Creative non-fiction / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

Where The Bibliobattles Are

by Akira Kisa, translated into English by Miho Kinnas

The Book

An Eight Legged Butterfly by Nikaido Okuba[i] is a blog-turned-into a book. The author was a young editor at an alternative publishing house. If alive, she and I would be the same age. Nikaido wrote that she "read more books than the number of days she had lived" and "happily digested books of any genre from science fiction to pornography." She loved anomalocaris[ii], Shibusawa Tatsuhiko[iii] and the Cthulhu Mythos.[iv] She also freely quoted Emmanuel Lévinas and Aleister Crowley.

Matsuoka Seigo,[v] the author of the website Thousand Nights for Thousand Books,[vi] wrote, in his book, Initiation—Art of Reading,[vii] that "[w]e keep reading in order to encounter a book that is so powerful that it will knock us down completely." The book I was introduced to by Bibliobattle was just such a book for me.



Like others, I used to depend on book reviews in newspapers and magazines to find the next book to read. Since my first Bibliobattle experience, however, the best books I've found are those introduced by Bibliobattle. Many of them are the kinds of books I wouldn't have even thought of reading otherwise.

Bibliobattle[viii] is a social book reviewing game. Each presenter is given five minutes for their presentation and two minutes for a Q&A session. After the completion of the last presentation, the audience votes for the book "they were most tempted to read" and chooses the champion book. It is a simple game even elementary school children play. Yet, it attracts people of all ages and backgrounds. It is far more exciting than a book recommendation from a bookish friend.


I am a Bibliobattler

I am a 39-year-old librarian working at a public library in Tokyo. I like reading non-fiction books, but I am open to any genre. I dig deeply into the topics that interest me. I typically start reading 200 books a year and on average finish 120 to 140 of them.

I fought forty-nine games of Bibliobattle last year. I observed more, so I participated in roughly one every week. I catch myself talking about Bibliobattle whenever I open my mouth. Yes, I am hooked. My fellow battlers say they try to avoid the books that have already been represented. But they don't think I need to worry about overlapping with anyone. My favourite books are ones like my debut book, European Culture and Japanese Culture by Luís Fróis[ix] and The Showa Period Sceneries, a collection of documentary photographs by an anthropologist, Miyamoto Tsuneichi. They are not considered popular books by any standard. I simply follow the fundamental principle of Bibliobattle: introduce the book you enjoyed reading. My book selections are my identification as a Bibliobattler.

I participate or present at various Bibliobattle events all over Tokyo. I also run my own Bibliobattle club which meets every other month. I would like to share my passion with Cha's readers.


Bibliobattles in Session

Today, different bodies organise Bibliobattles at various locations in Japan. The greatest number of battles is fought in the Tokyo area.[x]

Let me introduce a group called BIBLIO EI8HT.[xi] Its leader, Igarashi Takahiro, is an official member of the Bibliobattle Promotion Committee and is a passionate high-ranked battler. Sponsors such as libraries, bookstores or other corporations back many Bibliobattle events, but Igarashi runs his group on his own.

BiblioEi8ht holds a monthly battle as Igarashi believes it is important to provide a space where "if you come, you can battle."

Typically fifteen to thirty people participate in each battle including the presenters. The members rave about the friendly atmosphere. My very first "public" battle took place here. In 2016, I presented nineteen books at BiblioEi8ht.

Igarashi devises various styles of Bibiliobattles. For example, in "Double Bout Bibliobattle," each battler presents two books on a theme. "Tribute Bibliobattle" forces a battler to pick a book that has already been presented. A presenter cannot show or tell the title or the author of the book at "Blind Bibliobattle."[xii] "Hybrid Bibliobattle" combines a film and a book, and at the ultimate Title Match, the battlers enter the stage on a chosen theme song just like a professional wrestler would. Battlers actually climb Mount Takao to hold "the highest-ever Bibliobattle," and they must wear glasses whether they need them or not at "Glasses Bibliobattle." At "Halloween Battle," a battler, of course, must wear a costume.

