The changing book world

In a time of major uncertainty for the Japanese book world, the latest winners of two major book awards have been announced. The Akutagawa Prize for promising newcomers went to Ms. Akiko Akazome, and the Naoki Prize for more established writers of popular fiction to Ms. Kyoko Nakajima.

Ms. Akazome told reporters that, after entering graduate school in Hokkaido, she sought to portray in writing the humor and sensibility of her Kyoto background. Her winning work “Otome no mikkoku” (The Maiden Informer) portrays a young woman coming of age in the stifling closed world of female university students studying the diary of Anne Frank in German. The judges felt she skillfully juxtaposed that circle of petty jealousies and betrayals against the closed world of Anne Frank in hiding and the mystery of who betrayed her family to the Germans.

Much attention has also been paid to the candidacy of a young Iranian writer, Ms. Shirin Nezammafi, for the Akutagawa Prize (for the second time), since she would have been the first winner to come from outside East Asia.

The winner of the Naoki Prize, Ms. Nakajima, made her literary debut in 2003. A native of Tokyo, she worked at a Japanese magazine before entering the International Writer’s Program at the University of Iowa. Her winning novel, “Chiisai o-uchi” (Small Home) depicts pleasant everyday life in Tokyo before and during World War II through the eyes of a maid in the home of a toy company executive.

Unfortunately these young authors are greeted by a publishing world facing an uncertain future. Sales of books and magazines have been in decline for more than a decade, and bookstores have also undergone a difficult period of consolidation; roughly one-third of the stores — mainly smaller ones — have closed since 1999.

The success of the iPad in Japan since its introduction in May has given new impetus to e-book publishing in Japan. Recently there has been a rush of announcements of new electronic readers coming out later this year to handle the Japanese language and of competing schemes to download books from major book distributors and printing firms. Another period of upheaval appears likely before formats and pricing become standardized.