RIKUZENTAKATA: Bookmobile brings joy to a city destroyed by the 2011 tsunami

September 08, 2013

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

On a fine cloudless day in July, a white bus painted with flowing red and green ribbons and a large, smiling, blond-haired woman ran through the green countryside of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture.

Donated by Italy, the bus, Hama-Yuri-Go, has been pressed into service as a bookmobile. Bookshelves holding about 1,700 books line both sides of the vehicle’s interior. The selection is wide ranging, including novels, picture books, cookbooks and books on medicine.

At 9:30 a.m., the bus leaves the municipal library. On this day it will travel around the eastern part of the city, including the peninsula surrounding Hirota Bay. About 15 minutes after departure it arrives at its first stop, Yonesaki Elementary School. Temporary housing units still line the school’s grounds more than two years after the Great East Japan Earthquake.

For the 21 first-graders attending the school, this will be their first time choosing books for themselves. Some pick out books right away, while others hesitate and waver. The books will be kept in the classroom and read by all. They will be returned one month later when the bus comes around again.

The bookmobile arrives at its second stop behind schedule. A 71-year-old woman is waiting. Every month she says she walks about 10 minutes so she can visit the bookmobile. "I can’t drive, so I appreciate the bus coming out here," she said.

The third stop is located right below a temporary housing development built upon high ground. A group of regulars, elderly women all carrying the same library bags, gathers at the bookmobile. They are in a bit of an uproar as it appears one of their group did not show up.

"What happened? I’ll go take a look," said one. A little while later she returns, the missing woman in tow. The women engage in animated conversation as they choose their reading material for the month. "Hey, check out this book, 'Living Energetically Until 125.' I like the title, I’m going to borrow it."

During the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, the Rikuzentakata municipal library was destroyed. All seven employees of the library were lost, and its 80,000-book collection was washed away. However, that July, with a donated bus and volunteer staff, a mobile library was opened for business. Now there are two bookmobiles that make the rounds to 42 locations within the city every month.

Last December, a long-desired temporary library was also opened. "I didn’t think we would be able to open it so quickly," said the assistant manager, Keiko Hasegawa, 57.

Hasegawa served as the first librarian at the city’s municipal library when it opened in 1978. She has 20 years of experience working at libraries. At the time of the earthquake, she was working as a civil servant in the city’s environmental division. She escaped the tsunami by fleeing to the roof of the municipal office.

In April 2012, one year after the earthquake, Hasegawa was transferred to work in the library division. "We started from nothing," she said. Hasegawa and her team set about creating the library from a prefabricated two-story building constructed by a library promotion foundation. The first thing they did was to begin registering and cataloging books donated from all over the country and stored in schools and other locations around the city.

Next, they needed to create a usable structure for town residents. At the very least, they wanted a place where people could come to read newspapers and magazines. Except such a place did not exist.

Around that time a volunteer group from Sapporo, "Hokkaido Book Sharing," came to visit and offered to build a log house to serve as the library. In September 2012, the log house was completed on available space in front of the prefabricated building, and the library was opened before year’s end.

Half a year later, flowers from library-goers decorate the library’s entrance, giving it the appearance of a highland café. A handwritten message on a blackboard stated, "We will have a library gossip session on Wednesday, coffee and tea served."

Upon entering the library, one’s eyes are first drawn to a large wooden table. Behind it, bookshelves are lined with about 5,000 of the library’s 20,000-book collection. "Would you like some tea?" a staff member asked a gentleman leisurely reading a newspaper.

The library gossip sessions started in June. "Looking at books makes you feel relaxed, it is very easy for people who don’t know each other to strike up a conversation," said a 60-year-old woman. Added Hasegawa, "When you think of a library, you usually think of a place where food, drink and talking is prohibited. However, every Wednesday afternoon, I want to create a relaxing, homelike atmosphere. For library users, books are a part of their lives. If they have a book they are at peace. From there, they can go about regaining their spirit and energy."

Shoichiro Kanno, 62, the library director, also talks to library patrons. "Among library visitors are some who haven’t seen each other for two years. They naturally begin talking about what happened two years ago, ‘What happened to you at that time?’ ‘In my case, this happened.’ It was common for elderly gentlemen to withdraw socially and stay at home. The library has given them a reason to come out of their houses."

On average, 120 people a day visited the library before the earthquake. Now it is about 17. For many people who have suffered from the tsunami, the library is still not a place they choose to go.

Due to the tsunami, libraries and annexes were completely destroyed in other areas as well, such as in Otsuchi and Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture and Minami-Sanriku and Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. Many places up and down the Tohoku coast suffered severe damage.

