Although manga make up a huge percentage of many large publishers' revenues in Japan, there's still no disputing that Japanese are a nation of voracious readers. The number of new book titles, including foreign translations, at one time was twice that of the United States -- although the rising percentage of unsold copies has cut into their revenues.
Writing in the monthly magazine Shincho 45 (July) , Yuzo Tsubouchi despairs over the closing of bookshops with the title, "It's not that books aren't selling; it's that you can't buy them."
Tsubouchi has observed a correlation between his own life and books that have occurred in years ending in the number 7. It was in 1977, for example, that while cramming for university entrance examinations he became truly familiar with Jimbocho, Tokyo's old university area still famous for its specialty bookstores.
Prior to that he'd visited shops in his neighborhood in Setagaya Ward, and also went to high school near Takatanobaba Station, close to Waseda University and another area famous for specialty and antiquarian book dealers.
By 1987, Tsubouchi had graduated from university and was working in the editorial department of a magazine titled Tokyo-jin, a publication sort of modeled after the New Yorker. His office was about 8 minutes on foot from JR Iidabashi Station, and to get there he would pass a half dozen bookshops where he often visited to browse.
Around 1997, he had left the magazine and while working as a freelance translator, Tsubouchi had also published two books of his own. Prior to that came the collapse of the so-called "bubble economy" and he found out the hard way that the Japanese publishing industry's reputation for being able to weather difficult economic times was no more than a myth: during all of 1997 and the first six months of 1998, approximately 1,500 bookstores in Japan were closed.
Also from 1997, Tsubouchi began writing a regular column in a publication titled Hon no Zasshi (A magazine about books). In his column he began chronicling the closure of well known bookshops: Kondo Shoten in Ginza in 2003; Taiseido in Shibuya in June 2005; and Asahiya Shoten, also in Shibuya, two months later. The branch of Libro on the 5th floor of the Seiyu department store in Tsubouchi's neighborhood of Sangenjaya closed in 2007.
But other large shops were opened to fill the demand. It was only this year that Tsubouchi senses once again major changes are in the offing. In 2016, a medium-sized book wholesaler, Taiyosha, went into bankruptcy. This affected shops on the end of Taiyosha's supply chain, such as the Horindo bookstore in Takatanobaba, which had to scramble to seek other suppliers. That store is still in business, but its current selection of titles "makes it seem like a different place," as Tsubouchi describes it.
Last autumn, the death of the proprietor of the Shinzan-sha bookshop, located in the Iwanami Book Center close to the main Jimbocho intersection, led to that store's closure. The space it occupied remained vacant as of the end of May of this year.
Another bit of shocking news amidst the ongoing string of bookstore closures was that of the Ginza branch of the used bookstore chain, Book Off, which closed its doors in mid-March of this year.
Ginza's Kyobunkan bookstore, at the same location since before the Pacific War, is still in business, as is another institution, Misuzu Shobo. And in nearby Yurakucho can be found a branch of Sanshodo. Although Tsutaya operates a bookstore in the newly opened Ginza Six complex, Tsubouchi can't work up any enthusiasm for it.
"In the past, Ginza was a street of bookstores," he reflects. "But now, in 2017…" He leaves the sentence unfinished.
More bookstores have closed, including another Book Off in Shibuya just two weeks ago. This process of this slow decline had its beginnings 20 years ago, in 1997. The pages of Japanese-language daily newspapers are crammed with ads for new book titles. Yet, Tsubouchi complains, there's increasingly fewer places to go to see a real copy and flip through its pages.
"In my present Tokyo neighborhood, all the book shops are gone," he writes mournfully. "If one that carried newly published titles were still in business, I'd visit it every day."© Japan Today