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Bookstores vanishing from Japan

Takashima Shobo owner Mizuo Takashima is pictured at his bookstore in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, in August 2022. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Bookshops are vanishing all over Japan. According to one industry estimate, the number has fallen by almost a third in the last decade, hit by a combination of a falling population and the spread of the internet.

    Some voices have been raised in protest, such as by residents of towns arguing that bookstores are needed for a lively urban environment, but customer numbers continue to fall. And that means that to survive, operators need to exercise ingenuity.

    Takashima Shobo, a bookstore with a 72-year history in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, northeastern Japan, is a case in point.

    The shop has an old-fashioned feel with a huge overhead sign out front with the word "BOOKS." Crammed with works of literature, magazines and picture books, among other publications, it is a bookworm's paradise. But no customers were perusing the shelves one late afternoon as owner Mizuo Takashima, 67, explained how he still manages to turn a profit.

    "The store contributes only about 10 percent of total sales," said Takashima. "Ninety percent of the profit comes from delivering to school libraries and public libraries," he said.

    According to the Japan Publishing Organization for Information Infrastructure Development, there are currently 11,952 bookstores in Japan, down about 30 percent from 16,722 in 2012.

    To keep his business afloat, Takashima visits companies and schools in the city to market his book delivery service, while a part-time clerk tends to the store.

    Municipalities that operate libraries and schools can assist small bookstores greatly if they procure books and other publications from local bookstores instead of suppliers in Tokyo and other cities, Takashima said.

    Takashima Shobo's service may provide a "clue as to how regional bookstores can survive," he said.

    But such success stories are the exception. Local authorities in Tateyama, Toyama Prefecture, where the sole bookstore closed in 2015, began in January this year trying to find a new operator prepared to open in the town. This is because "many town residents said a bookstore was essential to make the town lively," said an official in charge.

    But a person involved with the shop that went bust said books just "didn't sell" because of the town's falling population. "Even if a new bookstore opens, I think it still would be difficult," the person said.

    The owner of the only bookstore in a town in another prefecture noted that sales of school textbooks have significantly dropped due to Japan's declining birthrate. "Honestly, I am on the brink of deciding whether I should go out of business because the number of schools has dropped because of the population shrinkage," he said.

    The gross profits of bookstores in Japan are said to be around 20 percent after paying the remainder of their sales to publishers and distribution agents.

    Along with the population fall and fewer book readers in recent years, an increase in convenience stores that carry magazines puts added pressure on bookstores. They have also been negatively affected by the availability of e-books and online shopping.

    Not only in rural areas but even in Tokyo, the number of bookstores has decreased by roughly 30 percent over the past decade.

    The continuing decrease in bookstores does not bode well for book readership, either, says Kazuyuki Ishii, executive director for the Japan Federation of Bookstores.

    "Due to the decrease in the number of bookstores, there is a strong possibility that the reading population will fall, setting off a vicious cycle. The time has come for the entire publishing industry to join hands and think of countermeasures," Ishii said.

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