Rare & Beautiful

Discovering Old Design Books in Japan

Tokyo’s Jimbocho District and Kyoto are particularly good places for the book lover.

By Peter Kraus July 30, 2019

Some of the most rewarding experiences of my 50-plus year career in book buying have occurred in Japan. While the language barrier for international visitors means a little more effort will be required, Japan remains a wonderful place to buy illustrated antiquarian books and to connect with a still thriving community that retains a unique respect for printing, publishing, and collecting books.  Tokyo’s Jimbocho district and Kyoto are particularly good places for the book lover.

From Tokyo Shisei Zuhyo [Graphic Illustration of Tokyo City] by Mitsuyoshi Ohashi, 1935, found in Tokyo’s Jimbocho District.

As a rule, the most important antiquarian booksellers in Japan tend to belong to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). Of Japan’s 27 members, no less than 18 are in Tokyo, with many of those located in Jimbocho. While ILAB membership does not necessarily denote importance, it does tend to signify reliability and also a level of accessibility to the non-Japanese speaker. ILAB member shops also are likely to have listings, and often websites, which help in figuring out and understanding their specialties. The ILAB listings for Japan are available in English, outline what each seller deals in, and provide contact information and a map, all in an extremely accessible manner.

Tokyo, Jimbocho District

Tokyo, like Paris’s Left Bank, has a specific, and exciting, book and publishing neighborhood: the district called Jimbocho, in the Chiyoda ward located just north of the Imperial Palace. It is home to both the Tokyo Book Binding Club and the Literature Preservation Society and offers unique and interesting experiences for international visitors.

Page from Hiko Kanno, found in the Jimbocho District.

Since the early 20th century, the Jimbocho district has been known as the center of Tokyo’s bookselling and publishing worlds. Although now considerably gentrified, with the resulting reduction in the number of street level bookshops, there is still plenty to keep one busy and engaged. A visit to these bookshops by the non-Japanese speaker unaccompanied by a translator is certainly possible, but far from easy. The stocks tend for the most part to be Japanese, and the subject matter correspondingly opaque. Non-Japanese illustrated titles obviously do not present a problem. But the same, alas, is not true for Japanese books, except for modern ones in pictorial dust jackets. Typically, books tend to hide their identities behind anonymous plain paper wrappers or equally plain chitsu (storage) cases. The prices, however, tend to be in Roman numerals, which helps.

In Jimbocho, the three most accessible shops, and those that probably boast the largest collections of art and illustrated books, particularly early Japanese books, are Subun-So, Kitazawa Bookstore, and The Isseido Bookstore. See the end of this article for contact details.

While the most logical books to buy in Japan are of course Japanese, it turns out that Japan is a very good place to buy interesting and desirable non-Japanese illustrated books. Many were imported during the Japanese economy boom years and are still in the trade, frequently at out-of-date prices. The dealers are often happy to see them go. The Jimbocho shops tend to be good bets for books of this type.

My purchases from Jimbocho shops have provided some of the biggest surprises, deals, and delights of my book-buying life. Here are two examples.

From Hiko Kanno [The Sensation of Flight] by Onchi Koshiro and Tetsuo Kitahara, 1934.

Hiko Kanno [The Sensation of Flight] by Onchi Koshiro and Tetsuo Kitahara, published in 1934, is the most important Japanese artist's book of the 20th century.

On July 24, 1928, Onchi Koshiro flew a small propeller-powered plane accompanied by the poet Hakushu Kitahara (1885–1942) and his younger brother Tetsuo Kitahara (1887–1957), the founder of ARS Publishing. Tetsuo took most of the photographs before and during the flight, with other images supplied by the Asahi Newspaper and the Japan Air Transport Company. The book explores the atmosphere and emotions before and during the flight, and is a tour-de-force of layout, illustration, poetry, and graphic design. Among Onchi’s most innovative work, it combines the photographs with both abstract and concrete shapes printed in various colors.

From Tokyo Shisei Zuhyo [Graphic Illustration of Tokyo City] by Mitsuyoshi Ohashi, 1935.

Tokyo Shisei Zuhyo [Graphic Illustration of Tokyo City] by Mitsuyoshi Ohashi, published in 1935, is a classic in the development of the isotype technique in depicting information via colored illustration or pictograms. The isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education) was developed in Vienna between 1925 and 1934, which made its way to Japan quickly. It makes perfect sense from a language perspective that Japanese publishers, wishing for a broader audience, would adopt the new scientific isotype as a method of information transfer. The essence of isotype publications is the “transformation” of complex information into self-explanatory visual charts or diagrams.


For those who are serious in looking for Japanese illustrated books printed before 1900, a visit to Kyoto is a must, for this is where the specialists have their shops. Unfortunately, Kyoto does not possess a bookshop neighborhood like Jimbocho. But there are four ILAB members in Kyoto, the largest of which are Rinsen Book Co., and Kikuo Book Shop, which both carry a significant stock of Western books, and which are consequently the bookshops most accessible to the non-Japanese visitor. See the end of this article for contact details.

