Book: Library Wars


Library Wars

Japanese Book Title

[Toshokan Senso Shirizu 1]


Hiro Arikawa







By: Nicholas Driscoll

Libraries have long been one of my favorite places on earth. It wasn’t necessarily because of excess book-nerdery (though I have had textual geek tendencies for some time), but many of my best memories as a kid came from visiting the local library to meet my friend Isaac or going to nearby libraries to scope out the latest Choose-Your-Own-Adventure entries and also-rans. Reading endless books, checking out a few movies, even borrowing the computer to play educational games—libraries helped to shape me intellectually and enabled much of my entertainment intake growing up. Thus, Hiro Arikawa’s Library Wars is a book that tackles themes dear to my heart—anti-censorship, love of books, cheesy romance… well, that last one isn’t so much my favorite (despite the fact I picked up this book originally because of the recommendation of a girl I liked). Frankly, Library Wars is a bit on the cringe and silly side, but it has its heart in the right place.

The general gist of the story takes place in an alternate history wherein the Japanese government passes the Media Betterment Act in the late 80s, which ultimately enables militaristic groups to forcibly take and burn books, magazines, movies, etc. However, factions opposed to the increasingly violent censorship taking place bolster libraries as a bastion for free speech under the Freedom of the Libraries Law, enabling (at least some) libraries to continue to operate relatively free of harassment. However, the libraries and the agents of the Media Betterment Committee frequently clash, sometimes violently, hence the title.

Author Hiro Arikawa is an enormously successful “light novel” author who often writes about military themes. (Note that light novels are books written for young adults and often are adapted into manga and anime—and Arikawa is something of a crossover writer, who also writes hardback “normal” novels.) Arikawa is also known in the West specifically for her The Traveling Cat Chronicles. For kaiju lovers, it is worth noting that her books are “hugely influenced” by her love of the Heisei Gamera films—particularly the first and second in that series. In an interview on, she detailed her admiration for Heisei Gamera—particularly in how they create a sense of reality despite their depiction of enormous monsters. She also appreciated the romantic subplot of the second film, which, I mean, she obviously loves her romantic subplots based on my reading here!

The first novel in the Library Wars series (there are four in the main continuity) takes place initially in the year 2019 and follows the aspirations of one Iku Kasahara, a young college-aged recruit entering the Kanto Library Defense Force. Kasahara is an idealist, inspired by a handsome young officer who rescued her in the midst of a censorship incident taking place at a local bookstore when she was a child. Ever since that encounter, Kasahara has treasured the idea of becoming a righteous defender of books and free speech within the Library Defense Force, but when her dreams come to fruition, she finds training arduous under the auspices of the hyper-strict Dojo—a short and grumpy officer who takes a punishing interest in Kasahara. Over the course of several episodic adventures in the first volume, we are introduced to the central cast. We have Kasahara’s worldly and bright roommate Shibasaki; the dashing and brilliant military recruit Tezuka (who also functions as Kasahara’s bitter rival), the good-natured Librarian Second Class Komaki (always ready with a laugh and a snarky comment), and others. The novel has something of an overarching narrative, but really is structured into a series of short stories with each centering on one of the tenets of the Library Defense Force’s founding principles and their efforts to assure freedom of speech.

Despite the title, the first novel in the Library Wars series is surprisingly light on action. There are training missions and an early confrontation between a library and the Media Betterment folks as well as an extended combat sequence towards the end, but much of the novel focuses more on political maneuvering, courtroom-style posturing, romantic comedy, and the antics of the main characters. So much of the story focuses on the purposefully acidic-comedic banter of the mains with a heavy flavor of anime-style exaggeration that, well… it takes a considerable leap to clear the suspension of disbelief. For example, early on, Kasahara does a flying drop kick on her military superior Dojo just because she is mad at him, and it’s played as slapstick silliness with little repercussion.

