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Shincho 45’s fumbles over LGBT issues hastened its demise

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

Some magazines meet their end with a whimper. Last month, however, a monthly called Shincho 45 went out with a bang.

On Sept. 25, Shincho 45’s publisher, Shincho-sha, announced it would suspend publication of the magazine in response to protests from the LGBT community and others over several articles that appeared in its August and October issues. Company President Takanobu Sato explained that the magazine — which was launched in 1982 — had been “facing declining sales and during the process of trial and error, an editorial malfunction occurred.”

That “editorial malfunction” began in Shincho 45’s August issue with a four-page article by Mio Sugita, a 51-year-old Lower House member representing Hyogo Prefecture who occasionally airs outspoken conservative views in the media. Sugita noted that the liberal Asahi Shimbun had run 260 articles on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual issues over the previous year, compared to 159 and 73 articles by the more conservative Yomiuri and Sankei newspapers.

Sugita voiced skepticism that people are really discriminated against because they identify as LGBT. She also claimed that LGBT couples have no reproductive capacity, hence “Does it serve any purpose to invest tax money in them?”

In what turned out to be its swan song, Shincho 45, in response to criticism of its article by Sugita, devoted seven articles in its October edition to criticism of the critics. One, by conservative commentator Eitaro Ogawa, dismissed LGBT issues as legitimate political concerns using language that was particularly crude.

Shincho 45’s long decline did not happen in a vacuum. The rate of attrition of major A5-size monthly and biweekly magazines — roughly the size of trade paperbacks — has been high. Shokun! (published by Bungeishunju-sha), Dacapo (Magazine House), Gendai (Kodansha); Hoseki (Kobunsha), Takarajima 30 (Takarajima-sha) and Uwasa no Shinso, among others, have all shut down in just the past two decades.

Changes in Shincho 45’s content and editorial slant under a string of successive editors failed to bring back readers, and its monthly print run reportedly fell to an average of 16,800 copies during the second quarter of this year — down by around 40 percent from a decade ago.

Hiroyuki Shinoda, editor and publisher of Tsukuru, a monthly that analyzes the mass media, saw the decline as a malaise affecting the entire magazine industry. His four-page article for Tsukuru’s October issue, titled “Magazine journalism stands at a fork in the road. The publication of Mio Sugita’s discriminatory remarks: Worries about and suggestions for Shincho 45,” hit the stands before the October issue of Shincho 45.

“In the past,” Shinoda wrote, “it was a matter of course for journalism to assume an anti-authoritarian stance. At the start of a new political administration, the weekly magazines would vie with one another to track down and report on its scandals. However, that atmosphere has dissipated. Magazine journalism is facing a really difficult situation.”

Spa! (Oct. 9-16) recalled that 23 years ago a magazine from another major publisher was shut down due to protests over a controversial article.

On Jan. 17, 1995 — the same day as the Great Hanshin Earthquake — the February 1995 issue of Marco Polo, a glossy monthly magazine published by Bungeishunju-sha, went on sale. In it was an article titled “There were no Nazi gas chambers.” The writer, a Japanese physician, purported to debunk the generally accepted view that large numbers of people, mostly Jews, were murdered in gas chambers at death camps in German-occupied Central Europe.

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish groups were particularly incensed over the timing of the article’s appearance, 10 days before the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. When Marco Polo’s editor balked at demands for an apology and retraction, the Simon Wiesenthal Center appealed to the magazine’s advertisers to withdraw their ads. Germany’s Volkswagen AG was the first to do so, and other major firms followed suit. Beset by attacks from all sides, Bungeishunju-sha announced it would kill the magazine — although Jewish groups had made no such demand.

While Marco Polo and Shincho 45 may have been discontinued for different reasons, their closing has two crucial things in common. First, the publishers of both magazines reacted in a way that effectively closed the door to public discussion, by critics and readers alike, of what were certainly controversial topics. And second, in the absence of an open airing, the public was left in the dark about how the two magazines editorially failed to prevent the publication of articles that so baldly flaunted historical and social facts — and also about what ultimately drove the publishers to pull their plugs.

Marco Polo is long gone, but I would like to inject a personal note regarding Shincho 45, which I have been reading for more than 25 years. During its heyday in the 1990s, it ran top-notch investigative articles by Fumiya Ichihashi, who exhaustively covered several notorious unsolved cases such as the Glico-Morinaga kidnapping and corporate blackmail incidents. I suppose at least some readers, myself included, will miss it.

So what happens next? Shincho-sha used the term kyūkan (suspension of publication) as opposed to haikan (discontinuation of publication). Shincho-sha has a history of reviving its suspended magazines, such as the photo-zine Focus (which was halted in 2001), for occasional special editions. So while it may be too much to hope for a revival of Shincho 45, it’s too soon to say that the brand is gone for good.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.