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French journalist Claude Leblanc spreads the word

Free magazines zoom in on all things Japanese

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

While English-language magazines in Japan are fast becoming a species in danger of extinction, Europe is experiencing a renewed interest in this country thanks to a veteran French journalist who since 2010 has been publishing Zoom Japon (and its English version, Zoom Japan), a free monthly magazine about all things Japanese.

Like other people born in 1964, Claude Leblanc believes that being born in the year of the Tokyo Olympic Games was a sign of things to come, and he was bound to fall in love with Japan.

“In my youth, I lived for a few years in the Netherlands,” Leblanc says. “Close to my house lived Anton Geesink, the famous Dutch judoka who shocked the Japanese when he won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. He told me many things about Japan.

“My very first encounter with this country, though, was when I was 10, and I was awarded a picture book from my school about nature and the environment. I remember being fascinated by images of a much-polluted Tokyo featuring people who wore masks to protect themselves from the smog.”

Leblanc’s first love, though, was Russia, not Japan. “I lived in a town (in France) that was ruled by the Communist Party, and it was easy to get information about the USSR,” he says. “I was curious about this very powerful country, and in junior high I decided I wanted to learn Russian instead of English. I really loved studying Russian history.”

After finishing high school, Leblanc wanted to become a scholar in international relations, focusing on Sino-Russian exchanges, so he began to learn Chinese at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in Paris. Apparently he did not find it challenging enough as he soon added Japanese to his curriculum, and in no time at all his interest in Japan outgrew the one for China.

About the same period, Leblanc met Bernard Beraud, who had launched OVNI, a Japanese-language free paper in Paris. Beraud mostly wanted to spread French culture in Japan, but the paper also included some information about Japan for French readers. “It was the mid-1980s and Japanese products were everywhere,” Leblanc says, “but the country itself was still relatively unknown in Europe. Most of the information about Japan was full of cliches. So Beraud invited me to contribute to his paper. Suddenly, I changed my mind again and I decided I would become a journalist.”

In 1990 Leblanc came to Japan as a correspondent for the French monthly Le Monde diplomatique, setting up a collaboration with the Sekai magazine. Back in France in 1992, he was hired by Courrier International, where he was in charge of Asian affairs and designed its website, before being appointed editor in chief in 2006.

“During all these years I’ve never lost my interest in Japan,” he says. “Between 1992 and 2003 I wrote Le Japoscope, an annual report on events in this country whose 3,000 copies regularly sold out. I contributed chapters to several scholarly books and, with a friend, even wrote ‘Black Ball,’ a detective novel which takes place in Africa and Japan.

“I was still collaborating with OVNI, and I noticed that more and more readers wanted more Japan-related content. So in June 2010 I decided to launch Zoom Japon, a free monthly magazine completely devoted to all things Japanese.”

Though Japanese pop culture is extraordinarily popular in France, Leblanc did not want to feature only manga and anime-related stories. “I thought it was important to write about many different aspects, like politics, economy, culture, travel, gastronomy, etc., and portray the country for what it really is,” he says.

Leblanc was surprised when the 30,000 copies of the first issue sold out in only 15 days. For the second issue, he printed 50,000 copies, and achieved the same result. So, once again, he increased the circulation to 70,000. “Since then our circulation has averaged 70,000 copies,” he says, “but whenever there are special events like the Japan Expo (to which the magazine is a partner) or the Paris Book Fair, we even reach 150,000 copies.” Zoom Japon is distributed through a network of 850 restaurants, bookshops, culture centers and associations. “To all this you have to add the 1,000 subscribers who actually pay to get the magazine delivered to their homes,” says Leblanc.

Encouraged by the very positive reception, Leblanc launched an English edition in May with a British partner. Most of the content is translated from the French edition except for the culture and gastronomy pages, which are written especially for the British market. Current circulation is about 40,000 copies and he expects it to increase soon.

