Kansai Time Out: 30 years without a breather

by Eric Johnston

KOBE — On the cover of the December 1979 issue of Kansai Time Out magazine, an Osaka-based foreign aikido instructor, sporting an Afro, is seen executing a throw that puts his Japanese opponent on the floor.

The article on the American, who went by the Japanese name Take Shigemichi to operate his Osaka-based dojo, is just one of countless articles that have been appearing in Kansai Time Out since its inception in February 1977.

Like all KTO articles, the story’s purpose is to provide both an interesting read and practical information — in this case to those readers interested in studying under Shigemichi.

Providing practical information in English to the Kansai community is something Kansai Time Out has been doing every month for 30 years, making it Japan’s oldest continually published monthly English-language information magazine. The magazine can be purchased through subscription or at big bookstores in the Kansai region.

This year, KTO, as it’s known, celebrates with a number of events to mark its third decade, including public parties on April 21 and later this year.

“Kansai Time Out has survived where others have not because it is, first and foremost, a community magazine. We fill a niche that other media don’t,” current editor Chris Stephens said.

Like all Japan-based information magazines, KTO features stories on modern social, political and cultural trends. The stories usually have a Kansai, or a west Japan, angle. However, KTO also addresses national issues that other media often do not.

“We do features on subjects such as Korean residents in Japan, the detention of foreign residents, or the Japanese Red Army, that the mainstream media often avoids or downplays,” Stephens said.

KTO was founded by Englishman David Jack and his wife, Sachiko Matsunaga, who now acts as publisher. Over the years, Jack has seen potential competitors come and go, for a variety of reasons.

His advice for aspiring publishers is simple: “Don’t start too fast, don’t develop beyond your advertising base, and don’t overweight yourself in one particular area of advertising. Also, if you’re publishing in English, understand that you cannot rely on non-Japanese alone for your readership.

“You have to know your market. I think it was prudent that we didn’t expand to cover Tokyo in spite of some urging that that was the key to development. We preferred to stay local because that’s what we know,” he said.

Jack also insists that KTO adheres to natural English as used by native speakers, and not be adjusted to suit Japanese preferences.

“Nearly 40 percent of our readers are Japanese and they respect the fact they are buying a magazine with ‘real’ English as opposed to English watered down for Japanese readers,” he said.

Feature stories are important, but Jack said it’s the event listings that form the bread and butter of the magazine. While other English-language magazines purport to cover the Kansai scene, KTO’s listings of upcoming cultural events, meetings of nongovernmental organizations and personal ads remain the most comprehensive. In some areas, KTO reportedly outdoes even the vernacular media.

“We were once told we had the best noh listings in either English or Japanese. Often, Japanese publications will only list the performances of one school of noh or another. So many of our Japanese readers were buying KTO to get a comprehensive list of noh performances,” Jack said.

Over the years, KTO has been a place where young writers could get experience before moving on. Many travel writers now writing guidebooks for publishers, including Rough Guide and Lonely Planet, got their start with KTO.

At least one author who later went on to fame and fortune, however, failed to get his piece published.

“Jay McInerney, who lived in Kansai for a while and later went on to write “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Ransom,” which was partially set in Kyoto, once submitted a piece on Daitokuji Temple. However, the editor at the time rejected it,” Jack recalled.

And then there was aikido instructor Shigemichi. Though nobody knew it at the time, KTO had scored a major scoop, publishing one of the first articles in English about Shigemichi. He would return to America not long after his KTO interview, set up a dojo in Los Angeles, and go on to international fame and fortune in Hollywood under his real name: Steven Seagal.

For the future, Jack and Stephens said they will continue with their proven formula, which means publishing a paper magazine at a time when traditional magazines like KTO are being driven out of business by the plethora of information on the Internet and new media technologies like Web-casting.

Jack said that KTO will eventually move toward embracing these technologies as well, but not at the expense of basic journalism.

“No matter what the technological changes may be, clarity of expression and relevant writing is always in demand,” he said.