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RISE OF E-BOOKS

Japan’s readers slower to make e-book leap

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

According to the media, the e-book era in Japan began in 2010, with the debut of Apple Inc.’s iPad, Sony Corp.’s Sony Reader and other e-book services.

The market has been growing, but not as fast as in the United States. In Japan, regular use of the technology remains limited.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s happening in the domestic e-book market:

How big is the market and how has it grown?

According to Tokyo-based IT media firm Impress Business Media Corp., Japan’s e-book market generated sales of ¥72.9 billion in fiscal 2012, a 15.9 percent increase over the previous year.

E-book sales for relatively newer devices like smartphones, tablet PCs and dedicated e-book readers was limited to ¥11.2 billion in fiscal 2011. But that more than tripled to ¥36.8 billion in fiscal 2012.

Before smartphones and tablets started spreading, Japan had developed a fairly large e-book market for standard mobile phones (also called “feature phones”), with adult comic books the most popular type of content.

The size of the market for standard paper books is about ¥1.7 trillion, but that has shrunk for eight years in a row. It peaked in 1997 at ¥2.6 trillion.

In the U.S., the size of the e-book market is about ¥300 billion and growing more quickly than Japan’s. In 2011, Amazon revealed that e-books for its Kindle device had outsold regular books.

Why is the Japanese market growing more slowly?

The main reason appears to be differing cultural notions of convenience.

“It’s no surprise that e-books haven’t become so popular in Japan,” said Toru Sanpei, chief of the secretariat of the Japan Electronic Publishing Association.

“Japan is much smaller than the U.S. in terms of land area, but there are so many bookstores, and people can buy cheap but well-made books. So books don’t really have to be digital,” Sanpei said.

In the U.S., which actually has fewer bookstores than Japan, which has about the same amount of land as Montana, books tend to be bigger, heavier and harder to carry. So e-books actually cater better to the reading culture of the U.S. because they make life easier, experts said.

According to Publishers Weekly, the United States had 12,703 bookstores in 2012 while Aru Medial, a Tokyo-based research firm, says Japan had 14,696.

Does this mean Japanese are less interested in e-books?

It would seem so.

According to an online survey released last month by Tokyo-based research firm Cross Marketing Inc., nearly all of the 1,200 people polled are aware of e-books, but 61 percent have no interest in using them.

Only 2.8 percent said they mainly read e-books, while 12.2 percent said they use both regular books and e-books.

Yoshiyuki Oshita, chief director of the center for art policy and management at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting, acknowledged that Japan’s market is growing less quickly than in the U.S., but he also said that, given the cultural differences, Japan’s rate of growth isn’t necessarily slow.

Japan has a long and rich culture of reading printed material, so “just because technologies made it possible to read e-books, it won’t change the culture that easily and quickly,” he said.

“Over the long term, I believe e-books will spread more widely.”

Does this lack of interest translate into fewer e-book services and less chances to try them?

Not necessarily, because there are many services and reading devices available.

Besides Kindle, Rakuten Inc., Toshiba Corp. and Sharp Corp. now sell e-book readers, but bookstores, printing firms and publishers are also getting into the act by developing reading applications for smartphones and tablet computers.

Oshita pointed out that another factor slowing the spread of e-books has been the lack of titles.

The nation’s biggest e-book sellers only have about 100,000 to 300,000 titles in stock, but the top bookstores have more than 1 million.

People in the electronic-book industry believe they must give their products more media exposure.

Major publisher Dai Nippon Printing Co. is doing this through its cafe in Tokyo, where it has set up tablet computers on each table so customers can read e-books. It also runs its own e-bookstore.

Does the publishing industry overall see an opportunity in pursuing e-books?

The major players have gotten more involved in promoting e-books over the past few years.

The market for traditional print books has been shrinking and doesn’t have a bright future, given the ongoing population decline, so they are pursuing other ways to increase revenue, said Oshita.

He equated the situation to the bitter times the music industry went through after Apple rocked the landscape by creating the de facto standard for digital music distribution with iTunes.

Oshita said booksellers are well aware of what happened and are eager to prevent it from happening to them as well.

But when it comes to small publishers, they have a hard time joining the e-book market because they don’t have the know-how and money to jump in. Japan has many small publishers.

What would encourage more people in Japan to jump on the e-book bandwagon?

Oshita said one effective approach is to promote the use of e-books at schools.

“There are movements to incorporate more IT into education, including textbooks. In that case, textbooks would become e-books,” he said. “Children in the future will grow up with e-books, so it will be natural for them to use e-books, unlike people like us who grew up with regular books and may be reluctant to change.”

Sanpei of JEPA said academic books and most of the books in college libraries have yet to be digitized.

If those become e-books, students will be able to more easily complete tougher reading assignments because the gadgets will bring them from the libraries to their fingertips, Sanpei said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp .