Liberating a Library in Saga PrefecturePolitics Society
Culture Convenience Club, the outfit that runs Tsutaya, Japan’s biggest nationwide chain of video-rental shops and bookstores, has become involved with managing a library in Saga Prefecture. The library is in Takeo, a city of just 50,000 residents. The number of people using the library has shot up since the private firm took over the management, and now people from around the country are taking a close look to learn from this initiative. Some regard it as a revolution in how to run a library and a symbol of efforts to decentralize the way Japan is run.
The driving force behind the initiative is Hiwatashi Keisuke, the 43-year-old mayor of Takeo, who frankly describes himself as a visually oriented person who shunned school as a kid. As mayor, he is carrying out a series of wide-ranging strategic reforms designed to shake up everything from the library and hospital administration to local education. Takenaka Harukata, a political scientist and former member of the Ministry of Finance, sat down with Hiwatashi to find out more about what drives the reform-minded mayor.
Off to a Great Start
INTERVIEWER The remodeled Takeo City Library opened in April 2013. Roughly 260,000 people visited in the first three months. Were you surprised by this success?
HIWATASHI KEISUKE We never imagined so many people would visit the library. I think the key to our success is that the library has become such a pleasant and comfortable place. And visitors don’t mind spending 500 yen for a coffee at the Starbucks inside. They know that buying five books rather than borrowing them from the library would set them back 3,000 yen or so. So the coffee shop is doing well. There’s a bookshop as well. It might seem like an odd idea—why would people buy a book when there are so many to be read for free? But some of our users like to spend a bit of money on books there—maybe because the library offers so much other free content.
INTERVIEWER Are most of the people who visit local residents?
HIWATASHI I’d say around 60 percent live in Takeo, although on weekends or holidays it would be more like 50 percent.
Cutting Annual Administrative Costs by ¥10 Million
The Takeo City Library reopened in April 2013 under the new management of Culture Convenience Club, which runs the nationwide video-rental chain Tsutaya. Remodeling costs were covered by the city of Takeo and CCC, with the former paying around ¥450 million and the latter around ¥300 million. Along with its inventory of 200,000 titles, the library also features an area where visitors can purchase magazines and books. The facility also includes a café/dining area run by Starbucks. And library users can use the T-Point Card, Tsutaya's loyalty program card, to check out books. Daily library hours have been extended by three hours, with the facility open from nine in the morning until nine at night. And the 30 annual holidays have been eliminated so the library is now open every day of the year. Under the new management, the annual operating costs of roughly ¥120 million are expected to be reduced by ¥10 million. Since the library reopened, the number of daily visitors has soared to around 2,900—around four times the level in the previous year. The number of books checked out has also risen to an average of 1,644 per day, roughly a two-fold increase.
A Seamless Space
INTERVIEWER What was the background to the decision to let Culture Convenience Club take over the Takeo City Library?
HIWATASHI In late December 2011, I saw a program on TV about a bookstore in Daikanyama, Tokyo, that’s run by CCC. I tried to set up a meeting through a friend with Masuda Muneaki, the president of CCC, but instead was scheduled to meet the vice president. But on my way to meet him I happened to see Masuda on the sidewalk. I knew this might be my only chance, so I went straight up to him and said: “I want your company to run our library in Takeo.” Much to my surprise, he said: “That’s exactly what I wanted to do.” Why? He said libraries and hospitals are the best example of public service. And since I must have my hands full running the city hospitals, he would like to take care of the library for us. That was how the ball got rolling—outside on a sunny winter day, without any prior consultation or deal-making.
INTERVIEWER Has the library turned out as you had envisaged?
HIWATASHI It turned out exactly like the initial image that Masuda sketched out on a piece of paper. Above all, we wanted it to be seamless. From a supplier’s perspective, it might be better to draw a dividing line between the library browsing space and the retail area, but the users themselves are looking for a comfortable, seamless space. By flattening out those different zones into one, we were able to create a freer space.
INTERVIEWER Was it Masuda’s idea to have a Starbucks inside the library?
HIWATASHI That was something we both agreed on. Starbucks knows how to make the best use of space. And you can see from our city how the coffee shop has managed to integrate itself perfectly into the library. I don’t think any other company can match Starbucks when it comes to use of space—certainly not any Japanese company.
We’re a small city of just 50,000 residents. For us to attract people to the new library, we needed a narrative that people could capture people’s imaginations. We had the idea of creating the first library/café in Japan—maybe the first of its kind in the world. That was the main narrative. We asked CCC to take care of the negotiations with Starbucks. It’s obviously important in cases like this to draw on other people’s expertise.
Reaching the Younger Generation
HIWATASHI Most of the people who use the library are in their sixties, whereas T-Point Card users tend to be in their teens. We thought that allowing people to use the cards would be a good way to reach an age group that we had not appealed to in the past. Another aim was to streamline things. Young people are used to using the card, so it saves time for the library staff.
INTERVIEWER How has city hall responded to the new library?
