A man looks at Japanese “manga” comic books and novels at a bookstore in Tokyo on Mar 24, 2022 (Photo: AFP)

By Cristian Martini Grimaldi

May 10 2024

THE impact of population decline and the rise of online stores has led to an absence of physical bookstores in nearly 30 percent of municipalities in Japan, according to a survey conducted by a publishing industry association.

The statistical data paints a bleak picture. As of March, out of Japan’s 1,741 municipalities, 482 cities, towns, and villages — constituting 27.7 percent of the total — were devoid of bookstores. This figure marks an increase from 26.2 percent recorded in the previous survey conducted in September 2022, as reported by the Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture.

The dwindling number of physical bookstores across Japan presents a concerning trend, particularly when considering the role these spaces play in the educational and mental development of children.

With so many municipalities lacking a physical bookstore, children in these areas are potentially missing out on critical developmental benefits that these bookstores uniquely provide.

Physical bookstores are more than just retail spaces; they are educational sanctuaries that offer children a tangible connection to the world of reading.

Unlike online platforms, where searches and recommendations are algorithmically generated, bookstores provide a sensory experience that is crucial for young readers. Children can touch, see, and sometimes smell the books before choosing what to read, which can significantly enhance their engagement with literature.

“Browsing through a bookstore can be a form of free, unstructured play that allows children to explore their interests”

Moreover, bookstores often host storytelling sessions, author visits, and other interactive events that can ignite a child’s passion for reading. These experiences are vital for building literacy skills and encouraging a lifelong love of books.

Without access to physical bookstores, children might only interact with digital texts, missing out on the profound impact of physically handling a book, which studies have shown to improve comprehension and retention.

Beyond education, bookstores also play an essential role in the mental and emotional development of children. Browsing through a bookstore can be a form of free, unstructured play that allows children to explore their interests and develop their preferences. This exploration is crucial for cognitive and emotional growth, as it builds decision-making skills and nurtures curiosity and imagination.

The social interaction that occurs in bookstores — whether with peers, parents, or bookstore staff — also contributes to a child’s social development. These interactions can foster communication skills and empathy as children discuss books they love or discover new ones based on recommendations.

Therefore, we could also say that physical bookstores serve as cultural hubs in many communities, especially in rural areas where other cultural institutions might be few. They provide a communal space where children and families can gather, share stories, and participate in cultural events. This community aspect can be particularly important in rural areas experiencing depopulation, as it helps maintain a sense of community identity and continuity.

Government intervention at this point may be necessary to preserve these important cultural and educational resources.

“Whether it’s the Bible, hymnals, or theological works, these tangible objects serve as more than just vessels for information”

Industry Minister Ken Saito’s vision of a world where libraries, online sites, and bookstores coexist is commendable, therefore we would expect initiatives that could include grants and subsidies for rural bookstores, support for mobile bookstore services to reach isolated communities, and educational programs that emphasize the importance of physical books and bookstores.

This is where religious institutions can act as guides, as the pages of sacred texts illuminate paths of faith and tradition.

In contrast to the decline in physical bookstores, the religious experience of being part of a Christian institution often involves the use of actual books. Whether it’s the Bible, hymnals, or theological works, these tangible objects serve as more than just vessels for information; they are symbols of tradition, spirituality, and community.

In Christian communities, physical books hold significance beyond their literary content. They are passed down through generations, annotated with personal reflections, and revered as sacred artifacts. The act of reading from a physical book during religious ceremonies or study sessions fosters a sense of reverence and devotion that transcends the digital realm.

As physical bookstores become increasingly scarce in Japan, it’s worth reflecting on the irreplaceable value of tangible books, not just as educational tools but also as vessels of cultural, spiritual, and communal significance. – UCA News