July 13, 2016

Long-suffering books get sweet, sweet revenge against hip Japanese magazines


The cover of Naoki Matayoshi’s Hibana. Via Publishing Perspectives.

I don’t know about you, but we’ve been waiting for this moment for more than thirty years. That’s right, at long last Japanese book sales have risen from the depths like… nevermind, let’s not. Japanese book sales have overtaken magazines sales at one of the country’s largest wholesalers.

According to a report from Kyodo News, the early numbers from Nippon Shuppan Hanbai’s 2015 fiscal year showed slight growth in unconsolidated booksales, while magazine sales dipped by nearly ten percent. Kyodo News attributes the steep decline to lower sales of fashion magazines, with the Japan Times reporting that “total [magazine] sales last year [were] estimated at ¥1.6065 trillion, dropping by about ¥1 trillion from the peak registered in 1996.”

Weaker magazine sales are only part of the story. The other, more interesting element has been the runaway success of Naoki Matayoshi’s prize-winning novel, Hibana (published by Bungeishunju Ltd), which tells the story of two struggling comedians and their friendship.  The book won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize last year, and went on to sell more than two million copies. It’s a near-lock to be the best-selling book in the prize’s history, and has been adapted as a Netflix Originals series. That’s a lot of gravy on top of the pocket watch and cash award of 1 million yen given to the prize’s winner.

While prize winners have historically seen a jump in sales following the award, the response to Matayoshi’s novel has been remarkable and likely record-setting. This is partly due to the facts that Matayoshi is a well-known public figure in Japan, and that the book was already selling well before the announcement. But some Japanese industry insiders, speaking to the Japan Times, see it as a turning point for the book trade:

Some people in the industry welcomed Matayoshi’s win, calling it a “counterattack” by the Akutagawa Prize selection committee…

Yoshiaki Kiyota, head of Shuppan News Co., which provides information on publishing trends, believes that Matayoshi, with his unique personality, has contributed greatly to stirring up interest in literature among people not generally inclined to read books.

“It’s a huge plus for the industry,” Kiyota said.

Even the man on the street seems to be excited by the book!

“It’s good news that (Matayoshi) won the prize. I hope I’ll learn from the book a positive way of thinking that makes me believe I can move mountains if I try hard,” said a man there buying the book.

As yet, no announcement has been made of an English-language translation. But an unofficial translation of the novel’s opening chapters is available at the blog Self Taught Japanese.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.