The March 11 earthquake and tsunami have overshadowed the news on March 30 of the death at the age of 67 of leading Japanese businesswoman Sawako Noma due to heart failure.

The daughter of the fourth president of the Kodansha publishing company, she was catapulted from housewife to head of the largest publishing company in Japan in 1987 on the sudden death of her husband, the fifth president of the company.

Particularly active in programs promoting reading among children, she was scheduled to turn over the reins of Kodansha to her son, Yoshinobu Noma, in mid-April.

Kodansha has a history dating back to 1909; in the 1930s its popular magazines dominated 70 percent of the total magazine circulation in Japan. In the postwar period the company undertook large-scale streamlining and modernization, putting more effort into book publication. One major best-seller was Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.”

In 1963 Kodansha International was established to publish books in English, and in 1983 the ambitious eight-volume Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan was published to provide information on Japan in English. The annual Noma Award for Publishing in Africa was founded in 1979.

However, Kodansha and the Japanese publishing world in general have faced a difficult business environment since the end of the bubble years. In fiscal 2002, Kodansha registered its first year in the red since the end of the war. Ad revenues have been shrinking for Kodansha magazines, and manga magazine sales have been on the decline. Manga magazine and manga book sales constitute roughly half of Kodansha’s gross sales.

The new, 42-year-old president, Yoshinobu Noma, brings a focus on digital publishing and overseas markets, such as Chinese editions of women’s magazines of Kodansha.

The director of the Electronic Book Publishers Association founded last year, he has told reporters that change is occurring faster than expected, but that the job of investing in promising writers remains unchanged.

Will the decision to close down Kodansha International at the end of April be a sign of things to come in the new straitened circumstances for publishing, or can Kodansha continue its tradition of cultural undertakings beyond the bottom line?

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