National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Editors thrive on controversy — but it can bite back

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

In the early hours of Jan. 17, 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck southern Hyogo Prefecture and the surrounding areas, causing more than 6,000 deaths and seriously damaging infrastructure.

For the next several days, most Japanese stayed glued to their TV sets. Few noticed that a monthly magazine named Marco Polo — which had gone on sale the same morning as the Hanshin disaster — had run a 10-page article titled “There were no Nazi gas chambers.”

Written by a Japanese physician, based on secondary sources and with virtually no primary research, the article essentially claimed the Holocaust, which culminated in the genocide of some two-thirds of the Jews in Europe, had not occurred.

Particularly grating to Jewish groups around the world was the timing of the article, which appeared just 10 days before the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. In protesting the article, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a Jewish human rights organization whose membership includes Holocaust survivors, angrily pointed out that an editor’s introduction to the article unequivocally endorsed the writer’s arguments, by proclaiming that a young doctor had uncovered “a new historical truth” about the Holocaust.

Marco Polo’s editor, Kazuyoshi Hanada, may merely have sought to stir up controversy with the story. If so, he certainly got more than he bargained for. Germany’s Volkswagen Group and a number of other advertisers reacted by withdrawing their ads from Marco Polo, and to apologize, the magazine’s publisher, Bungeishunju-sha, shut the publication down.

It’s ironic that in its penultimate issue, Marco Polo had announced a crusade to expose the vested interests of powerful businesses, government organizations and religious groups. Jews, however, were not mentioned.

Earlier this year, an interview with Hanada appeared in the online magazine Tocana. He told TV producer Yoshio Koh that, under his guidance, Marco Polo’s circulation had been boosted five-fold, from 30,000 to 150,000 a month.

“It was the first time we had ever received a protest from a foreign organization, and the company panicked,” Hanada related, adding that during an internal meeting the question was raised, “What if Japanese embassies around the world get stoned by angry Jews?”

Although Bungeishunju-sha’s then-president Kengo Tanaka resigned to take responsibility, Hanada remained on the company payroll in what is described as kanshoku (a do-nothing job). But 18 months later he moved across town to work for the Asahi Shimbun — famous for its adversarial relationship with Bungeishunju-sha — where he became editor of a woman’s magazine called Uno, which folded after two years.

Despite the international outcry over Marco Polo, Hanada retained his reputation for being a charismatic and savvy editor, and gradually made a comeback of sorts. Along with editing second-tier magazines, he has been writing a weekly column in the Yukan Fuji tabloid and makes occasional appearances on TV.

For the past decade, Hanada, who is now 74, also edited a monthly magazine named WiLL, which has a heavily conservative slant and is not above delving into historical revisionism. Last spring, citing disagreements over editorial policies, Hanada broke off from WiLL to launch his own nearly identical magazine, named Hanada.

It is one thing for a famous editor to be closely associated with a publication, but in a country where modesty is seen as a virtue and self-promotion a vice — and where most weekly magazines don’t even include an editorial masthead — the bestowing of a periodical with the founder-cum-editor’s surname is audacious and unprecedented.

Hanada magazine’s Jan. 2017 issue went on sale earlier this month and features several articles about U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, along with coverage of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Bob Dylan. It also ran an article by Yasuo Kato titled “The Emperor’s Horses,” about the fates of horses used by the Japanese military during the war years.

Of greatest interest in the issue, however, was a 14-page interview personally conducted by Hanada with Manabu Shintani, the current editor of Shukan Bunshun. Before he took the reins of the ill-fated Marco Polo, Hanada had edited Shukan Bunshun from 1988 to 1994.

Shintani, once Hanada’s understudy at Marco Polo and currently regarded as the enfant terrible of tabloid magazines, has been in the limelight all year. Like Hanada, 51-year-old Shintani had also greatly displeased his employer — in this case by running several pages of sexually explicit ukiyo-e prints — and was punished by being ordered to take a leave of absence in the last three months of 2015. Some media pundits expected he would not return to Shukan Bunshun, but after his reinstatement Shintani came roaring back with a series of scoops that got everyone’s attention. A three-part series in January led to the resignation of economy minister Akira Amari, and during the next several months Bunshun ran a stream of articles embarrassing various entertainers, politicians and sports figures.

So consistent and productive was Bunshun’s output in the past year that magazine’s newly acquired nickname, “Bunshun-ho” (the “Bunshun cannon”), was among the nominees for top buzzword of the year.

Hanada takes a cordial tone toward Shintani in the interview and one can’t help wondering if he is a bit envious of Shintani’s success. He asked Shintani how he has managed to generate so many timely scoops.

“Having the internet has been really convenient for us,” Shintani replies. “When we read news stories now, the internet makes it easier to observe readers’ reactions. By ignoring this, print newspapers risk becoming boring.

“The most essential point for a weekly magazine is an ability to read the direction of the winds in society. In my college days I belonged to the yachting club, and when learning techniques for steering the boat we would say, ‘A big gust is coming.’ Reacting to changes in the wind while steering a yacht is a lot like running a weekly magazine.

“Likewise in yachting, as in running a magazine, you also have to develop a sense of avoiding overcompensating if there’s a quick change in the wind’s direction,” Shintani added.

It will be interesting to see how Shintani, and Hanada, steer their respective magazines in the coming year.