Going it alone ‘to lift the gloom’

by Tai Kawabata

Reiko Togo has been very dissatisfied with Japan’s magazine industry for a very long time. “Magazines have become just vehicles for advertisements, and there are none I want to read,” she says.

As a writer herself, 57-year-old Togo feels that despite the vast number of titles available, “their contents are so weak that people feel there is no need to read them, so instead they just watch television or browse the Internet.”

But unlike most of Japan’s millions of malcontents, Togo and several other like-minded women got together and decided to act — to form a publishing house to launch a new magazine themselves.

The outcome was Arc, a quarterly they launched last October with more than 100 glossy pages — almost all of which carry color photos and illustrations.

At present, sales of Arc are approaching 10,000 copies of each edition. However, as chief editor of Leyline Publishing Co., Togo’s ambitions for Arc are greater still. “Frankly speaking, we are in the red now,” she says. “But we are trying to build a new business model in Japan’s magazine industry with a clear philosophy. I would like to see the readership climb to at least 30,000.

“I am confident that our philosophy transcends national boundaries. We will do our best to generate enough money to publish an English edition in the future. If possible we would like to publish editions in other languages too, like Italian and German.”

For the moment, however, such ambitions are limited to short summaries in English at the start of most of the articles, which Togo explains are for readers living abroad who may want to show Arc to friends there, and also for those with foreign spouses, so they can understand what it is all about.

Despite having such a clear vision, though, Leyline soon found out just how hard it is to get into Japan’s magazine market at all. In particular, the major magazine distributors Tohan and Nippan refused to handle the newcomer — on the grounds that it was a serious magazine put out by a small company and would face difficulties in getting a large readership.

Undeterred, Togo and her business partners set about creating their own marketing network by approaching major bookstores including Kinokuniya Bookstore directly. They have also been able to arrange for many copies of Arc to be delivered direct to subscribers by trucking companies.

Speaking of the magazine’s goal and basic stance, Togo says, “We would like to make a magazine that is intellectually stimulating and explosive. But that doesn’t mean we deliberately take an antiestablishment stance.”

Editorially, her approach to realizing this goal is to focus on people — both Japanese and non-Japanese — whose ideas and way of living “are in tune with and provide food for thought for people in the 21st century.”

Each issue of Arc has a section called “Let’s learn more about the Japanese,” which profiles a particular person and his or her associates. The first issue featured Kodo Nomura (1882-1963), a novelist and music critic best known for his popular stories of Zenigata Heiji, an Edo Period detective — but who also established a scholarship fund to nurture people who can contribute to building a new world culture, and to foster exchanges between cultures of the East and West.

In its second issue, the magazine featured Magosaburo Ohara (1880-1943), an entrepreneur from Okayama Prefecture who made contributions in the social and education fields, including founding the Ohara Institute for Social Research and the Ohara Museum of Art.

In its third issue, Arc turned its attention to Taro Okamoto (1911-96), a leader of Japan’s postwar avant-garde art movement; his father Ippei (1886-1948), the leading cartoonist of the Taisho Era (1912-1926); and his mother Kanoko (1889-1939), a poet and novelist.

Togo, who nicknames herself “editor of burning passion,” also carries an in-depth, 20-page interview in each issue.

To date she has interviewed TV personality and feminist writer Yoko Haruka; Chizuko Ueno, a University of Tokyo professor who is a leading feminist sociologist; and Saburo Shiroyama, who writes novels set in the business world and also books on modern Japanese history.

But Arc’s horizons aren’t limited to Japan — or even the real world. In the first three issues, it ran articles about Gandalf the Wizard from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” as well as ones about “Little Prince” author Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Anais Nin and Carl Gustav Jung. The magazine also has regular features on pubs in England, photo-features on foreign countries and regions, illustrated travel essays, a poetry section, book and movie reviews, a section called “A Hot Place in Town,” and “Chako’s Road,” an ongoing fiction story whose heroine is a stray cat living in Kawasaki, where Leyline Publishing Co. is located.

Behind the magazine’s approach, Togo explains, is her unhappy experience as a reader of a quality left-leaning weekly. “I was a subscriber to ‘Shukan Kinyobi [Weekly Friday]’ from the first issue. But the more I read it, the gloomier I became because it didn’t seem to offer any rays of hope,” she says. “I feel that the rigid thinking and values of Japan’s antiestablishment intellectuals of the 1960s and ’70s still cast a shadow over some general magazines here.”

Though Arc certainly strives to look beyond Japan, Togo makes no apologies for also placing emphasis on Japanese personalities, both past and present. “I think there are Japanese figures whose ideas and ways of living have a universal appeal and can give hope to this generation. And I believe such figures, whether alive or dead, deserve to be presented to our readers.

“By delving into such Japanese figures and aspects of Japanese culture, I would like to show that Japanese culture is relevant to the wider world.”

However, Arc’s interests are nothing if not broad, and it will be interesting to see if such a genuinely “general interest” magazine can survive without catering to a narrower readership. Certainly, if Togo’s enthusiasm for journalism is any indicator, its success should be assured, for as she put it herself: “There is no shortage of topics — from social phenomena and world politics to what is happening among individuals — but light has been shed on these things only from fixed angles.

“We would like to approach things from different angles and look in depth. And the deeper we dig into things, the more varied ways we find of looking at them.”