Though the twin publications have been a success, Leblanc considers them only one aspect of a more ambitious project. “For me Zoom Japon is not only a magazine. I want to give more. That’s why in October 2010 I started Rendez-vous with Japan, a cine-club in a famous venue in Paris called La Pagode. Each month we screen a Japanese movie and we invite a specialist to speak about Japanese society. In two years we have averaged 132 people, which for this kind of event is a fairly good number. Since October we have done the same thing in Vichy, in central France.

“We sometimes manage to show a movie before it is distributed to mainstream cinemas. This happened, for example, with Tran Anh Hung’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ and Hirokazu Koreeda’s ‘Kiseki.’ Three times a year we even screen a film that has never been shown in France before, in which case I make the subtitles myself. We have only a little money, but we try to do everything professionally.”

Leblanc says that his aim is to provide another window on Japanese culture and society, but so far he has already managed to open more than one. Not content with the movie program, last year he launched a prize for the best Japanese novel translated into French and one for the best manga. Last March the Zoom Japon reader’s jury awarded the prize to Kotaro Isaka’s novel “Audubon no Inori” and Kazuo Kamikura’s manga “Kanto Heiya.”

The idea of showing Japan from different points of view is also behind the “Japan Seen From . . .” project. “My aim is to publish a new kind of guidebook about Japan. The first one is titled ‘Japan Seen From the Train’ and was published in June 2012. The book is partly an essay about the importance of train transportation in Japanese culture, economy and daily life, and partly a traditional guide introducing future travelers to 40 JR lines across Japan they could use to visit the country in order to better understand it.”

Since his first trip in 1984, Leblanc has visited Japan at least once a year in order to keep a close watch on events here. “2011 was an important year for me. I was particularly affected by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, as I have a lot of friends in the area and some disappeared. At the time I realized we only live once, and that pushed me to make some changes in my professional life. I quit Courrier International after 20 years in order to be more involved in my Japan-related activities.

“One of my friends who lived in Ishinomaki (in Miyagi Prefecture) told me that the local newspaper, the Ishinomaki Hibi Shimbun, had put out handwritten issues after the tsunami destroyed all the printing facilities. I was deeply moved by this initiative, so I contacted the director and published the story in Zoom Japon to let people outside Japan know about their struggles. We also organized an exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris (the greatest European institution devoted to Asian art), where we displayed the handwritten newspapers and pictures taken in Ishinomaki soon after the tsunami by Zoom Japon’s photographer, Eric Rechsteiner.”

Leblanc’s goal is to create a stronger relationship between the two publications. “We have set up an editorial collaboration,” he says, “and in March 2013 we’ll publish together a special issue in order to show that a free paper and a local newspaper, which gave us a great lesson in journalism, can produce something strong and intelligent.”

Leblanc wants to show that a free paper can make good things and help Japan to be better understood. “As I said, it’s not just about ‘Cool Japan.’ It goes way beyond that, and it’s really important to give the readers the best information possible. We are not naive pro-Japan cheerleaders. That’s why we cover all aspects of Japanese life, both positive and negative.”

One of Leblanc’s main preoccupations so far has been finding the money for all these projects. “The ads now pay almost all the production costs, and sometimes we find sponsors to get some extra help. Japan and the magazine are a passion for me, and these things are priceless. However, I can’t make a living out of Zoom Japon, so I have to do other jobs.”

In October 2011, Leblanc was hired as editor in chief by the respected weekly magazine Jeune Afrique (Young Africa). In his free time he works on his magazine, preparing content and writing articles. “There is so much to do,” he says, “but it’s really exciting because there is a growing interest among Europeans about Japan. Next year, there will be the Japan-Africa summit in Yokohama, so I hope I can publish more articles about Japan in Jeune Afrique. Nevertheless, I don’t want to mix my job with my passion. It’s important for me to keep them separated.

“I hope one day I can live from my passion because I devote a lot of time to it. I have a lot of projects and hope I can fulfill some of them in the next future. Luckily I’m blessed with a very caring family. My wife and two daughters support me and understand the meaning of my involvement. One of my daughters is even learning Japanese as her first foreign language.”

For more about Zoom Japon and Zoom Japan, visit www.zoomjapon.info and www.zoomjapan.info.