Are Japan's bookstores in the path of yet another storm?


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 Takadanobaba 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."

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Rainydays point about a general decline in small - medium business is right on track.

Example - in the last 20 years in my wider neighbourhood, 3 bookstores have closed and one mom & pop business remains open as a gesture of loyalty to long time customers (I guess). It will close sometime. But 8 mins drive by car from here is a mega mall which has a very large bookshop. It's always busy, as are most of the hundreds of shops selling, fashion, furniture, electronics, sports goods, shoes, together with the x-tra large supermarket. No room for littlies. 3or 4 close, 1 biggie opens.

And Pukeys comment re books are NEVER discounted is also problematic. It reflects on an outdated closed system that is not meeting modern social / business / lifestyle trends. The benefit of the system is publishers will always take back unsold copies - but at what cost. Books predominantly in Japanese can not be offloaded abroad so the enormous cost of production and recycling (wasteful) is borne by the consumer who in turns pays the high prices. By offering discounts, not only could more slowly selling books be sold, but the world of books could potentially reach a much wider audience - esp in these money-tight times.

But No. Similar problems afflict other like industries esp the music / cd world where reluctance to give even a little will impact seriously on their businesses in the future.

For me I like books and will continue to buy, even though my online reading has increased. But most of my purchases these days are from Amazon (or online) because of ease of scanning, locating titles, reviews, costs, links to other  books by the same author and links to other related titles. I love bookshops and libraries, but online has become my first place to go - by a mile.

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In my town most bigger bookstores have done just that.

Seen it also in town cafes inside the bookstore.

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Bookshops have a great future, but they should evolutionise into a hybrid of a library and a coffee shop where customers can rent a book - in a printed or electronic format, and read it in a relaxing atmosphere, drinking coffee, tea and eating snacks. Bookshops of the future will not sell books, they will sell a service.

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I don't have too much space so I haven't really bought any books for a long time. And I sold a lot to Book Off. Another thing for me is the fact that Japanese books are NEVER discounted. No competition and no bargains to be had.

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This article misses any discussion of the major trends which are contributing to this decline and reads like little more than a list of book stores that have closed without offering any useful insights. Its worth mentioning a few of these trends:

1) All small retailers in Japan and not just bookstores have been in a steep decline since the 1980s (a trend that started before the bubble burst BTW). The number of small retailer shops across the country now is less than half what it was in 1982, so the decline of bookstores is also part of a broader decline in small retail businesses in general.

2) The article mentions Book Off locations closing as though this was just another example of book stores closing, but its quite different. Book Off barely existed in 1997 when the narrative in the article begins and burst onto the scene thanks to changes in regulations which allowed second hand goods stores of all kinds to become major chains in the late 90s. It played a big role in driving a lot of smaller shops out of business (see point 1), and now is being driven out by competition itself.

3) Amazon and other online retail is too obvious to be worth describing but duh.

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I love my Kindle and I love second hand books stores/buying second hand books on Amazon.

Variety is the spice of life people!

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Don't own a kindle and have no plans to. I'm sure they're fine and all that but it's got to be the crisp paperback for me all the way. Are they cumbersome? Sure they are; esp. that 700 pager I'm on now. But it's old school and there's a joy to behold with an actual physical copy that you just don't get with e-books. Prior to life in Japan, I scoured charity shops and 2nd hand bookstores to amass my collection. Haven't noticed too many here, apart from the Book Off in Shibuya.

Proud to be a dinosaur!

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I miss bookstores. I hate my kindle...never use it

Can I have it ??? I love my kindle as it has saved my brain from going numb and also traveling a long way to the nearest bookstore with over-priced English books.

I think some books are needed to be read not as an ebook but saying i hate my kindle is over-reacting

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Pre internet the public libraries were my heaven for seeking answers to my questions and from an early age of 5 years I went to the library everyday and read several books a week. That continued for many decades and I still have many physical books but now I mostly read or order online. love the very big art books with beautiful reproductions of art including the Tale of Genji.

My Japanese wife still uses the book stores extensively and buys several books every month.

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I miss bookstores. I hate my kindle...never use it. I don't like download either. There is nothing like having a physical copy of a book. I miss that. I love to read but since there is no place for me to buy books, I don't read as much as I use to. Buying on Amazon has it's pitfalls too. Many times I have ordered books and they are not what I really wanted, so I am leery about purchasing books online.

To my way of thinking, this lack of access is dumbing down the population.

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In the UK the sales of ebooks are dropping and proper book sales are increasing. I think not needing a charger or reliance on Amazon for access is turning many back to real books. I find it frustrating buying books in Japan, many shops have closed, those that are open only seem to stock the top sellers.

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I understand the eBooks are the thing now, but I'm old school and like to hold a book in my hand. The book store where I got my books (heavy in Japanese titles) has shut down and now there is none in the area that I live. I guess that's life.

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eBooks and eManga are big in Japan now, myself switched over to Kindle(app) a few years back.

Publications are cheaper or free, take up no shelfspace.

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Local bookstores are starting to stack books with the covers facing the customer. Why? Takes up more space and makes the shelves look "full." Yesterday, the local bookstore couldn't even gather enough books for that; they had a "under renovation" sign on one bookshelf, covers facing out on the next one, and a couple of books in a bookholder with it open so customers could "read" a couple of pages. All to make the shelves look full.

Meanwhile, the magazine and manga sections are full of customers and product.

Also, while Japanese book publishers might publish more new titles than the US (especially 40 years ago), the threshold for a best seller is less. In the US a best-seller used to be 40,000 books or more (esp on the NY Times list) while in Japan it was more like 4,000. Why? Because Japanese book publishers couldn't sell many of the books they sold. Why? Because no one was reading them. See above about the manga and magazine sections.

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I haven't purchased a physical book in years, not because I don't read, I read as much as I can - several hours a day. It's that I get all content either on line r via my kindle (I purchased 3 titles last week). It's cheaper, with less clutter, I can carry literally thousands of titles everywhere, and it's better for the environment.

Any business model that sells a physical version of what can be digitized and transferred wirelessly is going the way of the dinosaur.

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