A Japanese bookstore that was frequented by famous Chinese authors such as Lu Xun and Guo Moruo in early 20th-century Shanghai is once more thriving as a center of cultural exchange after being reborn in Tianjin, a port city southeast of Beijing.
The original Uchiyama Shoten bookstore, founded in 1917 by Kanzo Uchiyama (1885-1959), was known as a salon for Chinese intellectuals and a space where they could also interact with visiting Japanese, even when the two countries edged toward war in the 1930s.
Now two bookshops, opened in 2021 and last year by a Chinese company, bear the Uchiyama Shoten name with the blessing of Uchiyama's descendants and are recreating the old salon atmosphere by becoming spaces for both conversation and Sino-Japanese cultural encounters.
Zhao Qi, a 40-year-old former documentary director at Tianjin TV who runs the two bookshops, says they offer "a lot of exciting things -- food, books and activities -- and very happy moments."
With extensive collections of Japan-related books, both also have spacious cafe and bar areas open until late at night and sometimes even host musical performances.
Zhao first learned about the legendary Shanghai bookstore run by Uchiyama while making a documentary featuring China-friendly bookstores overseas, one of which was Uchiyama Books Co. in Tokyo's Jimbocho bookshop district. Run by Uchiyama's descendants, it focuses on marketing books related to China.
When the firm's current president, Shin Uchiyama, 50, came to Shanghai in 2015 to pay respects at the grave of Kanzo, who died in China and is buried in the city, Zhao went with him.
Uchiyama told him that he and other family members had long dreamed of reviving the Shanghai bookstore, which was closed in 1945 following Japan's defeat in World War II.
"I felt very excited and motivated," Zhao said in an interview. "I thought their dream is my dream, their hope is my hope. I decided to help them revive" the Uchiyama bookstore.
Initially, the possibility of reopening the bookstore in Shanghai or Shaoxing in eastern China's Zhejiang Province, the hometown of Lu Xun, was also explored.
But it was Tianjin where the dream took shape. Both stores were opened at major shopping malls in the city. A third store is scheduled to open in the first half of 2023.
Cherishing the history of the original bookstore, the shops each display panels introducing the founder and his friendship with Lu Xun, one of China's most prominent intellectuals before World War II, and other members of the salon gathering at his store.
According to Zhao, the two stores together have some 25,000 books on their shelves, with online shopping also available.
Among the items available are magazines imported from Japan and recipe books for Japanese cuisine. The stores also sell stationery goods such as pens of Japanese brands including Kokuyo, Zebra, Pilot, Mitsubishi and Platinum.
Up to 25 percent of all the items for sale at the Tianjin bookstores are related to Japan, and three staff members are fluent in Japanese and so able to respond to requests from Japanese customers, the manager said.
The native of Tianjin said it was "appropriate" for the port city to host bookstores reviving the old Shanghai shop as the city has a deep relationship with Japan, becoming a sister city of Kobe in 1973 and a production base for such Japanese manufacturers as Seiko Epson Corp., NEC Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp.
Many Chinese customers come to seek Japanese comics, detective novels and books about the country's history, Zhao said. Materials about Japanese artists of past and present such as ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Yayoi Kusama, who works primarily in sculpture and installation, are also big draws, he added.
As fewer people buy books with the spread of e-books and audiobooks, one of the Tianjin Uchiyama bookstores offers rental services to "help people get more familiar with" paper books, Zhao said.
"If you borrow, maybe you can read 200 to 300 books a year," he said, adding that some rare books that are expensive to buy can also be rented.
A 27-year-old who performs with a handpan drum and goes by the stage name "Lao Mao" meaning "old cat" in Chinese, said the stores are "unique" compared with other bookshops, where people usually remain quiet.
"Many young people and families come and the bookshops are very lively. I'd like to keep performing" at the stores, he said.
Liu Xin, 48, who manages the bookshops' cafe business, used to live in Japan. She said she wants to introduce Japanese food culture to customers and once organized a workshop on Japanese-style confectionery.
Shin Uchiyama said he is "really grateful" that many Chinese people have welcomed the reappearance of the old Japanese bookstore, although he regrets that the founder's family could not be directly involved.
While they have granted the Chinese operator exclusive rights to use the Uchiyama Shoten name, they have no stake in the Chinese operating company.
"I hope (Zhao) can maintain the brand power of the Uchiyama bookstore and keep operating shops that can bring joy to both Chinese and Japanese customers," he said.
Last year, Zhao saw a decline in the number of customers due to outbreaks of COVID-19. But with Beijing now reopening borders, he expressed hope that many Japanese will visit the stores.
He particularly hopes that Shin Uchiyama, who has not been able to visit China since the pandemic started, and Japanese authors will be among them. Uchiyama and his father attended the opening of the first store virtually.
Zhao said he aims to have the Uchiyama bookstore return to Shanghai and open in other parts of the country, too. His ultimate goal is to "continue the history" of the bookstore, he said.
Referring to a forward Lu Xun wrote to a book by Kanzo Uchiyama on China published in 1935 in which the Chinese intellectual expressed his belief that the people of the two countries will eventually come to understand each other, Zhao said he is determined to make the bookstores serve as a bridge between the two Asian neighbors.
"In my opinion, Uchiyama Shoten means peace and communications, so (we will) continue peace and friendship," Zhao said.