National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

The mysterious case of Japan's vanishing bookstores

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Decades of writing a column about the country’s media industry has imparted me with a strong sense of familiarity with media personalities, companies, publications and sales channels. When they expire, it often hits me hard.

In the past year alone, two monthly magazines that provided regular fodder for Big in Japan suspended publication, albeit for different reasons. According to the nation’s Audit Bureau of Circulation, sales of Sapio, a monthly from Shogakukan, had fallen from 81,449 in 2013 to 43,702 by the first half of last year. The main reason for Sapio’s decline appears to have been a shrinking reader demographic. On the other hand, Shincho 45, a monthly opinion magazine from Shinchosha, crossed the line on political correctness on LGBTQ issues and halted publication as a show of contrition.

Still hanging on is Shukan Kinyobi, a politically oriented weekly magazine that leans strongly to the left on most issues. One of its founders in 1993 was Katsuichi Honda, who covered the war in Vietnam for the Asahi Shimbun. Honda later published a damning 397-page work of non-fiction on the 1937-38 Nanking Massacre that infuriated deniers, making him one of the most politically charged writers in the country.

From a peak of more than 50,000 in the 1990s, Shukan Kinyobi’s current weekly circulation is said to have fallen below 13,000, making copies increasingly difficult to procure.

On Oct. 16, after perusing the magazine’s online table of contents, I looked for a copy to read its cover story denouncing the Olympic Games. There was a bookshop reasonably close to where I live that had always carried Shukan Kinyobi but, upon arrival at Gotokuji Station, I was dismayed to see that it now sells recycled clothing and boutique items. A woman at the sales counter couldn’t tell me if the store had relocated or closed permanently.

I went to a second bookshop at Shoinjinja and was relieved to see that they were still in business. Unfortunately, like the larger Tsutaya in the Carrot Tower at Sangenjaya, they didn’t carry the magazine. My next stop was Shibuya, where the manager of the bookstore at the scramble crossing told me he carries it, but that it was sold out.

Finally on my fifth try, Kinokuniya, I could proclaim mission accomplished. Including time spent riding trains and buses, I had expended more than two hours in my search.

I suppose there are more efficient ways of searching for a magazine, such as ordering a copy online or telephoning the store to ask beforehand. Browsing at kiosks, bookstores and convenience stores, however, is an essential part of the process of reviewing material for this column, and I’m pleased to say that while tracking down Shukan Kinyobi I also found the November issue of Tsukuru.

While I’ve been reading Tsukuru for years, perusal of online sources informed me of something I hadn’t previously known. In its original incarnation in 1971, the magazine apparently had ties to sokaiya, whose dictionary definition is “an extortionist that threatens to disrupt stockholder meetings.”

It’s therefore possible that the magazine had earned revenue by researching damaging information about companies and demanding payoffs not to run stories about them.

Fortunately, Tsukuru was taken over in 1981 by a man named Hiroyuki Shinoda, who turned it into a respectable publication covering the mass media. Shinoda remains its editor today.

The theme of Tsukuru’s current issue is “The vanishing bookstore,” and it features no fewer than eight articles that examine the travails of retailers of printed matter from a variety of perspectives. In order of appearance, the articles include:

A roundtable discussion titled “The disappearance of bookstores reflects the vanishing of culture,” in which writer Yoshiyuki Nagaoka noted that annual sales revenue, which in 1996 had peaked at ¥2.4 trillion, has declined to about one-third that figure at present. Hajime Shibasaki, manager of Osama Shobo bookstore, pointed out that membership in the Tokyo Federation of Book Dealers fell from a peak of 1,200 to some 300 today, many of which don’t engage in retail sales.

“With numbers declining, is there a way for bookstores to survive?” An interview with Kazuyuki Ishii, director and secretariat of the Japan Booksellers Federation.

“How I feel as the daughter of a bookstore owner,” which was written by popular author Mariko Hayashi.

A talk with Yukio Iwadate, former proprietor of the Kofuku Shobo bookstore next to Yoyogi-Uehara Station, which was shuttered on Feb. 20, 2018.

“The incursion by ‘monster’ Amazon and the counterattack by real bookstores,” by Satoshi Fukushima, manager of the Namba branch of Junku-do Shoten in Osaka.

“Comic book specialty stores are also closing in succession,” which was penned by Yoshiyuki Nagaoka.

“Some thoughts after making the rounds of ‘book events,'” which was written by pseudonymous “bookstore watcher,” “Domuka.”

A second item by aforementioned writer Nagaoka, titled “Searching around amidst the crisis, unique initiatives launched by local bookshops.”

While there’s not much cause for optimism, the bookstores are still hanging on and I, for one, certainly hope that this issue of Tsukuru will not be looked back upon as a prelude to their obituary.

One feature of Tsukuru that sets it apart from other magazines is its regular running of correspondence from prisoners on death row. A previous contributor was convicted child serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki. Known as the “otaku killer,” he spent 11 years in his cell reading comics before being hanged in 2008.

Tsukuru’s latest issue carried a number of tanka and haiku poems by opponents of the death penalty, composed in the wake of the execution of Koichi Shoji, 64, on Aug. 2 for the robbery and murder of two women in 2001. Shoji, along with another prisoner, Yasunori Suzuki, 50, had the distinction of becoming the first two criminals to be hanged in the Reiwa Era.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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