Let’s talk books this first Sunday of the new year.

When I came to live in Japan in 1967, I was struck by how many passengers on the train were reading. Literature was widely discussed in the media and in ordinary people’s conversations. I would have described Japan as a nation of bookworms.

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, sales of books and periodicals rose continually. But then came the shriveling of the economic bubble in the early ’90s, and the bibliophiles went into a wormhole. Since then, the publishing business has slipped into a slow, steady decline. You’d think that people would turn, in the doldrums of economic life, to books — if only to seek out ways to extricate themselves from inertia. But instead they appear to have become sucked into the screens of their computers and mobile phones.

This all came into perspective for me when I attended a stimulating and informative lecture given last month by publishing expert Hiroshi Yoshida. Yoshida worked at the publishing companies Magazine House and Kadokawa Shoten before going freelance as an editor and publishing consultant.

“The publishing business in Japan,” he said, “is currently less than a $20-billion enterprise. This is down from $21 billion in 2005. In fact, there has been an annual decline of about 2 percent since the mid-’90s. The most appropriate term for the business today is jitensha sogyo.”

Jitensha sogyo is the Japanese term for “hand-to-mouth operation.”

A bit less than half of that $20 billion represents sales of books, including manga. The rest is periodicals.

I asked Yoshida to compare the book business with other enterprises in Japan.

“The pachinko industry rakes in about $270 billion a year. The book and periodical figure of, say, $20 billion is about the intake of the tofu and the futon businesses put together.”

Well, I thought, the value of the pachinko industry — Japan’s biggest bar none — may be well over twice the GDP of Singapore, but I choose tofu, futons and books: You could just about put together a life with those.

Books by numbers

A few more statistics.

There are approximately 1,800 publishers in Japan. Twelve hundred of those employ four or fewer people. In another 1,000, there are five to nine employees; and the next 550 publishers have fewer than 20 people working for them. There are only six publishing houses that have between 1,000 and 2,000 employees — and only two have more than 2,000.

The number of bookstores in Japan is huge: approximately 17,000. (By comparison, the United States, with more than twice Japan’s population, has about 6,000 bookstores, though books can also be purchased in supermarkets and drug stores there.) That figure is going down year by year.

Meanwhile, neighborhood bookstores are disappearing in Japan with the emergence of online book purchasing and large bookstores in major shopping districts.

There is no doubt that the reading of books is part and parcel, if you will, of the publishing and bookselling industries. So I turned to another expert, Yasushi Kaneko, a well-known publisher who is passionately dedicated to the energetic survival of the book business in Japan.

When the Aoyama Book Center in Tokyo went bankrupt in July 2004, Kaneko, who had put on events there, did not sit idly by. He started up a petition to garner support for the ABC and rescue it. By September that year, it had reopened in Roppongi under new ownership.

“As for publishers in this country, even the big ones are suffering,” said Kaneko. “The number of returned books is very high. With magazines, it’s almost 50 percent. Publishers are surviving on the approximately 10 percent of their books that are best sellers.”

One thing that is holding back book sales in Japan is the law that prevents stores or other outlets from selling books at less than the list price. This law is apparently now under review; and if it is repealed, you will no doubt see a proliferation of bargain outlets counting on your yen for books. But whether this will have a positive effect on the publishing business — or help established bookstores — is open to question.

What has led the Japanese people to turn away from books?

Publishing expert Yoshida pointed to several factors. “The Internet is one cause of the decline,” he said. “The mobile phone is another. Add to this the fact that bookstores have abandoned the local neighborhoods and you certainly get fewer Japanese accessing the printed page. Also, the free newspaper business is huge in Japan, with about 100 million copies in circulation. These carry all sorts of information and also have coupons in them for discounts at shops, and this attracts consumers.”

I asked him if there really is a katsuji-banare, a trend away from the printed word, in Japan, even though computers rely on just that — the printed word.

“Absolutely, people have moved away from print. Yes, the computer does rely on words, but katsuji-banare refers widely to the phenomenon in which people are avoiding long sentences and detailed explanations of things. Everyone wants it short and quick, and this has prompted them to shy away from books.”

Ships in the night

The drive toward the computer and cellular phones is in no way unique to Japan.

The U.S., for instance, is equally wired. U.S. sales of books, at about $25 billion a year, are only slightly above Japan’s on a per-capita basis. Periodicals in the U.S. gross nearly $24 billion, again roughly equivalent to the per-capita figure for Japan. But books sales in the U.S. have been growing healthily year by year. The American and Japanese ships have passed in the night, with the former bound to increase its lead in the future.

Will the Japanese turn back to books for enlightenment, enjoyment and solace? Is the publishing business in its traditional form doomed to downsize?

Publisher Kaneko is not optimistic.

“I think we’re going to see more bankruptcies and mergers,” he said. “That’s why we publishers must continue to give support to bookstores and their employees. We’re all in the same boat.”

Is this boat heading for the bottom, or somewhere out of the doldrums of Japan’s (now pushing) lost two decades?

State broadcaster NHK has banished its popular weekly book-review program to Sunday mornings at 8:00 on its BS-2 satellite channel. Also, literature courses are decidedly unpopular in Japan compared to the arty old days. Meanwhile, variety shows on television have been dumbed down to such a degree that only the dunce in the class would tip his cap to them. There is no equivalent of an Oprah Winfrey urging viewers to pick up a book and read.

Is it the book itself, rather than the content, that is on the commercial skids along with magazines and newspapers?

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, Japanese people will take their electronic book device, already now producing page-like print, to the convenience store and download the latest book or, for that matter, the greatest classic. Eat a bit of tofu and retire to your futon with an electronic book? May not be very sexy, but something tells me it will at least last longer than pachinko.

I hope I’m not wrong.

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