Prefectural Libraries in Postwar Japan

Lucia Alonso Aranda:

Prefectural libraries in post-war Japan have greatly influenced how Japanese people understand libraries today. Their evolution can be traced clearly to a before and after World War II. From 1945, after Japan’s surrender, until the beginning of the 1970s, education in Japan underwent many changes.

Although libraries in the beginning of the twentieth century were abundant in Japan and literacy rates were high, libraries were far from public. They had entrance and lending fees, books were censored, reading rooms were often divided by genders, and the library stacks were closed. Before the war, there were around 5,000 libraries in Japan, however, during the war many were destroyed, occupied, or abandoned. Education was not Japan’s main concern during those years.

Timeline of American and Japanese public libraries

There were two key influences in post-war Japan that led to a growth in prefectural libraries. The first was the US Occupation and Education Reform, with the Western influence leading to new education and library legislation in Japan. The second was the bunko movement: the emergence of home libraries as a grassroots movement to compensate for the lack of public libraries available to children. These libraries later continued to exist parallel to prefectural libraries.

Japan is divided into 47 prefectures, districts under the authority of a governor. Prefectures serve as intermediary bodies between cities, towns, villages, and the state. The first public library in Japan was the Teikoku Toshokan, The Imperial Library, established in 1872. Originally, it was housed in a temple until 1906 when the new library building was completed inspired by British library standards. In 1948, The Imperial Library became the National Diet Library, a building designed after the US Library of Congress. The first prefectural library was the Kyoto Prefectural Library that opened in 1873, a year after the Imperial Library and its current building opened in 1909. In 1928, the loaning system began to operate and in 1941 a children’s room was opened. The Japan Library Association was established in 1892 with only 23 members, but by 1957 had more than 2,300 members.

Although there were libraries in the beginning of the twentieth century, they were not public and only accessible to the few. The Imperial Decree that governed libraries, was to strengthen the imperial state of Japan. Therefore, reading material was controlled and censored, particularly books on democracy and socialism. The central government had control over prefectural and local public libraries. Entrance fees and book rental fees were very common as well as gender-divided reading rooms.

During the war, the prefectural libraries that existed were bombed and destroyed, some became offices or storage space, and others had to shut down due to a lack of funding. In Tokyo, 14 of the 27 libraries were destroyed by due bombs. According to the Ministry of Education in Japan, half of Japan’s books had gone, largely burned by fire.


During the US Occupation, Japan implemented a new constitution in 1947 that was heavily influenced by the Americans. The emperor lost any political authority and was only to be a cultural leader. The new political institution with most power would be the Diet, Japan’s parliament elected freely by the people. Women were given equal rights, including the right to vote.

The Americans also emphasised the importance of public libraries being accessible and free to everyone. They especially focused on the need for more children’s sections within libraries to teach democratic values to a future generation. Although library services in Japan were always influenced by Western models and developed at a similar rate, children’s sections appeared significantly later than in the US. There the children’s sections grew quickly due to the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who had a large influence on the rise of public libraries in the early twentieth century. The Carnegie Libraries in the US had a clear influence on Japan and its post-war reconstruction of libraries. For example, Japanese prefectural libraries would adapt the open book stack and its programme distribution.

Carnegie Libraries in the USA


Under the US Occupation, the Library Law of 1950 was developed. It gave the necessary guidelines to establish on how to operate public and private libraries. The law prohibited fees for any library service. It established the role and necessary education of the librarian and the assistant librarian. It states that it is a tax-supported institution and each prefectural government is in charge of establishing and operating them. The Library Law was modelled after the public library system of California8.

The Library Bill of Rights published in 1954 by the Japan Library Association declared free access as well as freedom of press, as pre-war libraries were highly censored. It also states that each prefecture has the right to exhibit the books they want.

In 1963, the Japan Library Association published The Management of Public Libraries in medium to small cities. They proposed that there should be one library for 50,000 people and every library should add approximately 5,000 books a year to their collection9. The report emphasized the importance of increasing circulation as a key function in the library. It was a very influential report since it changed the closed stack service model used in libraries previously. Open stacks were very well received and the use of libraries during this decade grew significantly.


