Coffee, workouts, beauty classes and more at Japan's revamped libraries

The reading area of the Gifu City Chuo Library in Gifu is adorned with umbrella-like structures in this photo taken in October last year.
The reading area of the Gifu City Chuo Library in Gifu is adorned with umbrella-like structures in this photo taken in October last year.Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network
Exercising next to bookshelves filled with health-related books at the Yamato City Library in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Exercising next to bookshelves filled with health-related books at the Yamato City Library in Kanagawa Prefecture.Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network

TOKYO (Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network) - Do you think of public libraries as solemn places where talking, eating and drinking are frowned upon? Reinvented libraries in Japan will have you think again.

From exercise classes to  lounges for teenagers or younger users to chat or play games, to cafes or restaurants where visitors can read a book over a cup of coffee, libraries in Japan have become hip places of relaxation, on top of their traditional role as repositories of information and knowledge.

The transition is a response to the countries declining population and evolving reading habits in the digital age.

Kazuo Nishino, executive director of the Japan Library Association, said unlike in the past, libraries can't just wait for visitors to pour in.

“In a time where the population is falling, many libraries have taken advantage of the opportunity to rebuild their ageing structures, implemented various measures to attract more visitors and become innovative,” he said. 

The municipal government of Yamato city in Kanagawa Prefecture, for example, dedicated the fourth floor of the city's new library to health when facility was relocated and rebuilt.

The floor offers about 10,000 books and other items related to health, while various measuring devices such as those for vascular age and brain age are available, along with a health consultation nurse.

“We hope to make the library a place where people can be healthier just by being here,” said Yuriko Yamaguchi, acting deputy director of the facility.

“Move to the left while saying ‘right,’” an instructor said to 15 women during a workout session held on the fourth floor of the new Yamato City Library, which opened in November last year.

In a space called the “Kenko [Healthy] Terrace,” events and classes centred on dietary education or beauty are offered every day, with the exercise session every Thursday being particularly popular.

“It is quite encouraging for me to be in this class,” said Hiroko Sano, who frequently participates in the workshop. “I can also make friends here, which is wonderful.”

Tokyo’s Musashino municipal government aims to create a library where junior high and high school students can hang out. In 2011, the city rebuilt one of its libraries into a complex called Musashino Place. Of its four stories above the ground and three stories underground, the second basement is reserved for target age groups, offering young adult novels and magazines.

The floor also has a lounge only open to teenagers or younger users so they can talk to their friends or play games. There is also a climbing wall and four studios for music and dance practice.

Nobuya Inoue, a third-year student at the nearby Shotoku Gakuen Senior High School, said he visits the facility two or three times a week.

“I like it because I can just come to hang out,” he said. “I can chill with my friends while playing games. It’s not how I pictured libraries.”

More and more libraries have cafes for the same reason. The Tagajo municipal government in Miyagi Prefecture, for example, opened its new library in March last year, outsourcing its operation to the operator of the Tsutaya chain of book, music and video stores. The complex housing the relocated library also has a Starbucks and a policy of allowing visitors to bring drinks into the library.

There have also been concerts among the bookshelves, offering visitors a chance to enjoy reading while listening to live music.

The new library extended its closing time to 9:30 p.m. from 5 p.m. and expanded its collection of books to about 230,000 from about 180,000.

About 950,000 people visited the complex that houses the library from March to October 2016, or about 14 times more than in the same period a year earlier, before its relocation.

The Gifu municipal government asked internationally renowned architect Toyo Ito to design the complex that houses the city’s Chuo Library as its core facility. The library’s reading area is adorned with massive umbrella-like structures that hang down from an undulating, latticed wood ceiling.

The bookshelves are low and radiate out around the umbrella-like structures. Conversations are allowed in some sections, and visitors can bring drinks inside.