Kim Schuefftan and the Heyday of Culture Books

by Lynne E. Riggs

Kim Schuefftan’s claim that he has been in Japan from Jōmon 3 is easily betrayed by his youthful smile and ruddy complexion. A few gray hairs and stories of books now considered classics in the world of publishing on Japan advise us that he is a senpai par excellence. Actually, he came to Japan in 1963. Starting out as a writer and rewriter at NHK, he moved to Kodansha International in 1966 in its flush and fervent early years, where he was involved in some of the painstakingly created, monumental, and memorable books on the publisher’s list. In a conversation with participants attending the November 1999 SWET Thursday night meeting, Kim shared his thought on topics ranging from cooking to kilns from his three decades of experience editing books on cultural themes as an in-house editor and later as a freelance editor/book and Web site designer.

Today, editing books about Japanese culture is practically history. Museum and exhibition catalogues continue to appear, and popular “Japanese Touch for Your Home” type volumes still sell, but many of the volumes that really opened up Japanese culture to the West and helped set in motion original movements and generate new energy on other shores were published in the 1970s and 1980s.

As Kim recounted in exchanges after his talk, it all started with Tuttle. Charles E. Tuttle’s activity as a publisher of Japanese cultural books started in the 1950s, and Tuttle was the only publisher of English books on Japan whose books could be found across the North American continent, especially in college bookstores. The seeds sown by Tuttle are beyond calculation. The company whetted the appetite of the West for Japanese culture. Then, in the middle sixties, Tuttle underwent trilateral fission—two groups of Tuttle employees broke off and founded, respectively, John Weatherhill and Kodansha International (KI). Both these companies continued the Tuttle direction of publishing about Japanese culture, but each with its own style and proclivity. Weatherhill, under the capable direction of Meredith Weatherby, took an aesthetic approach and developed a “Weatherhill Look” as well as a cultural bias toward Japan. Kodansha International (KI) was founded on the naive premise that the plates of art books, for which the mother company, Kodansha Ltd. (then Japan’s largest publisher) was well known, could be reused for publications in English. That this was not really practical for many reasons, technical, political, and cultural, became clear only some years later. Then KI was thrown on its own resources to acquire and develop original books about Japan, again with a cultural bias. KI was led by Nobuki Saburo, who provided supportive and often inspired leadership and fought the good fight to keep the company free, though KI did often go into the red.

“KI editors were hired off the street,” Schuefftan exaggerated, meaning that they were not necessarily experienced to begin with. Working in an English-language backwater of world publishing, “we just did what we thought was right.” At that time, the Japanese economy allowed generous investment by a publisher in its books, “and that, perhaps more than anything else,” he recalled, “allowed us at KI to do what we could to make the books as fine as possible. We did not realize that what we were publishing had any particular merit until, in the late seventies, people started eulogizing about KI books, and other publishers lavished praise. It was not until long after the oil shock that we began to realize that we were marching against the worldwide trend to produce “Kentucky Fried” books, and this vague sense of mission became an unvoiced battle cry (and, admittedly, a kind of snobbery) on our part.”

It happened that the timing for publishing a really substantial book on Japanese cooking was perfect in 1980, when the project for Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art (Shizuo Tsuji, with the assistance of Mary Sutherland) was launched. “Both Japanese and American tastes were in transition,” said Schuefftan, “money was flowing, art books were being done one after another, and the mother company [Kōdansha] was being supportive. KI was not making money, but was certainly boosting the image of Kodansha internationally.” The idea was for a kind of encyclopedic work, one that would present all the intricacies of the art. A team was formed to put the book together, made up of KI editors (Mary Sutherland and Schuefftan) and people in the publishing office of the inestimable Tsuji Cooking School headquartered in Osaka.  M.F.K. Fisher, one of the finest food writers that America has produced, wrote the introduction. Mary Sutherland went to the Tsuji Cooking School for weeks when the book was being “cooked” and took copious notes. The notes were written up, and this manuscript passed to Kim, who then proceeded to spend nine months in fine-tuning, editing, and writing the book.

Schuefftan’s job was to act in the generalist role to mediate between the professionals of high cuisine and the Western readership, which was then literally ignorant of anything about Japanese food or cuisine. Even with Sutherland’s intensive preliminary work at the elbow of the chef who planned the book’s contents, it was a very complex editorial project.  Schuefftan’s voice can be heard in the 48-page long “Ingredients” chapter, giving detailed descriptions of the fruits and vegetables, preparations, herbs, seasonings, and condiments mentioned in the book.

