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English mags approach milestone, crossroads

In Kanto, Gianni Simone begins his look at the past and future of Japan's English periodicals

by Gianni Simone

First Of A Two-Part Series

Those members of the expat community in Japan who are addicted to their weekly or monthly fix of English-language magazines will have surely noticed all the changes going on lately. These are troubled and exciting times and, just as it has in the past, the local media world is trying to rise to the challenge by adapting and innovating.

Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the birth of the first English-language magazine in Japan, offering us a flimsy excuse to prepare for the (hopefully joyous) celebrations by looking back at the history of these media and the current state of the industry.

Often in the vanguard of new trends, foreigners in Japan were among the first to embrace the magazine format. In 1862, Charles Wirgman (1832-1891), a British journalist, established The Japan Punch, the country’s first magazine. Named after and modeled on the popular British satirical publication, Wirgman even “borrowed” the eponymous character from the masthead of Punch magazine, dressing him in Japanese garb. Georges Bigot (1860-1927), a French artist, illustrator and lover of Japanese culture, started Tobae in 1887, the same year Japan Punch stopped publishing.

Both periodicals were born in the foreign settlement of Yokohama, and were originally intended for the small expat colony (Wirgman’s paper had a circulation of 200), but they ended up influencing Japanese writers and artists as well. Soon after the birth of The Japan Punch, so-called Ponchi-e or “Punch-style pictures” began to appear in the Japanese media and, according to many experts, went on to influence the local manga style. Bigot’s “Go Fishing” cartoon, which depicts a Japanese, Chinese and Russian all after the same fish – representing Korea – appears in Japanese history books to this day.

Wirgman is buried at the Yokohama International Cemetery. You may want to join the Japanese cartoonists who every year hold a ceremony there to honor the man they consider their patron saint.

Though these first attempts were quite promising, they were not followed by any significant activity for many years. The mounting friction in the first decades of the 20th century between the increasingly authoritarian Japanese government and the foreign powers obviously did not help matters.

Things started moving again, albeit at a very slow pace, during the postwar years with the military publications brought by the American authorities (e.g. USCAR magazine in then-occupied Okinawa). However, they had a very limited circulation outside their niche readership, as did newsletters produced by the missionaries.

It was not until 1970, six years after the Tokyo Olympics signaled Japan’s reintegration into the international community, that the new era of English magazine journalism in Japan really kicked off, when Corky Alexander – a long-time newspaper man who had previously worked for Stars and Stripes – and writer and editor Sue Scully launched The Tokyo Weekender, a weekly newspaper and the first free English publication in Japan.

Not having any real competition allowed Scully and Alexander to shape the Weekender as they pleased. The final product was a rather odd blend of high and low, mixing together in-depth interviews and serious journalism with a slew of reporting about, among other things, the cocktail circuit, the night-club scene (by Danny Callaghan, “a bouncy bon-vivant combination of leprechaun and lecher,” according to the first editorial), and the now-legendary Bill Hersey’s Party Line. It was the kind of publication where an investigation into censorship at the American military news agencies could be found alongside a pictorial review of “some startling miniskirts gracing the Ginza.”

Whatever the content, Tokyo’s foreign community welcomed the new publication. As Alexander, who died in 2002, told Tokyo Classified in 1997: “The idea for Weekender came out of the company I formed in the ’60s, Image Public Relations, which was doing entertainment PR work and later publishing. I had done plenty of research by that time and realized that there was no one who was reporting on Tokyo’s foreign community, which by that time was quite large, and so with Weekender we set out to do just that.”

The Weekender went on ruling the capital’s scene until Tokyo Journal came about in 1981. Don Morton – known by most English-speaking Tokyoites today as the movie reviewer for Metropolis – was the new monthly magazine’s first editor-in-chief.

“I arrived in Japan the same year the TJ was born,” Morton reminisces. “I had a degree in journalism but had never worked in the field before. The first publisher had a language school, and this magazine – like many others which would follow – could be seen as a sort of vanity publication, in that we made little money. I took part in every aspect of the job: editing, writing, helping with sales, and in those pre-computer years even did some cut-and-paste work.”