The winner of each battle receives a championship belt for their book, and the Title Match winner gets to wear the championship belt. Igarashi, an engineer by profession, crafted them.

A drinking party, without exception, follows a BiblioEi8ht battle. There, "Drunk Bibliobattle" ensues. The books chosen here are of different types. A battler carries a secret book in his or her bag for the after-battle battle.

Many local libraries hold an annual battle. However, it is not possible to build a community at this frequency. Adachi ward of Tokyo, however, holds six Bibliobattles every month. The ward government doesn't manage their branch libraries directly; the management is outsourced to a private business.

I often go to Yayoi Library, one of the Adachi ward libraries. As privately run libraries often do, they hold various events for the community, and one of the main events is Bibliobattle. This medium-sized library is located inside a government facility, and the battle is held in the study room. The number of presenters is limited to eight at each event. Smaller events breed an intimate friendly atmosphere. The participants include first timers, local repeaters and middle- and high-school library volunteers. Veteran battlers from other cities often drop by as well. The head librarian, Maruyama Rei, is a champion battler. She was the battler who presented The Eight Legged Butterfly, the powerful book that awoke something inside me.

At this library, registration prior to a battle is not required. Anyone who feels '"I want to do Bibliobattle today" drops by and joins in.

Other Bibliobattles where I have participated include: Books Kinokuniya,[xiii] Yurindo bookstore[xiv] (often collaborates with a rice wine maker) and Muji.[xv] Each location has a strong following. The Association of SF Literature Promotion[xvi] holds their monthly battle at Hibiya Library (the battled books are not limited to science fiction). Every quarter, Nerima ward Kasugacho Library's Bibliobattle club attracts high school students and also battlers in their 30s and 40s. I also participated in a battle organised by a publishing company run by one person and a college-based non-profit, Book Link.


The Men and Women of Bibliobattle

It is said that beginners can beat veterans at a Bibliobattle; however, there are champion competitors that have proven themselves masters. One battler is said to have won all the battles at Books Kinokuniyain in 2015. That's rather exceptional. BiblioEi8ht Igarashi's winning ratio for 2016 was over 50%.

The seasoned battlers tend not to mention the title of the book for the first minute. They make great efforts to pique the audience's interest.

By beginning with a seemingly unrelated topic, by the time the title is mentioned, expert battlers have often already hooked the audience who would otherwise have dismissed the book by the title, due to lack of interest in the genre or the subject. Igarashi is extremely skilful at this. I always jot notes while listening to the presentations, and I write so much more information out of Igarashi's presentation than any other battler. His pre-battle preparation: he builds his concentration, sitting upright, at a near-by coffee shop, and he improvises his talk in the battle.

One of the most memorable books he presented was The Librarian of Auschwitz, by Antonio Iturbe. It is the story of fourteen-year-old Dida, who risks her life to protect eight books at Auschwitz. By opening with the music of Richard Wagner, Igarashi drew the audience into the world of the story without their knowing where they were being led.

Another unforgettable book was a manga/comic, originally a novel by Kawakami Hiromi.[xvii] It portrays a vague relationship between a retired high school teacher in his 70s and his former student, Tsukiko, a 38-year-old woman. Igarashi expressed the subtle nuance of the manga by Taniguchi Jiro[xviii] through his deep, careful preparation.

I recall an impressive presentation by Ito Yukiko on A Damon City written by Hisao Jyuran. What impressed me was that she completely internalised the entire novel. She characterised the relationship in the book as "a kind of love where a woman, in her worn-out sandals, runs after her ex-lover." Ito chooses heavy, "mainstream" books despite the current trend in favour of lighter fare for both battlers and readers in general. I somehow felt antagonistic toward her when I first met the "queen" of the Bibliobattle, but she completely pulled me into her domain with Twelve Portraits and Twelve Stories by Tsuji Kunio. The book (written in Tsuji's typical rich and classical style) consists of twelve short stories, one each for a different Renaissance portrait. The portraits and the stories shift and change places as we enter Tsuji's world guided by Queen Ito.

