Transcription by Moe Ishibashi
Translation by Carina Fushimi
Photography by Sherry Zheng
Yoshitaka Haba at the Bach Inc. Studios in Omotesando, Tokyo.
The founder of renowned book curation service BACH joined us for a conversation about what it means to curate books and why this form of media is both unique and essential.
You began your career as a staff worker at a chain bookshop in Tokyo. What led you to this job?
I took that job because I didn’t have another offer. I studied politics in the law department at Keio University, which is a quite rigid and traditional place. Everyone was signing with trading companies and banks, but that didn’t quite feel right for me, so I didn’t do any job hunting.
Instead, I took the money that I’d saved from working night shifts at the post office in Nihonbashi and went backpacking. First I wanted to get my English to a decent level, but the US was too expensive, so I went to Canada. I had heard that there were a lot of Japanese people in Vancouver and Toronto, so I went to Ottawa and attended a short program at a university called Carleton for two and a half months. After that, I carried my Gregory backpack and set off, but rather than just blindly traveling around, I decided to create my very own Haba Festival Tour. For example, Montreal was close to Ottawa, and I really wanted to go to the jazz festival in Montreal. Caetano Veloso, the Brazilian musician, happened to be performing there that year and I also really wanted to see the techno and house musician Carl Craig and Innerzone Orchestra. Later I visited New York and went to Strand Books and the New York Public Library. At the time I really liked Detroit techno, and I particularly liked the DJ Jeff Mills, so I decided to see where he was doing residencies. I also loved the architect Alvar Aalto, so I went to see the bookshop that he designed in Helsinki. I went to see Koetalo, an experimental house and summer vacation home in Jyväskylä. I even went to see the Tour de France. I travelled all around in pursuit of the things that I wanted to see.
Nowadays, even if university students float around for a year, there are all sorts of systems for getting hired by a company, even if you’re not a fresh graduate, but back then there was nothing like that. When I returned to Japan I had no work experience, nor was I a fresh graduate anymore, so I was struggling without a recruiting system for someone in my situation. But even a guy like me could apply to Aoyama Book Center, so I did just that.
"The good thing about books is that they all contain threads. In other words, they contain all sorts of topics."
As you can see, I have lots of different interests. My mother loved modern Japanese literature, such as Yasunari Kawabata, Naoya Shiga, Junichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai, Masuji Ibuse, and Soseki Natsume. I read these kinds of books for a long time. But at university, even though I was studying in the politics department, I found a fascinating class by a teacher called Yukio Kondo who had been a curator at the National Modern Art Museum. He was a specialist in Constantin Brancusi. That’s how I became interested in art.
The good thing about books is that they all contain threads. In other words, they contain all sorts of topics. Whether it’s art, political economy, architecture, food, if you’re a bookseller you can connect anything to what you like. I liked the idea of working at a bookshop because I thought I’d be able to weave threads between books and make connections. At bookstores, you do everything. You put the apron on, work the register, open and inspect deliveries early in the morning. If books get stolen, you might even put in beeping sensors. In the meantime, you arrange the books that were delivered that day for your section on the flat table, and place orders based on the sales. We were doing all of that on a normal day. But the reality was that the pay was very low. Aoyama Book Center actually folded shortly after, but I was working at the location in Roppongi and the good thing about that shop was that it was open until late at night, despite the fact that Tsutaya wasn’t around yet. There wasn’t any internet at the time, so graphic designers and employees of architecture studios would come to my branch in the evenings, looking for references. I happened to be in charge of buying for architecture and design, so it felt very rewarding to get the opportunity to interact with these kinds of people.
What does the role of “book curator” mean to you? Is it something you had imagined you could do professionally, or was it a surprise?
This career unfolded very much by chance. I was offered to do a project, then I continued working on projects one by one. Every time, I felt like something was missing but I kept building on my daily lessons and realizations.
Being a book curator involves a number of roles. Nowadays, we retrieve information through online searches, so people only pick books that they’ve heard of. I want to create opportunities for people to pick up a book they haven’t heard of by chance and I want these opportunities to be dotted around in all sorts of places. Another characteristic of book curation is the importance of interviews and conversations, in order to learn about the values of a place to which we are bringing books. If we simply bring a book that we like, it’s just intrusive. But instead of using surveys, we bring a lot of books and then feel out the responses of people in that space. This is really important. Right now, a lot of our projects are public libraries, company libraries, and hospital libraries. The more unusual projects are in zoos or schools.
Let’s take the hospital library as an example; say we’re making a library for people with dementia in the psychosomatic medical department. We bring a load of books and an elderly woman comes in accompanied by her aid. When they take a look at our books, we might realize that the woman can’t really hold big, heavy volumes. Turning the pages of a paper book can actually be quite a laborious task. By watching people interact with the actual books we’re thinking about, we discover things like some books are heavy or the writing is too small or we should go for color because B&W isn’t legible. Through this kind of investigation, I want to choose books in a site-specific way, so that they align with a particular place.
“I want to create opportunities for people to pick up a book they haven’t heard of by chance and I want these opportunities to be dotted around in all sorts of places.”
Recently, I’ve also been thinking about the importance of how the chosen books are displayed. If books aren’t presented with care, they don’t reach people. For our current project in a public library, we’re even thinking about the flooring, though we won’t be the ones overseeing that. More specifically, we’re thinking about having hard flooring for the new books section in order to encourage movement. The philosophy and psychology section is carpeted, but thick, plush carpets make people stay longer. Also, art books are big, so the presence or absence of a table that you can put the book on affects people’s desire to pick it up.
Libraries across Japan put a lot of effort into sections that highlight local reading materials. It may be obvious to put a chair in front of a bookshelf, but what is the best height for that chair in this particular place? Is it better for the chair to be hard or soft? We’re examining different kinds of chairs and doing field experiments to figure this out. Before, we didn’t have to think about these things as much, but nowadays it’s harder for books to reach people, so we are careful about the details in the surrounding environment. Earlier today, I was participating in a renewal project for the Kanagawa Prefectural Library. It was built by the Japanese modernist Kunio Maekawa who apprenticed with Le Corbusier, so the space is very important. It’s a renovation, so we’re thinking about how to maintain the Maekawa-ness, while renewing its core. Our work goes beyond the book.
1. Giant robot figurines created by Yoshiyuki Tomino and Sunrise's eponymous science fiction media franchise.
When and why did you begin to love reading?
When I was in elementary school, I tended to quickly spend my pocket money on Gundam¹ and plastic models. Then, I’d go to the bookshop. It was a small business in the countryside so my siblings and I could buy books on a tab. I would ask for a book, and they would answer, “Ok, here it is. It’s Haba-kun, right?” My mother would pay for it at the end of the month. Now that I’m a parent, I see how children buy books based on their parents’ reaction. They wonder, “If I ask to buy this book, what would mom think?” Even though it was a small bookshop, they had children’s literature, picture books, natural science manuals, manga, and magazines. I was able to pick anything and I think that experience had a big impact on me. It’d be nice if there was a bookstore in LA where you could put books on a tab, but I was only able to do that because our town in Aichi Prefecture was a very small community. The shopkeeper knew my parents and I knew the shopkeeper. Maybe having that freedom was what sparked my love of reading
What is one of the first books you really loved?
That’s a difficult one [laughs]. The ones I remember are, The Ant and the Watermelon, and Curry Rice is Scary! from Eiko Kadono’s “Achi the Ghost” series. I was into swimming from the age of 3 to 18, so I loved ocean adventure stories and anything to do with the sea. I really liked Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
When I got a little older I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in my penultimate year of high school. I still remember it to this day; it was so epoch-making, it felt like being struck by lightning. The reason why it had such an impact is because until then I used to read with the desire to understand something. But Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is a saga that spans generations of the Buendía family. They go to a place called Macondo and the book tells the story of prosperity and ultimate downfall. While reading it, you’re thrown into massive confusion. As a Japanese person, it’s particularly difficult to remember the names, since all sorts of something-Buendías appear. And, it’s written in the magical realism style that’s characteristic of and distinct to Latin American literature, so you’re like,“What? This person didn’t die!” I remember a part where a grandchild that passed away is suddenly resurrected from the dead. I didn’t really get it, but I continued reading anyway. When I finished, I still felt like I didn’t understand what had happened, but it was still really interesting. That’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I learned the joy of not understanding something—the greatness of not being able to “get it”—from Garcia Marquez.