One of the most memorable aspects of the editorial process was working on the sketches, needed to clarify implements and procedures then totally unfamiliar to readers. Though costly, they were some of the first diagrams to present such things as how to clean and cook an octopus, how to make a sushi roll, and how to fillet fish for serving as sashimi.

Schuefftan has guided, watched over, as well as toiled in the writing and editorial trenches for such books as: The Unknown Craftsman (the bible in English of the mingei aesthetic); Hamada, Potter (companion volume to The Unknown Craftsman); Zen Painting; The World of Japanese Ceramics (and all other ceramic technique books published by KI), Shibori, and about 15 or so cookbooks. Altogether about 100 books. Almost all of them are now out of print. Surprisingly, The Unknown Craftsman is still in print, as is Hamada, Potter and Shibori.

Before publishers, editors, translators, and writers knew better, innumerable ambitious but ultimately impractical or ill-advised book projects were undertaken in many fields. One culture-related project that Kim was involved with was a collection intended to introduce 204 craft industries in Japan based on interviews with craftsmen and craftswomen to be published by Diamondsha. Schuefftan told its story as an example of the “terrible things that can happen” when a project’s size and complexity far exceeds the original planning, the material covers too many specialized fields, and there is not enough expertise available. Many of the Japanese interviewers had little knowledge of crafts and were not experienced in getting craftsmen (who are generally nonverbal people) to talk, so the texts were uneven, to say the least; the translators’ work was even more uneven, and it was still the days of typewriters—typing and retyping on an IBM. Eventually this set was completed, in eight huge, unwieldy (B4 size) volumes, plus eight boxed videos, “a great groaning thunk of a project impossible to carry without a forklift. The idea was to create a grandiose Japan-is-wonderful project for Japanese corporate warriors to donate to libraries and institutions abroad. This might have been viable when the bubble was still bubbling,” he says, but it is now a thing of the past.

Since 1989, Schuefftan has worked as a freelance editor, on book projects . . . and recently in designing and building Web sites. Working in-house with a publisher specializing in English-language books gives an editor solid backing, but when dealing with clients freelance, one of the greatest hurdles to be dealt with is the difference between editing in Western practice and “henshū” in Japanese practice. Schuefftan’s characterization of henshū: “deferring to the God Author in everything, including carrying his laundry. The Japanese editor is basically a manuscript shoveler.” It came as a great cultural shock to Schuefftan (whose only editorial experience had been in Japan) to find that a book editor in England is regarded and deferred to as part of the intellectual elite.

One of the most delicate and important tasks in producing a successful English-language publication is in persuading the client of the need for real editing.  The other challenge is in cultivating an understanding of typography and English rules of typographical design. “Understanding probably won’t happen, but tolerance of or deferring to the editor’s judgment might.” Sadly, he commented, there are still too many instances in which the situation (read ignorance) has changed little in the 36-years he has been working here.

Another book in his portfolio that was particularly memorable for Schuefftan was Zen and the Fine Arts (1971) by philosopher Hisamatsu Sen’ichi. The translation had been done by a high school teacher of English, and when it arrived at his desk, he discovered it was “not English!” Forced to take drastic measures due to the looming printing deadline, he spent six days going over the draft and revising, line-by-line, with the translator. Because of this “band-aid”-job approach, he regrets this book did not have the quality of language that it deserved. Also, the author insisted on including very poor, overexposed photos. “But, it is about Zen aesthetics. And, you guessed it, it got rave reviews.”

Asked what books he had worked on that he felt had made a really lasting contribution to appreciation of Japanese culture, Schuefftan recalled The Unknown Craftsman, essays of Yanagi Sōetsu, and its companion volume, Hamada, Potter. “The latter is one of those serendipitous situations in which the book wrote itself.” Bernard Leach gave a single tape cassette about his experiences with Hamada. Then Hamada Shōji did about thirty hours of taped interview about his life and submitted all of his written articles (in Japanese), which were then roughly translated. “I went over this material and discovered that these two men were still talking to each other, whether or not they were together. So I went to St. Ives to work with Bernard for four months (total) and with stapler and scotch tape, but together the dialogue that forms the book.” Yanagi and Hamada were the leaders of the mingei movement, in which “Yanagi Sōetsu was the thinker and Hamada Shōji was the doer.” When Hamada passed away, the energies they had set in motion quickly faded. The passing of the heady days of free-flowing philanthropy for cultural projects was accelerated with the bursting of the bubble, and today “culture is somnolent” in the publishing industry, he reflected. It is difficult to publish art books the way they once were, and the big publishers’ energies are being channelled elsewhere. The interesting things in the field of culture are now being done by small operations.

Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 88 (March 2000).