Charles Tuttle 1950’s — Picture From Kyoto Journal
“Charles E. Tuttle was one of the great characters of the international book trade. He was a learned bibliophile and scholar of American and Japanese literature, a successful businessman, a genuine and generous friend, and a loving husband to his wife of 42 years, Reiko Chiba Tuttle. He was also a prodigious drinker, and was not infrequently tossed out of, and off, bars and restaurants, golf courses and tennis courts, on six continents — unabashedly, and not without some elan, one might add.”
— Obituary of Charles Tuttle, Independent by Nicholas Ingleton
Occasionally in your travels, you come across one of those rare gems in history. As I was looking through two martial arts books in my library, I noticed they had the same publisher: Tuttle. A quick look in the front of one gave me a glimpse at the almost unbelievable story of Charles Tuttle.
A brief Google search gave me perhaps one of the greatest obituaries I’ve ever read. As I researched more, the story kept getting better.
This gentlemen happened to come from a family with hundreds of years in the publishing industry, served personally under General Douglas MacArthur, was hand-picked to revive the crushed Japanese literary industry, and almost single-handedly started a cross-cultural exchange between once bitter enemies — eventually winning an award from the Japanese government. What’s more, even though you’ve likely had some interaction with his published works, you’ve probably never heard of him before.
Join me for the story of Charles Tuttle, a unique character, almost designed by fate for the odd period of time he found himself in.
A family with publishing in their blood
According to the Kyoto Journal, the Tuttle publishing legacy began with Richard Tottel in the mid-1500s. This ancestor was the initial publisher of Thomas Moore’s Utopia and also put together the first collection of great English poetry.
The family stretched its reach, with relatives moving across the Atlantic and settling in Vermont, starting a publishing company. By the time Charles was born, Charles Sr. was a well-known book collector, stocking over 700 selections of rare books. The family also owned numerous publishing companies by this time.
Charles shared the family love of literature, working in the family business and attending Harvard where he studied literature (of course). He also spent a year working at Columbia University’s Rare Book Department. As the United States (U.S.) entered World War II (WWII), Charles joined the army, eventually becoming an officer and making the rank of Captain.
According to Ingleton’s obituary, the army made use of Tuttle’s information skills, originally putting him in charge of the new Japanese Diet’s library. However, MacArthur soon gave him a new job, to help revitalize the Japanese newspaper industry.
A new home and mission
“Bun refers to writing and by extension the literary arts… It also refers to the written form of a language, such as Japanese — 和文 (wabun)…Since written language is seen as a prerequisite for civilization, bun is the key component in the word 文明 (bunmei, writing-enlightment, i.e., civilization).”
— Mark Schreiber, Japan Times
As Tuttle worked for the American occupation force, he started to see that there was very little on Japanese culture written for a Western audience — in truth, there was next to nothing. Also, there was a demand for Western literature in Japan from soldiers and natives alike. After the war, he stayed in Japan, opening a branch of his family’s publishing company there so he could import and export books.
According to the Kyoto Journal, he met his wife Reiko Chiba and they were eventually married in 1951. The pair began publishing books about Japan, spreading and rebuilding civilization by the written word. Their company motto became “Books to Span the East and West”. However, Tuttle’s efforts were dismissed by other publishers, thought to be naïve and destined to fail.
Tuttle and his wife spent months traveling and promoting books on Japanese and Asian culture to American bookstores. Ingleton says that their catalog included popular modern Japanese authors, books on art and flower arranging, and the first books on the island’s martial arts.
By 1958, over 400 U.S. bookstores stocked Tuttle’s published books. They also began translating American classics into Japanese. The company also published one of the first books on Tibetan art and brought the initial books about Hawaiian surfing to the mainland United States.
Despite the dismissal of the existing publishing industry, Tuttle’s company became a smashing success and satisfied an incredible need. As he recounts in the Kyoto Journal:
“We take for granted all the books on Japanese culture, flower arrangement, haiku poetry. But then there was nothing. It was unthinkable. There were no Japanese books on publishers’ lists. It was taboo.”
In addition to his publishing company, Tuttle also created a literary agency, which is one of the biggest in Japan — Tuttle-Mori Agency. His nephew Tom Mori now runs the firm and their client list includes Dan Brown, Peter F. Drucker, and Nicholas Sparks.
A legacy spanning East to West
While Charles Tuttle may have unabashedly liked to drink and tell a story, his publishing efforts are legendary. By the time of his death in 1993, he had published 6,000 books, mostly about Japanese or Asian culture according to Tuttle Publishing. He was also awarded the “Order of the Sacred Treasure” by Emperor Hirohito in 1983. This is the highest achievement a foreigner can be awarded in Japan.
I also have him and his company to thank for two of my favorite books on martial arts, one of these was kind enough to mention his incredible story.
In one of those strange twists in history, a book publisher-soldier who liked to drink and socialize helped heal the incredible wounds between two former enemies. He did this using the written word — bunmei, writing-enlightment — as the bandage to heal the trauma.