From Where I Sit - Comfort reading

March 21, 2013

Theft is rare in Japan. When you go to Starbucks you are asked at the counter: “Do you have your seat?” At busy times, you are supposed to find a seat first and leave your bag and coat on it, otherwise you get your green tea latte to go. It does not occur to Japanese people that their belongings may not be there when they return, because they always are.

Yet in the academic year following the Tohoku earthquake, someone entered our small campus library and stole more than 1,000 books. That’s a rate of 33 books a week, assuming they came in every day of the 30-week academic year including weekends. And assuming it was just one person.

At first, library staff doing the annual stocktake thought that the books had just been misplaced. Texts fell from the shelves during the earthquake: perhaps they had been put back in the wrong place? But the books could not be found.

The head of the library committee said he thought it could be a female student because “they carry big bags”. But in private, most lecturers agreed that, given the nature of the books that were taken, it was not a student but someone older. Surely only a lecturer would want expensive tomes by Aristotle, Nietzsche, Bergson, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucault, a complete 37-volume set of Mark Twain (at £60 a volume), a set of maps of the Holy Land - and Pooh’s Christmas Sled Ride. Perhaps they were selling them on the black market, a colleague mused, or in the used book district of Jimbocho?

The head of the library put up a poster asking if anyone had seen the books. With Western-style righteous anger, I raged at a fellow library committee member that such a poster would surely tip off the book thief and that we would not now have a chance to catch them red-handed. “But that’s the idea,” said my colleague. “If they are caught, the police may have to be called and that would cause embarrassment to the university and to the perpetrator. Just wait.”

The book thefts stopped, and the library installed a CCTV camera and an electronic entry gate.

Then the book thief did something even more bizarre: they brought the books back. Recently, a colleague went into a classroom for the first session of the week and, as the students pulled their chairs out from the tables, they found that each one was stacked with five or six philosophical works. The library staff were called and they filled 11 boxes. The next morning, the same thing happened again, this time 12 boxes’ worth, including books that had gone missing from our satellite campus. Where had the books been all this time? The campus, which is not accessible by car, had been closed over a long weekend. So the obvious answer is that someone had been hiding them in their office.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the book “thief” struck after the earthquake. Since that time, Japanese society has suffered a mass altering of consciousness: there is much less trust in authority or docile acceptance of the status quo. Housewives carry Geiger counters to the supermarket and, on Friday evenings, my previously apathetic colleagues go and stand outside the prime minister’s house and shout. Was the book thief planning to sell the books to supplement their academic salary or were they simply seeking solace in philosophical teachings? In Japan there is a saying, shiranu ga hotoke - “not knowing is Buddha” - meaning “sometimes it is better not to know”.

But from now on, I am getting my coffee to go.

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