Japan from the inside out

The Japanese print media in crisis

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, December 3, 2008

BY NOW, everyone seems to have gotten the message that the traditional/dinosaur media in the United States is in serious trouble, particularly newspapers and weekly newsmagazines. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times are bleeding red ink as readers and advertisers jump ship, and the wounds to the LA Times in particular may be fatal. Everyone also seems to realize that this is due to a combination of the emerging dominance of the Internet and an overall decline in the integrity of professional journalism itself.

Similar trends are at work in Japan. The daily newspaper to which I subscribe has gotten noticeably thinner in the past year, the circulation of weekly magazines has fallen through the floor, and monthly magazines are starting to disappear.

The struggle of the monthly magazines to survive is particularly troubling—in Japan, they (and issue-oriented books) are essential for keeping abreast of political, social, and cultural trends and debate. Those people who wish to intelligently discuss contemporary Japan ignore monthly magazines at the peril of their credibility.

In the monthly Ushio—natch!–Higashi Shimpei offers a brief article titled The Path to the Survival and Recovery of Monthly Magazines. Though somewhat short, it presents a clear overview of the problems faced by the Japanese print media with a few suggestions for overcoming those problems. The following is a quick translation of the article.

People now seek something more humanistic from the print medium

The backdrop to the ongoing demise of monthly magazines

The year 2008 might be one to remember in the Japanese publishing industry for the disappearance of several monthly magazines.

This year, some of the more important monthlies that have suspended publication include Shufu no Tomo, Monthly Gendai, Road Show, the Japanese edition of Playboy, Kokoku Hihyo, Ronza, Rapita, Style, BOAO, King, and Grace.

Declining circulation was the cause in all of these cases. On top of the slumping sales, the coup de grace was administered by plunging advertising revenue. The transformation of the media resulted in a shift of advertising to the Internet, including mobile media. Advertising revenue for the Internet outstripped that for magazines in 2006.

The circulation of monthly magazines steadily rose to a peak in 1995, after which it has declined. The story is the same for weekly magazines. The public’s sense of the magazine medium underwent a great change around that time.

In television, there was a growing tendency for show business to be covered as if it were news, and news to be presented as if it were show business. Television began to erode the role of the magazine medium. As a result, the circulation of information accelerated and information was no longer fresh by the time a magazine reached the store shelves.

In addition, the spread of the Internet spelled the extinction of the idea of paying equivalent value for information. Another important factor was that people began to be disgusted by a magazine industry intent on boosting sales by covering scandals in a way that infringed human rights.

Change the roles of the different media

The same is true, of course, for newspapers and magazines in the sense that they have become estranged from their readers. Generally speaking, the medium of the printed word on paper finds itself in a crisis for survival. But this is not a discussion of how to save the medium by changing the plan over the short-term. My sense of this issue is that the medium will not be able to overcome these difficulties unless there is a fundamental restructuring of the roles for all the printed media.

For a long time, newspapers, television, and radio had roughly the same role of the immediate reporting of events. In contrast, magazines furthered public discussion from a slightly more detached position above the fray. They uncovered hidden aspects of issues that newspapers, television, and radio did not cover. Monthly magazines in particular became a social faction, an entertainment, and a type of authoritative information source.

Today, however, the Internet is the main source for those seeking immediacy, and it enables a direct link between those involved with an issue and the public. Also, the spread of one-segment broadcasting for digital terrestrial broadcasting and hand-held terminals is increasing the potential of television.

That puts newspapers in an awkward position. Newspapers of the future will not be a medium to engage in a competition for immediacy in the consumption of daily information. They are now at the stage in which they should be reborn by focusing on their original mission of journalism, such as delving into serious debate and campaigns to spread the awareness of issues. If printed dailies conduct the work formerly performed by monthly magazines, they can convey messages beneficial for society by promoting detailed and nuanced debate with an immense quantity of information.

But what about monthly magazines? The question in an era when information is free becomes whether they provide a sense of value for the expenditure of 600 or 700 yen (US$ 7.50). At a minimum, what they should not be selling is information. To stretch the point, perhaps their role should be that of a guidebook for a better life by cultivating the powers of observation in people and society.

Certainly, television presents many excellent programs that closely examine public personalities and issues, and nothing is more convincing than a visual image. But while television places people in a passive position, the printed word is a medium that cannot be mastered unless the reader makes a purposeful effort. The greatest strength of the print medium is promoting the enrichment of the human spirit.

Incidentally, weekly magazines, which dance to the tune of negative information, will likely disappear in the not too distant future. That’s because in an age when screens present a flood of information shards, people will finally come to seek in the printed word something that is more human.


Notice that Mr. Higashi cites the year 1995 as the high-water mark for monthly magazines–just when the WWW/Internet boom started with the release of Windows 95.

The extinction of the monthly Gendai (Modern Times), which focused on political and social issues, is particularly regrettable. I frequently read it, and purchased the magazine’s last issue just yesterday. Ronza (roughly, The Assembly for Debate) was a similar magazine published by Asahi. It could have been a worthwhile voice for the center-left position, but never seemed to be very engaging. It was also difficult to find outside of large bookstores. Shufu no Tomo (The Housewives’ Friend) had been something of an institution. It was the same type of magazine as Ladies’ Home Journal in the United States, and its disappearance can perhaps be attributed as much to changing lifestyles as to changing technology.

There is another important factor contributing to the crisis of the print media in Japan that isn’t apparent from this translation but immediately identifiable merely by looking at the original Japanese. Many of the difficult kanji in the article are accompanied by their alphabetical readings for those who might otherwise not know the words. These reading aids are called furigana in Japanese, or rubi by the Japanese publishing industry.

While furigana are occasionally used in all Japanese publications for especially difficult words or name readings, their extensive use brings to mind Japanese newspapers before the war, before literacy became universal. All newspapers used furigana for the kanji to enhance comprehension and promote the reading of newspapers. (This use is also said to have been a factor contributing to greater literacy.)

That a sophistocated monthly magazine dealing with important issues sees the need to resort once again to furigana to help those who can’t read the kanji and thereby capture or maintain a contemporary audience says just as much as the content of the article itself.

5 Responses to “The Japanese print media in crisis”

  1. bender said

    The net is fine, but I have trouble bringing my laptop with me to the toilet. Long live the print!

  2. For me, it has been the internet. Several years ago, I used to by the LA Times everyday. At that time it was 25 cents per copy from the newsstand and later 50 cents. But for several years now I read all my LA Times articles online. I have not purchased a paper on a regular basis for years.

  3. Besides. “The print” gets all over my fingers. They are black after reading the old fashioned newspaper.

  4. […] translated an article from a magazine which gives an overview of the problems faced by the Japanese print media with a few suggestions for overcoming tho…. Posted by Oiwan Lam  Print Version Share […]

  5. […] slip-ups and what some perceive as an attitude problem. Monthly and weekly magazines, meanwhile, are one by one disappearing from the shelves, faced with dwindling sales and a new market environment. Online alternatives such as citizen […]

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