Despite being famed for its robot dogs, futuristic toilets and for being home to Akihabara “Electric Town”, Japan is at times slower than other countries to warm to new electronic devices and worldwide trends.

Just two years ago, hardly any of my Japanese friends used Facebook, instead preferring Japanese social networking service Mixi or to keep their private life off the Internet altogether. When I showed them my iPhone (and let it be known that I was fairly late to the smartphone party), many of my workmates would shrug the device off as over-complicated and mutter about how their current mobile phones – now known as garakē (after the “Galapagos syndrome” due to their exclusivity to and being unable to perform well outside of Japan) – being more than enough for them. Today, Facebook and Twitter are the same life-consuming creatures in Japan that they are everywhere else in the world, and people are accessing them from their iOS or Android powered smartphones wherever you look.

E-books, on the other hand, just aren’t taking off. I’ve shown my Kindle e-reader to friends and colleagues for years now, but each time it has been met with raised eyebrows and the same simple response: “But I like going to bookshops.” While the smartphone has gradually found its place in the hearts of the Japanese people, when it comes to literature, the vast majority of readers still much prefer a physical, paper copy.

In a piece written for Niconico News by journalist and publisher Jun Yamada, however, we learn that there is one genre that has found a home on Japan’s e-readers, to the degree that, Yamada argues, Japan’s e-book market could be in danger of becoming little more than an outlet for cheap, trashy or sexual content, with genuine literature as we know it hardly getting a look-in.

“Up until now, I have referred to the Japanese e-book industry as a ‘graveyard’,” Yamada begins in his telling essay about the nation’s adoption of e-readers, “and have argued on three separate occasions that e-books, even those sold for industry favourite Kindle, simply do not sell all that well. Each time I have said this, I have been inundated with responses from critics saying that this simply isn’t the case. These responses, however, often come from those who hold great stakes in the Kindle and see it and its ilk as the future of publishing, or from IT journalists and media insiders, all of whom measuring the industry’s relative success differently.”

With years of experience in the Japanese publishing industry and having entered the e-book trade for himself, Jun Yamada knows the perils of treating e-books the same way as regular, printed content and attempting to sell digital content to the same people who frequent bookstores. According to Yamada, the reason that one cannot yet argue that Kindle, along with Rakuten’s Kobo e-reader and many like it, have been a “success” in Japan is simply because the majority of Japan’s e-book market is comprised of distinctly low-brow, often sexual, content:

“Japan’s e-book market,” he argues, “is flooded with boys love (novels or comics about male homosexuality, often written for a female audience) and teen love (sexually charged manga and novellas aimed at teenage girls) content.”

Despite traditional bookshops’ lists of bestsellers being populated with modern fiction, business guides and the like, and the names of well-known authors and publishing houses cropping up time and time again, the same titles simply do not transfer well to the digital market. Instead, boys’ love (BL) and teen love (TL) titles reign supreme, and a quick scan of any top 10 ranking throws up names of writers and publishers often completely unheard of. Suggestions made by those in the technology industry that literature is moving “from paper to the screen”, Yamada argues, are misdirected and uninformed.

But just how much of Japan’s e-book sales is made up of BL and TL titles? Yamada has some shocking figures for us:

“According to an Impress R&D survey, at the end of the fiscal year 2011 the Japanese digital publishing market was worth approximately 7.5 million US dollars; a figure that is in itself 3.2% lower than that of the previous year. Of this $7.5 million, sales of BL and TL content make up an incredible 80%. In other words, $6 million was spent in one year on erotic manga contents.”

As Yamada suggests, looking at the digital publishing market and seeing such strong download sales figures, one might reason that it is performing well. But when the vast majority of these sales are made up of titles designed purely to titillate teenage girls and are mostly image-based, it would be wrong to suggest that we are witnessing a digital revolution and that we ought to abandon our paper-based libraries just yet.

But just who is buying all of these cheeky comics? Are these the same readers as those who bought the content years before smartphones and e-readers arrived? Or has the birth of this new technology opened the market up to those who might not normally go into a bookstore to pick up such risqué entertainment?

▼A simple search for “BL” on the Japanese Kindle Store reveals dozens of titles

BL on amazon

Referring to the results of a BL / TL reader survey on why they make their purchases online, Yamada presents a handful of interesting insights. The vast majority of downloads, it is worth noting, come from young females who have grown up with content of this kind and have recently switched to smartphones and e-readers.

