Japan's weekly magazines:
Some things never change

They're certainly bigger, but are they better?

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Mainichi Daily News, 9 January 1994, page 17 (Waiwai Waido)

The research for this article was based on the author's own collection of Japanese weekly magazines. The collection dates from the late 1960s and includes annual one-week samples of all major weeklies from 1970. Some parts of this article, and other research findings, are reflected in Adam Fulford's "Shukanshi: Purveyors of Sex, Gossip, Comics, Booms, Exposes, Scoops and Scandals", Mangajin, No. 32, February 1994, pages 14, 18, 44, 46, 48, and in other parts of the weekly-magazine feature in the same issue.

An alien visiting Japan for the first time in a quarter century would find few changes in the country's weekly magazines. The older weeklies, stuffed with articles that must be read and not just looked at, are selling fewer copies, considering the greater numbers of people who could read if they wanted to. One exception is Josei Seven, which finally overtook Josei Jishin in the circulation race among the women's weeklies. Both magazines currently print about 750,000 copies.

Over two decades ago, Josei Jishin was the first pulp weekly to adopt the wider size that now characterizes all the women's weeklies. This size has also become the standard for the newer breed of slick weeklies, from the thin photo-journalistic magazines like Focus and Friday, which feature more gossip than news in predominantly two-page articles, to the thicker weeklies like the "Sportive, Positive, and Aggressive" (meaning "sensational, provocative, and abrasive" Spa! and the less splashy, more studious, proletarian and analytical AERA.

Also in this category of slick general weeklies is the recently launched Shukan Kin'yobi, a practically pictureless, but colorfully covered, by-subscription-only offering for readers who want the ultimate in serious, critical reportage and commentary in an age of cynical, read-nothing-about-it, throw-away journalism. Kin'yobi's gates are kept by several well-known watchdogs of print and broadcast journalism, such as columnist Honda Katsuichi and anchorman Tetsuya Chikushi, both former Asahi Shimbun writers and correspondents, and both associated with the late Asahi Journal, a liberal social-issue weekly that folded in 1992 after a long slide from the peak circulations it enjoyed during the campus unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Shukan Bunshun, with two male readers for every female reader, and a circulation of nearly 700,000, outsells other general weeklies that are printed on pulp paper by major literary houses. Its historical rival is Shukan Shincho, which has quieter covers and practically no nudity. While Bunshun and Shincho also compete with the pulp weeklies published by the big three national newspapers, Shukan Asahi, which attracts equal numbers of male and female readers, beats out its rivals, Sunday Mainichi and Shukan Yomiuri, with a circulation of only 400,000.

Shukan Post heads the circulation list of general weeklies I that are aimed at hard-commuting, hard-working, hard-playing salarymen. Only three years after its debut in 1969, Post was outselling all but the women's weeklies, and it remained at the head of the pack for many years. Though Post is now second to Bunshun, its genre of salaryman weeklies including its closest rivals, the tamer Shukan Gendai and the wilder Shukan Hoseki, has held its own in the face of competition from the emergence of evening tabloids like Yukan Fuji and Nikkan Gendai.

If bulk is a measure of value, then the weeklies are a better buy than they were in the past--even though they are worth less toilet paper on today's practically extinct street-squawker recycling market. In the late 1960s a 150-page weekly cost 60 yen, while today a 220-page weekly runs 270 yen--unless you cruise the luggage racks on trains or trash the bins that some stations provide for harmful reading matter. This 1.5-fold increase in number of pages, at a 4.5-fold rise in price, amounts to a 3-fold growth in cost on a per-page basis. Considering the greater gain in gross personal income over the past quarter century, this means more information for the money. But what sort of information? The eye gets the impression of more gravure, caricature, and advertising.

The battle to get newsstand attention is fierce, but changes in magazine cover designs and page layouts have been cosmetic and trendy, not fundamental. One exception may be the less frequent appearance of female faces and figures on the covers of the general weeklies. But behind this deeroticizing of covers is a another story. The glossy pages in the front and back of most of the general pulp weeklies are more apt today than in the past to display female flesh, often with some pubic hair, now that the police have relaxed their extralegal controls on freedom of expression.

The very popular Bunshun, which seems to represent the broadest spectrum of current taste, has been bolder than the salaryman weeklies, and even the more obviously male-order magazines like Weekly Playboy, to tempt the will of the police to interfere in the social mores marketplace. Bunshun has been testing police tolerance with erotic photography that is often more avant-garde, and is more likely to have been imported in the name of art, than what graces the pages of its newsstand rivals.

Over the past quarter century all forms and genres of comics have made deeper inroads into Japan's weekly magazine pages. Most weeklies, from the self-consciously pensive to the knowingly pornographic, now carry a heavy mix of cartoons, strips and serialized comic stories.

A number of weekly salaryman strips have made brief debuts in English translation, but none have survived. Shoji Sadao's "Tanma-kun" appeared in The Japan Times in 1978, but was discontinued when some readers objected to Tanma's sexual hanky panky. One particularly controversial episode, in the 1,000th issue of Shukan Bunshun, showed Tanma-kun dreaming of pulling down the tube top of a well-endowed girl and then perfunctorily apologizing for exposing her.

Shoji's sexual harassment themes are just now coming into their age. Tanma-kun hasn't changed much, though. He still suffers an inferiority complex toward women, and he envies the better looks and smoother talk of the younger men in his office. He is also able to poke fun at homosexuality, though the joke sometimes backfires. In one strip he feels disgust when an effeminate young man gives him a box of chocolates on Valentine's Day-in a country where men are supposed to get candy from appreciative women. The disgust turns to jealousy when the man gives another male employee a bigger box.

What hasn't changed about Japan's weekly magazines over the past quarter century? One, their lower dependence on the censorial press club system; and two, their cozy relationship with the consumer culture that has developed around the nationwide mass transportation network.

Their relatively greater independence from government news sources means that Japan's weeklies can be more laissez faire, and are inclined to take greater risks, than the national dailies. But their occasional deeper probes and their fewer pulled punches are offset by considerably more sensationalism and perhaps more misreporting.

While in countries like the United States magazine publishers try to maximize the number of subscribers by discounting subscription rates, subscriptions are practically unheard of in Japan, where most magazines are bought at train station kiosks or at bookstores in shopping malls near stations (and discounted subscriptions are even rarer). This overlap between commuting and consumption behaviors is seen in articles and ads about places to eat, drink, double your eyelids, lose your virginity, or otherwise trade your yen for pleasure.

Pulp weeklies like Asahi Geino, Shukan Taishu, and Shukan Jitsuwa, once merely more sensational and racy general weeklies, now virtually cater to the marginal worlds of entertainment, deviancy, and even crime that thrive at the hubs of Japan's mass culture. Peruse such magazines alongside the respectable likes of Shukan Asahi and even Shukan Bunshun, and outlander or not, you'll no longer feel guilty about your suspicion that Japanese culture is both as diverse and as base as any other.

Elements of this article will appear in the February edition of the magazine Mangajin, which contains a special feature on weekly magazines.