ジュニア文庫 (Junior Bunko). Perhaps it’s a term you’ve come across a few times. If you happen to read books in Japanese and are interested in Japanese media in general. Perhaps you haven’t. But that’s fine, because the intent of this post is to shed light on such medium. It’s a bit of an obscure oscure one, though; one that has lived on the shadow of the light novel scene for decades and creates confusion due to its maleable nature.
In the simplest of ways, Junior Bunko can be defined as an array of imprints publishing diverse content usually aimed at younger audiences, perhaps pre-teens even. However, while some of them do publish content aimed specifically at children, this isn’t by any means the Japanese equivalent of juvenile literature. It’s a mixture of many things.
The word ‘content’ is key here and let me tell you why: Junior Bunko imprints don’t just release original novels and fiction, their product list goes beyond that. It might still be a book under their name, but it could be a drawing book, a manga/4 koma adaptation of certain IP, a dictionary, an anthology, a quiz/trivia book, or even a conversion of certain novel to a more infantile presentation. Morimi’s books are one of the most popular examples (shown below).
It’s a funny debate because you can see now and then complaints from (I assume) parents weighing in on the contens of such conversions, not only Morimi’s but in general; not being suitable for children, having explicit depictions of sex, drugs, etc. Such books are often placed in the 児童コーナー of bookstores.
To clarify this, some of these books may be aimed at younger audiences, others may not. So that’s why it gets tricky to differentiate them despite all of them being published by a Junior Bunko imprint.
For example, this Doraemon encyclopedia was published by Shogakukan’s コロタン文庫, but at the same time, the very same imprint has published a series focused on train models, train stations, types of train tickets (!) even for die-hard fans since time immemorial, lol.
All major Japanese publishers have an imprint solely dedicated to publishing this type of content, of course, since there’s a market. Kadokawa has 角川つばさ文庫. Kodansha has 青い鳥文庫 and KK文庫. Shogakukan has 小学館ジュニア文庫 and the already mentioned コロタン文庫. Futabasha their own 双葉社ジュニア文庫. Even Iwanami has its own imprint, 岩波少年. At times ポプラ文庫 publishes novels categorized as Junior Bunko as well.
There are more imprints I could mention, but I don’t want this to turn into a listicle. Like I mentioned before, this medium doesn’t limit itself to fiction. While some of these publishers directly address the audience their content is aimed at, others don’t. Usually you can learn whether or not a book is Junior Bunko based on the description given by the publisher e.g. ジュニア文庫版 or just looking at the imprint.
The very first Junior Bunko imprint dates all the way back to 1973 with 秋元書房. In 1975 ソノラマ文庫 followed suit. And so on. This page compiles part of its history all the way to the early 2000’s. And its interesting to mention how certain seasoned readers and literature theorists classify Junior Bunko as the precursor of light novels and not 純文学, but that’s an entirely different topic for another day.
There are authors exclusively dedicated to writing for these imprints and even special prizes are awarded (limited to fiction). Cross-media marketing has always been one of the fortes of Japanese media, specially in otaku subculture, hence why such an extensive array of mediums live and thrive in this ecosystem, to the point of so many prizes existing for light novels, manga, web-novels, etc. While such marketing was not present at the time of its invention, in present day Junior Bunko has almost become a branch itself of such type of marketing. Just like light novels, it’s nature is not clear and therefore is difficult to define, but in turn it makes it yet another fascinating medium to explore.