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It’s a bad time for Sapio to downsize

by Mark Schreiber

Japan’s first two shūkanshi (weekly magazines) appeared so closely, their arrival could be described as analogous to a “photo start” as opposed to a photo finish. The Asahi Shimbun launched Junkan Asahi on Feb. 25, 1922. Rather than appearing weekly, however, it was issued on the 5th, 15th and 25th of each month. Asahi then changed it to a weekly on April 2 (a Sunday), in response to the Mainichi Shimbun’s launch of the Sunday Mainichi on the same date.

Due to a government ban on the use of “enemy” words, Sunday Mainichi was obliged to publish as Shukan Mainichi from 1943 to 1946.

Now a venerable 90 years old, Shukan Asahi recently made the news, rather than covering it, after it was obliged to yank veteran writer Shinichi Sano’s planned expose series about Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto after just one installment.

For more than 50 years, the most common format for weekly magazines has been B5 (182 mm × 257 mm) printed on grayish, unbleached paper and with several pages of glossy color gurabia sections, often including shots of gura-doru (pinup girls), at the front and rear.

But with the arrival of the economic “bubble,” numerous magazines sprang up in modified B5 or A4-size formats printed on glossy paper. Newsmagazine Aera was launched by the Asahi Shimbun in May 1988 to compete with Newsweek’s Japanese-language edition, which had been published by TBS Britannica from two years earlier.

Another A4 weekly, Fusosha’s Spa!, was spun off from the old Shukan Sankei in June 1988 and is still going strong. Two others, Flash (Kobunsha) and Friday (Kodansha), are survivors from what were once five glossy photojournalism weeklies referred to collectively as “3FET” — Focus, Flash, Friday, Emma and Touch.

Other weeklies that adopted the glossy A4 format, including Dias (formerly Shukan Hoseki), Shukan Takarajima and Yomiuri Weekly (formerly Shukan Yomiuri), failed to survive the cut and suspended publication.

Sapio, another of the glossy A4 magazines that appeared during the bubble, was launched by Shogakukan in 1989, the same year the Heisei period began with the investiture of Emperor Akihito. For a magazine whose name was derived from the Latin sapient, meaning “wise” (as in Homo sapiens), it was unpretentious, an easy read that targeted urban males in their 30s and 40s. It has enjoyed national distribution at rail station kiosks, convenience stores and bookstores, and its circulation reportedly hovers at over 60,000 copies.

In terms of its political slant, Sapio’s contents are decidedly nationalistic. In addition to articles on business and social commentary, the magazine devoted an inordinate amount of attention over the past half decade or so to themes warning of looming economic and military threats from China and North Korea.

One would think, given the current political climate, that such a magazine would be thriving. But on Oct. 10, Shogakukan announced that Sapio would change from a biweekly to a monthly, and at the same time raise its sales price from ¥530 to ¥680, putting it closer in price to the shrinking number of politically oriented magazines such as the Sankei’s monthly Seiron. (Bungeishunju’s Shokun! folded in June 2009 after a run of 40 years.)

The only new entry in this field in recent years has been “WiLL,” launched by Wac Magazines from 2004. WiLL is edited by Kazuyoshi Hanada, who left Bungeishunju after the monthly magazine he edited, Marco Polo, suspended publication in February 1995 in the wake of international protests over an article titled “There were no Nazi gas chambers,” denying the World War II Holocaust. Now installed at a another magazine, Hanada appears to be up to his old tricks: WiLL’s December issue contains an article by Koichi Furuso, the ninth installment in a series, which asks, “Who fabricated the Nanking Massacre?”

To its credit, Sapio was usually circumspect enough to tiptoe around the most extreme examples of historical revisionism — although extreme views may be what more readers are now craving. But while it occasionally introduced stimulating new themes, such as a recent cover story on how right-wing movements are harnessing the Internet, its contents had increasingly drifted away from cutting-edge investigative reporting to humdrum commentary by political figures or the ubiquitous senmon-ka (“experts”) — who all too frequently repackaged or recycled material that they had already published elsewhere, in books or newspapers.

Another factor squeezing its sales was the demographic. Due to Japan’s prolonged recession and deflation, wage earners in their 40s who made up the main body of the magazine’s readership have seen their kozukai (monthly pocket money doled out by their wives) halved over the past two decades, which means they have less to spend on magazines — not that publications targeting other age groups are faring much better.

Sapio’s twice-monthly publishing cycle made its contents seem stale for today’s readers’ short attention spans. DaCapo, another biweekly published by Magazine House, ended its print edition in December 2007 after a 27-year run and moved to the Internet.

The decision to switch Sapio from a biweekly to once a month was apparently made by Shogakukan last spring, and of course no one there could have foreseen the intensification of territorial disputes with South Korea and China. But Sapio’s contents were analogous to the boy who was always calling wolf, and it is starting to look like it may share the same fate as the character in Aesop’s famous fable: At the very moment that Japan finds itself confronting serious crises with China and Korea — which Sapio had constantly been predicting would occur — the magazine’s frequency has been cut by half, putting it even further behind the news curve. That does not bode well for its future.