Japan Plus Something: Albany’s Stone Bridge Press Takes Cross-Culturalism One Book at a Time

This article appeared in the March 2, 2001, issue of the East Bay Express. The interview transcript also appeared in Japanophile in May 2001.
By Eve Kushner

How does the owner of a small publishing house remain true to his passions while staying in the black? Scores of idealists have created presses to promote their sometimes offbeat fascinations, but most end up succumbing to the cruel realities of the book industry. Not Peter Goodman, founder and editor of Stone Bridge Press in Albany. Since 1989 he has produced fifty-some titles related to Japan, and although most Americans aren’t exactly beating down his door to learn about kanji or wabi-sabi, he has kept his business respectably afloat.

Peter Goodman of Stone Bridge Press
Peter Goodman.

For Goodman, passion doesn’t preclude commercial success but rather forms a necessary foundation for his work, particularly when he selects books for publication. “Any time I’ve strayed from my personal enthusiasms,” Goodman muses, “I don’t feel that we’ve done such a good job.” Rather than pump out books in hopes of making a fortune, Goodman concentrates on doing a few titles very well.

Perched above Solano Pharmacy in a chain of cramped offices that curve like the Japanese archipelago, Stone Bridge employs anywhere from four to six people besides Goodman, with the number fluctuating seasonally. Each year they put out six to twelve books, including works on animation (both animé and manga), calligraphy, and sumo, as well as guides to Japan’s customs and language and Japan-related fiction and poetry by Japanese and Western authors.

As the only West Coast publisher specializing in Japan-related works, Goodman is in the position of competing with his old employers, Kodansha and Tuttle, as well as with Weatherhill—all well-established companies with offices on the East Coast and in Tokyo. A trimmer version of Jerry Garcia, he even looks like a maverick, though his intense, earnest gaze confirms that he’s focused on a goal, not just aimlessly drifting away from the norm.

When Goodman discusses the American reading audience, he sounds like a slightly embittered realist, someone who isn’t hoping for great improvement in the status quo but who will keep plugging away nevertheless. “When it comes to Japan,” he says with equanimity, “I don’t think most Americans know or care much at all. The best thing that can be said is that they probably know a little bit more about Japan than they do about Korea. Americans are very provincial.” The main association most of us have with Japan, he says, is “likely to be sushi.”

Albany’s Stone Bridge Press takes cross-culturalism one book at a time.

Make no mistake, though—Goodman doesn’t encourage people to go to the other extreme, exoticizing Japan in an unthinking, worshipful way. He rails against the term “Japanophile,” finding it facile and undiscriminating, as if anything Japanese would necessarily be good. The Stone Bridge Web site tries to clarifies the press’ orientation in this respect: “We’re not tea-cult dilettantes or management gurus. We simply believe that Japan offers tremendous opportunities for reexamining Western values and for connecting with an emerging global culture increasingly centered on the Pacific Rim.” His explanation hints at chronic frustration, as if too many people have misunderstood his intentions.

Goodman first fell in love with Japan-related books as a senior at Cornell. That year he took a Japanese lit course and, after graduating, became his professor’s research assistant. “Those books were great objects,” he marvels. “At the time, books were made luxuriantly in Japan, especially if they were being paid for with American money, because the Japanese yen wasn’t worth very much. So there would be this lavish production, like what we would think of as fine letterpress printing today. A lot of the books were of that quality—beautifully designed.”

Attracted to the look and feel of the books and figuring that “English majors can’t do much of anything,” he decided to work for the people who had produced these volumes. The Japanese publishing firms wouldn’t hire sight unseen, so Goodman took a gamble, or several of them. He learned Japanese (without much difficulty, he says) and moved to Tokyo in 1975, knocking on publishers’ doors until he landed a job editing English-language books. Aside from a brief intervening stint in London, he stayed in the country until 1985.

As a newcomer to Japan, Goodman expected the average inhabitant to drop Zen koans and aphorisms in passing. Moreover, he hoped this elevated thinking would rub off on him if he were sufficiently immersed in the culture. “I’m sure I had this idea in the back of my head that I would be enlightened if I read enough books about Zen. Somehow it would all filter in and I would know everything about the universe,” he recalls drily. But when his language skills improved to the point where he could eavesdrop, he realized that the Japanese were just people like anyone else, chatting about the weather and their dogs and looking to enjoy themselves.

Living in Japan’s homogenous, xenophobic society, where he was doomed to permanent exclusion by the color of his skin, Goodman came to know both the good and the bad aspects of that country. On the downside, he learned that because he had no seniority at his company (and probably never would), he was completely excluded from all decisionmaking, which happened in the back rooms of bars with “the Japanese execs sitting around, drinks in hand, talking about us and figuring out what they would do.” Meetings at the company struck him as farcical formalities, because the decisions had already been made.

