Notwithstanding the rapid proliferation that ebooks have made among the reading community the world over, Japan has emerged as a slow adopter of the digital versions. Conventional books continue to be used among the majority of Japanese citizens, even though ebooks have made serious inroads in the market of late. eBook sales have shown a positive growth during the last few years, while conventional printed books have shown a steady decline in sales for the last eight years in row. For those who’d prefer solid figures, ebook sales accounted for ¥36.8 billion in 2012 which marks a healthy growth over the ¥11.2 billion recorded in sale from ebooks in 2011. In contrast, paper books still command a market that is worth a substantial ¥1.7 trillion.
As for reason behind the relatively slow growth rate of ebooks, experts attribute it to the large number of bookstores that dot the Japanese landscape. With a landmass and a population that is a fraction of that of the US, Japan still has more (14,696) bookstores compared to 12,703 in the US. The bookstores are also better stocked than the ebook stores, which has ensured they enjoy a wider acceptance among the populace compared to their online counterparts. While the biggest ebook stores generally top out at 100,000 to 300,000 titles, bookstore offer a far bigger collection, usually more than a million titles.
Publishers have also shown a general dislike towards adopting digital technologies as this would entail investing resources as well as acquiring the technical knowledge to survive in the digital era. This has especially proven to be a hindrance for small publishers, and Japan is home to many publishers that can’t boast of enough financial clout to explore digital.
However, in spite of the slow growth rate that the ebook segment has been witnessing, there is a lot of effort being put in to ensure greater acceptance of ebooks in future. There has also been no dearth of ebook reading devices dotting the store shelves to support the ebook cause, be it tablet PCs, smartphones or ebook readers. There also are quite a few big names associated with the ebook industry in Japan: Sharp, Toshiba, Sony, Rakuten (who acquired controlling stake in Kobo), and of course, Amazon. Publisher Dai Nippon Printing Co. has set up an ebook store of its own, promoting ebooks by making tablet PCs available on each table in its Tokyo cafe where visitors can browse through ebooks.
Promoting ebooks in schools is another area where the country can see considerable uptake, not only for the duration of the academic curricula but far beyond that, helping students grow accustomed to reading on ebooks in the future.
As Yoshiyuki Oshita, chief director of the center for art policy and management at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting, puts it: “There are movements to incorporate more IT into education, including textbooks. In that case, textbooks would become e-books,” he said. “Children in the future will grow up with e-books, so it will be natural for them to use e-books, unlike people like us who grew up with regular books and may be reluctant to change.”
However, given the traditional Japanese culture of reading printed material, it could be some time before ebooks begin taking center stage over print.