Tuttle Publishing, which turns 70 this year, can claim New England publishing and bookselling roots that go back to George Tuttle’s Rutland, Vt., print shop, which opened in 1832. But it was Charles Tuttle who, in the postwar years, transformed his family’s business into one of America’s longest-standing emissaries for books about Asian cultures and languages.
Arriving in Japan at the end of World War II, Tuttle, then a young Army officer, was tasked by Gen. Douglas MacArthur with helping rebuild the nation’s publishing industry. He soon recognized an opportunity to sell and distribute books of his own, and, in 1948, he launched Tuttle Publishing in Tokyo, selling English-language books about East Asia in Japanese department stores and on U.S. Army bases. He quickly discovered that American readers were interested in reading works from Japan and established the American offices for Tuttle in Vermont.
“At a time when it was not politically correct to be so pro-Japan, he was very much a maverick in saying that it’s about people and not about governments, and that we should all be finding a way to live together,” said Christopher Johns, the company’s sales and marketing director. Within a few years, Tuttle and his Japanese-born wife, Reiko Chiba Tuttle, were publishing a steady stream of Japanese works for English readers, including Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, Karate: The Art of “Empty-Hand” Fighting, and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, all of which are in still print and remain bestsellers for the press.
Tuttle, who died in 1993, published 6,000 books in his lifetime and was awarded Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure for his work. “He decided that he had a role to play in bringing a greater understanding of Japanese culture to Americans,” said Eric Oey, who is Tuttle’s cousin and has been at the helm of the company for more than two decades. “He pursued this mission doggedly for over 40 years.”
Today, Tuttle publishes 160 new titles per year from offices in North Clarendon, Vt., and Singapore. The staff of 40 is evenly split between the two locations, with the Singapore office handling production, design, and international distribution across Asia. The Vermont office is responsible for the company’s editorial and marketing, and Ingram Publisher Services distributes the company’s books in the U.S. Its 1,600-title backlist includes titles on languages, crafts, martial arts, and cooking.
Publishing across cultures adds a degree of complexity to each book Tuttle publishes, especially since masny of its titles require translation from East Asian languages. For instance, to publish a book on Japanese knitting, the company’s editorial team had to scour the U.S. for a knitter who could speak Japanese. They found Gayle Roehm, a Japanese knitting teacher, and after consultations, they selected Japanese knitting pioneer Hitomi Shita’s Japanese Knitting Stitch Bible for translation.
Roehm not only translated Shita’s writing but also provided a kind of craft translation. “She translated the actual patterns because the instructions and patterns for Japanese knitting are different,” Johns said. “She put them in context.”
The publisher’s careful work paid off, and the book was one of Tuttle’s bestselling titles of 2017, due in no small part to the continued advocacy of the translator. “She’s also going out on the road teaching from this book,” Johns added. “She’s a major advocate. That’s the best of all worlds: the perfect adviser, translator, and writer all in one.”
Tuttle has published some controversial works. After its North Korea Confidential, a book about everyday life in North Korea, was acquired by a South Korean publisher, North Korean authorities issued death sentences in absentia for any South Korean journalist who interviewed the book’s author.
Tuttle is also not against thinking outside of the box. In 2016, it partnered with the World Conservation Society and the Bronx Zoo, soliciting hundreds of thousands of origami elephants from across the world. The effort set a Guinness world record and raised awareness about elephant poaching. According to Johns, publicity around the project helped push the Chinese government to declare a ban on ivory trading. “We’re trying to be a publisher and also do good things,” Johns said.
Still, the majority of Tuttle’s publications lie at the intersection of what Johns called “the topical and the traditional.” The Filipino Cookbook, about traditional Filipino cooking, is intended to appeal to second- or third-generation Filipino Americans discovering their roots. The Book of Tea, a 1905 classic about Japanese tea ceremonies, is less about which tea to drink than about helping people create the perfect setup for having nice conversations with others. “Most people need that conversation in their lives more than ever,” Johns said.