2004 was a prosperous year for the Japanese book trade with revenues exceeding the previous year’s figures for the first time in seven years. Despite many small bookstores going out of business, innovative marketing from publishers and book retailers produced several million-sellers.

The year started auspiciously with a media storm over the youngest ever winners of the prestigious biannual Akutagawa Literary Prize, two photogenic young women, Risa Wataya (19) and Hitomi Kanehara (20). Wataya’s “Keritai Senaka (The Back One Wants To Kick)” sold a million copies and Kanehara’s “Hebi ni Piasu (Snake with a Piercing)” half a million. The winter winner of the Akutagawa Prize, Norio Mobu, also generated a big PR buzz with his controversial “Kaigo Nyumon (Introduction to Caregiving)” which is written in the style of an angry rapper.

By far the year’s biggest book phenomenon, however, was “Sekai no Chushin de, Ai o Sakebu (Crying Love At The Center Of The World)” by Kyoichi Katayama. First published in 2001, this tearjerker in which the hero loses his girlfriend to leukemia has now become the highest-selling Japanese novel ever, with total sales of 3.2 million, surpassed the previous record set by Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood”. So popular it has earned the shortened name “Sekachu”, sales of the novel were fuelled by a movie adaption, TV serialization and best-selling manga version.

Love story sales soar

Another romantic best seller that spawned movie and manga spin-offs was “Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu (I’m Coming to Meet You Now)” by Takuji Ichikawa in which a dead wife returns to her husband and young son for a brief six weeks. “Sekachu” and “Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu” have been key parts of the latest craze for sentimental “pure love” romances epitomized by the runaway success of Korean TV drama “Fuyu no Sonata (Winter Sonata)”.

“FuyuSona,” as it has been nicknamed, has gained a huge following among middle-aged women and inspired a huge amount of spin-off merchandise including a series of hit novels which bookstores report drove up sales of other kanryu (Korean style) books. The January edition of Nikkei Entertainment estimated sales of the DVD, novelization and soundtrack for “Fuyu” have exceeded 16 million yen.

Bookstores have done well from selling romance novels to older women, but other best sellers brought attention to two previously overlooked markets: makeinu (unmarried thirtysomething women) and ojisan (middle-aged men). “Makeinu no Toboe (The Distant Howling of Loser Dogs),” essays by Junko Sakai dealing with the lifestyle of unmarried and childless working women over 30, caused a media furore over the offensive term makeinu (Loser Dogs) and cast the spotlight on this growing segment of the Japanese population.

It was older men who were behind the surprise hit of children’s math and reading drills re-marketed as adult brain exercises; four volumes have sold over 2 million copies. There are also many new magazines aimed at this growing population of seniors looking to exercise their brains.

Two other trends in the book world this year commented upon in the January issues of Davinci, Nikkei Entertainment and Henshu Kaigi magazines, were “media-mixing” and the role of the Internet in growing new authors and best sellers. Both reflect the coming of age of a new generation reared on anime, manga, video games, cell phones and the Internet, who care more about content — whether story or information — than on a particular format such as printed books.

Of course, novels and manga have long been subjects for dramatization, but cross-media marketing seems to be gaining momentum, as exemplified by this year’s craze for “Pure Love” and kanryu products. Interestingly, a manga version of “Hebi ni Piasu” has been serialized in a manga magazine, apparently a first for an Akutagawa Prize-winning literary work. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun (Nov. 24), pairing an unknown manga artist with a popular novel is now seen as a way to develop new manga talent. Many of the new generation of novelists share an affinity with manga writers and the stigma attached to having their novels published as manga is fading.

In addition to the nonlinear and visual culture fostered by anime and manga, the Web is producing a new writing style of short, snappy sentences, with something to laugh or cry about in each sentence. One current best seller originally published on the Web is “Kippari (Do it!)” by Tome Kamioka — 60 short suggestions for changing one’s life. The resolutions, each of which has its own highly visual two-page spread, involve taking small steps such as cleaning out the refrigerator, turning off the TV, or making an effort to compliment people.

The growing importance of of the Web to publishing was highlighted by the success of “Deep Love,” which began as a novel for cellphones and was turned into a novel, movie and manga. But perhaps nothing represented the year better than “Densha Otoko (Train Man),” the story of a man who falls in love with woman he meets on the train. The bestselling romance novel began as a series of postings on an Internet bulletin board capturing this year’s big trends for cross-media promotion and sentimental fiction.

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