In Kyoto, I found a splendid complete set of the legendary publication Bijutsu-Kai by Kamisaka Sekka, Furuya Korin, et al., here consisting of the plates from the 70 issues bound up separately by the publisher in 1935. The set is a veritable encylopedia of Japanese design in the first third of the 20th century.  The publisher Unsodo, is a large Japanese publishing company with branches in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Founded in 1891, this company is still in existence today. From the 1890s through the 1930s, Unsodo was involved in printing high-quality pattern books for various crafts, including textiles and lacquer.

From Bijutsu-Kai by Kamisaka Sekka, Furuya Korin, et al., 1935.


General considerations for your book-buying excursion in Japan

When buying books printed in the 19th century or earlier, you should in particular make sure to ask which edition, if any, the book is from, and if it is complete. Western collectors would seem to put a higher premium on condition and completeness than their Japanese counterparts. Most Japanese illustrated books were created using woodblocks, and in many cases the blocks survived for a considerable length of time, and were often reused. In some cases changes to the blocks might be made over time, but not always.  It is also not always obvious what constitutes a complete work.  With any serious dealer it should be easy to ascertain what edition is being offered, and if it is complete. Japanese booksellers, especially members of the ILAB, tend to be very scholarly, and should in most cases have no difficulty answering these questions.

Page from Bijutsu-Kai, found in Kyoto.

Examine the books you are considering for purchase carefully to make sure you are happy with the condition. Many older Japanese books have insect holes, and while you might not mind, this is something you would want to know about prior to purchase. Condition is normally indicated in a book’s description, but if it is in Japanese, you might miss mention of any defects.

It is frequently the case with high-end booksellers anywhere that they will have stock put away which is not on open view on the shop shelves. This is very often the case in Japan. To see these books one must be able to converse with the owner. For this and also other reasons, in my opinion, for the serious book hunter, knowledge of Japanese, or having an interpreter along is essential. Otherwise there’s the potential to miss important viewing experiences and purchase opportunities, and not even realize it.

Art books tend to be extremely heavy. Given the high cost of shipping, it is advisable to get a sense of these costs in advance, in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. The bookseller will be able to provide this information.

The Japanese have long been known for making beautiful, very fine-quality chitsu book cases—and this practice continues today. So if any of your purchases need protective cases, it would be wise to make arrangements to have them made through the shop where the purchase was made.

I have found that Japanese booksellers, perhaps like booksellers everywhere, in addition to being very knowledgeable tend to be extremely friendly and helpful. So if you tell them the subject areas you are interested in, they will almost certainly not only help you with selections they can offer, but also tell you which other booksellers to visit, and how to get there (which given the challenges of getting around Tokyo, can be crucial information).

Contact information for the bookstores mentioned in this article


Subun-So Book Store
3-3, Kanda-Ogawamachi, Chiyoda-ku
101-0052 Tokyo

Kitazawa Bookstore
2-5, Jimbocho, Kanda, Chiyoda-ku
101-0051 Tokyo

The Isseido Bookstore
1-7 Kanda Jimbocho, Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo 101-0051



Rinsen Book Co.
8, Tanaka Shimoyanagi-cho, Sakyo-Ku
606-8204 Kyoto

Kikuo Book Shop
430 Ebisucho, Sanjo-Agaru, Kawaramachi-Dori, Nakagyo-Ku
604-8005 Kyoto



Koshiro Onchi and Tetsuo Kitahara, Hiko Kanno [The Sensation of Flight]. Illustrated throughout with photographic and abstract color illustrations. Large 8vo., bound in original decorated boards and slipcase. Tokyo: Hanga-so, 1934.

Mitsuyoshi Ohashi, Tokyo Shisei Zuhyo [Graphic Illustration of Tokyo City]. 44 pages: comprised of Japanese text surrounded by color-printed graphs, charts, maps, illustrated vignettes, etc. Folio, 443 x 307 mm, bound Western-style in navy blind-patterned cloth, in the original printed cardboard slipcase. Tokyo: Kyoto Insatsu Kabushiki Kaisha, 1935.  $8,500.00

Kamisaka Sekka, Furuya Korin, et al., Bijutsu-Kai14 volumes. Illustrated with 1,397 woodblock printed plates. 4to., bound in publisher’s wrappers in two new chitsu cases. Kyoto: Yamada Unsodo, 1935. $17,500.00

For those interested in finding out more about the books highlighted in this article, including possible acquisition (Tokyo Shisei Zuhyo and Bijutsu-Kai), please contact Peter Kraus at Ursus Books & Gallery: (212) 772-8787 or ursus@ursusbooks.com:

Peter Kraus is the founder and current owner of Ursus Books & Gallery in Manhattan, which offers a comprehensive selection of art reference books, superb copies of rare books in all fields, and decorative prints.


This is the third installment in a collaboration between Designers & Books and Peter Kraus’s Ursus Books & Gallery in New York highlighting important books from the past.

Please note that Designers & Books will receive an accommodation from sales resulting from this collaboration.

comments powered by Disqus