Japanese YA – How the Industry Works Overseas(Part 3)


– A Reader’s Paradise –

For many, the past several articles have been an intriguing journey into an almost alien world. With each familiar reference to the industry and the YA culture we have grown so well accustomed to, there seems to be yet another uniquely Japanese aspect to it all that nearly turns things upside down.

However, to truly understand how our two industries have grown so different, and slowly piece together why one is seeing growth faster than the other, we’ll need to start at the beginning.

Taking form in the early 1980’s during the economic boom in Japan, the YA industry slowly began to grow in popularity with the release of bestselling hit titles such as “The Great Adventure of the Dirty Pair” and “The Guin Saga”. Appealing to Japanese youth, the books featured an Anime illustrated cover and a storyline that felt perfectly at ease fitting within the bustling Anime and Manga culture quickly growing around the youth of their day. Featuring protagonists in a range of ages, the pioneers of YA eagerly welcomed mature concepts, complicated story lines and sensually stimulating ideals.

However, it wouldn’t be until the early 1990’s that YA would finally hit its stride and enter the spotlight. Contrary to popular belief, and a certain publisher’s website, Kouhei Kadono’s bestselling book series “Boogiepop” was not the blast that sent the industry flying forward, though it admittedly played a major role. In truth, there were many other bestselling YA titles in the early 90’s that launched the immediate success of the market. Perhaps most notably, the industry saw immense growth as one bestseller followed another in a continual stream of new addictive book series’ that seemed to have no visible end.

Giant robots, Vatican employed vampires, telepathic teenagers and many other vibrant images began to flood the growing pop culture quicker than some had previously envisioned. To capitalize on the growing demand, a new term was soon coined by an internet forum to describe the fictional lit. It stuck, and before long, the public was slowly made aware of something that readers had been hoping for.

The “Light Novel” Industry had officially become mainstream.

Amongst the many populated shelves of Manga and adult paperback titles, there was now a new section growing that appeared to a number of people to bridge the obvious gap between the two.

Of course, the growing popularity of YA couldn’t be simply maintained through book sales, so in a decision that harkened back to the days of Dickens, several prominent publishers jumped to launch monthly and bimonthly magazines to serialize the current YA bestsellers, as well as publish exclusive short stories by the authors. The idea was an immediate success and a number of further magazines were soon published by a variety of other publishing companies, most of which are still running to this day.

The industry, though quickly rising in popularity, admittedly met some resistance in its early days. Much like America’s own YA, Japan’s new book culture soon found itself under random assault by some select literary critics. The fiction was quickly decried as lacking merit and criticized for it’s emphasis on plot and dialogue. The absence of complicated kanji and the “Light” aspect of the books, which had originally been meant to describe the ease of enjoyment, were soon used as an attack. They declared, as so many seem inclined to do, that Young Adult fiction would prove detrimental to the literary culture.

Their outcries mostly fell on deaf ears though and today the industry in Japan has grown so large that it now publishes an astounding 30 million books per year. Valued at an estimated $270 million dollars, the YA culture in Japan has never been as big as it is now.

Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this immense growth has been its penetration into the Anime industry. There was a time not too long ago when the adaptation of a “Light Novel” was rare. Anime adaptations were, and have been, the domain of Manga for as long as most familiar with the culture can remember. But all that has changed with the rise of YA. These days, it has become near as likely to hear of a novel getting adapted as it is to hear the same of a manga.

The fact that the YA culture grew so fast though should come as no surprise for anyone who is familiar with the Japanese. A person would be hard pressed to find a country more in love with the written word than Japan, where nearly 14% of the population read ten or more books per month and almost 40% read 3.

To contrast, nearly 80% of Americans haven’t read a single book in an entire year, let alone a month. A depressing statistic if there ever was one.

But now that I’ve set the stage, explaining how YA began, it’s time to explore the literary landscape in Japan as it stands now, and how it differs from the industry in the U.S.

The first major difference, as explained in a previous article, is the use of illustrations. For many in the West, the idea of illustrations is borderline juvenile. Relegated to the likes of grade school novels, they are more familiar to the likes of a “Magic Treehouse” book than the latest paranormal bestseller. But to the Japanese, it’s become standard, an almost incremental part of the YA experience.

Each “Light Novel”, on average, is given an illustrated cover, four colored illustrations and around seven or so black and white drawings scattered within. One of the observed benefits of this has been that since each character is firmly drawn out, all fans of a book are in agreement regarding the descriptions of the main characters. In other words, there is usually never any room for confusion, or for that matter, the issue of white washing, as has been occasionally discussed in America.

The next big difference is the price. At a typically cheap 500 yen (about $5, give or take), Japanese YA are made to fit the budget of a struggling student who may or may not feel at ease spending grocery money on the latest volume of his favorite series. They rarely go above the price listed, unless the author has written a longer than usual volume. The issue of money is so well understood by readers and writers alike that several authors have actually apologized in the back of a book for just such a price increase.

Though already affordable, readers in Japan have also had other methods of finding books at cheaper than usual prices, many times as low as $1. A wide plethora of book stores exist in Japan, ranging from large chains to local shops. Similar to a chain in the U.S. such as “Barnes & Noble”, reading books while in the store is often encouraged. Unlike the popular American brand however, is a lack of chairs.

One of the most noticeable differences between Japan and America in their individual YA industries is the topic of “trends”. As mentioned once before, Japan has almost none.

For Americans, this may sound strange considering the prevalence they hold in our own industry. But I assure you, it is true. A quick glance at the top fifteen or so YA bestsellers will quickly reveal a startling array of differing genres, the likes we are not quite used to seeing on our own charts that often.

That’s not to imply that there aren’t at times more of one kind of book sold than another, but rather that even so, it never becomes visible enough to the market. The closest that many Japanese readers usually come to discussing a trend, outside the realm of cover artwork, is when an author creates a “main character” that is similar to another bestselling work. This in itself can at times be rare, and even then, the work still stands on its own many times.

Titles such as “GOSICK” (a mystery series set in 1924 Europe), “Spice and Wolf” (an adventure in medieval economics and wolf deities) and “Zero no Tsukaima” (a high fantasy of magic, epic battles and panties) help to illustrate the wide arena of sales, as well as the hunger for newer and more creative ideas. Slice of Life, or contemporary as the genre has been often referred to in America, is not the domain of drugs and abusive relationships. In fact, much to the probable shock of many, Japan lacks most of the stories that have dominated the Western market in this regard. A phenomenally popular series such as “Toradora!” helps to illustrate this divide quite well by creating a comical tale involving a school that neither concentrates on bullying, sex or drug abuse. Instead, a tale of misconceptions, stalkers, forlorn pop idols and dating mishaps is created in a ten volume series that produces incessant laughter. Another story by the same author, in the same genre, follows the exploits of a young lawyer. Definitely not your average fare for the YA market.

With just about every genre for sale and having an active reading base for each, writers have had to accommodate a large market desiring variety. Combined with the influence of Anime and Manga, too formats of storytelling that pride themselves in creating vibrant tales that stretch the imagination, reader’s pallets have increased exponentially over the years, in many ways light-years ahead of their Western counterparts.

While on the topic of subject matter, it might prove interesting to note that the YA demographics in Japan differ from America in a most pleasing way. Boys, rather than avoiding YA, have gravitated to it as much if not more than women. Of equal intrigue is the fact that many of the stories in Japan that have grown popular with male readers feature female protagonists and are many times written by women. This seemingly defies certain outcries from Americans who have attempted to put the blame on the lack of male interest in YA on the fact that women are heavily involved in the industry.

Market penetration in Japan has also been widely successful in many other ways. Television commercials for new YA releases have gradually become more familiar in recent years, with several being put out per month. In fact, a number of months ago there was even a commercial aired for the recent edition of one of the more popular Japanese YA magazines. Quite impressive, especially if one remembers that in America a commercial for a YA book is a rarity, relegated to the likes of James Patterson, if even then.

With so many books published each year in such a large variety of genres, not to mention the availability of Cell Phone Novels and Visual Novel games, the high reading rates and the degree of book adaptations, it’s no wonder that many have come to see Japan as a somewhat utopia of literary ideals. Even more impressive though is the image it presents to us.

In a nation where 86% of Japanese say they couldn’t live without television, where Manga is seen as being on the same literary level as a novel, where a Playstation 3 is as likely a source of reading pleasure as an ereader would be in the states and where a fourteen year old can become a bestselling author after typing her work on the keypad of her cell phone, Japan seems as strange and fictional as the stories it has often been popularized for creating, perhaps even stranger.

During the course of writing this article, I began to think of Japan as being somewhat reminiscent of the famous mirror portrayed in Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, the one in which a person could see their greatest desire shown before their eyes. Sometimes, when studying this country, it’s easy to imagine you are looking into that very same mirror. Of course, there is one big difference. Japan is not an illusion. It really exists.

And in my opinion, it’s high time we started to pay attention.



Statistic Sources from Internet:

[1] http://www.worldometers.info/books/

[2] I should mention that the statistic regarding “86%” of Japanese, in regard to television, cannot be found for some reason. I seem to be unable at the current time to find the original source that I read many months ago. So until I find the source, use the statistic as a rounded percentile.


One Comment Add yours

  1. AG says:

    This was a REALLLLLY interesting read. I had to read it in two installments because it was so long, but it kept my attention, fully. You’re so knowledgeable – I hope that other people can stop and take notice. You deserve it.

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