The trials and tribulations of the self-published zine

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Clouds Art + Coffee, a small coffee shop and gallery space in Tokyo’s Koenji backstreets, is decked out in zines for their exhibition, “Zine House.” The displayed titles hang asymmetrically from nails and small blank clamps, their bright colors and bold words popping from the white walls.

“City Grrrl,” one cover proclaims, a pair of eyes glaring out between the neon yellow title. Another more demure cover simply states “Cafe Latte Kudasai,” while a third is dominated by an illustration of a pair of humanoid, cotton candy-haired figures. The exhibit features 53 artists — many Japanese, some not. Viewers pluck the zines (short for magazine or fanzine) off the walls without regard to whether the text is in Japanese or another language, flip through their pages, linger over the illustrations. The small space is bustling: Who says print is dead?

“The Comet” is widely acknowledged to be the first zine — first published in 1930 by the Science Correspondence Club in Chicago — and its release heralded the beginning of a decades-long trend of fan-produced science fiction zines. By the 1970s and ’80s, zine culture was decidedly punk; in the 1990s it centered on the feminist “riot grrrl” movement. Nowadays zines often combine elements of both text and design, running the gamut from in-depth, research-based publications to pocket-sized collections of personal doodles, and encompassing myriad topics.

From the modern ukiyo-e prints of the Edo Period (1603-1868) to contemporary dōjinshi (self-published) fan comics, there has always been an outlet in Japan for artistic self-publishing. The mid-2000s, for instance, heralded the rise of keitai shōsetsu (cell phone novels), which were written in sparse, colloquial Japanese — ideal for drafting or reading on cramped cell phone screens — and appealed to the masses. Meanwhile, nijisōsaku (derivative works) that draw on copyrighted characters have historically been protected from lawsuits to allow the growth of the parent work’s fanbase and encourage budding artistic talent.

Zine culture in Japan slotted neatly into this framework, beginning in earnest in the 1960s, nurtured by the rise of self-expression in a post-Occupation nation, and going through similar punk and post-punk trends during the 1980s and ’90s. Despite the success of other forms of self-publication in Japan, however, jin (as zines are known in Japanese) are still relatively unknown, possibly because they have an image of being cheap, or perhaps due to a larger fear of publishing a contrary opinion that may fail to sway readers to the author’s point of view.

Understandably then, rather than being deviant or political, zines in Japan tend to skew toward the artistic and personal.

“I (had) the idea that zines had to be politicized and militant, even subversive. But here in Tokyo I find introspective, informative, artistic, funny, any kind of zines,” says Julia Nascimento, a Tokyo-based Brazilian illustrator and co-founder of The Tokyo Collective (ToCo). The group’s initial zine, the aptly titled “Hajime,” (“Beginning”) featured seven first-time Tokyo residents ruminating on the theme “First Impressions of Tokyo” through art and text. On its cover, small birds perch on the “branches” of the various Tokyo train lines on a background of pastel-pink sakura blossoms: a melding of several de facto Tokyo icons.

In spite of the lack of general awareness about zines, there are several bookstores in Tokyo dedicated to these small-scale publications. Mount Zine, Taco Che and Utrecht stock both Japanese and international zines, though there are even sections of major bookstores, such as the uber-artsy Tsutaya in Daikanyama, that tender a selection. Utrecht, which is tucked away in the side streets of Omotesando, even has its own in-house publishing label.

Of course, going the “traditional” route through bookstores or organized exhibitions is far from the only way to distribute a publication. Twenty-year-olds Haruka Kado and Huki Nishiya, the editorial team behind “Fanatic Tokyo,” a fashion-focused zine, distributed their first three issues as a “free paper” in secondhand and vintage stores. The first issue, which was published in early 2017, is a colorful booklet that combines fashion photography and introspective musings in a scrapbook-esque layout that they conceived of and published in the span of a month. Their goal was “to express the inner workings of young people” and provide an outlet for individual self-expression.

Kado and Nishiya are also adamant about the advantage of the printed word over digital publications. According to the duo, not only do paper products have a “mysterious power,” they simply preserve better than digital in the long-term and have greater staying power in their readers’ minds. That, of course, makes the few pages per issue count: each one has to be special, and that necessitates a lot of stylistic decisions. From issue to issue “Fanatic” has matured in vision as Kado and Nishiya overcome their own inexperience and further develop their voice.

As to advice for prospective zine creators? According to Fanatic, “Have something you want to say. If you are just making something for personal satisfaction it’ll just be over with that. You need to have something you want to convey to other people.”

The Tokyo zine scene may be small, but it’s inclusive to both Japanese and non-Japanese residents and it’s here to stay. There is ample opportunity to form artist groups or participate in annual contests like “Here is Zine Tokyo.” Social media platforms help “zinesters” sell, trade, self-promote and connect with other creators and readers alike. Even in the age of digital, it’s clear that zines aren’t going anywhere soon.