January 1, 2005｜Mongolia
Former Ambassador to Mongolia
The people of Mongolia are quite avid readers. There can be no doubt that the number of books published each month must be one of the highest in Asia in proportion to the total population. What drives this is the literacy rate. Someone checked this using material published in 2000 by the Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO. The adult literacy rate of Mongolians is 99.1% among men and 98.8% among women, which is higher than the rate in Vietnam and Sri Lanka, as well, of course, as China’s rate of 91.7% among men and 76.3% among women. As I recall, Mongolia was awarded a price by UNESCO in around 1970, for having a literacy rate of almost 100%. This may be why highly educated people have usually written one or more books. Most of my friends have written their own books and give them out instead of business cards.
When I was working in Ulaanbaatar at the beginning of the 1980s, the novel Tungalag Tamir (The Pure Tamir River), by the eminent author Lodojdamba, was published.
To digress somewhat, Nasanboyan, who has worked at the Ministry of Finance for years as a contact for matters relating to trade with Japan, is Lodojdamba’s daughter and the piano that she played as a child was exhibited at the museum in the city of Altay, her father’s hometown. Immediately after this novel, a massive work of pure literature, was published, the driver at my workplace asked whether I had read it; upon hearing that I had not yet done so, he got hold of a copy of this bestselling book – which had completely sold out – for me. At that time, new books were the focus of interest throughout society, a situation similar to that which prevailed in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s.
In Mongolia, “foreign literature” refers to Russian literature and such books have tended to be read by a wider range of people than are foreign books in Japan. During the socialist era, No.1 Bookshop, about half of which was given over to Russian books, was located on Sukhbaatar Square; it had many academic books, including antiquarian books. In the Third District on the hill west of Gandan Temple there is a big bookshop that has a storehouse at the back; on numerous occasions I was allowed into the storehouse, where I hunted for books. On the western side of Chinggisiin Orgon Choloo road, which leads off from Sukhbaatar Square and runs from the post office to the airport, is the headquarters of the Democratic Party. Previously, this building was the general office of a bookshop and when I first visited Mongolia in 1965, it sold me books on a dollar basis. I recall with nostalgia how I acted as an intermediary between this bookshop and the Nauka Bookshop in Kanda, so that it would be possible to obtain Mongolian books and newspapers in Japan as well. Then, as now, department stores were generally the predominant bookshops and contained a number of individual bookshops within a single building. In addition, the sale of books on the street, to the east of the Normal University is now beginning, but in days gone by, they were sold to the west of the art museum.
The fact that many bookshops have closed and been turned into bars since the transition to a market economy is something that many thinking people consider lamentable. On the other hand, companies such as Admon Press have emerged as world-class, competitive printing and publishing companies. A new publishing culture is being created. Books are now printed in beautiful colors. Recently, a new department store for books opened, the Internom Bookshop. In October last year, when most people still did not know about it, I went looking for it and went inside; although it is not yet up to the level of Marunouchi Oazo, the displays and the staff were highly sophisticated. The second floor is completely devoted to imported Western, Russian and antiquarian books. I also met former President Ochirbat in the shop. Mongolia is moving on.
[Translated by ERINA]