Toshio Hiratsuka is the backbone of his local newspaper — the star reporter whose trusty notebook and pen have borne witness to nearly every significant event in his corner of the country for 65 years.
Hiratsuka is the man without whom the paper would never be produced. In fact, he is the only reporter at the Oshika Shimbun. And at the age of 89, he is also the editor and publisher of the paper, which has well over 1,000 subscribers.
All week he toils, cycling everywhere to find out what local folks are talking about on his quest to unearth all the news that’s fit to print.
He reports on fish hauls at the port and on award-winning residents; he covers accidents and incidents — including the two foxes that appeared in a deserted park recently.
He pays regular visits to the local police box, noting down the details of the occasional crime — one of the worst in recent times involved a hit and run on a telephone pole.
He also finds time to follow the goings on at city hall, and reports on the activities of local politicians.
“From Monday to Thursday I’m tied up with the paper,” Hiratsuka says.
“I’m really happy on Thursday nights . . . It’s like that relief you felt in your school days once an exam was over.”
Hiratsuka began his foray into journalism after World War II, when he returned to the town of Watanoha to take up an unpaid apprenticeship at a local newspaper.
In 1949, he and another man started the Shukan Watanoha (Weekly Watanoha), which told readers in its very first edition that rickshaws and bicycles plying the dirt roads must be registered.
A year later the paper was transformed into the weekly Oshika Shimbun when his business partner left.
“I was young and worked feverishly, the days flew by,” he says.
The mayor of Watanoha at the time, Keisuke Baba, lauded the 1949 publication — which cost ¥30 (around eight U.S. cents at the time) a month — writing that it had “an important role as our hometown paper.”
“I hope it will not imitate major papers (in Tokyo) unnecessarily but will fully develop its character and become a newspaper loved by local people.”
And indeed it has — over the intervening 65 years, the Oshika Shimbun has written the history of Watanoha.
It reported the selection of the first Miss Watanoha on the stage of the town’s only movie theater in 1950, as a still war-shattered Japan began to show signs of life.
It told, in 1959, how the settlement of Watanoha on the Oshika Peninsula ceased to be a town in its own right and became part of the city of Ishinomaki.
It recounted the tsunami that raced across the vast breadth of the Pacific Ocean in 1960 after a huge earthquake in Chile, slamming into the town.
Over coming decades it told of daily life in a small part of a the country that was getting richer by the week, as the postwar “economic miracle” was wrought.
In fact, the only big event the Oshika Shimbun did not cover as it happened was the 2011 quake and resulting tsunami that washed away Hiratsuka’s home, his printworks and 547 of the town’s 17,000 people — including his sister.
For six months, as the triple-meltdown crisis raged further south at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Hiratsuka did not produce his paper. The disaster — which killed 18,500 people nationwide — had knocked the stuffing out of the town and its chronicler.
“But so many people asked me when I’d resume producing the paper. I eventually started to think ‘I’ve got to do it’, ” Hiratsuka says.
Six months after he downed his pen, the paper was back.
“Newspapers have their value in being continued. I’m a man of yore, I can’t just stop.”
Given its editor’s age, the paper has become something of a family affair — Hiratsuka writes his articles by hand for his daughter-in-law to type up.
His 74-year-old wife and the couple’s grandson take some of the strain in hand-delivering the paper to local subscribers. Others who have moved away receive theirs by mail.
Newspapers remain an important part of the media landscape in Japan — a country that boasts several of the world’s biggest-selling papers, including the Yomiuri Shimbun, which moves 13 million copies a day.
But newspaper sales are declining, as in other developed countries, as readers migrate to the Internet, taking advertisers with them.
The key, say some industry observers, is to localize. And while Hiratsuka’s one-man-band approach may be extreme, his hyper-locality might be the key.
The irony for Hiratsuka, is that far from being a new thing, his cutting-edge strategy is decades old.
“I’ve been doing the same thing all the time — working to issue a newspaper which can be appreciated by people,” he says.
Koji Takahashi, an 84-year-old former town official and longtime reader, agrees that the paper has earned a special place in residents’ hearts.
“It carries small stories, it’s all about us,” he says. “We say ‘if you want to know about Watanoha, look in the Oshika Shimbun.’ “