Mainstay of Asia publishing Tuttle capitalizes on renewed interest in Japan

It’s possible that readers of this post who are avid readers and have an interest in Asia have come across a book published by Tuttle Publishing at some point. Books with Tuttle’s small red emblem can be purchased in bookstores all around the world. The company’s inventory includes anything from cuisine from Indonesia to translations of well-known novels to books on Japanese funeral poetry.

Although the Tuttle family business dates back to 1832, making it one of the oldest American publishers still in business, the company claims that its presence in Japan was established in 1948 when Charles Tuttle, who was based in the nation and married to the Japanese singer Reiko Chiba, noticed a void in the market.

As part of the American Occupation, Tuttle first traveled to Japan to work in the newspaper industry. Later, he started bringing American books back to the United States for American soldiers stationed there and Japanese books back to the United States for readers who were interested in reading them.

Subsequently, he founded what was purportedly the first English-language bookstore in Tokyo, and then went on to produce thousands of books on Asia. Emperor Showa recognized Tuttle’s contributions with the Order of the Sacred Treasure prior to his passing.

Today, Eric Oey, a distant descendant of the founder, leads Tuttle. In 1985, he founded the book distributor and publisher Periplus Group, with offices in Hong Kong and Indonesia. In 1996, the organization purchased Tuttle Publishing’s US and Japanese operations.

Before he “dropped out of school and decided to publish books full time,” Oey sought an academic career. He now finds enjoyment in the business.

“Book publishing gradually took over my life — because it was so much fun. I’ve never regretted (the decision),” he said.

Under Oey, the group’s objective to focus on Asia is still intact; among its publications are translations of the literature of the region as well as works about its crafts and history. There are currently around 300 members of the group, the bulk of whom are stationed in Asia.

“We still publish all the types of books for which Tuttle is well known — cookbooks, martial arts, art and architecture, children’s books and many other categories as well,” Oey said, noting the the group have more recently started to produce graphic novel versions of Asian classics.

A collection of manga adaptations of Haruki Murakami stories is one recent addition to the catalog in that category; graphic novels based on traditional Japanese ghost stories and folktales are also available.

While some books are becoming more and more popular and attracting the attention of publishers, including graphic novels and illustrated books, other advances in the industry, like artificial intelligence, are harder to measure.

Although Oey believes it is “too early to tell” how AI will affect the publishing sector, he notes that since e-book sales have decreased recently “while print sales have soared,” there is little chance that print books would soon become obsolete in favor of their digital equivalents.

Although the books are mostly about Asia, the publisher’s biggest market has always been the United States, which accounts for little over half of overall sales, according to Oey.

“The rest of the world is pretty equally represented — Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia and of course Japan. Because Tuttle has been in Asia for 75 years, we are well established here,” he said.

Tuttle is probably not welcome in any Asian nation. In 2017, North Korea sentenced two South Korean journalists to death in absentia for reviewing Tuttle’s book “North Korea Confidential,” which the nation’s rulers deemed offensive. The book is still in print.

Tuttle’s regional scope has proven to be unique for the publisher, according to Oey. Although there are now a few independent publishers that specialize on Asian literature, like Ethos Books and Camphor Press, Tuttle was once among the few.

Due to its lengthy history in the industry, Tuttle has a large back catalog that is currently in great demand due to the current surge in interest in Japanese culture. The market for Tuttle’s early print versions has expanded along with interest in Japanese literature.

When Infinity Books, an events venue and used bookshop in Tokyo, buys Tuttle books, it’s usually Japanese fiction masterpieces from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, according to Nick Ward.

“Because they’re hard to get hold of … they can go for silly prices sometimes, because people collect them or tourists want Japanese literature,” he said.

According to Ward, demand for these translations into English frequently exceeds supply. Particularly tourists head straight for them since they are eager to buy souvenirs of Japanese stories.

According to Ward, a member of his staff, “they invariably walk out with (Yukio) Mishima, (Yasunari) Kawabata, all the classics,” despite the fact that a large portion of visitors want to read Haruki Murakami. He also mentioned how popular contemporary Japanese fiction is.

Even though many have long lamented the demise of print media and books, Oey asserted that the book industry is robust and continues to thrive.

Tuttle observed a spike in book sales during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, and although though these have considerably decreased, “book sales are now higher than before the pandemic.”

“Overall sales of books have always been increasing each year for several decades,” Oey said.

The notion that “people are reading less today is another misconception,” he said.

“That’s not the case, and in fact more books are being published and read today than ever before.”

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