HIWATASHI The head of the education bureau is in charge of library services for the city At first, he was a bit perplexed by it all, but after meeting the CCC staff and visiting the Daikanyama bookstore a number of times he became convinced that Tsutaya were the right people for the job. I think people have to see things for themselves to change their minds.
It’s worth emphasizing that our job is to respond to the people who need our help now. We’re like doctors in that respect. When I was a university student, I worked as a tutor to the grandson of Takeshita Noboru, the former prime minister. He once gave me some personal advice. He told me that it’s important to get things done in a timely way and that I should give my all for the benefit of others—rather than focusing on my own advancement. I have never forgotten that. I do try to do whatever I can to accommodate the people who volunteer assistance first. Others will then follow naturally in their footsteps.
Sketching Out the Goal
INTERVIEWER Does the idea of the importance of “creating a story” stem from your experience working for the central government?
HIWATASHI That’s exactly right. I always try to take a personal approach to things. Government bureaucrats tend to be excessively concerned about what other people think. And that often has repercussions for what the ideas they come up with. They often create things that are somewhat mediocre or middle-of-the-road. That’s not going to capture anyone’s imagination. I suppose I tend to focus on the visual aspects of things. I created the basic overview for what might be called the first three chapters of our story, based on a clear visual image. Then the administrators filled in the details. I make a point of clarifying what the end point is supposed to be. Administrators are good at calculating from the end point backwards, but the role of politicians is to sketch out that objective.
This means that coming up with the concrete plan for the library wasn’t something that I did on my own. It was a group effort involving the whole city government. It is only through their jobs that people can hone their skills. Ordinarily, the regional public servants are not in the spotlight, so when they get some recognition, they really give it their all. In the end, CCC said to me, “You don’t have to stick with work on the library, but we’d really like the three city workers in charge to continue on the project.” That actually made me feel happy—and those three workers were positively thrilled. The impact that fresh faces can have on work colleagues is immense. And up to now there have not been such infusions of energy within local governments.
Getting the Word Out on Facebook
INTERVIEWER As mayor, you set up a Facebook page featuring outstanding local products. Within the currents fiscal year, the page will be expanded to include some 40 municipalities.
HIWATASHI We now have people outside Japan who are studying the Facebook initiative as a model. The success comes down to the fact that up to now the sorts of products that people want to buy online have not been available.
It would be hard to gather good products if we had limited ourselves to either the public or private sector. We have done this in a seamless way, with no boundaries between the commercial and governmental sides. And this all comes under the international banner of Facebook. The city governments are the key engine for driving new local initiatives, but at the same time, when the government alone handles something for an extended time, efficiency tends to drop. In such a case, it is better to have the private sector handle sales. From Japanese history we can look to the example of the entrepreneur Godai Tomoatsu at the outset of the Meiji era [1868–1912], who played a major role in purchasing business started by the government. That seems like an excellent model to study. Most of what I’ve come up with is copied from what people like Godai have done. [Laughs]
Transforming Public Facilities
INTERVIEWER What is the next goal you have in mind?
HIWATASHI Next is our city government building. We’re thinking about, for example, removing the front counter and replacing it with an inviting space, perhaps with a flower shop or something like that. We would like to link this up with the concept of the library, so that people will be inclined to stop by city hall even if they have no immediate business there. People have talked about the “library revolution” in Takeo, but I think in the next decade or two we will be seeing a revolution in the use of public facilities’ spaces. The second step in this movement will concern government buildings. For our city council space, I’d like to see us come up with a sort of basin-shaped design. The modern design, with acrylic chairs and tables as well as glass partitions and walls, could improve the motivation of the civil servants and give people a clear view of the work going on inside. The role that a particular space can play is very important. Up to now regional governments have paid almost no attention at all to this issue—or even if they did, they weren’t able to come up with the specifics necessary.
INTERVIEWER What are some other areas you want to focus on?
HIWATASHI Education, above all. Starting in April we’re going to distribute tablet computers to elementary and junior high school children. I want to see classes improve for kids. When I was young, I often stayed home from school. My parents had to take me out of kindergarten, too, because I just couldn’t stand group activities. Even at university, I was such a recluse that I practically had bed sores. [Laughs] Maybe the fact that I’m now in a social position like mayor is a reaction against that time.
To be honest, I’m not all that interested in the national government. The foundation for everything is the local governments. I think that if we come up with bold schemes that really astound people, initiatives can spread out and expand to the point of changing Japan as a whole. There really isn't anything that can't be accomplished today under the system of local governments. Basically 99 percent of things are possible. The proof of this is that in the case of our library or hospitals, we did not have to rely on the central government ministries. The authority of local governments has made huge strides forward—to the point where it is more like 100 percent than 99 percent, in fact.
INTERVIEWER What things are still inadequate?
HIWATASHI Well, it takes more than just having the right tools. Just taking a “shotgun approach” to getting things done will only create chaos and not get local governments anywhere. What is needed today, rather, is a method more like wielding a spear. That’s the approach we are trying to take.
(Original article in Japanese based on a July 11, 2013, interview at the Takeo City Library in Saga Prefecture; photographs by Nishida Kayo.)