Leon Metchnikoff (1838-1888), who was a Russian-language teacher at the then Tokyo Gaikokugo Gakko (Tokyo school of foreign languages) in the early Meiji period, wrote in a book in which he reminisces about the Meiji Restoration, that he spent the majority of his days off at the vast numbers of book stores across Tokyo.
According to Metchnikoff, he saw girls reading earnestly at bookstores, who upon noticing his inquisitive stares, would show him the popular novels they were reading. To a Russian man, the sight of girls from commoner backgrounds reading books must have been a curious one. He also touches upon the reading habits of dockworkers and maids.
"Without exception, they all had multiple well-thumbed books on them, and whenever they had the time, would read them voraciously. When they worked, they kept their books tucked away in the sleeves of their kimono -- or in the folds of the loincloths they used, like barbarians," he wrote.
Since there were some 800 book lenders in Edo (present-day Tokyo) shortly before Metchnikoff arrived, his account of locals' widespread reading habits doesn't appear to be an exaggeration. In other words, our ancestors read so much that it surprised foreigners.
However, according to the Mainichi Shimbun's 71st public opinion poll on reading, the percentage of people who do not read has surpassed the percentage of people who read either books or magazines. This is the first time in 11 years that the ratio of those who do not read books overrode those who do, and the first time in five years that those who do not read magazines outstripped those who do. Notably, fewer and fewer young people are reading manga.
Is this a temporary phenomenon, or has the growing distance between the Japanese people and print progressed one step further?
What surprised Metchnikoff more than Japan's high literacy rate was the wholehearted respect that the ordinary people of the Meiji period had for the knowledge and culture they could acquire through reading.
Oct. 27 -- some 150 years since Metchnikoff marveled at Japanese reading habits -- kicks off this fall's "book-reading week." How have the Japanese changed? ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)