Recent years have seen a huge presence of Japanese children’s book publishers at the Bologna, Frankfurt, Shanghai, and Taipei book fairs. Rights sales of Japanese originals seem to be booming. To learn more about the current Japanese children’s book market, PW spoke with two major publishers (Kaisei-sha and Poplar Publishing), one relatively new market entrant (PIE International), and one agency focused on promoting only homegrown authors and illustrators (Japan Foreign-Rights Centre).

According to the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Publications, Japan’s total sales of print books and magazines in 2017 dropped 6.9% to about 1.37 trillion yen, or $12 billion, compared to the previous year. This figure also represents a 52% drop from 1996, when sales from the industry hit its peak.

Its children’s book segment is the only bright spot, with sales trending upward in recent years. The country has seen many publishing houses that specialize in adult books kickstart their children’s lists. Currently, there are 42 companies listed as members in the Japanese Association of Children’s Book Publishers (Japan has more than 4,000 publishers).

But Yuko Nonaka, who handles foreign rights at Kaisei-sha, thinks that “the upward trend in the children’s segment may be due to several bestsellers, and therefore, a temporary situation. What is undeniable is that the birth rate hit a record low last year, at 1.43 (per thousand). So while there are not as many toddlers around, there is a need to ensure that classics and longtime sellers such as Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Don Freeman’s Corduroy, for instance, are continually promoted to the newer generation.”

The number of children’s titles for ages three to eight has certainly increased in recent years, says Hiromoto Miyoshi, president of 30-year-old art publisher PIE International. “However, titles on the shelves are mostly long-sellers that are known to parents and grandparents. What comes across loud and clear is that such generational bestsellers offer a sense of comfort and familiarity, and this makes it tough for new entrants to break into the market unless we offer unique themes and titles.” In fact, PIE International launched its children’s book program in 2006, when the Japanese book market was already in decline. “But I was very confident about the future of the children’s book market—in Japan and elsewhere—and the success of our titles has proven that my unwavering optimism is well-placed.”

Industry Woes on the Domestic Front

Following the bankruptcies of two major wholesalers (Kurita and Taiyosha, in 2015 and 2016, respectively), Nippan and Tohan now control 70% of the market share. Aside from servicing bookstores, Japanese wholesalers also have daily delivery to convenience store chains such as 7-Eleven and Lawson, which are the main distribution points for publications throughout the country.

Last year, there were 55,000 such convenience stores, with 1,000 new outlets added within the period. Print books ride on this distribution model, which is characterized by consignment sales and high stock returns. Meanwhile, around 3,400 publishers released 73,057 new titles last year, bringing the total number of titles in circulation to about 980,000. Children’s books account for 6% of the total, with 4,350 new titles.

“The Japanese publishing industry is facing a dire situation where there is a rising number of new titles in the midst of declining sales. With more than 200 new titles published every day, there is simply not enough store and shelf space,” says Masaki Imamura, president and CEO of Kaisei-sha. “Convenience stores, with their limited space, typically stock up on faster-moving magazines—which also include manga—instead of books, for adults or children.”

But bookstores account for less than 20% of the total publication sales, and nearly 10,000 outlets have closed down in the past decade, leaving behind about 13,500 to serve 127 million people. Meanwhile, sales of print magazines and manga have declined dramatically due to the popularity of digital content and social media; between 2016 and 2017, print manga sales dropped 12%.

“Logically, there should be an urgent focus on books instead of magazines and manga,” Imamura says. “But there is no plan to rebuild the distribution channel even as the Japanese wholesalers are aware of the dire situation. In fact, these wholesalers are focused on the concerns of their stockholders, of which some are major magazine and manga publishing companies.”

Moreover, there are now fewer (and older) truck drivers for the distribution/logistics industry due to Japan’s aging society and declining working-age population. New labor regulations and a redesigned pension system (to keep people working until age 65) are also tying up resources in every economic sector.

“The children’s segment is more stable with less change in terms of players or distribution,” Imamura states. “The biggest challenge is the low birthrate, which is beyond our control. So children’s book publishers—especially Kaisei-sha—have looked outward, to increase licensing activities in order to survive and prosper. Imamura’s company started attending the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 1973 and is one of the most active Japanese publishers in selling rights.

Big Titles for the Domestic and Foreign Market

Among the many big titles in Kaisei-sha’s catalogue is Akiko Miyakoshi’s The Way Home in the Night, which received a 2016 BolognaRagazzi Award Mention in the fiction category. The English edition, published by Kids Can Press, was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2017. Rights have been sold to Canada, China, France, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Portugal, Sweden, and Taiwan.