“These books and comics contain a lot of useful information that I’m too embarrassed to ask my boyfriend about.” said one 25-year-old woman, “I used to buy these comics via mail order, but then I never knew what to do with them once I’d finished reading them. Buying a digital copy means this is no longer an issue.”

“If my parents were to stumble across comics of this kind of thing in my room they’d freak out. Buying digital copies helps me keen my reading habits a secret,” said a 22-year-old dog groomer.

Finally, the issue of convenience- one which any online shopper and frequent downloader will no doubt understand – was mentioned by a 25-year-old nurse, who said: “Sometimes I feel like reading [BL/TL] titles just before going to bed. At times like these digital copies are so convenient!”

Based on this evidence and the startling sales figures, Yamada argues that the average reader of BL/TL comics rarely if ever visits book stores, and is quite far removed from the average literature fan; namely, the type of person that IT industry experts are banking on making the switch from paper to digital. Many of the individuals driving Kindle’s download sales in Japan, it would seem, are those young women who grew up reading erotic manga delivered directly to their old-school mobile phone who have moved on to smartphones and other devices.

Despite there now being millions of Japanese iPhone users, Apple has yet to fully launch its iBooks store in Japan, meaning that many of those who migrated from garakē to smartphones are left without a platform to enjoy their titillating e-books and comics. Furthermore, considering Apple’s notoriously strict standards regarding sexual and violent content on their online stores, even when the Japanese version of the iBooks is in full swing, it might not be as easy for BL/TL fans to get their hit delivered to their iPhone without the need for a separate, dedicated e-reader application. According to a publisher Yamada cites in his essay, mobile phone users’ migration to smartphones has hit the BL/TL download market hard, with one publisher reporting a 60% drop in sales since 2011. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that BL/TL comic applications and Amazon’s easily affordable, content-rich e-reader Kindle have suddenly begun to perform so well in Japan.

It may be shocking to think that an entire new generation of hardware is being used chiefly for titllation and the purchasing of titles that one might not normally dare visiting a bookshop in person to buy, but with first-hand experience in the tough market, Yamada knows all too well that publishers dreaming of selling millions of copies of the latest novels and classic literature will be sorely disappointed, not to mention broke.

“In 2010, I ventured into the digital publishing market myself. Ignoring the advice of the many BL/TL digital publishers, I set to selling digital copies of business strategies and economics-based titles. Precisely as I’d been warned, I sold barely one percent of the copies I would normally on the paper market. There were even some titles that received zero downloads.”

Make no mistake; the paper and digital publishing markets in Japan are entirely different beasts.

Another best seller

“How to Build a Tireless Body”

But it’s not just erotic manga that’s being snapped up online; cheap how-to guides and applications – titles that perform consistently badly in bookstores – also frequently rank among Amazon and Apple’s top 10 best-sellers.

At the close of his essay, Yamada presents readers with the top six bestsellers on the App Store at the time of writing. Titles along the lines of “How to improve your sex life: A female doctor instructs”,  “How to talk to girls,” and “business secrets” feature prominently, all somewhat tellingly retailing for just 85 yen (US$1) each. “Scroll down the list to number 100 if you wish;” Yamada asserts, “you’ll find exactly the same kind of content.”

kindle best seller

“Mai Teaches Health and Physical education: A Sex Encyclopedia for Men”

According to a digital distributer Yamada spoke with on the subject of downloads, unlike with the BL/TL manga market, the majority of e-book downloads from Apple’s App store are made by men in their 20s and 30s who, “never read anything remotely challenging, are easily swayed and caught up by fads, and who primarily buy [digital] books associated with sex and making money.”

While Mr. Yamada stops short of suggesting that content of this kind should be avoided entirely or that there is no place for it in the digital publishing market, the evidence he presents in his essay certainly paints a grim picture of Japan’s e-book market. Although platforms like iPhone, Kindle and the like may well be seeing millions of e-book downloads each year and despite tech-lovers’ insistence that e-books are the future, Yamada suggests that the only real money to be made in the market is through the sale of titles that people might not ordinarily be so keen to buy in person. Japan’s average bookworm, it would seem, is still very much in love with paper.

Source: Niconico News

Title image: Livedoor News / Lowair edited by RocketNews24

マイが教える大人の体育保険 image by Amazon JP

疲れない体の作り方 image by Amazon JP