How can someone teach the love of reading to another person?
I think that reading is living healthily. For me, reading is not so much about getting lost in the world of a novel for a few hours. It’s more about how something you learn or pick up from a book creates an effect in your daily life. Something starts to move. For example, a book might prompt me to think, “Maybe I’ll try waking up 10 minutes earlier,” or “How about I call mom,” or “I’m going to send this kind of message to that person.” I want reading to be something that uplifts daily life, even if only in small measures. I think the best way to communicate the joy of reading is to express that liveliness to others every day. I wouldn’t say this is a way to “teach,” but if you’re naturally enjoying reading, I think that communicates an atmosphere of joy.
What have been your favorite book curation projects so far?
It’s difficult to choose a favorite, because we’re very dedicated to every project. The one that was most challenging was making a library for visually impaired people in Kobe Eye Center at the beginning of 2017. It was my first time creating a library for people who can’t see. I researched a lot online, read books, and conducted interviews. The starting point was acknowledging that people who are completely blind and people who have amblyopia need completely different books. That project took a lot of time. Recently, audio books have really developed and there are all sorts of new apps. You can actually listen to all kinds of books. But through my interviews, I found out that people prefer real human voices over Siri-like automated voices. I also learned that audiobooks have almost progressed too much and fewer blind children can read braille,so I am conscious of encouraging them to learn braille too. We had scratch and sniff books as well. The technology for fragrance printing, which allows you to smell something if you touch it, is progressing. When blind children read these kinds of books—one, for example, smells like curry—they are so surprised because they were expecting sensory input through their ears, but it comes through their nose!
There’s a picture book author named Mayuko Sannomiya and a book of hers comes to mind. It portrays the journey of a train arriving at a station, departing that station, and then getting to the next station. It’s incredible. [Reading out loud]: “Tururu-train-departing-pshh-gororo-dotandotan-dotandotan-dotandotan-tatatsutsu-tatatsutsu…” The author is blind, by the way. If an able-bodied Japanese person was asked, “How does a train sound?” they’d answer, “gatan goton” (chugga-chugga). But here she really thought about and broke down each syllable. I was moved by how good her hearing is, and that inspired me to search for poetry that deals with onomatopoeias and books that sound interesting when read aloud.
Some other patients were able to see before but their sight had diminished. They can’t read text but they can make out certain photos. Between B&W and color, color is the clear preference. And among color photos, between soft-focus, floaty images and high contrast images, sharp contrast is better. While no one recognizes Daido Moriyama’s photos, people get the Kishin Shinoyama ones. And among Kishin Shinoyama’s works, the series Idols 1970-2000 was the most popular. He captures actors and celebrities from the 1970s through the 2000s. For example, when Japanese people think of the ’70s, they think of Μomoe Yamaguchi. Everyone who is now in their 50s or older fell in love with her, so when you tell a middle aged man with a lazy eye that there’s a photo with Momoe Yamaguchi lying down in a swimsuit,he’ll bring the book up right to his face to try to see it [laughs]. Or you might say, “Hideki Saijo is on a bike wearing briefs.” I realized that the important thing for many people with vision impairment is not figuring out what they can see, but what they want to see.
2. The Kobe earthquake, also known as the Great Hanshin earthquake, occurred on January 17, 1995 and was Japan's second worst earthquake of the 20th Century.
And since the project was in Kobe, I asked people about the local Hanshin Tigers Baseball Team photo books, about famous moments from Koshien (National High School Baseball Championships), and about Kobe’s landscape before the big earthquake² in 1995. Then I looked for visuals based on these conversations. I asked myself whether it’s really possible to create bookshelves that match such a site-specific place, for people who can’t see. This isn’t a “favorite” project per se, but it left a strong impression, partially because of how challenging it was. It was a project that allowed me to deepen and sharpen my methodology.
“Upon first glance, it may seem like we’ve created connections between things that are totally unrelated, but even people who wonder, “Why is this placed here?” become tempted to reach for it out of surprise.”
How do you make connections between books that are not from the same genre or discipline?
