Photo/IllutrationTwo of the four-page entry by Emperor Akihito in "The Natural History of the Fishes of Japan” published by Shogakukan Inc. (Tsuyoshi Nagano)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

An illustrated encyclopedia of native fish species of Japan that includes a lengthy entry by Emperor Akihito on his study of goby is the unexpected hit of the season.

Priced at 6,900 yen ($64.50), the weighty tome published by Shogakukan Inc. has sold like hotcakes since it was released March 20, and a second printing run is already in the works.

The encyclopedia runs to 544 pages, and Akihito wrote four of them.

“The Natural History of the Fishes of Japan” contains detailed descriptions, along with photographs, of 1,400 or so fish native to Japan. It is aimed at amateur enthusiasts and academics.

A first edition of a specialized illustrated encyclopedia to be considered for a reprint after 5,000 sales in a year after publication is generally regarded as a success in Japan's publishing world.

According to the publisher, the title at one point ranked fifth in overall book sales on Amazon.co.jp. With the initial run of 6,000 copies expected to sell out soon, it was decided that a reprinting was in order.

The editorial team ran an online promotional campaign over two years on Twitter and Facebook, and gained a fan base prior to the book's publication.

BREAKING THE MOLD

The Internet with its quick access to information has dealt a heavy blow to publishers of pictorial books.

Hoikusha Publishers Co. has released more than 70 titles in a series of full color illustrated encyclopedias that were highly rated by experts, covering the gamut from minerals to flora and fauna. It last published a new title more than 20 years ago, and the editors’ team for illustrated encyclopedias has been disbanded.

On the other hand, sales of educational pictorial books for kids have risen steadily in general, supported by parents willing to splurge on such materials.

Shogakukan sells 500,000 or so copies of children’s pictorial books annually, but “The Natural History of the Fishes of Japan” was its first release of an illustrated encyclopedia for adults in over a decade.

Some company members initially were doubtful the book would sell.

Its success is due in part to the efforts of Shogakukan editor Yoshitaka Kitagawa, who was in charge of the publication project and editing. He was confident the encyclopedia would turn heads if it demonstrated a “deep knowledge that would surprise even biology enthusiasts, rather than simply explain different species.” This was born out of his fascination as a child by appendices at the end of educational pictorial books.

To realize the project, Kitagawa worked with Tetsuji Nakabo, professor emeritus of fish taxonomy at Kyoto University, who served as supervising editor of the book. Together, they mapped out an editorial policy for the book, pitching it as one that teaches curious aspects of the lives of fish and includes intriguing images of the creatures that ordinary illustrated encyclopedias would not have, backed by detailed descriptions.

One example is a photograph of baby hammerhead shark that is connected to its mother by an “umbilical cord,” just like a mammal.

The entries by Emperor Akihito mirrored the editorial policy. For example, a close profile picture of a dusky triple tooth goby, or tridentiger obscurus, was juxtaposed with images of two close species, to compare the positions of their mouths while pointing out how the physical features of species reflect their lifestyles or diet.

Kitagawa said Akihito suggested to the editors that they use cross section images of a goby’s head to help explain the difference.

Kitagawa, impressed by Akihito’s passion for his subject, learned that he kept a number of goby in a tank so he could write his entry for the encyclopedia.

KEEPING LONGSTANDING OATH

While the book was being edited, Nakabo was in charge of correspondence with Akihito, and Kitagawa only met with the emperor on the day of the book's March 20 release to present him with complementary copies.

Their meeting was scheduled to last an hour, but Kitagawa and Akihito got so engaged in talking about fish that it went on for a further 40 minutes.

Kitagawa recalled that he was so nervous about meeting Akihito that he withheld the fact that they had previously met once before at an academic conference when Kitagawa was a university student of science of fisheries. He already had an offer of employment from Shogakukan, and he promised Akihito that he would one day be an editor and “publish an illustrated encyclopedia of fishes.”

“I could not tell him that I was the student at the conference, but I am relieved I was able to fulfill my promise,” Kitagawa said.

Shogakukan plans to continue publishing new specialized pictorial books. It has already started on its next project about birds.