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Sunday, Jan. 13, 2002


No recovery in sight for Japanese book publishing industry

One often sees references in the Japanese media to the "lost decade" that followed the burst of the speculative bubble in the early 1990s, but the publishing world has only suffered a half decade of negative growth. After five consecutive years of falling sales, however, it can no longer ignore systemic problems.

This was highlighted by the death of Focus magazine in August, the filing for bankruptcy in December of Suzuki Shoten, a medium-size distributor of humanities and social science books, and the publication during the year of four different books analyzing the book-world crisis, starting with "Dare ga 'Hon' o Korosu no ka" (Who Is Killing Books?) by Shinichi Sano in February.

The announcement in July of the imminent demise of Focus, a photo weekly published by Shinchosha, caused a big stir in Japan. Founded in 1981, the magazine's sales peaked at 2 million copies a week around 1984, but recently had rarely exceeded 200,000. An analysis in Aera (July 16) blamed Shinchosha's inability to adapt to a changing environment, as well as the slump in the magazine market, for Focus' failure.

Despite a sharp drop in the company's "bunko" sales (from 40 million in 1994 to an estimated half that in 2001), there is seemingly little sense of urgency within Shinchosha, where people see themselves as contributors to culture rather than as business people concerned with the bottom line.

In the newspaper world, Sankei Shimbun announced in November that it would stop issuing an evening edition in the Tokyo area, starting in April. The Sankei president cited the decreased popularity of evening editions with readers, but Aera (Nov. 19) wondered if the real reason was not the desire to trim excess ad space in light of the decline in ad placement after the IT slump, and especially the post-Sept. 11 falloff in travel and recreational advertising.

As causes for the falling sales of new books and periodicals, Shuppan News (third issue, December) cites the recession and the ready availability of information on the Internet. Another trend emerged during the year, however, of authors and publishers blaming the new chains of discount bookstores, such as Book Off, and public libraries for decreased sales at regular bookstores.

In April, an association of manga authors was formed that has carried out various protests against discount bookstores and manga coffee shops for dampening royalties and making it harder for new manga artists to break into the business. In June, the Japan Pen Club also issued a statement critical of discount bookstores, manga coffee shops and libraries (for the bulk purchases of popular new titles).

Reflecting the pessimistic mood in Japan, five of the top 20 best sellers of the year were motivational or popular psychology works translated from English. The No. 1 best seller, selling 3.5 million copies, was "Who Moved My Cheese?" by Spencer Johnson, a parable about adjusting quickly to change, while Robert Kiyosaki's "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," a guide to money making, sold 1.25 million.

Discussions of "Cheese" in DaCapo (Jan. 2/16) and the "Ichioshi" book guide for 2002 point out the fallacies in Johnson's story of how two elves and two mice in a maze have to go search elsewhere in the maze for the cheese that one day is no longer in its usual spot. The book assumes that the cheese can be found within the maze if one just changes one's thinking, but in Japan today there is no guarantee of the cheese or even of the maze.

In America it may be relatively easy to find a new job, but retrenched employees in Japan lose not only a job but an identity. The discussants also resisted the book's implicit message of changing oneself instead of questioning the employer or society: If you are laid off it is not the responsibility of the company, but your own fault for not changing yourself fast enough. This also removes any responsibility for examining Japan's "lost decade" and perhaps assigning blame.

The third book in the Harry Potter series went on sale in Japan in July and sold a million copies in little over 10 days; sales for all three Harry Potter books total 7.3 million here. The only other fiction titles in the top 20 were "Twelfth Angel" by Mandino; "Battle Royale" by Takami Koshun, a 1999 novel whose sales were spurred by the release of a movie version; and Miyabe Miyuki's long, long mystery about a serial killer, "Mohozai" (Copy Cat).

The annual reviews of the year in literature in newspapers and magazines showed little consensus or overwhelming favorites. Kawakami Hiromi's "Sensei no Kaban" (Teacher's Briefcase) received praise as a well-constructed novel about the short three years together of a 38-year-old woman and her aged former high school teacher after they accidentally meet one day in a shop. Takahashi Genichiro also received attention for his "Nihon Bungaku Seisui Shi" (History of the Rise and Fall of Japanese Literature), which mixed autobiographical shi-shosetsu elements with actual Meiji authors making porn videos or writing e-mails in classical Japanese.

A writer of the so-called J-Bungaku generation, Abe Kazushige, published his first novel in four years. In "Nipponia Nippon" a 17-year-old is forced to leave his hometown after stalking a classmate and becomes obsessed instead with the Japanese crested ibis (scientific name Nipponia Nippon), plotting to free them from their nature sanctuary. Abe wants readers to think about the wider possible meanings of the "protected" Nipponia Nippon -- is it the Imperial family, the closed Japanese literary establishment, Japan itself?

Commentators also noted the increased visibility of the Internet both within novels and as a new path for the emergence of authors, as editors scan sites for promising newcomers. The 17-year-old Wataya Risa, however, followed the traditional path for new authors when she won the Bungei literary prize last year. Her "Install" is about a high school girl who one day meets a sixth-grade boy and shares a part-time job with him as a "wife" doing sex chat with customers on a for-pay Internet sex site. Through assuming a new identity on the Net she changes and becomes more ready for life out in society.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.

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