Morton lasted four years as editor (“because in a city magazine there are only four years worth of stories before you start repeating yourself”) but stayed on as a film critic until 2001. “That was when they decided to go quarterly,” adds Morton. “How are you supposed to do movie reviews in a quarterly publication?”

Asked whether he would like to have another shot at leading a magazine, Morton has no doubts. “Journalism is a never-ending, unforgiving job. You struggle to beat the deadline, spend sleepless nights working on this week’s or month’s issue, and when it’s finished you can’t even celebrate because you have to start working on the new one.”

For Morton, editing a magazine is like climbing Mount Fuji: “As they say, you should do it once in your life, and that sure is an incredible, unforgettable experience, but you would be a fool to do it twice.”

As former Tokyo Journal writer and managing editor C.B. Liddell wrote in a TJ story in 2001, Morton and his successors presided over “a multinational crew of misfits, oddballs and stowaways lacking in local language skills, journalistic training, or even the ability to read their own notes. Luckily they knew how to write.”

Gregory Starr, who led the magazine from 1990 through 1995, has fond memories of those days. “Through all those years, the TJ did some groundbreaking work. We were not afraid of pushing the envelope, but at the same time we didn’t want to take ourselves too seriously.”

Among the more memorable stories, Starr remembers the special issue devoted to Princess Masako’s wedding. “We knew every single TV channel would report live on the wedding, so we decided to rescue our bored readers with an issue full of jokes and even a board game. Our printer, Toppan, at first refused to print the issue because, as you know, you cannot make fun of the Imperial Family.”

Nobody seems to know the current status of the magazine. Recently it has appeared as often as twice a year, and the bets are on whether it is still alive or dead – or just resting. The TJ website hasn’t been updated since 2009 and e-mails sent to the contact address were returned. What everybody seems to agree on is the reason for the likely demise of what for many years had been a beloved and well-respected publication: the appearance of Tokyo Classified.

“When Tokyo Classified appeared out of the blue I immediately saw the ending written on the wall,” says Starr. “And sure enough, both advertisers and readers started deserting us. Especially the readers. . . . Why would you pay ¥500 or ¥600 when you can get that information for free?”

Launched by Scottish couple Mark and Mary Devlin in 1994 as a four-page sheet of ads, Tokyo Classified quickly developed into a magazine and in the process changed the rules of the game by presenting readers and advertisers with a free weekly full of classified advertisements.

The Devlins had no experience of running a company, advertising, media or managing money. They started with no contacts, no distribution network, very little money and pretty poor Japanese. But as Mark explained in an interview to Business A.M. in 2002, they had a very good business idea: “If people wanted to get stuff in Tokyo, they had to find notice boards in places such as supermarkets, and that was just a pain. It was long before the arrival of the Internet, English language newspapers had not exploited the market, and the market seemed wide open.” The magazine was also a hit with a part of the local readership, as the Japanese were not familiar with the idea of classifieds and there really wasn’t any real second-hand market in Tokyo at the time.

Today the magazine, which became Metropolis in 2001, has a circulation of 30,000 and is undergoing extensive changes, seemingly expanding its online presence over its paper edition. Steve Trautlein, until recently editor-in-chief, leaves a rather different environment from the one he joined four years ago.

“When I came on board I tried to kick-start a number of new features and projects that reflected the new media environment, but our sales department had been used to do things the same way for a long time; they were a little too conservative to readily accept new approaches,” he explains. “Eventually, though, like all media properties that had their start in print, Metropolis has realized the importance of the web and is working on several innovative projects to keep pace with the needs of our readership. In fact, we recently unveiled a completely redesigned classifieds engine that has already generated great interest.”

What transpires from publisher Terrie Lloyd’s public message published in their November 12th edition is a sort of “back to basics” drive, with a four-month campaign aimed at strengthening those features that since the birth of the magazine have proven most popular (e.g. classified ads) and making the whole website more interactive.

This seems to be the likely path that all English-language publications in Japan will eventually have to take in order to flourish in this brave new media world.

Next week: The English magazine world beyond Tokyo and future challenges for the industry. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp