THE JAPANESE aren't coming. They're here. Right here in American publishing. The most substantial Japanese presence is that of Kodansha International USA, an arm of a Tokyo-based firm that is probably the world's largest publisher -- three times bigger, for instance, than McGraw-Hill. Headquartered in New York, Kodansha International USA has already produced 400 books and is continuing at a pace of 60 or 70 a year.
All Kodansha International books are in English, but they are printed in Japan because the firm believes the quality of workmanship is better there. The American operation is run by Tadashi Akaishi, Japanese-born but a veteran of the American publishing scene.
The American unit of Kodansha was established here in 1966. It was a pet project of Kodansha's founder, Shoichi Noma, who died last year. He wanted it for purposes of prestige, but also because he realized it was easier to sell foreign rights to Japanese books if they already existed in English, since so few overseas publishers could read Japanese. An early prestige project of the American firm was the nine-volume Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, which took 10 years to complete, cost $4 million and employed the expertise of 1,200 scholars, 600 of them non-Japanese. The set sells for $600.
Most of the books published by Kodansha are on Japanese subjects or in areas in which its high-quality four-color printing can shine, such as books on crafts and textiles. The company's all-time best seller is Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji, owner of a well-known cooking school in Osaka, with an introduction by M.F.K. Fisher. It has thus far sold 60,000 trade copies, plus 15,000 through the Book-of-the-Month Club. Its success has inspired a second book by Tsuji, the forthcoming Practical Japanese Cooking. Another big hit has been A Japanese Touch for Your Garden by Kiyoshi Seike, Masanobu Kudo and David H. Engel, now in a seventh printing. Flipping through computer printouts piled on his desk, Akaishi confirmed a figure of 33,000 copies sold.
All those who have taken up the martial arts to cope with the neighborhood mugger will undoubtedly be familiar with Kodansha's Best Karate Series. The star karate book, with 40,000 copies sold at $25 each, is Karate Do Kyohan, a teaching manual for the sport by a legendary expert, Gichin Funakoshi.
Kodansha expects big things from two books in 1986. The first is Friends by Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee. Alexander has been particularly successful in attracting Japanese business to Tennessee by emphasizing the similarities between his state and Japan. He has capitalized, for instance, on the fact that the iris, a favorite bloom in Japan, is Tennessee's state flower. The book is mainly a series of side-by-side photographs of Tennessee and Japan, with five text blocks by the governor. It will appear in early May and will be invaluable for all those who want to purloin the Tennessee technique. In the fall, Kodansha will publish Japanese-Style Management by Keitano Hasegawa, a writer on economics and management whom Akaishi describes as the Peter Drucker of Japan.
Tadashi Akaishi -- called Tad in the publishing business -- is a story in himself. He was born in the city of Sendai in northern Japan, attended university there and then came to the United States in 1949 to the San Francisco Theological Seminary. He took a doctorate in theology with a thesis on the second coming of Christ as seen in the New Testament and then worked as minister of a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles for a year.
A friend recommended him for a job at the John Knox Press in Richmond, where he made a splash as editor of The Gospel According to Peanuts, which sold over a million copies. This led in 1966 to a job in the religion department of Harper & Row. He rose quickly in the ranks, holding various top executive positions. Akaishi took over the Kodansha operations in 1977, but the Harper & Row connection continues. Akaishi's offices are in the Harper & Row building in Manhattan and the American firm warehouses and distributes all of Kodansha's books. The Grape
THE LARGEST selling American book about wine is The Signet Book of Wine by Alexis Bespaloff. First written in 1971 and revised in 1980, it has sold 700,000 copies. This month sees yet another edition, titled Alexis Bespaloff's New Signet Book of Wine. Like its predecessors, it is calm and unpretentious, a perfect introduction to the subject.
Bespaloff was brought up in Belgium, arrived in New York when he was 5 and is a graduate of Amherst. He began tasting wines as a hobby and worked in the wine business for a few years (including a year in Bordeaux) before becoming a full-time wine writer with the publication of The Signet Book of Wine. He is also the author of The Fireside Book of Wine, an anthology for Simon & Schuster that was republished as a paperback in 1984. I spoke to Bespaloff by phone and asked him what were the biggest changes in the wine scene since his book first appeared in 1971.
"The biggest change is the emergence of California as one of the world's great wine regions," he said. "Half of the California wineries -- including some names that are household words among wine drinkers -- are less than 10 years old. Robert Mondavi, one of the established names in the business, only began his own winery in 1966. It's an amazing growth in a short time.
"A second big development for Americans is the greater availability of fine Italian wines. In the early 1970s, you'd be lucky to find half-a-dozen choices of Italian wines on a list in Italian restaurants. Now a good restaurant can give you a choice of 150. Ten years ago, there probably weren't more than 5,000 cases of Pinot Grigio imported in the United States. Now it must be 100,000 cases. There's been a quality improvement in Italian wines in that time, too, particularly among the whites like Pinot Grigio. They've become a lot more attractive and clean-tasting.
"A third change is among jug wines. A decade ago, nearly all the decent jug wines were from California. Now both the French and the Italians are bringing in drinkable low- priced wines. Finally, there has been an enormous change in awareness about wine. No lifestyle magazine, for example, can neglect the wine scene. They have either a regular column or frequent articles about wine."
What Bespaloff modestly does not say is that his own book is one of the reasons for the greater general knowledge about wine. And although the boom-style growth in wine- drinking may be tapering off, there is still plenty of room for expansion. As Bespaloff points out in the introduction to his new revision, the average per-person consumption of wine is 70 bottles a year in Spain, Chile and Switzerland, 100 bottles a year in Portugal and Argentina, and 110 bottles a year in France and Italy. In the United States, it's 10. Book Club Is 60
THE YEAR 1986 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Book- of-the-Month Club. The club, now a subsidiary of Time Inc., which bought it in 1977, has 2 million-plus members. As with any 60-year-old, a lot of interesting facts emerge from its life:
The club has shipped 440 million books, enough to put five books in every American household.
At one time or another, the club has shipped books through every one of the 40,000 post offices in the United States.
The club processes 17,000 address changes every week, a testament to American mobility.
The first selection in 1926 was Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner. The club's all-time best seller is William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is still puffing along with 1.5 million sold.
To celebrate its anniversary, the club has come up with various projects for the betterment of its subscribers. Most notably, it is starting a series called BOMC Classics, facsimile editions of memorable books, with new introductions. The first title is The Thurber Carnival. Others include Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.