Book Covers

All around the world people enjoy reading books when using public transport. This habit spawned a lot of Facebook groups and IG accounts devoted to the topic of “what do people read on the train”, with random users eagerly posting pictures of what their co-passengers are enjoying while commuting to work. However, when I first arrived in Japan, I came across another habit, which I think is quite unique to the country of the rising sun. That is, using “book covers” on every occasion almost without fail.

During elementary school we used to cover our schoolbooks with plastic wrap in order to protect the cover from bending and ripping. During middle school, we were old enough to know how to protect our books, plus it was a “cool” fashion style to appear rough both in terms of clothes and of personal belongings. Though in Japan, the covers are usually made of paper, similar to present wrapping and the reasoning behind using such covers is totally different. Being able to discern what the passenger next to you is reading is similar to sneaking into their inner thoughts. As a result, their privacy should be protected by obscuring their book of choice from prying eyes with a cover. This procedure is followed regardless of the contents of the book itself. It doesn’t matter whether you are reading about history, learn a new language, enjoying a romantic novel or a cook book. Your true self can be exposed, but your self is your own and yours shall remain.

Attaching book covers to books appeared first during Taisho period (大正時代 1912-1926), when a popular book store started covering sold books with paper wrapping with the store’s name printed on it. Soon it became a popular advertising method for book stores and a practice that continues until now, with big chains such as Bunkyodo or Tsutaya offering paper book covers with their logo. If you’d rather not be a moving advertisement, a large variety of leather or textile book covers is available in retail stores such as Loft or Amazon. Not enough? Then why not search for a handmade cover or make your own, following one of the thousand DIY tutorials available online.

In a country were 90% of the people (according to an unofficial statistic) hide their book cover, when someone does not hide it, it says something. Maybe they want to express the feeling of “Look at me, this is who I am” for the others to acknowledge. While breaking the norm, the individual can showcase their fascinating personality and who knows, maybe even create some interesting acquaintances.

An extremely moderate example of an erotic magazine
(I doubt anyone reads this anymore)

Wait, there’s also a twist! The majority of the people who don’t cover their books, are probably not interested in self expression! I noticed that -usually older- salary men who read porn manga or magazines barely ever hide what they are reading. This is in accordance to erotic magazines being available right next to children’s magazines in convenience stores. Enjoying erotic content is wide spread throughout the world, but nevertheless is considered somewhat taboo. In Japan, it appears that there are no such constraints. Personally, I am not so keen on coming across overtly sexualised images first thing in the morning and I am not sure whether young children should be exposed to such scenes either. What I do appreciate though, is abandoning taboos about body and sex and accepting them as a normal, healthy property of being human.

What is your opinion about book covers? Do you usually hide what you are reading? Do you often check out what others are reading and love them or hate them based solely on that choice? Tell me about it in the comments down below!

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