Japanese book sizes

One thing I love about reading Japanese books is Japanese book sizes. The size of the book speaks volumes (no pun intended) on the attention and care Japanese publishers put on the print product.

Generally, when one walks into an English or Chinese-language bookstore, the paperbacks one finds come in an arbitrary array of shapes and sizes. This makes storage difficult. This also makes it difficult to read on the go. Ideally, everyone wants some quiet time on the couch, or in bed, or on the beach doing some summer reading. Realistically, who has time for that these days?

Herein lies the genius of standardized Japanese book sizes. First, storage is simplified. Bookstores and libraries can store and sell hundreds or thousands of volumes even if square footage is limited. That is why even the most local mom-and-pop bookstores in the middle of nowhere in Japan are overflowing with books. Second, reading becomes mobile. If you’re commuting from Yokohama to Shinjuku (and back) for work everyday, what would you on that 1.5 hour crowded train journey (each way)? Reading is one option. No book takes up more space than necessary.

Choosing what goes into the print product also becomes a discipline. I cringe when a Chinese-language book with so much white space and unnecessary adornments around the text. That is a waste of paper, ink, binding, and fossil fuels used to deliver the book from the printer to the bookstore or library.

Bunkobon (文庫本). This is my favorite size. A bunkobon is just barely smaller than my hand (and I have small hands). Each volume typically contains 200 to 300 pages of text and yet it is just barely a centimetre or two thick. Each page is thin, yet the paper is silky smooth to the touch. It’s technically a mass-market paperback, and yet the book doesn’t crinkle or crease with age, as thousand-page English-language airport novels do. The binding is durable: of the hundreds of second-hand books I’ve bought, only one is on the verge of falling apart. And every volume comes with a dust jacket (!): it is a book to be respected. And yet every volume is a reasonable price. Most books are 600 to 800 yen each, and those volumes with color photographs or glossy paper rarely cost cover 1,000 to 1,200 yen. That is still well below the typical price of a paperback from Amazon.

The bunkobon was the most powerful object that attracted me to improving my Japanese. Every aspect of its construction was so ingenious. Even the kanji chosen to represent the concept is ingenious: a “word vault.”

A Google search reveals that Iwanami Shoten, an academic publishing house (that now continually publishes books critical of Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party), was the first to adopt the bunkobon format. They copied the standardized book size and colors of the German Reclams Universal-Bibliothek to create Iwanami Bunko. And like the original Reclams Universal-Bibliothek, Iwanami Bunko is a series of Japanese-language literary classics with identical covers at relatively affordable prices (and still exists). And because Iwanami Bunko was such a great idea, every other publishing house decided to copy the format. One can still see the historical connections with the colorful Reclams Universal-Bibliothek today if you line up the bunkobon you own by publishing house. The spine and back cover of each bunkobon follow a standardized format.

Sometimes I wonder why Japanese intellectuals exported the word ‘revolution’ into China but not bunkobon into China’s publishing houses. Perhaps the concept didn’t survive the Cultural Revolution.

Shinsho (新書). This word is a misnomer because in Chinese this word means “new[ly arrived] books” (but in Japanese the correct term to express this meaning is 新刊). This is another standardized paperback size, also pioneered by Iwanami Shoten. The book is a little taller and thinner than bunkobon, but is just as mobile and durable as its German-sourced counterpart. Iwanami Bunko was the paperback classics series; Iwanami Shinsho was the paperback contemporary series, in which contemporary authors would dish out contemporary wisdom. At least, that’s what the Kotobank dictionary says:


Unlike bunkobon, shinsho are exclusively non-fiction. (The exception to this rule is children’s fiction titles (児童文庫) which are the same size as shinsho but these titles have no relation to shinsho anyway.) What better way was there to inform readers about current affairs than to publish affordable, high-quality paperbacks?

Shinsho is also a great way for Japanese-language learners (JLPT N3 and up) to improve their reading and vocabulary since the writing is not completely academic and the length is reasonably short.

Tankobon (単行本). This word captures every other book that is not a bunkobon or shinsho. In general (but it’s difficult to generalize here) new Japanese novels are released as tankobon hardcover titles that cost 1,200-1,500 yen before the titles are republished as bunkobon paperbacks. Less academic non-fiction titles can also be found in the tankobon paperback format.

The term also refers to manga that are re-released as standalone volumes after serialized manga chapters have been published in manga magazines. Manga tankobon generally (but not always) follow a standardized format. Shonen/shojo manga tankobon are a similar size to shinsho, whereas seinen manga are slightly wider and thicker.

A relatively new sub-category of tankobon is sensho (選書). These are paperback non-fiction titles also with a standardized size and cover. Their price and content lie somewhere in between shinsho and hardback academic titles from university professors that cost upwards of 4,000 yen.