Shukan Bunshun magazine has been making headlines since late January thanks to a string of major scoops on no fewer than seven topics.
These concerned accusations of financial misconduct by economy minister Akira Amari that led to his resignation (Jan. 28, Feb. 4 and Feb. 11); details of the alleged extramarital affair between TV personality Rebecca Eri Ray Vaughan (known professionally as Becky) and Enon Kawatani, the 27-year-old singer in the band Gesu no Kiwami Otome (Feb. 4); followed by the hullabaloo over the rumored breakup of the five-member music group SMAP, which has been performing for 28 years (Feb. 4).
These were followed by news about the arrest of baseball star Kazuhiro Kiyohara on accusations of possession of illegal stimulants (Feb. 18); the tracking down of the nameless and faceless criminal referred to as “Shonen A,” who as a 14-year-old serial murderer (but now considered rehabilitated) had terrorized the residents of Kobe in 1997 after he left the decapitated head of one of his victims, an 11-year-old, outside the gate of a junior high school (Feb. 25); revelations of Diet member Kensuke Miyazaki’s extramarital affair while on paternity leave (Feb. 25); and “confessions” regarding illegal betting by former Yomiuri Giants ace pitcher Shoki Kasahara (March 3).
It’s possible Bunshun’s recent string of scoops might not have come about had its 51-year-old editor, Manabu Shintani, not got himself in hot water last October for running six color pages of classic shunga (erotic woodblock prints). The magazine — which is often put out in the waiting areas of banks and hospitals as well as aboard passenger jets — has generally followed the policy of eschewing sexy graphics, and despite the prints’ growing social acceptance, these were looked upon with disfavor.
As a result, Shintani was obliged to issue an apology for his “carelessness” and ordered to take a three-month leave of absence. His name was ignominiously removed from the masthead, and some believed he would not be reinstated. Instead, he has returned with a vengeance.
“Shintani took the bullet for the shunga trouble last year and went out to the pasture for a while, but he came back with both guns blazing,” media personality Dave Spector told The Japan Times. “It was like he was proclaiming ‘I’m back! Deal with it!'”
Ryutaro Nakamura, himself a former reporter at Shukan Bunshun who now writes a daily column titled “The Record of the Scoop Dog’s Howls” for Nikkan Gendai, on Feb. 23 began a three-part feature on Bunshun’s aggressive new style.
“Recently I think more mass media have taken an overall approach to treating (various) topics as taboo and refrained from reporting on them,” Nakamura wrote disapprovingly.
He recalls how, speaking at a Fuji-Sankei Forum in 2012, editor Shintani noted that Bunshun’s core staff numbered 40, with another group devoted exclusively to the magazine’s glossy front and back sections, making around 60 in total.
“At the editorial meeting held every Thursday, each writer was required to come up with five proposals for potential stories,” Nakamura quoted Shintani as saying. “That means each week there are as many as 200 items from which to take their pick. The editor has the important job of selecting and assigning the stories.”
Based on his own experiences, Nakamura describes heavy pressure and sleepless nights ahead of the deadline. And that was only the beginning. As the circumstances changed, fast-breaking stories became a moving target. “Right up to the deadline we didn’t know what would happen. Contradictory data would also pop up,” he recalled.
Even Aera (March 7), a weekly published by Bungeishunju Ltd.’s arch-enemy, the Asahi Shimbun, has offered grudging praise of Bunshun’s consistent investigative coverage.
“Bunshun is often asked how it pulls off its scoops,” Aera wrote. “The answer is simple: Scoops are what it aims for from the get-go. Once it gets a clue to information, reporters are assigned to go deep and piece together the evidence. And if things come to loggerheads, it sends in its shock troops and the story is completed in one onslaught.”
Under the title “Dave Spector’s Tokyo Saiban” (a reference to the Tokyo Tribunal held after World War II), the aforementioned Spector produced 172 columns for Bunshun from Feb. 1989 to Oct. 1992.
“The magazine publishers typically distribute preview copies to TV stations and other media one day before they go on sale, so any damaging stuff gets leaked and the stories’ targets often head off trouble by taking action quickly,” Spector said, pointing out that the prospect of a so-called daini-dan (“second shot” or follow-up) of a scoop “is even more likely to have the targets shaking in their boots.”
“If the subject holds a press conference, that counts for a big notch in the Bunshun’s belt,” he said. “And the subjects will typically fret over whether or not to wait for the follow-up or even a third shot before talking to the media.”
For now, at least, few would dispute that Bunshun — with an audited circulation of 420,000, the highest of Japan’s weeklies — is on a roll.
What might the implications be, I asked Spector, if Bunshun’s aggressive reporting moves it even further ahead of the pack?
“Because of the juicy stories, what’s happening now is that people with information or leaks are thinking, ‘Well Bunshun is the place to go!'” Spector said. “So it’s becoming the only saloon in town. In other words, Bunshun is reaping the benefits of those scoops to obtain newer stories as it has emerged as the magazine that writers prefer to take their proposals more than anyplace else.”