Another bestseller is Megumi Iwasa’s Yours Sincerely, Giraffe, available in English from Gecko Press. “Illustrator Jun Takabatake, translator Cathy Hirano, and the author were invited to join the Children’s Bookshow last year, and they held school workshops and lectures in Stafford, U.K.,” says Nonaka, adding that the title has been shortlisted for the 2018 U.K. Literacy Association Book Award. “The German edition is nominated for the German Children’s Literature Award, which will be announced at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.”

Meanwhile, Reiko Hiroshima’s Supernatural Sweet Shop series (including nine titles, for ages eight and up) has sold more than 500,000 copies, and rights have been sold to Taiwan and Vietnam. Two other Kaisei-sha titles that were popular at this year’s Bologna Fair were Saeko Hirokawa’s Line Up Vegetables, All in the Line, and Shigeru Tamura’s Night Sound. The latter recently won the 65th Sankei Children’s Book Award, which is one of Japan’s most prestigious children’s book prizes.

To-date, Kaisei-sha’s biggest author is Toshio Iwai, best known for his 100 Stories titles. “We are celebrating A House of 100 Stories’ 10th anniversary this year. The series has sold 2.5 million copies, and has been translated into Chinese (simplified and traditional), French, German, Korean, Spanish, Thai, and Vietnamese,” says Nonaka, adding that Kaisei-sha recently bought Gusti’s Mallko y Papá (from Océano Travesía), a book about the author’s son, who has Down syndrome. “Such a title is part of our company’s effort since the 1970s to publish books on disabilities.”

At Poplar, two Tomoko Ohmura titles—The Long, Long Line and What’s the Hold-up?, which are now available in 14 and 10 languages, respectively—were its most successful exports in 2017. “Troll’s Bum Detective series is also big, with sales to China, the Czech Republic, Korea, Spain, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The abundance of activities—games, mazes, and hidden pictures in the stories, for instance—has been the main selling point for this combo picture/chapter book series,” explains rights manager Junko Saegusa, who has also sold Tatsuya Miyanishi’s Tyrannosaurus series, Seigo Kijima’s Polar Bear Post Office, and Shinsuke Yoshitake’s I Wonder… The Bookstore to several countries, including China, France, and the U.S.

Another Poplar title, The Fox Wish by Kimiko Aman and illustrated by Komako Sakai, for instance, was among the New York Public Library’s Favorite Illustrated Children’s Books of 2017, and was on the CCBC Choices List as well. “Presently, our biggest authors in Japan are Yutaka Hara of the Incredible Zorori series and Troll, which is [created by] a team consisting of writer Yoko Tanaka and illustrator Masahide Fukasawa,” adds Saegusa, pointing out that Poplar has also translated bestsellers such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series (since 2015; one million copies sold) and David Litchfield’s The Bear and the Piano (8,000 copies). Thomas the Tank Engine remains one of Poplar’s most successful translations, with millions of copies of the perennial favorite sold since 1973.

For PIE International, venturing into the children’s book segment among so many dominant players required a careful strategy. Artist Akemi Tezuka, who is known for her works in picture dictionaries, was commissioned to illustrate the publisher’s first title, World Map. It marked the beginning of a 13-title educational nonfiction series, My First, which has sold more than 420,000 copies. In 2011, World Map caught the eye of South Korean publisher Book Bank Publishing and became PIE International’s first-ever rights deal for its children’s division. (Rights-selling was not a part of the company’s major operations, as it exports its English/Japanese bilingual arts and design titles directly to overseas bookstores, museums, and distributors.)

Unique themes have helped give PIE International more bestsellers. Yoshiyuki Yoshimura’s Find Monsters, a large-format book with special inks that react only to ultraviolet light, is one such title. More than 27,000 copies have been sold since its September 2017 launch. “This activity book has Japanese yōkai monsters hidden in 10 everyday scenes such as in school, at home, and on the beach. The monsters are only visible when the light [from the attached special pen] hits on the specially printed images,” explains Miyoshi, adding that Find Monsters is the world’s first children’s book using RGB+CMYK printing, and “caught the attention of many publishers at Bologna this year; we hope to close some co-edition deals soon.” The sequel, Find World Monsters, will be out before the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Aya Shiroi’s picture book Harry on the Clouds, on the other hand, is about the death of a lamb and the grief of his mother. It is based on an animated short directed by Shiroi, which was shown at the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival. “We were quite reluctant to work on such a sad and morbid topic. But we felt that it was a much-needed title in the market, and decided to go ahead with it and let readers form their own opinion on the storyline,” says Miyoshi, adding that the title has sold 23,000 copies, and rights have gone to China and Taiwan. It was #6 on the children’s bestseller list at Books.com, Taiwan’s biggest book retailer, last year. Publishers from Chile, Italy, the Netherlands, and South Korea are currently considering the title.

Right now, the hottest children’s book author in town is Shinsuke Yoshitake, author of It Might Be an Apple, What Happens Next?, Can I Build Another Me?, and Still Stuck—all four published by Bronze Publishing. The first three were translated into English by Thames Hudson with the fourth title by Abrams. In Japan, Yoshitake’s books have been published by more than three publishers—Bronze Publishing, Hakusensha, and PHP Institute—and are available in at least nine languages.