She also has a lighter side. She, for example, happily talks about her hobby, haiku, or picks a popular title such as The Death by Indignation by Wataya Risa. She calls herself just another battler and doesn't involve herself with organization or promotional activities. She contributes with her taste in books and her style of presentation.

I have never seen Tsunekawa Mao lose. The first character of his name means "constant," and he is called "Tsunekawa of constant wins". His choice of books is similar to mine (i.e., neither light nor easy), but his presentations are smooth, and he snatches champion books all the time.

For the given theme of "The Border," he chose The Amazing Skin. The book is based on research undertaken at a leading cosmetics lab and is about the human skin's ability to distinguish colours, taste and to predict certain outcomes. Tsunekawa's controlled distance from the book helped the audience fully absorb the content.

Tsunekawa's pre-battle preparation: He records several versions of his talk on his iphone and goes with the best.

I once borrowed a book from a battler named Aotsuki. She is a professional crafter. The worn book indicated the depth of her reading. She always knows her books and her groundstrokes, forehand or backhand, send accurate and elegant returns against any question. Sogetsu presented the book, The Last Moment of the Prisoners on Death Row, with such skill that I felt anxious and wondered whether I'd actually wake up the following morning. Another book she presented, I Ate Poisonous Plants, is full of information about the poison of ordinary plants such as lily bell cups or narcissus. When I read the book, I kept hearing her voice guiding me through the deadly plants.

Maruyama of Yayoi Library says she has bullet points in her mind before a battle but improvises her talk. I find that she nails the essence of the book every time. I call her "hawkeye" because she dives down to the core of a book from the open sky like a hawk. She is also good at emotionally drawing in the audience. Her last book of 2016 was The Never Ending Story. She was the first to go, and I already knew she was going to win.

For an event with a "food book" theme, she chose the novel Nine, Stories.[xix] She didn't go into the story of the novel itself, but I urgently felt, "I must cook tomato spaghetti!" Having read the book, the urgency continued to echo in my head, and I again told myself, "I must cook tomato spaghetti!"

Her selections, not only The Eight Legged Butterfly, but also Dancing in Petals, Oni (a behind-the-scenes story of Kabuki actors at their spiritual depth) and Have a Good Day! (a book of illustrations around the romantic relationship between a woman and a town baker) also shocked me to the core because Maruyama's books are something I would never, ever pick up off the shelf. She, for me, opens the gate to a new world with powerful fanfare.

The intensity of Bibliobattle is the intellectual intensity of the battler and the potency of his or her book reading habits and abilities, which we wouldn't be privy to anywhere else.


The National Tournament

Popular books may bring an easy win—but that's not your win but the book's. I tend to select books nobody pays much attention to. My Bibliobattle is for those forgotten books.

If I fail to make the audience listen, the book remains anonymous. My last sentence echoes in a vacuum. But, if I can capture a random tail of the audience, laughter emerges like ripples. I wrap up an unfamiliar concept with my own words. I entertain. I chase the glimpse of curiosity. In the final minute, the smashing word that came to me in the moment crystallises the talk into the finishing blow.

In a couple of weeks, I am going to participate in the National Tournament held at Ikoma City Library in Nara prefecture. The book I am going to present is called Where The Samurai Are.

The cover photo shows two samurai. They are armoured head to toe. One stands straight looking up at the sky holding a briefcase; the other closes his eyes, intently listening to his Walkman through headphones. They are realistic and appear to be costumed actors, but they are in fact doll-sized artworks by Noguchi Tetsuya. He says, "[i]mprobable doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. I would like to know how it would appear if it did exist." His art is the fusion of the contemporary with the War Period[xx] of Japan.

I open the book. It is a catalogue from the art exhibition, and the artist wrote the captions. A samurai with a desperate expression flies aided by some mysterious technology. An antique-looking votive tablet, a Santa Claus samurai with red conical headgear and an imaginary armour for cats are displayed as if they were historical artefacts at a museum. I won an Association of SF Literature Promotion battle with this book. On another occasion, however, I didn't receive a single vote; the book was ignored. The loss made me resolve to challenge the National Tournament with this book. I would like to show how historical knowledge and artistic skills arrest time and fuse human beings from different historical periods.

