Nick Szasz, a native of Toronto, has published the free bilingual magazine Fukuoka Now since 1998. He says he launched the publication out of love for the biggest city in Kyushu and his sense of mission to provide information for non-Japanese living in the area.
“I feel what I do here is not just for business, but people actually benefit from this information for foreigners,” Szasz says, adding that Japanese — including local shop owners and municipal officials — also appreciate his publication.
“Sometimes people say they are happy that I am doing this and they thank me, saying ‘ganbatte’ (good luck). I feel I have a role in Fukuoka and in Kyushu. That gives me satisfaction, incentive and motivation to continue doing this.”
The Canadian came to Japan in 1985 to study Zen. While he first worked at a plastics manufacturer in Osaka and then an office furniture company in Tokyo, he found Fukuoka more to his liking. Fukuoka, he says, has all the functions of a major city, but it also has a beach and isn’t too far from the mountains, and he can enjoy both an urban and rural lifestyle.
Szasz moved to Fukuoka in 1990 to work at a computer software company. The firm fell on hard times after the burst of the economic bubble, and facing the risk of losing his job Szasz asked himself what else he could do.
“Not many places hire foreigners in Fukuoka, so I said to myself, ‘Make my own job,’ ” he says, recalling how he came up with the idea of publishing a magazine for foreign readers.
“I really enjoyed Fukuoka and so I thought many people should know about Fukuoka. The other thing is when I first came to Fukuoka, there was very little information for foreigners.”
He contacted a local publishing company and proposed starting a magazine for a non-Japanese readership. The publisher accepted his proposal, and Szasz became editor-in-chief and launched the English-language magazine in 1994, featuring information on food, entertainment and tourism. It sold for ¥100 a copy.
The magazine didn’t turn a profit, however, and the publisher decided after two years to pull the plug.
“Obviously I wasn’t happy because I still think that even though the number of foreigners (in Fukuoka) was small, their need for information is the same or greater” than those in Tokyo or Osaka because their access to information was limited, Szasz says.
According to the Fukuoka Municipal Government, 13,429 non-Japanese were living in the city in 1996. While most of them were Koreans and Chinese, there were 553 American, 421 Filipino and 204 British residents.
“My ambition remained to continue a foreign-language media in Fukuoka. So there was one year for planning, and I became independent,” Szasz says.
He established his own company and released the first issue of Fukuoka Now in December 1998. The A-5 size, 16-page magazine contained such information as maps, an events calendar, interviews, restaurant descriptions and tips on places to visit.
The free magazine started out bilingual, using both English and Japanese. Szasz says that because there were fewer foreigners in Fukuoka at that time than there are today, he needed a Japanese readership when he solicited advertisers.
Another reason for going bilingual was that many Japanese in Fukuoka were interested in foreign languages and cultures. “They had less opportunity than in Tokyo to use or read English. Of course they can read Newsweek or Time, but topics covered by those magazines are too remote for them.”
For the last 12 years, the magazine has featured original content, including interviews with foreign residents of the city and other parts of Kyushu. This month’s issue has an interview with Ronald Schlemper, medical director of International Clinic Tojinmachi, and provides information on a Thanksgiving feast scheduled for Nov. 26 at the city’s Granada Suite center.
As Szasz expected, Fukuoka’s foreign population has increased over the past decade to reach 22,943 in 2009, including Chinese students studying at Japanese-language schools and universities. Catering to these students, Fukuoka Now runs some stories in Chinese.
Today, Szasz’s company, Fukuoka Now Ltd., has five full-time staff and publishes 27,000 copies of the magazine, which is available at 700 locations in northern Kyushu. He figures about 70 percent of the readers are Japanese and some 50 percent are aged 25 to 35.
Facing the same challenges besetting most print publications these days, Szasz has had difficulty gaining advertisements for Fukuoka Now as the Internet has become a major source of information and because of the economic downturn. The magazine has been reduced to 26 pages from the 48 pages it had in 2006.
But Szasz is flexible in how he views the business.
“We are not really fighting it. OK, let (the print edition) become much smaller. You see more information” in the online edition ( www.fukuoka-now.com ), he said.
To continue publishing the magazine, the company has engaged in other activities, such as website design, translation services and printing foreign-language brochures and pamphlets for local governments and firms.
A major source of profit in recent years has been free maps called Now Map, which cater to tourists and come with advertisements in English and other languages.
“The number of inbound tourists from overseas increased a lot in Kyushu. Between Fukuoka and Busan (South Korea), there is a fast ferry service. Maybe it is the busiest passenger port in Japan. We have a lot of people from South Korea and Westerners using the service,” he says.
Since 2008, large passenger ships have also been sailing to Fukuoka from China, and the port saw 66 visits by such vessels in the last eight months, according to Szasz. Each liner brings 1,800 to 2,000 passengers on average, which means around 120,000 people have arrived in Fukuoka by ship, 80 percent of them from China, he says.
“Chinese people enjoy shopping. So where can they buy Gucci, rice cookers and cosmetics?” he says, pointing out how his map shows that the Tenjin district in central Fukuoka has many stores offering these goods.
Sponsored by the city and local merchants, Szasz’s company created the foldout map of Fukuoka in Chinese and English. It printed 120,000 copies of the Chinese/English version for the cruise ship visitors, in addition to 200,000 copies of a Chinese/English/Korean map designed for general tourists from overseas.
Having run his business for 12 years, Szasz says Japanese people have generally been supportive and he didn’t experience any special challenges from being a foreigner in this country.
“I think Japanese also need to establish people’s trust (in their business) and it takes time. It’s the same for Japanese and foreigners.”
But he says it might be a little more difficult for non-Japanese to gain the trust of local business partners because the Japanese might be worried the foreigners won’t stick around for the long haul.
Szasz recommends that foreigners in Japan think and act long term.
“Show others that you are sincere and committed,” he says, adding he understands the anxiety of Japanese sponsors over foreign businessmen because he has also seen non-Japanese publish magazines in Japan only to disappear after a matter of months.
“At the beginning you have to be patient and stick around. If you struggle for a while but show you are serious and committed for the long term, I think you have no disadvantage as foreigners,” Szasz says.