National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Councilors get loud on library revamps

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

As testimony to their characteristically low profile, Japan’s public libraries seldom make the news, although two recent exceptions come to mind.

In 2013, a number of school and public libraries in Shimane and Tottori prefectures attracted coverage when they removed Hiroshima bomb survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s illustrated autobiographical novel, “Barefoot Gen,” from their shelves. Some parents had objected to the depictions of extreme violence, while local right-wing groups had denounced its raising the issue of the late Emperor Showa’s war responsibility.

Last year, the defacing of more than 100 books at Tokyo-area public libraries related to the diary of Holocaust victim Anne Frank, mostly in the juvenile book sections, made international headlines. The perpetrator, a man with a history of mental health issues, was finally apprehended after a security camera recorded him doing the same thing in a bookstore. His name was not even made public.

This year’s big news concerns the semi-privatization of public libraries in Saga and Kanagawa prefectures, through tieups with Culture Convenience Club, a corporation that operates the nationwide chain of Tsutaya bookstores and rental shops.

CCC’s first joint effort, the Takeo City Library and Historical Museum opened on April 1, 2013, as a multipurpose space to enable “civil life navigation from a library.” Its design was formulated under a “new library concept” to make the facility more appealing. In addition to a Starbucks outlet on its premises, the library also featured a Tsutaya outlet selling books and magazines, and renting music and video DVDs.

Takeo’s library proved a huge hit. Weekly business magazine Diamond (Oct. 17) noted that following the renovation, the number of annual visitors soared from around 250,000 in 2011 to 923,000 in 2013 — more than twice the projected number — although it leveled off slightly to 800,000 last year. Visitors from outside the town came to gawk at it, and the added economic benefits to the small hot springs resort, including diners at restaurants and souvenir shoppers, has been estimated at ¥2 billion. Takeo’s new facility was even named recipient of the Good Design Gold Award for 2013.

You might even say that the snazzy new library helped put Takeo on the map. But it was a map of a different sort, in another city’s library, which made headlines this time. During a meeting of the city assembly on Oct. 1, Ebina city councilor Hideshige Iida indignantly addressed his colleagues, asking rhetorically, “Is this the kind of book that libraries should be lending out?”

Iida was referring to certain “questionable” titles that were included in the library’s list of some 8,343 new acquisitions. One, reported Shukan Asahi (Oct. 23), was a 75-page item from Kyohan Books titled “Play map and guide to Bangkok by night.” The book offered specific information on where male visitors to the Thai capital might satisfy both their physical and sexual appetites — by partaking of tropical fruits delicately arranged nyotaimori style, atop the tummy of a live, unadorned human female.

“That ‘Thai Play Map’ is indecent and doesn’t belong on the shelves of a public library,” Ebina city councilor Yoshiki Yamaguchi complained to Nikkan Gendai (Oct. 7). “They also supplied lots of old travel magazines. In the past, books were typically chosen as needed for education or refinement, but the current selection criteria has me dumbfounded. The basic problem is the same in Takeo and Ebina: administrators made no effort to investigate which books would be picked, and no screening functions were put in place.”

Weekly Playboy (Oct. 19) reviewed the opening of the new Ebina facility, and noted disapprovingly that more than half the area beneath the atrium was occupied by Tsutaya and Starbucks. It also reported on the slipshod nature of book procurement for the library, where many titles appeared to have been gleaned from the inventory of Net-Off, a CCC subsidiary selling used titles.

Another user complaint concerns the libraries’ adoption of the same inventory code as that of commercial bookstores, as opposed to the standard Nippon Decimal Classification system. This made it difficult for library users to return books to their original spot on the shelves, resulting in a somewhat chaotic disarray.

From the timing of those revelations, it appears likely that negative news out of Ebina influenced the outcome of a referendum by residents of the city of Komaki in Aichi Prefecture, where a vote was held Oct. 4 concerning plans to upgrade the city’s aging library. The city had budgeted ¥4.2 billion, with plans to expand the floor area 2.6-fold to hold double the number of books, naturally with a bookstore and cafe on the premises. By 32,352 votes to 24,981, Komaki’s citizens decided to postpone a tieup with CCC pending further study.

A final note: While no set formula seems to exist for writing the obituaries of magazines, perhaps there should be. On its cover, the October issue of Takarajima (Treasure Island) magazine announced that after a run of 41 years, it is “suspending” publication (kyūkan, as opposed to pulling the plug for good, which is haikan).

Takarajima was one of the few remaining glossy monthly magazines in modified A4 format, aimed at mostly male readers in their 20s and 30s, which flourished during the late 1980s, with names like Bart, Views and Marco Polo. Due to such factors as a shrinking demographic, shortening of the news cycle and general decline in magazine readership, that kind of publication has nearly died out.