We call this “editing for books.” Upon first glance, it may seem like we’ve created connections between things that are totally unrelated, but even people who wonder, “Why is this placed here?” become tempted to reach for it out of surprise. I think about how to create an element of surprise on a daily basis. I think the spirit of book curation lies in using my imagination to make connections between books that I’ve read.
“While I’m reading, there’s a chest of drawers in my mind that will open when it occurs to me that two things might go together.”
It’s difficult to explain how I do this. It’s not like I take notes when I read, or that I’m constantly thinking things like “Wouldn’t Junichiro Tanizaki go well with this kind of book?” It’s a lot more intuitive. While I’m reading, there’s a chest of drawers in my mind that will open when it occurs to me that two things might go together. I combine things that might be nice together, but there’s no clear method. I might compare it to freestyle jazz. And yet the interesting thing about books is that the connections are never necessarily right. No matter what connections we draw, someone else might think we’ve done it the wrong way. The important thing is to make these connections, little by little, so that someone might become a bit curious about a topic they were originally indifferent towards, or that they assumed had nothing to do with them.Sometimes these connections happen only when I bring the books that I’ve selected to the project site; there’s even an element of live performance.
3. JAPAN HOUSE is a project with locations in Los Angeles, London, and São Paulo that promotes appreciation for Japanese innovation and cultural production including art, design, technology, and gastronomy.
Taste is very subjective, especially for art forms like books, cinema, and music. How do you take into account that you might not know what your audience will like?
As I mentioned earlier, I start by conducting interviews. With the JAPAN HOUSE³ project, there wasn’t enough budget to go to São Paulo or Los Angeles for the interviews, but I spoke to acquaintances who either knew LA well or had lived there before. The ones who were Dodgers fans would beg me, “Please just include Hideo Nomo.” I received all sorts of suggestions. A single voice is important, and the reason it’s important is related to the specific characteristic that books have as a form of media. What I mean by that is, nowadays many forms of amusement or entertainment are made to be shared. The attitude is, let’s share anything. We can watch YouTube together, we can log into games and play together. Generally, everything happens with others, but, in general, you can only read books by yourself. Reading forces you to be alone. I think that’s an interesting and special quality of books. People say that’s a disadvantage, but I personally think it adds richness to life. Book curation is not so much about creating something that everyone will think is good, but rather about creating an experience that operates on an individual scale. I try to uplift small voices as much as I can.
“Information that has been polished doesn’t just become more accurate—it becomes more condensed, and the author’s spirit gets condensed into it.”
What makes a book first catch your eye?
It’s always the book as a whole. There are some I’m just pulled towards. It might be its energy. Discernment is a skill that anyone can pick up if you keep looking long enough. It’s like how a sushi chef can tell the quality of tuna just by making a small cut. When we go to buy books, we’re in a warehouse with countless volumes and we can only see the spine. But there are some that you can just tell will be good. The arrangement of the typography will express that some books are intense or have strong identities. I am attracted to this strength. It’s not simply a matter of good or bad graphic design. Some books have had souls poured into them.
How do you measure if a book is successful or memorable? What makes it so?
Defining success is hard. I understand memorable, though. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a very personal thing to connect with books, so I think that it’s important to find something that is significant to you rather than going by what everyone else says is good. I’m not interested in bestsellers, so when I suggest a book to someone I do so in hopes that it will stay in their memory. I think there is also an important difference between paper and digital. In a digital format, you can make updates at any time. In other words, there’s no end. But with paper books, the proofreading day (the day you hand things over to the printer) is the final day. Once you’ve passed that you can’t fix it anymore. Because of that, you polish. You read and reread so many times. You check if your postpositional particles are okay. You make sure the rhythms of the sentences feel right and that the photos are communicating what you intend. Information that has been polished doesn’t just become more accurate—it becomes more condensed, and the author’s spirit gets condensed into it. I don’t know if books like these will be successful, but I do think it’s easier for them to become memorable.
On the contrary, what makes a book unsuccessful?
