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    A True Life Tale of Community Connection


The Iwaki-Go mobile library in rural Fukushima ignites imaginations and brings people together.

The Iwaki-Go mobile library climbs another steep incline, hauling its precious cargo of books deeper into the Fukushima mountains. Locals acknowledge the distinctive customized FUSO Canter as it passes; the vehicle is a familiar sight in this area of Iwaki, a city located about a 20-minute drive from the Pacific coast.

The first stop on today’s run is Miwa Elementary and Junior High School. After pulling into the school grounds, driver Hideyuki Okabe and librarian Yoko Hirayama jump out, open the side panels revealing rows of books, and quietly begin setting up. As their well-drilled routine is nearing completion, the quiet is broken by the school chime and the rumble of students charging toward the library.

For several minutes, the energy is frenetic; students climbing in and out of the vehicle, excitedly rifling through the shelves, Hideyuki and Yoko interacting with the pupils and checking out their books, and the class teacher hurrying everyone along with a non-negotiable countdown. Then, after the final student has made their selection, silence resumes—a few moments of respite until the arrival of the next class.

Mobile libraries have served the city since 1968 and remain as important as ever. Today, the Iwaki-Go makes a monthly round of dozens of locations, providing local communities with fresh sources of reading material and emotional support.

TARGET AUDIENCE  Even for a single location such as the Miwa School, the library needs to serve wide-ranging age groups and literary tastes, and the next two planned stops on the course—a preschool and a mountain village with an elderly population—highlight the diverse user base even further.

The Iwaki-Go carries around 3,000 books, regularly rotated from a stock of more than 20,000 titles, and a lot of effort goes into the selection. Yoko states, “We have developed a good understanding of everyone’s book preferences, and we always try to find new ones for them. We also sometimes receive requests from schools for related books that match the theme of current class topics.”

The design and functionality of the mobile library were fit-for-purpose. Books for younger children are kept at eye level on the lower shelves, while those for older students and adults are placed higher. Hideyuki explains that placement is also important. “We avoid putting all the popular children’s books together; we arrange them randomly because we learned that children are happy to look for and discover books, like in a treasure hunt.”

BOUND BY THE LOVE OF BOOKS  The next stop on the run is Misaka Nursery School, where the preschoolers watch wide-eyed as the Iwaki-Go climbs the slope up into the grounds. The kids scamper over with their teachers and friends, clambering into the vehicle into what must seem like a secret cave built of books.

The children earnestly flick through the pages, looking at pictures of their favorite dinosaurs or illustrated books about school-yard insects. Hideyuki smiles and says, “The community grows up with the mobile library. Some kindergarteners who shyly held up their picture books to me are now elementary school students; their book choices are different, but they still get excited when the library comes.”

“…the joy of my job is when people say to me, ‘Thank you for coming.'”


In contrast to the preschool, the last scheduled stop is Shimomisaka—a small village deep in the mountains with an aging community. For this final leg of the journey, Hideyuki turns on the public information speaker on the vehicle’s roof, which plays a Showa-era (1926-1989) tune, announcing their arrival.

Just before the scheduled departure, a local resident hurries up clutching some books to return and is keen to borrow some more. She states, “I always look forward to the monthly visits. They have large print books that my elderly mother can easily read. This library means a lot to us.”

COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS  Yoko feels part of her role as a mobile librarian is to keep an eye on the community she serves. “General libraries are important hubs for the community to gather and interact, but the mobile library forms much closer bonds with the people. If one of our regular users doesn’t borrow a book for a while, I worry about how they are doing. And while the summer heat and winter cold can be a challenge, the joy of my job is when people say to me, ‘Thank you for coming.'”

Hideyuki shares the same passion for the community. “My primary role is to connect people with books, but I also want to create opportunities for the people who use our service to interact with each other and make new connections.”

RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF TRAGEDY  On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, unleashing a tsunami that crashed into the Fukushima coastline, causing an unprecedented tragedy. Twenty-four hours later, extensive damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station—around 40km north of Iwaki—caused further heart-wrenching catastrophe. The Iwaki General Library, the base for the mobile library, was far enough inland to avoid the tsunami’s reach. However, the violent tremors caused shelves to topple, lights to fall from the ceiling and sparks to fly from exposed cords.

Motivated by the strong feeling that “times like these require the power of books,” the Iwaki-Go resumed service in early May 2011, only about two months after the disaster. And in 2012, a section of the general library was repurposed to become the “Great East Japan Earthquake Iwaki City Reconstruction Library,” carrying a collection of books, maps, and images to ensure that the untold devastation is never forgotten.

The Iwaki-Go has become an important feature of Iwaki City, offering much more than just a book service on wheels. While the selections and ingenuity of the design enable a better experience for all users, the community commitment of Hideyuki, Yuko—and the other team members—is creating a true life tale of dedication, courage, tragedy, and resilience, set to the backdrop of the beautiful Fukushima countryside.