On the plus side, Goodman grew to value the indirect way in which the Japanese often express themselves. Calling this “the experience of Japan that I remember the most and that attracted me the most,” he explains that conversations occur on two levels at once. “There’s a lot of stuff at the surface level,” he says, “but there’s always this undercurrent. And the meaning is inside.” This oblique style forces a listener to read between the lines and “puzzle out” what’s really being said.

Goodman became so good at puzzling out such things that he can actually suss out the true meaning of Japanese gardens. As the “garden book guy” at Kodansha, he came to appreciate their “deep structure.” Although the individual elements may appear to be ordinary, they actually have an intricate interrelationship. “One element supports another,” he notes, and “the meaning is in the arrangement,” rather than in any one lantern or bridge. “If you sit and observe it long enough,” he says, “it all reaches you and sinks in. I find that an exhilarating form of entertainment.”

Gaining this type of insight into the culture, Goodman extended his knowledge far beyond the superficial ideas that most Americans have about Japan. In his view, people here “know a lot about a tiny area and they make a mistake of extrapolating. People hear about crowded trains or temples or Zen or industry or wartime atrocities. I don’t think there are many people who have a really complex, multilayered understanding of Japan.”

Ironically, these ill-informed Americans are the very people to whom Goodman needs to sell books. A core group of Japanophiles makes up a dependable customer base, but their numbers never seem to increase. “I started working in this business, the Japan publishing thing, in 1976,” says Goodman, “and it hasn’t gotten any bigger. Not really. I don’t know why, except that most Americans don’t care.” Even Japanese Americans aren’t terribly interested in Japan, he says.

If Goodman were a blind idealist, he might churn out books and then wait idly for readers to stumble upon his offerings. And if that were the case, Stone Bridge Press would probably have dissolved long ago. But Goodman selects his titles carefully, trying not to “lose money by being frivolous. We’re still a commercial publisher. I try to do things I want to do, but at the same time things I think people are going to be interested in.”

One of his business strategies has been to surf the waves of trends. In the last two years, America’s readership has fixated on courtly Japan and traditional Japanese women, making big sellers of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and Liza Dalby’s Tale of Murasaki. A spate of coffee-table books and even a Steven Spielberg movie will soon emerge on the topic. In accordance with this surge of interest, Stone Bridge plans to release its own book in that vein next year.

Then, too, Goodman relies on the “slopover effect,” in which readers follow their noses from one Japan-related interest to another. If Japanese architecture attracts a reader, she may soon find herself devouring books on “tea architecture,” then moving on to the “tea aesthetic” and from there to the matter of wabi-sabi, or the beauty of things impermanent and imperfect.

Goodman also knows that if he sells books only to Japanophiles, he can’t run a profitable business. The trick is to push past the constraints of the Japan connection and to identify a wider potential audience for each work. “Every book has to have a market that’s Japan plus something,” Goodman explains. “For the animation [books], it’s people who are interested in animé. If it’s literature, we might publish it as women’s literature or minority fiction. We’re doing a book on Japanese yoga, and we’ve got a new book on Japanese flower arranging. These are presented to people who are interested in gardening or meditation or yoga. Japan by itself doesn’t make it.”

In the end, aside from all that strategizing, Goodman remains guided by his ardor for each book. This affection shines through as he discusses these works with understated insight, casually dropping koan-like bombshells just as he once expected the Japanese to do. If people are “interested in courtly life in Heian-period Japan,” he says in an explanation of the slopover effect, “they get interested in Japanese architecture, because the way the rooms are arranged has a lot to do with people’s relationships and how they move and connect with each other.” Goodman trots on to the next concept while his listener reels from the notion of domestic architecture as related to personal relationships.

Goodman’s jacket copy for Junzo Shono’s collection of short fiction Still Life and Other Stories reveals that same passion for the work he admires: “These quiet, modern tales have a cumulative power. Toys, birds, and playing cards relate to human lives as portents, parallels, parodies.… Shono’s vivid ‘snapshot’ technique, the layering of images, events, and conversations, creates an effect Western readers may find more akin to an Ozu film crossed with haiku than to traditional short stories.”

On the press’ Web site, Goodman has added a note about Shono’s book: “Still Life and Other Stories is one of the books I’m most proud to have published at Stone Bridge Press. The prose is eerily quiet, yet it grips you with its incredible depictions of the details of our lives…. Why publish anything if you can’t once in a while publish something this good?”