I may embarrass the book and myself. But, I am going to look for words the audience will notice.

To know the person through a book. To know the book through a person: this is the spirit of Bibliobattle. The book a battler selects to battle with becomes the extension of his being. The moment the champion book is announced, the winner glows and the losers wilt. Yet, within minutes, we walk toward each other's books and exchange ideas and impressions.

There must be many ways to enter the world of books. These days, I would much rather be shown a great book by someone than by any other means. Why? Because this someone is also a human being I would be grateful to meet.


Where the Bibliobattles Are

The title, The Eight Legged Butterfly comes from the bronze butterflies that decorate large vases at the Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji.[xxi] I often wonder if had this very book been chosen by someone else—say my close friend, who likes the same kind of books as I do—whether it might just have been one of those "good" books. What strikes me is the fact that people who think differently and live different lives linger, for a little while, in front of one book.

Through Bibliobattle, people affect each other, read each other's books, transform themselves and move on. Where Bibliobattles take place is like a scramble crossing—where we enter from all around and leave, dispersing in every direction and taking with us renewed awareness.


[i] Nikaido Okuba/二階堂奥歯. Her blog ended with a suicide note on April 26, 2003.

[ii] Anomalocaris. An extinct genus of anomalocaridid, a family of animals thought to be closely related to ancestral arthropods.

[iii] Shibusawa Tatsuhiko/澁澤龍彦 (1928–1987). A Japanese novelist, critic and scholar of French literature. Introduced Marquis de Sade to Japan.

[iv] Cthulhu Mythos. A fictional universe, based on the work of H. P. Lovecraft (American horror writer).

[v] Matuoka Seigo/松岡正剛 (1944–). A Japanese editor, author and expert on Japanese culture. Many bibliophiles consider him a guru.

[vi] Thousand Nights for Thousand Books/千夜千冊. Matsuoka Seigo's extensive website ( detailing the books he has read and thought about. The entry on the 1,640th book was live at the time of editing. The website started in the year 2000.

[vii] Initiation—Art of Reading. The English title is abbreviated & translated by Miho Kinnas. Original title: ちょっと本気な千夜千冊虎の巻 読書術免許皆伝.

[viii] Bibliobattle/ビブリオバトル. game was created by a Kyoto University professor in 2007.

[ix] Luís Fróis.(1532 –1597). A Portuguese missionary. His book, Historia de Iapam, is considered an important historical document.

[x] Of 1,271 Bibliobattle events held nationally in 2016, 454 took place in the Kantō region, which includes the Greater Tokyo Area.

[xi] BiblioEi8ht. Pronounced "BiblioEight."

[xii] Blind Battle. It is an effective way to allure readers into unfamiliar territories (genres).

[xiii] Books Kinokuniya/紀伊国屋書店. Japan's largest chain bookstore. Established in 1927.

[xiv] Yurindo/有隣堂. A publisher/regional bookseller. Established in 1909.

[xv] Muji/無印良品. A Japanese retailer. Established 1980. It now includes Muji Books at various shop locations. Its book selection was coordinated by Matsuoka Seigo. See Endnote V above.

[xvi] The Association of SF Literature Promotion/SF文学振興会. The volunteers who were concerned about the lack of opportunities for the elementary school age children to read science fiction.

[xvii] Kawakami Hiromi/川上弘美(1958–). A Japanese novelist known for her subtle love stories.

[xviii] Taniguchi Jiro/谷口ジロー(1947–2017). After his recent death, the BBC described him as a manga artist known for elegant lines and intricately constructed landscapes.

[xix] Nine, Stories/九つの、物語 by Hashimoto Tsumugu. Unrelated to Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger.

[xx] The War Period/戦国時代 (1467–1603).

[xxi] The Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji./東大寺大仏殿. The original construction was completed in 758, but it subsequently burnt down twice. The current structure was rebuilt in 1709.


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