Japan’s Economy Ministry Project Team Strives to Make Bookstores into Cultural Meeting Points in Local Communities

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Editors from central and east Europe enjoy the ambiance of a bookstore in Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, on March 4.

The Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry established on March 5 a project team under the direct command of the economy minister for turning bookstores into bases for promoting cultures in local communities.

As the number of bookstores continue to dwindle nationwide, those concerned have high expectations about the planned assistance by the project team.

The project team will face the challenge of figuring out how to appeal to not only bookworms but also those who rarely read books when they devise specific assistance measures.

Roundtable talks

Regarding the establishment of the project team, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi said at a press conference on Tuesday, “Bookstores in local communities are familiar as places where people can encounter various kinds of contents. I recognize their importance as bases for creating cultures that foster people’s creativities.”

This time’s project team will act beyond internal borders among bureaus and other organizational structures of the economy ministry.

Moving forward, the project team will hold round-table talks with bookstores to listen to their opinions.

The project team aims to share exemplary cases of management which creates attractive spaces that make people want to read books, like a cafe integrated with a bookstore. It will also listen to requests from bookstore managers.

Promoting bookstores also largely affects publishing companies: “As bookstores have decreased, so have sales from paperbacks and magazines. It has been a blow to publishing companies,” a senior official of a major publisher said. “We welcome the assistance.”

Under 40% of peak year

The planned assistance attracts high expectations because of sluggish sales of physical books and the persistent decline of the number of bookstores across the nation.

According to the Research Institute for Publications, the combined market size of physical and electronic books was ¥1.5963 trillion in 2023. The figure of paperbacks alone was ¥1.0612 trillion, which is under 40% of that in the peak year of 1996.

The business model of physical books is a low margin and high turnover. A bookstore’s revenue margin is small, at a little over 20% of sales.

Once upon a time, sales from magazines, paperbacks and manga comics supported bookstores, but this business structure became no longer feasible with the rise of online retailers along with proliferation of the internet and diversification of entertainment, such as online video streaming.

According to the Japan Publishing Organization for Information Infrastructure Development, the total number of bookstores in fiscal 2022 was 11,495, down about 4,100 from fiscal 2013.

Despite this, locals remain to have strong affection to bookstores.

Major bookstore chain Yaesu Book Center opened their new branch near JR Asagaya Station in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 10. The previous tenant was a bookstore which had operated for more than 40 years and had announced in November last year that it would be closing its doors.

As the local bookshop was about to disappear, President Kazuhiro Sato of Yaesu Book Center, decided to buy the vacated site.

The company’s new 350-square-meter large Asagaya branch is visited by many customers every day.

Yaesu Book Center plans to hold reading events in the future.

In Osaka Prefecture, novelist Shogo Imamura took over management of a bookstore that was on the brink of closing business.

He currently operates two bookstores, one in Minoh, Osaka Prefecture, and the other in Saga City. Based on his experiences of running them, he said, “Not only books but also a wide variety of contents are now available. Managing bookstores cannot be done on dreams alone. It would be good if there is a system that teaches management and assist those who want to open bookstores.”

In Minato Ward, Tokyo, the building complexes Roppongi Hills and Azabudai Hills, which are being developed by Mori Building Co., accommodate bookstores as tenants.

Mori Building officials said that in an on-site survey, visitors often cited bookstores as facilities they want such complexes to have.

Though the profit margin of bookstores is low, their presence can contribute to an impression of sophistication of such complexes and forming new local communities. Thus, the company keeps rents of bookstores low.

Creating opportunities

The number of people who habitually enjoy reading is not so high in Japan today.

According to a public opinion survey on Japanese language by the Cultural Affairs Agency, the percentage of people who do not read any books in a month reached 47.3% in fiscal 2018.

However, a tendency among children of enjoying reading books has been spreading. A survey by the School Library Association showed that an elementary school student read 12.6 books a month on average in May 2023, and the number has been a slight rise.

Prof. Yashio Uemura of Senshu University, an expert on publication studies, said, “It is important how to make adults continue their practice of reading after acquiring it in childhood. I hope that bookstores will also become not only places that line new titles but attractive places where people who once stopped reading will be encouraged to restart through efforts like events.”

Assisting bookstores should contribute to increase of people interested in cultures and enhance the intellectual creativity of society.