Though there are formal construction plans for a Rikuzentakata municipal library, the location and schedule for construction are entirely undecided. Still, Hasegawa had this to say: "Once more I will collect local information and documents. I want to tell the history of Rikuzentakata and make sure it is preserved."

(The first part of the article was written by Kyoko Isa of Culture and Lifestyle News Section.)


"Your second office. A study away from home."

Operating under this concept is the Chiyoda Public Library.

Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward is home to a lot of government agencies and head offices belonging to major corporations. Wanting to make the library more user-friendly for working people, the ward renovated the location in 2007 and extended the closing time by three hours, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. There are now also more than 2,000 business-related books, such as how to write business proposals, and the library also carries 50 business-focused magazines.

There is also a "concierge" booth within the library, which will perform tasks such as researching the availability of a book a patron might want in the antiquarian bookstores of Chiyoda’s Kanda district, and providing information on local restaurants.

Libraries are also increasingly opening in conveniently located buildings such as those near train stations.

The Saitama Chuo Municipal Library in Saitama Prefecture is located on the eighth floor of a commercial building situated immediately outside the east exit of Japan Railway’s Urawa Station. The spacious location has seating for 400 people. It is said some library visitors use it as a convenient meeting place before venturing down to the fashion stores and supermarket located on lower floors.

Up until the 1980s, there was a tendency for public libraries to be unwelcoming to people who had not come to borrow books.

Nowadays, some are being established alongside cafes that serve alcohol, while others hold movie screenings for parents and children. Libraries are changing into places where people can while away their time as they please.

According to the Japan Library Association, in fiscal 2012, there were 3,214 municipally established libraries across the country, an increase of 1,203 over the past 20 years. Though the pace of openings has slowed, on average, more than 20 new libraries have been opened annually over the past few years.

Still, not everything is as rosy as it may seem. Japan, at 2.53, has only about half as many libraries per 100,000 people as France, and only one-ninth the number of Finland.

At 5.63 per year, Japanese also borrow fewer books and audiovisual materials compared to the United States at 6.53 and Finland at 18.

"Library development within the country still lags. We need one library for each junior high school district. That means we need three times more than the current number of libraries we have in Japan," emphasized Hiroyoshi Yamamoto, executive director of the Japan Library Association.

The gap in library numbers, especially between small towns and villages and urban centers, is widening. While the installation rate of public libraries in municipalities is high at 100 percent for government ordinance-designated cities and 98.4 percent for regular cities, it remains low in towns and villages at 61 percent and 25 percent respectively, according to Japan Library Association April 2012 data.

Amid a struggling economy, total municipal budgets for libraries have also been decreasing from their peak of approximately 360 billion yen ($3.64 billion) in 1999. In Kochi Prefecture, officials have already made a decision to consolidate prefectural and municipal libraries. The Kanagawa prefectural government also considered the viability of scrapping and consolidating libraries but at the last minute decided to keep the status quo. In Sado, Niigata Prefecture, where public finances are being reformed, debate is under way regarding the feasibility of expanding the central library and reducing annexes.

Takayuki Nakazawa, the chair of a library problem research committee formed by local citizens and library workers, said, "I am worried that the trend away from building new libraries in outlying regions due to diminishing budgets is accelerating."

The number of cases of prefectures and municipalities contracting for several years with private sector companies and others to operate public libraries has been increasing. As of fiscal 2011, the operation of 298 libraries, or close to 10 percent of all public libraries, was outsourced to private contractors.

One library attracting a lot of attention nationally is the Takeo City Library in Saga Prefecture, which opened in March. Appointed by the city, Culture Convenience Club Co. (CCC), operators of the Tsutaya nationwide chain of video rental shops, is tasked with managing the facility. Upon entering the library, one of the first things people see are a Starbucks coffee shop, and magazines and books being sold by Tsutaya. The stylish layout and appearance of the library has become a hot topic of conversation and draws out-of-prefecture visitors on weekends. Four times as many people are visiting the new facility compared to prior to its renovation.

However, some critics are worrying about things such as how the personal information of library users should be handled, and that the selection of books, which citizens can participate in choosing, will become partial to best-sellers.

Who should be responsible for choosing books purchased by a library? Who should be responsible for its management in the future? What is the ideal form of a public library to begin with. …? Debate over the Takeo City Library poses questions for all of us.

(The second part was written by Akiko Suzuki of GLOBE.)

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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A lot of regular patrons use the bookmobile making the rounds in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. It has become a place of relaxation where users can engage in small talk. (Kyoko Isa)

A lot of regular patrons use the bookmobile making the rounds in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. It has become a place of relaxation where users can engage in small talk. (Kyoko Isa)

  • A lot of regular patrons use the bookmobile making the rounds in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. It has become a place of relaxation where users can engage in small talk. (Kyoko Isa)

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