A glimpse of Tokyo library life, by Sue Charteris

Sue Charteris

Sue Charteris

Japan is a culture that has always fascinated me so when an offer came from Sue Charteris to publish her experiences during a short trip there, I was instantly hooked. Many thanks to her for the following article.

Sue Charteris is best known in public library circles for her role in the Wirral Libraries Inquiry Report of 2009 which is normally known by her surname. She is a a strategy advisor, leadership mentor and coach and served on the Lambeth Libraries Commission, gave evidence to the House of Commons’ Select Committee on library closures, and currently works with Arts Council England and Locality.

Over to Sue…

At the close of a private trip I was privileged to spend a day visiting public libraries in Tokyo, at the kind invitation of Chie Suga, academic and scholar famed for her knowledge of the UK library scene. 

So much of my time in Japan was spent glimpsing the unfamiliar and the day was no exception, but what a delight. We started by visiting the Urayasu Central Library in Chiba Prefecture, a commuter suburb that South Londoners would recognize as familiar. What was less familiar was the scene that greeted us when we arrived at the library shortly before opening time. On one side of the glass doors was a queue of local residents, on the other a row of staff in long white aprons ready to meet and greet their customers.

“On one side of the glass doors was a queue of local residents, on the other a row of staff in long white aprons ready to meet and greet their customers”

Mr. Masami Morita, a former finance director who became the Head of Libraries for the City ten years a go, greeted us. I enjoyed his insights into the cultural challenges he had inherited when taking up the role. He spoke of his role initially being that of an interpreter, who needed to broker a deeper mutual understanding between the library service and mainstream council services, particularly on the essential purpose of the service. In return, library staff were expected to take their record keeping and budget execution duties more seriously. The service’s main advocate is the city mayor who completely grasps the importance of the service to the local community. The service had made savings through streamlining processes, but still retains an evident high professionalism with evident emphasis on quality and ‘public’ service, active stock selection and curation as evidenced by this window in the Children’s Library welcoming the arrival of winter.


Children’s display welcoming winter

In contrast to the UK, over 10% of public library services are run by the private sector, and our next visit was to Hibiya Park located in the heart of the Hibiya business district in Chiyodia Ward, Central Tokyo. It is the flagship project of TRC, a leading company of a private consortium, part library management, part publishing house and part facilities management. The iconic triangular building is in the centre of a municipal park and describes itself as ‘a hub for knowledge in an urban oasis’. The shared building houses a large lecture theatre, shop, café and restaurant as well as a museum and library. The library caters specifically but not exclusively to business customers, there is a large foreign language collection and historic donated collections that have to be retained, and visibly so.

“In contrast to the UK, over 10% of public library services are run by the private sector”

Our visit was co hosted by Mr. Iori Matsuda, Director and Ms. Maki Higuchi, General Manager and I was struck by Maki’s words ‘ We think the library is not where you rent books but where you think through books’. This was evident both through the day to day curation of the stock around key themes but also significant interventions. For example, last summer, they arranged an exhibition called ’25 Questions and 100 Books’. The library asked the challenging questions, which have been posed in the recent exhibition at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, to library users,  These include:

‘Have you ever imagined the end of the world?

‘What is being alive?

‘Is your happiness the same as others? And of course,

‘How would you imagine the library 100 years later?”

“We think the library is not where you rent books but where you think through books”

The library staff identified books and materials held within the collection to help visitors think through, and record their own responses, stimulated by this material and an accompanying lecture series. It was dusk as we left the library but already people were turning up to hear the foremost Japanese scholar Yuushi Odashima on Shakespeare give a lecture.


Japanese book display

I shared my perceptions that evening with Mr.Yoshio Yanagi, a professional librarian of the National Diet Library, Professor Nozomi Ikeya, Professor of The School of Library and Information Science in Keio University and Professor Shunsaku Tamura from the University and Chie herself. My brief visit and discussions reminded me how much every library service is influenced by it’s place: the services in both places were very highly regarded by their distinctively different local constituencies. The aesthetics of active and imaginative curation were evident in both places, hardly surprising in such a visually conscious society. The financial reductions in the Japanese public services are not so very different from here though different solutions are being applied, there was less talk of volunteer involvement and more talk about wages costs and the long hours involved in supporting a service open 7 hours a day 7 days a week. The dilemmas of how to keep the services dynamic and sustainable are shared ones and there is great benefit in mutual learning. The policy context is also one of shrinking public funds and changes in society’s attitudes to reading. What’s more Japan is hosting the Olympics in 2020 and the colleagues I met will have a chance to put culture at the heart of those plans too.

“there was less talk of volunteer involvement and more talk about wages costs and the long hours involved in supporting a service open 7 hours a day 7 days a week”


Chie Suga, Lecturer at the School of Library and Information Science, Keio University, Tokyo, kindly arranged Sue’s visit.


  • #1 written by Urayasu Citizen
    about 2 years ago

    Did they talked about short-term full-time contract (non-permanet) workers at the Urayasu library?

    Once I really had to complain to the management and had a meeting with the deputy head then.

    To my surprise, at least one permanent library worker was just colour-coding who are permanent and who are temps. I found that out when I asked her what was the temp worker’s name. Her answer: “a non-permanent….” and that was it. It was like one of them foreigners, not one of us at all.

    Volunteers sounds nice.

    Queed up citizens to secure “study spaces,” not necessary to read books or referencd materials looks nice and well-appreciated.

    In between the perment city-employed librairans and die-hard library-goers, libraries in Japan are typically suppoerted by workers who have to take non-permanent, insecure short-term, if not time-limited, contract workers.

    I know someone who works for a prefectural library in the greater Tokyo area.

    He admits such short-term contract works, typically speaking, are more dedicated and knowledgable, if not more up-to-dated. He knows often times he knows less about certain things, calling himself turning into a “dinosaur.”

    The library you visited in Urayasu is not bad at all for its citizens including myself, having precious out-of-print books and CDs to conspiracy-theory, dooms day books, along with non-academic/scientific periodicals.

    Still, Uraysu is relatively new city, which used to be a town per Japan’s citizen-population-based municipality law, so books and reference materials hardly goes back to 1980.

    It is not my intention to put smear on your innocent sugar-coated impression and explanation you received in Urayasu, but mixed labour structures is increasingly important to keep public library management at given municipality/prefecture budget.

    The City of Urayasu has made efforts to expand its services and has made extra book check-out/return outlets all over the small city. Sounds nice now, but it took a while to erradicate inequality depending on where you live within the city.

    So when you are back in Urayasu, see how the workers look like. Here’s the tip.

    Expressionless men: permanent
    Smiling women: short-term contract

    Easy, eh?

  • #2 written by Sue Charteris
    about 2 years ago

    I have read you’re comments and it’s not right for me to comment on a particular place, but I hear you. Whilst the preoccupation in UK is between volunteers or paid staff the debate elsewhere is clearly about conditions of service, tough times all round, that much we have in common.

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