For me, I found the humorous interplay mildly irritating. Kasahara spends a huge amount of time mooning over her “prince” (that officer who saved her hinder as a kid—she can’t remember his face, doesn’t know his name, but is “in love”), and we get further odious romantic laffs with Tezuka (an overachieving new recruit who is better than Kasahara in almost every way) asking Kasahara to be his girlfriend as a means to try to get over the fact that he can’t stand her guts and his superiors have told him he has things to learn from her. Part of my tried patience likely arose from the fact I was stumbling through this book in Japanese—while there exists an unofficial English translation which I was using to double check my understanding, I tried to mainly rely on the Japanese, and even though Library Wars is a “light novel” series, that “light” does not mean “easy to read.”

In my Japanese language journey, I have spent a lot of time reading manga, and so one might think that a novel with a strong manga flavor would be the next logical step. The reality is, both for me and the others in the novel group I was reading the book in, Library Wars was uncommonly difficult—sometimes due to long explanations of history and political machinations, but sometimes due to vague language and… well, I am not sure what all made it hard. I have only read maybe a ten-to-twenty books and novels and short story collections in Japanese (it depends on how you count them) and finding books that fit my limitations is still challenging. In my mind, I thought somehow that reading a few novels in Japanese would exponentially increase my speed in reading, and I would then be able to pick up a novel off the shelf and read it with speed and comfort. The reality is, reading takes time, and learning a second language to a point of reading fast on a wide variety of topics is daunting.

I experimented with using Google Translate to help me with this novel by take pictures of the pages of the book (no Kindle version exists, despite the novel’s incredibly popularity) and running it through the app. You can have Google Translate do a terrible translation of the entire page, but I was using it instead to select individual words I didn’t know and check their meaning or pronunciation. Sometimes this works great, and it gets around one of the limitations of Kindle—I kept copying individual words and passages from one of my Kindle books just to check meaning or look up words in my own dictionary that I reached the copy limit and had to spend the rest of the book unable to copy anything and rely on the wonky internal Kindle dictionary or poke around a few extra steps to do workarounds. With Google Translate and images of individual pages, you can check words and copy passages to your heart’s desire… with the caveat that sometimes you can’t select words because it bugs out, or it copies the kanji wrong. Anyway, it was a learning process.

Still, putting aside the language barrier, the book is an amusing distraction and deals with meaningful themes, even if some of the character beats come back duds. I particularly enjoyed a section where junior high kids work together to speak up for their school libraries in the face of political machinations to crack down on what they can read, and despite my lack of enthusiasm vis-à-vis the central romance, the big reveal of who Kasahara’s prince really is (while painfully obvious) proves rather touching in execution. While this book feels too pop and bubbly to match the cultural cachet of the book-burning future hellscape of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451, there is still something to enjoy in the close-knit bumbling interplay of the central team.

My novel group also got together to watch the movie adaptation of Library Wars, a live-action Toho film from 2013. Much of the occasionally groan-worthy melodramatic sheen from the book remains in the movie (including the drop kick), but the film is well-cast (Nana Eikura is a great Kasahara, despite her terrible uniform—and Junichi Okada is quite possibly the perfect Dojo… plus Chiaki Kuriyama as Shibasaki?!). The movie amps up the action considerably, with much more gunplay and the less-exciting tales trimmed down or excised entirely, plus several characters amalgamated into one. I thought the end action was tied better into the overall arc of the story in the movie as compared to the novel; whereas in the book the perps behind the dastardly final kidnapping are a troop of losers, the movie cranks up the danger by tying them into an earlier significant attack and brings a stronger sense of cathartic climactic action in the concluding confrontation.

For learning Japanese, I don’t recommend Library Wars for those starting out their novel-reading journey. However, the story has its charms for those accustomed to exaggerated Japanese dramatic storytelling, and themes dealing with hyper media censorship feel alive and new in an age of heightened sensitivity and the raised capabilities of automated editing along with the state of furious social media flaming, cancellations, and paranoia. With a wide variety of adaptations of Library Wars, canny readers don’t have to rely on the Japanese novel nor its (readily available) fan translation, but for those who do track down the pocket version I picked up, you will also get an interview with the author in the back (mostly really softball-type questions praising how she is a great writer) and an additional short story (about Dojo taking care of Kasahara when she gets drunk). Great writing? Nah, but it isn’t worth going to war, either. It’s not bad, and it reminded me how precious libraries are—and of the incalculable worth of my own hometown library, and every hometown library in the States and around the world.