A bunko can be simply de ned as a collection of books. However, the bunko in the 1950s can be understood as a private non profit “mini libraries” for children age 5 to 15. Operated and/or funded by Japanese children’s book authors and groups of parents, mainly mothers. They were typically accommodated in a small room filled with children’s books. Their collections ranged from 100 books to over 3,000 volumes. (Hotta) The home library is known as the katei bunko while the chiiki bunko, or community library, can be located in local meeting areas, schools, or in religious places. They are both somewhat unstable as they depend on the weather, the wellbeing of the owner, and the amount of funding and volunteers.

Woman engagement in the Bunko movement

To ensure the bunkos’ existence, a small fee would usually be charged. Some non-pro t foundations would sometimes help to cover the operation costs. As the owners manage the bunkos, there is total liberty to select the books they want to have. The bunko movement managed to unite bunko owners into associations in order to support each other in activities and book lending.

Bunkos served also as a place were women could meet with other mothers and talk about the education of their children. Most of the bunkos volunteers were mothers. Women began to take more decisions regarding the education of their children. Mothers liked bunkos as they offered less stressful environments for children to learn. Also, many housewives took the opportunity to foster their own interests and have greater social participation in the community.The library movement began in smaller rural areas

The library movement began in smaller rural areas were library service was scarce. This is typically found in rural farming, fishing, and industrial areas. Children’s book authors allowed for these bunkos to become a grassroots movement and have many impacts on children’s lives. Although by the seventies, the bunko movement had spread nationwide.


Each prefecture must have a prefectural library usually in its main city. A prefectural library is a public library accessible by the general public, funded from public sources of each prefectural government. When the prefectural library is strong then there is usually a weak municipal library or none at all. In some cases, there are several libraries in a prefecture. This is the case with the Kanagawa Prefectural Library. The one in the city of Yugawara was built conjointly with an auditorium in 1954, five years before the Kanagawa Prefectural Library in Kawasaki14.

Structural and formal comparison of case studies

The typical prefectural library had 125,000 volumes of which 4,000 were in English. They had fifteen people working as staff and would open 11 hours a day during 320 days a year. Towards the end of occupation a portion of the collections was made available for the first time in the library’s history. In 1955 nearly 80% of the libraries 700 average daily visitors were students15. The libraries operate a bookmobile service and offer a wide range of cultural activities like lectures, exhibitions, book clubs, movies, and concerts. The prefectural library has a generous collection of their local prefectural history and encourages smaller libraries to do the same.

Comparative programmatic analysis

Comparative analysis of public access

In 1959 only 34% of public libraries had children’s sections and by 1979 this doubled to 67%. The reading sections are usually a corner or a room of 100 to 200 square meters. The average children’s reading room within a library has around 5,000 to 10,000 volumes16.

Spatial sequence and circulation analysis

Analysis of Bunko elements in prefecture libraries


The design exercise intends to further question and reevaluate prefectural libraries and their functions as libraries. Instead, the design seeks to explore variations within the main hall in relation to the different uses it can have. The public and prefectural libraries looked at have similar sequences of space. The library and different reading rooms are all separated but connect to one main hall.

This exercise proposes the main halls role and how it can have many uses. The design exercise explores how the different programmes can have smaller spaces within or be fragmented to create more intimate spaces. The outdoor reading rooms are interpreted to open reading rooms with double or triple height with plants and trees.

Through closed and open structures, spaces that were typically apart, can share the same wall. They can be touching without interacting with one another. On the contrary, spaces can be separeted but through open structures, they can be easily accesed and visually conected. This can be done through parametric design, by linking the functions of a space in relation to the structure. Having the same programme on different levels allows to create different approach to the same spaces.

On ground oor the oorplan shall not exceed 1,500 square meters. The library and reading room are each of 600 square meters.
The children’s section is 300 square meters.
The programme is divided into three levels.
The main hall is in contact with all the different uses.

Questions to explore:
How can one programme have private and public areas within one space? Can programmes that were typically placed on opposite sides, such as libraries and children’s rooms, now be next to each other?

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