It should be evident to anyone who rides a commuter train or bus that Japan is a nation of people who take reading seriously. Needless to say, however, their reading habits, and readers’ tastes, have been changing with the times.
“In the old days, we’d see salarymen who’d purchase weekly magazines or comic books on the day they went on sale,” 7-Eleven Japan President Kazuki Furuya told the Nikkei Marketing Journal (NMJ), a thrice-weekly publication that covers retailing and distribution. “But these days everybody does their reading on their smart phone.”
For its page one story for Sept. 4, the NMJ ran the headline “Convenience stores becoming the neighborhood bookshop.” I had already taken notice of this phenomenon several weeks earlier, when then window in a nearby Seven-Eleven sported a huge poster to that effect.
According to the NMJ, however, it’s a rival chain, Family Mart, that’s been adopting the most aggressive strategy toward promoting book sales. As an example, the article introduces “Family Mart + Nishimura Shoten Kasai-ten,”
Located in the rural city of Kasai, Hyogo Prefecture, the original Nishimura bookshop, with a history going back 50 years, recently reopened in its new guise of a store fusing sales of printed matter with the usual convenience-store items. Its overall floor area, at 700 square meters, is about five times that of ordinary convenience stores, enabling it to set up a counter where patrons can eat in, as well as a kids’ corner equipped with toys for toddlers to romp in while their parents browse.
A 15-year-old middle-school student told the reporter she now visits the store more frequently, accompanied by friends. A female customer in her 50s, seen purchasing two books, some snacks and a carbonated beverage, remarked, “I only wanted to shop at the konbini, but wound up buying books as well.”
Makoto Miyamoto, who’s in charge of business development at Family Mart, told the NMJ the 800 new stores his company plans to open in 2017 is down by 40 percent from the peak in 2013, in part due to difficulties in signing up new franchises. “So we find bookstores, which are located in places with a commercial area radius of 3 to 5 kilometers, to be appealing in terms of their ability to attract customers.” Out of 12,000 bookstores, he sees the possibility that as many as 1,200 may agree to tie up with convenience stores.
Over the previous 10 years, Japan’s bookstores have declined from 17,098 to 12,526. Writing in Shincho 45 (July), veteran editor Yuzo Tsubouchi voiced his despair over the attrition of the city’s landmark bookshops with an article titled, “It’s not that books aren’t selling; it’s that there’s no place to buy them.”
“Ginza used to be a street of bookstores, but these days …” Tsubouchi wistfully recollects, naming some of the bookshops, such as Kondo Shoten (with the Jena store selling English and other foreign-language books located one floor above) that brought an air of culture to Tokyo’s most famous shopping district. He also noted that while Japanese-language daily newspapers are crammed with advertising for the latest book releases, he’s having difficulty finding shops where he can go to browse over the offerings.
With more konbini selling books, it’s also become clear that more books are being developed with the expectation that they will be sold at konbini, if not exclusively then certainly for a large percentage of their sales. The acknowledged market leader in this field is publisher Takarajimasha. While currently not selling an eponymous magazine, which had previously gone through various formats including a weekly, bi-weekly and monthly, Takarajimasha is one of the most prolific in terms of generating niche products.
One recent example of Takarajimasha’s topical reading matter for the everyman is “Nihon no Urashakai: Yami no Shokugyo Zukan” (an illustrated reference book of clandestine professions in Japan’s underground society, 256 pages, ¥600). This book introduces the income potential and explains the risks for 101 yabai shigoto (dangerous jobs), including ticket scalpers, hackers, prostitution via SNS, dealers of counterfeit brand goods, fencers of stolen items, identity forgers and others. A new one for me was gosaigyo (the business of being a second wife). “Gosaigyo no Onna” (“Black Widow Business”), a 2016 crime comedy film starring Shinobu Otake, has brought attention to this potentially lucrative racket, which targets affluent elderly widowers who seek to remarry.
Three other konbini-acquired titles on my cluttered bookshelf include “Tanaka Kakuei Hyaku no Kotoba” (“One Hundred Sayings of Kakuei Tanaka”). Containing sayings from the disgraced prime minister forced to resign in 1974, it was released in 2015 as part of the Showa Era (1926-89)nostalgia boom. As with Richard Nixon (and Donald Trump), there was no love lost between Tanaka and the Fourth Estate: “There are three things you can trust in newspapers,” he once remarked, “the obituaries, the stock quotations and the TV program listings. These three won’t be lies.” (Takarajimasha, 223 pages, ¥1,000)
“Otona no Katakana-go Taizen,” with an English subtitle, “Master Katakana to Easily Improve Your Conversational Ability,” is edited by the Master Topic Club (Seishun Shuppansha, 384 pages, ¥1,000). It introduces new and relatively unfamiliar words, mostly of foreign origin, such as “hararu ninshō” (“certified as halal”). It also devotes extra text to explain the differences and/or similarities between certain words such as “uebu saito” (“website”) and “hōmu pēiji” (“home page”).
Another recent konbini acquisition of interest is “Showa/Heisei ‘Kai Jiken no Shinso’ 47” (“The Truth behind 47 Strange Incidents in The Showa and Heisei Periods,” Bungei Shunjusha, 304 pages, ¥620). A compendium of various famous crimes and incidents, it looks at the 73-day rampage by Kiyoshi Okubo, Gunma’s notorious serial rapist and murderer (1973) and the 1995 toxic gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Supreme Truth cult.