Looking for Overseas Opportunity

China remains one of the most important markets for many Japanese publishers. “In the past 10 to 15 years, many Japanese picture books have become long-sellers in China—Tetsuko Kuroyanagi’s Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window with sales approaching 11 million copies is one such example—and rights sales and royalties from this particular market constitute a big part of many Japanese publishers’ sales and revenues,” says Yurika Yoshida, president of Japan Foreign-Rights Centre, who has been busy renewing and extending contracts with Chinese publishers in recent months. She recently sold Taro Miura’s The Train Comes and Susumu Shingu’s With the Sun to 21st Century Publishing House and Beijing Cheerful Century Co. Ltd., respectively.

For Nonaka and the team at Kaisei-sha, China is definitely the biggest rights market. “Aside from the fact that they prefer series—which results in a huge number of sales copies—Chinese publishers are also reprinting a lot. Many of their contracts have been extended and, for us, that means more advance and royalty payments,” adds Nonaka, who notes that Russian publishers have been buying more rights for Japanese titles in recent years. “Our bestsellers have been sold to many countries but not to Russia, whose publishers are keen on beautiful and well-designed picture books—and Kaisei-sha has many such titles. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing our titles in Russian soon.”

Nonaka, who has attended the Bologna Fair for the past 15 years, observes that “the trend in recent years was for big-format illustrated nonfiction like Mizielinska and Mizielinski’s Maps. At Bologna, I saw overseas editors trying to find strong fiction-based picture books with beautiful illustrations. Activity books and photography-based titles for children have not received as much attention.”

Japanese children’s books are also doing well in Taiwan. “But there are differences between the markets of China and Taiwan. Chinese publishers prefer multivolume series, whereas their Taiwanese counterparts are more accepting of single titles,” explains Yoshida of JFC, adding that this may be due to their dominant sales channels. “In China, where online bookstores and social media marketing are currently the major distribution methods in the vast country, multivolume series that cannot find space in physical bookstores can now be sold effectively and in huge numbers online, driven by peer influence and opinion leaders. In comparison, Taiwan is more reliant on brick-and-mortar bookstores to move books, and single titles work best. However, it does have an active online book retail market, especially through Books.com.” JFC just sold The Only Cat in the World and The Abandoned Cat, both by Yuko Higuchi, to Rye Field Publications, a division of Cité Publishing.

Interestingly, Yoshida has seen vigorous rights-buying activities from Vietnamese publishers in recent years, having sold Naokata Mase’s Vehicle picture book series, Tatsuya Miyanishi’s Little Red Truck series, and Noboru Baba’s Eleven Hungry Cats series, among others. “When it comes to selling rights, I try to strike a balance between backlist, where there is licensing history and experience, and new releases, which are exciting and at times, challenging.”

For Poplar, the vast Chinese market has been a big draw. In 2005, Beijing Poplar Culture Project Co. Ltd. launched the oldest and biggest bookstore dedicated to picture books in Beijing, and the team has since branched out into publishing. It is now busy encouraging Japanese authors to publish with them in simplified Chinese.

China is a big picture book market, says Saegusa at Poplar, But also “French publishers have always been culturally curious and active in buying rights from many countries, including Japan. Vietnam, with its rapidly developing economy, is one emerging market. Its publishers have been increasingly active in looking for new materials and titles for translation, specifically picture books for babies and intellectual training materials. I see high potential for rights sales in these three countries.”

Parents, teachers, and children are looking for books with activities, Saegusa adds. “The participatory approach to reading is trendy. The games, mazes, and riddles in the Bum Detective series, for instance, have made it a bestseller in Japan. This is also a trend evident in neighboring markets such as China, Korea, and Taiwan. Over in Europe, I continue to see a preference for illustrated titles.”

Neighboring markets are continuing to buy Japanese titles, says Megumi Shimada, general manager at PIE International. “China, Korea, and Taiwan are familiar with Japanese titles and publishers, and even if we do not announce our new titles, they will find and contact us. These editors are very active, especially those in China, where the advances are getting higher. The English language market is, of course, very important due to its size, and we will definitely sell more to other territories once the English rights are sold, but this is tough to accomplish.”

Despite on-and-off frosty diplomatic relations—between Japan and its nearest neighbors China and South Korea—rights activities and translations have continued unabated. The “soft embargo” of Japanese titles in China has been relaxed in recent months in light of the much more contentious China-U.S. trade dispute. Cultural and geographical proximity have made Japanese originals and authors-illustrators easier sells in neighboring countries and within the Asian region. Further afield, Japanese picture books—known for their unique content and illustrations—continue to enthrall children, parents, and overseas publishers alike.