 2009 to Sep 2012

Seigou Matsuoka [松岡正剛] (1944 – present) – one of Japan’s foremost men of letters – managed the experimental bookstore Matsuoka-Maruzen between Oct 2009 to Sep 2012

Matsuoka-Maruzen [松丸本舗] , an experimental bookshop that operated from Oct 2009 to Sep 2012, is a foremost example of places in Japan I love that no longer exists.

It was located on the 4th floor of the flagship store of the bookshop chain Maruzen, in a building called Marunouchi OaZO, near Tokyo Station. In other words, it was an experimental bookshop located within a traditional bookshop. When I was working in an office nearby, I used to spend many happy hours during lunch and after work, whiling away in this place.

A traditional bookshop would categorize books into fiction and non-fiction; they would put books into sections such as children’s books, adult books, manga, magazines; to save bookshelf space, they would put books on different shelves depending on the size of each book; they would also put the newest publications in prominent display.

Matsuoka-Maruzen was the exact opposite of that. To begin with, they grouped books by themes. For example, in a corner called ‘Youth,’ you would find publications across all genres – manga, fiction, nonfiction, photo albums – that have something unique, precious, groundbreaking or poignant to say about the subject of youth. These books may be in Japanese or in English. They may be printed in A6 size or A4 size. What’s more – Matsuoka-Maruzen cared nothing for putting the latest releases in prominent display. Instead, each book you see on the shelves had been carefully selected for its originality, depth and cultural impact – in other words, a timeless classic.

The idea for such an experimental bookstore was first floated by Seigou Matsuoka [松岡正剛] (1944 – present) – one of Japan’s foremost cultural critics and men of letters. It is said that he personally selected all the titles on the selves of Matsuoka-Maruzen.

Matsuoka-Maruzen was my favorite place in the whole of Japan. And now it is no more.

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4 thoughts on “[Travel] Tokyo – the experimental bookshop Matsuoka-Maruzen

    • I suppose the answer for that is very simple – No demand, no sales. No sales, no profit. No profit, debts and liabilities. And then you have to stop. Or perhaps it did run, but not good enough and something more profitable came to replace it.

      I am a bit surprised such a place even existed in the first place. In the era of online-shopping the book store in and out itself is dying. (I am still crying after the Japanese Book Off in Paris…) To have such a non-mainstream book shop appears to me like a predestined massive economical suicide.

      Which reminds me of something else, I’ve been wondering. I remember when I was in school and went ahead to read Goethes Faust (I+II). Leave alone the other students who probably through I was crazy to do that volutarily – My teacher actually was completely shocked. She then asked, how far I was and I told her, I was just starting to read II. She got even more shocked. (Well, admittedly, nothing of II really sunk in properly, I’ve ever wanted to re-read it and didn’t get around to it.)
      Does that happen in other places as well? That the sight of a student reading the World’s classic literature is a reason for being shocked?

      That reminds me of something else yet.
      I’ve had a really nice delight last year in that I saw a announcement of some family who was vacating a little appartment-mansion, because they would sell it. The grandfather had just recently died. (Who was a former teacher, spoke several European languages and obviously had a considerable interest in music, its history and operas). He was having two rooms ramp full with books of classics and other non-fiction books. There was just so much stuff in that collection, you don’t really get to see nowadays. The family basically only put out the announcement, because they were working and did not want to move all the masses of books into the trash themselves and pay for the trash container. Unfortunately they were also in a hurry and I had to work as well, so I was only able to show up twice and fetch about 70kg of books. In between the first and second visit on of the rooms had been emptied – I don’t know if there was a second person, or if all of it went to the trash bin. I hope the first. On my second visit I wasn’t able to get all the rest and I am pretty sure, it went to the trash bin.
      I also remember how the adult son (a fresh or soon grandfather himself) of the deceased had sneered a “You want THAT? Really?” when I asked, If I could also get a pack of books, he was just about to throw into the bin. (I am pretty sure, he saw me as a greedy unsatiable moocher with no self-esteem who even wanted trash.)
      This is just one thing I will definitely completely miss in the advent of ebooks. The chances to see and rummage in such collections will dwindle or even completely disappear. People let me take it all now, because they are to lazy to throw it all away themselves, but a pack of data is easily deleted without any further effort.

      Although I still haven’t read through all of this massive pile and it probably will hold up for another five years.
      This pile also leaves me with ambivalent feelings. I am hold a little fraction of a huge collection of a person with taste I never came to know and I only grazed the path right it it’s dead end because the person with taste had left the world.
      It’s kind of sad to know, that one only gained knowledge about something engaging by it getting destroyed.
      Which is the same thing with this book shop. I never ever heard of it. I only head of it, because it died and the mourning about it here. And I think, I don’t really want to know that much more in detail what I have actually missed by never having seen the shop. It would probably be a very sad issue.

      • Well, at least Jinbocho – literally an entire neighbourhood with nothing but secondhand book shops – seems to be still getting on okay. I suspect the retail space of a lot of the shops there is owned directly by the proprietors (ie. they have already paid off the mortgage or have owned the place since forever) so they do not have to worry about rent.

        Jinbocho is now my favourite place in the whole of Japan by default.

        I read a lot of ‘grown-up’ stuff like Faust when I was in high school too. From Catullus to Ovid, from Henry James to Oscar Wilde. I was already beyond caring about what other people thought.

        In terms of reading books in general, my impression is that more and more I come across people who are either one of the extremes. There are people like the teacher and the family you mentioned who cannot understand why someone would like to read a book. And then there are people who think it perfectly natural that one should have read all the stream of consciousness stuff by James Joyce cover to cover and so forth. For some reason, I seem to be always running into these outliers, and not people with average reading habits anymore. I wonder why.

        • I never heard of Jinbocho before. Should I ever get to Japan, I probably have to check it out. (That is, should I get my Kanjis learned by then…)

          Hmmm. My impression is more like the “elistist know them all” (even when they don’t really) or the “bestseller lists readers” and some of those hidden inconspicious people, like the deceased former teacher – they are just totally invisible to me. And there is another type, the “I collect them. I don’t read them.” I have a neighbour who is buying a lot of books (Since we both buy a lot of books, but aren’t at home all the time, we get to get a bunch of each others packages to be handed out. Since book shipping is a marked shipping method, it’s clear the shipping would be a book). We’ve had a bit of a talk and I was like, I actually (intend to) read what I get and he was like, he enjoys getting pretty books to marvel at their beautiful decoration.
          Imo, the second category of the bestseller lists folks are what is widely considered as having “average reading habits”.
          I think that might probably be even more true in America. I’ve had a talk with an American, who is also a Yoshinaga fan. She wasn’t very enthusiastic about Ooku, simply because the English translation opted out on translating it in a sort of Sharepearean English. I thought it was pretty cool. She disliked it a lot, because to her it’s like almost reading a foreign language.

          I wonder what category I would fall into. I’m definitely not really broadly nor deeply read, but I also don’t think I am really unread, not am I the averade bestseller list reader. My reading habits are just by a huge part guided by mere chance and other whims of fate.

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