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Bookstores going the way of dinosaurs

  • January 28, 2015
  • , Nikkei
  • Trending@Japan

Trending@Japan reported several months ago on Japanese youths’ tendency not to read books on account of their playing online games and using smartphones since early childhood, as well as their preference for obtaining the latest information via the Internet. The diminishing population of young “bookworms” is perhaps one of the reasons many bookstores are going out of business lately. According to Mainichi (1/5), no bookstores exist in one in five municipalities. The daily wrote that a survey conducted by Tokyo publisher Allmedia Network Co. found that there are no bookstores in 332 out of the 1,741 cities, towns, and villages in Japan. According to Mainichi, the “bookstore vacuum” is especially prevalent in such prefectures as Hokkaido (47 municipalities without a bookstore), Nagano (35), and Fukushima (22).

The number of bookstores in the country had plummeted to a record low of 13,736 as of November last year, representing a decline of almost 8,000, or 37%, in 14 years. In recent years, more than 300 bookshops have been closed annually. This means that a bookstore is shut down almost every day somewhere in Japan. The daily attributed the steady decline in bookstores to the spread of convenience stores that sell weekly and monthly magazines, as well as the growing popularity of online booksellers and book delivery services. An Allmedia spokesperson speculated that bookstore owners in rural areas have chosen to discontinue their operations in the face of the dwindling popularity of magazines, which used to account for the bulk of their sales and profits.

The gradual disappearance of bookstores has reportedly triggered a sense of alarm among the nation’s writers, who are worried that children growing up in communities without bookstores is tantamount to living in a desert without an oasis. Novelist Takashi Atoda, vice chairman of Characters Culture Promotion Organization, states: “The trend, if continued, will further aggravate ‘aliteracy’ among contemporary Japanese, because children will have fewer opportunities to come into contact with books. As bookstores are platforms for supporting cultural activities at the local level, the decline in bookstores will undermine the foundation of local culture.”

Librarians hold key to addressing “lost book generation”

If there are fewer bookstores, then school libraries are naturally a viable substitute to quench children’s thirst for printed materials. However, Asahi (1/8) writes that some children feel at a loss when they see all the books lined up on the shelf, and the presence of librarians is critical in helping students develop an interest in reading and selecting appropriate books. The daily highlighted an elementary school in Yokohama where the number of books borrowed increased by 70% after a part-time librarian was assigned there about a year ago. Librarian Junko Tsuzoe explains that she tries to call pupils’ attention to books by setting up inside the school library a corner for books on current affairs, such as the one written by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Based on the notion that reading is an effective way to improve the scholastic performance of students, the central government revised a relevant law last June to mandate local governments to assign a librarian at every primary and junior high school starting in April this year. The government has also allocated some 15 billion yen annually since FY2012 to help achieve that goal, as only half of public elementary and junior high schools had librarians at the time.

Despite the anticipated increase in the number of school librarians, the daily said more needs to be done to enhance the quality of librarians. A spokeswoman with the Japan Library Association states: “Some local governments hire librarians at wages equivalent to those for part-timers. Unless they feel confident about their job security, many licensed librarians choose not to apply for jobs at schools. This means that students are unable to take full advantage of the professional expertise of skilled librarians.”

Transformations in university libraries

Meanwhile, some university authorities are anxious to redesign school libraries and adopt new library services to foster students’ academic curiosity and enable them to thrive in the global community. According to Nikkei (1/26), visitors to Hosei and Tokyo Keizai University libraries are often surprised when they hear rancorous discussions going on among students on financial investment, regional conflicts, and other subjects – a scene that defies the conventional image of libraries offering a serene environment for students to pore over dense texts without being distracted. The two institutions set up several secluded booths in their libraries where students are encouraged to engage in heated discussion on books in the belief that instead of simply reading materials or listening to lectures by professors, contemporary students need to learn how to debate with people who have different values so as to identify problems and come up with effective and innovative solutions.

Meisei University in Tokyo recently installed glass-walled cubicles (left) in its library so that students can see their teachers working hard on independent research and thus be better motivated to study on their own. At the University of Tokyo Hongo Campus library, junior and senior students will be able to receive, starting in 2017, tutorial assistance in drafting dissertations, with librarians acting as agents tasked with referring students to appropriate academics for consultations.

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