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Japan's free online literary project celebrates 20th anniversary

Translator Yu Okubo, a member of the Aozora Bunko management team who hopes to continue the mission of providing a free bookshelf for everyone, is seen in Kyoto's Yamashina Ward on Aug. 3, 2017. (Mainichi)

Aozora Bunko, a non-profit, volunteer-run website offering free access to roughly 14,000 novels and poetry collections mostly with expired copyrights, celebrates its 20th year this month.

    Aozora Bunko was founded in July 1997 by non-fiction author Michio Tomita, who passed away in 2013, and three others. The website went online in September the same year, with only five titles in its lineup. The name for the website came from Tomita himself, combining "aozora," the word for blue sky, which is above the heads of all people, and "bunko," or library -- a collection that could be reached by anyone at any time.

    Under Japan's Copyright Act, an author's rights to their works is rendered moot 50 years after their death. With works with expired copyrights forming the basis of the collection, Aozora Bunko's aim was to create a "collective property that can be shared by society." The works of authors who share this vision, including Yoshio Kataoka and Akutagawa literary award winner To Enjo, have also made some of their works available on the site for free.

    When the site first began, there were no foundations for the project, such as what program should be used to digitize literary works, and as a result the number of available volumes and readership grew at a sluggish pace. However, with the progression of digitalization technology and the expansion of the internet and smartphones, the number of titles as well as readers grew. In the 20 years Aozora Bunko has been open to readers, it has been accessed roughly 47 million times.

    Among its titles, those penned by great prewar literary figures such as Soseki Natsume, Ogai Mori and Ryunosuke Akutagawa, as well as Kunio Yanagida and Junichiro Tanizaki are available. The work that is always in the top spot in the ranking of most-viewed titles is Soseki's "Kokoro," with 231,391 views via internet browser in 2016 alone. Since the site started recording data in 2009, yearly access to "Kokoro" has grown by over 100,000 views.

    "The work requires the skill of a craftsman," said Tomita's wife Akiko, 65, who is involved in the operation of the site. The book data is entered and proofread by volunteers, and there is a strict set of rules in order to preserve the original quality of the works, with a manual prepared for workers. A title that has been proofread is made public only after careful inspection by Akiko and a management team composed of several people. Expenses are covered by advertising revenue on the website and by donations.

    "I feel like all of our hard work has been rewarded by how much the website has grown," said 35-year-old translator Yu Okubo, a member of the management team who has been charged with inputting data and other tasks for many years. "I want this website to be a place where people can fulfill their wish to read a title, send it to someone and share it with a wider audience."

    "When (printed works) vanish from bookstore shelves, the only way to find them will be to go to the library or to a used book store," says novelist Yoshio Kataoka, who supports the project. "If works are digitized, then they can be read anywhere as many times as one wants online. I would like to see this work (by Aozora Bunko) continue."

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