National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Will removing porn from convenience stores in Japan hurt ailing tabloids?

by Mark Screiber

Contributing Writer

Don’t go looking for titillation at your local convenience store.

As reported last month, Japan’s three largest convenience chain operators — 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson — are planning to halt sales of pornographic magazines nationwide by the end of August. While the operators pointed to their increasingly diversified customer base as a reason for ending sales, the large number of foreign visitors expected next year for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics is also said to have contributed to the move.

Pornographic material has typically been displayed in convenience stores in a separate section, with outlets in some areas using plastic string or gummed tape to prevent browsers from flipping through the contents and possibly annoying other patrons, especially minors.

Internet users were of differing opinions on the new policy, with one Livedoor commentator opining that the mere sight of such publications was “unpleasant for women and children.”

“I’ll be happy when they’re gone,” he wrote. “It’s a sight never encountered in convenience stores overseas and, if we take this logic to an extreme, might not the sales of adult magazines in convenience stores be part of the underlying logic that explains why sexual matters in Japan tend to be treated in such a flippant manner?”

Still, the pornographic publications also had their defenders, with one poster commenting, “To halt sales of these magazines will put greater pressure on the publishing industry to impose voluntary restraints, and I think freedom of expression may suffer.”

The move by the convenience stores is also significant because they have become dominant in retailing of print media. The Mainichi Shimbun last June reported that bookstores, some of which also dispense pornographic publications, have been going out of business at the average rate of 514 a year, with 9,770 shops having closed between 1999 and 2017. The number of stores nationwide is expected to drop below 10,000 by sometime next year.

In their stead, publishers have tried to supplant bookstore sales with electronic versions, or by selling online subscriptions. They have also become increasingly dependent on the approximately 55,000 convenience stores around the country.

A veteran freelance journalist and author, who contributes to numerous weekly magazines, admitted he finds the convenience chains’ dropping of pornographic material to be troubling.

“Yes, I’m worried about the trend, not only because it might adversely affect my livelihood, but also because it can restrict Japanese citizens’ access to important and suppressed information,” he said. “As early as 2007, for example, the tabloid Nikkan Gendai had alleged defects in the construction of a certain company’s apartments, and only just now this has emerged as a national scandal. So I think there’s a need for such aggressive reporting by the tabloid media, and not only from the mainstream media.”

The journalist also expressed concern over whether the convenience stores can be relied upon to serve as vanguards for freedom of expression.

“The convenience stores have been a visible and easy-to-access sales channel for all publishers, and any efforts to weed out certain genres will affect the magazines’ business,” he said. “At a convenience store recently, I was surprised to see that Friday, Flash and Spa magazines were being displayed in the adult magazine corner. These are not erotic books in a strict sense, and this gave me the impression that convenience stores have no clear policy about how they are going to restrict sales.”

In its February issue, monthly magazine Tsukuru highlighted the prolonged decline in magazine circulation, including many of the popular weekly magazines regularly sourced to produce this column.

According to data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, compared with peak figures of two decades ago, sales of Shukan Post fell from 861,352 to a current 211,336; Shukan Gendai, from 738,510 to 209,025; and Shukan Taishu from 353,405 to 73,398. Sales of three magazines (Aera, Sunday Mainichi and Sapio, now a bimonthly) have dropped below the 50,000 watermark. This decline in sales has been across the board, affecting other genres such as women’s magazines as well.

Last autumn, the monthly Shincho 45 was shut down due to a flap over its insensitive handling of the LGBT issue. Once an ailing magazine’s sales drop beyond a certain point, it only takes a light shove to move a publisher to pull the plug.

The decline in sales of magazines has been attributed to various social, economic and technological factors, including sharp cuts in the pocket money doled out by wives to their husbands for incidentals and greater use of smartphones.

At least one retailer, Haga Shoten, has not shied away from a bold and open approach. Situated in its own eight-story building in Tokyo’s Jinbocho bookstore district, it deals almost exclusively in erotica, not merely magazines, comics and books, but also DVDs and “adult goods.”

“More than purchasing online or at a convenience store, I think customers should be offered a place that functions in a way that lets them enjoy erotica that much more,” the store’s third-generation proprietor, Hidenori Haga, tells Yukan Fuji (Feb. 10).

“I think a specialty shop where we can engage in dialog with the customers is also important,” says Haga, who describes Japan as a “advanced nation in terms of pornography,” but believes that “sex education has lagged behind and a mistaken awareness has permeated males concerning female pleasure and so on.”

“If men can obtain knowledge about female psychology or practical sex from adult magazines,” he says, “then I expect they’ll keep buying them even if the prices go up.”

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