I don’t think there’s such a thing as unsuccessful when it comes to reading. I don’t really think there’s such a thing as success or failure. There are books that align with who you are now versus books that don’t. I think unsuccessful is too strong a term. Books are things that typically wait for you. Even if the contents of a book goes in one ear and out the other, there’s still potential for you to understand it at some point. The important thing when that happens is to keep that book. Don’t sell it, give it away, throw it away, or do the KonMari method on it. Instead, put it in a place where it will often enter your sight. I put books that I couldn’t continue reading in the restroom. I call them books that aren’t ready yet. When you look at the book every day, there will suddenly be a day when you feel like going for it.When you quickly take it into your hands, you’ll make surprising progress. Books don’t always create an immediate realization that they were worth reading; they can have delayed effects. When you can grasp that reading is like planting seeds—and you don’t know when those seeds are going to sprout—then you will understand that there’s no such thing as an unsuccessful book.
Science fiction author Ursula Le Guin once said that it is authors’ responsibility to spark people’s imaginations so that they can begin to dream of different and better futures. Do you think that literature has a social responsibility?
I don’t know if literature has a responsibility, but I do think that it has a role. Stories can allow you to trace feelings or imagine things that can’t actually happen. In Ursula Le Guin’s case, she might have been focused on the future since she wrote science fiction and fantasy. But I believe that any story that traces the inner life of someone else, someone who is living a life different than your own, will have an impact. If you look at the sales figures, fiction is gradually getting tougher to sell, but I think there are some things that can only be conveyed through fiction.
Are you worried about the future of books?
There are lots of things I’m worried about, but the thing I’m most worried about is that the competition for our time is too intense. Right now, it’s possible to surprise, entertain, and impress people with a few hundred words or a film that’s thirty seconds long. But there’s no such thing as a book you can read in thirty seconds. Reading takes time. The more time you spend, the deeper you can dive in. But everyone says they don’t have enough time, so the time they spend with books is decorative, a bit like going to the gym. What I mean by that is, exercise is something you can do at home, but people go out of their way to pay for an expensive membership so they can go work out. Gyms aren’t really about working out. They create a system so that you set aside time to exercise. Maybe reading is going to become a bit like that. Maybe you will pay for a membership to read in a certain place, just to ensure that you set aside time for reading.
“Books are things that typically wait for you. Even if the contents of a book goes in one ear and out the other, there’s still potential for you to understand it at some point.“
4. Japanese word for the innate spirit or power of language
How can we continue to make books indispensable? What is the role of authors in this? What is the role of readers?
It’s undeniable that there’s a movement against books. But, instead of looking at it in a pessimistic way, I think we should find ways to make sure that reading is helping us to live better—to be lively and healthy and to have fun.
When it comes to authors, perhaps it is that they shouldn’t compromise. They might think they should make their novel shorter because nowadays people are only interested in so and so. Maybe that is fine as a strategy, but just like the word “kotodama”⁴ in Japanese, texts come from within and are something important and soulful. Each word is placed carefully.
“It might seem over the top, but when you interact with books with the thought that you might be participating in some kind of spiritual exchange, then you understand how different books are from other forms of entertainment.”
I think reading is a one-on-one exchange on a spiritual level. It might seem over the top, but when you interact with books with the thought that you might be participating in some kind of spiritual exchange, then you understand how different books are from other forms of entertainment. I think you begin to comprehend the meaning and value of books. Tweets are only a single claim. But books contain a whole perspective, a three-dimensionality of ideas. Rather than getting to know someone’s claim, you can understand the world that their claim came from. I think it’s important to recognize that it’s a completely different form of amusement.
Many home bookshelves sit untouched, gathering dust. What advice would you give to someone who wants to curate their own bookshelf? How can we make our home libraries dynamic and engaging?
I wonder how. Maybe it’s finding what sparks joy [laughs]. That’s a joke. I think bookshelves convey your own history. It’s the path that you’ve walked. Your books might remind you what you used to like in a certain time. To curate that too much would be to curate your own past, so I think it might be best not to try to make an engaging bookshelf. Just leave your books how they are and take care of each and every one of them. Instead of adding new books, try rereading nostalgic books. You can read books you’ve read before in a completely different way. You might get attached to a different character. You can’t read a book twice in the same way, so instead of adding new books to your bookshelf, dust them off and arrange them to be easily accessible. Then, when you’ve gained a reading rhythm, or regained a habit of reading,it might be nice to add something new and interesting.