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Newspaper Circulation in Japan: Still High but Steadily Falling
[2014.12.05] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL |

Amid a global decline in the print media, the immense market share and influence traditionally commanded by Japan’s domestic dailies are also beginning to come under threat. What does the future hold for Japan’s newspapers?

There seems to be no end in sight to the decline in circulation of Japan’s newspapers. According to the results of a survey released by the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association (Pressnet), in 2013 the number of issues printed by general-interest newspapers slipped 1.36%, falling by almost 600,000 from the previous year’s 43,723,161 to 43,126,352. Although a drop of around 1% may not seem like much, a number on the order of 500,000–600,000 is equivalent to the entire circulation of some of the most influential local papers, so an overall decrease of this magnitude has to be viewed as cause for concern.

And when the situation is viewed from a global perspective, it becomes clear that the continuing tribulations of the US print industry—including the sale of the Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and the buy-out of the Boston Globe, a New York Times Company subsidiary, by John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox—are not as far away from Japan as they might seem.

General Press Circulation Down by 4 Million

By global standards, the circulation of Japan’s major newspapers remains exceptionally high. In a 2011 list of the world’s top newspapers by circulation compiled by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, the Yomiuri Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun placed first and second, respectively, and were two of five Japanese dailies to make the top 10. These high circulations are supported by Japan’s uniquely efficient home-delivery service. The latest figures from the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulations show Japan’s top five as of September 2014 as follows: (1) Yomiuri Shimbun, 9,240,000; (2) Asahi Shimbun, 7,210,000; (3) Mainichi Shimbun, 3,300,000; (4) Nikkei (Nihon Keizai Shimbun), 2,770,000; (5) Sankei Shimbun, 1,600,000. Compared with the previous month’s figures, the circulation of the Yomiuri and Asahi had fallen by 8,800 and 38,000 issues, respectively. The drop in the circulation of the Asahi is seen by some as a result of the paper’s admission of incorrect reporting on the sensitive issue of Japan’s wartime use of “comfort women.” But the data at hand do not allow us to draw a firm conclusion, and we should probably view the decline as a problem affecting Japan’s print media as a whole.

Pressnet figures indicate that in 2003 the combined circulation of general newspapers was 47,282,645 copies, a figure which fell by over 4 million over the 10 years to 2013. Tabloid-style “sports newspapers” also saw a decrease of over 1.7 million issues in the same period, from 5,592,314 copies in 2003 to 3,873,116 in 2013. Calculations combining the figures for general and sports papers indicate that the number of newspapers taken by the average Japanese household dwindled from 1.07 to 0.86. 

Table 1  Newspaper Circulation in Japan, 2000–2013

Year General newspapers Sports newspapers Sets of morning and evening editions Copies per household
2013 43,126,352 3,873,116 12,396,510 0.86
2012 43,723,161 4,054,752 12,876,612 0.88
2011 44,091,335 4,253,969 13,235,658 0.90
2010 44,906,720 4,415,120 13,877,495 0.92
2009 45,659,885 4,692,946 14,727,162 0.95
2008 46,563,681 4,927,728 15,715,332 0.98
2007 46,963,136 5,065,535 16,408,728 1.01
2006 47,056,527 5,253,951 16,789,314 1.02
2005 47,189,832 5,378,200 17,111,533 1.04
2004 47,469,987 5,551,577 17,341,993 1.06
2003 47,282,645 5,592,314 17,464,928 1.07
2002 47,390,027 5,808,417 17,616,627 1.09
2001 47,559,052 6,121,701 18,013,395 1.12
2000 47,401,669 6,307,162 18,187,498 1.13

Note: Compiled using figures released by (http://www.pressnet.or.jp/data/circulation/circulation01.php).

Print Media Losing Its Appeal to the Younger Generation

According to a national survey on media usage carried out by Pressnet’s executive committee on advertising, the percentage of respondents to a November–December 2013 survey who identified themselves as regular newspaper readers was inversely proportional to age. While over 90% of those in their fifties or over identified themselves as regular newspaper readers, this figure fell to 84.4% for respondents in their forties, 76% for those in their thirties, 61.2% for those in their twenties, and only 55% for those in the 15–19 age range.

The results of the survey indicate the continuing importance of newspapers to Japan’s older citizens. Many over the age of 60 grew up reading print media, and continue to rely on the papers as a source of information not only on the day’s events but also on the background to the news. One male office worker in his sixties said that if he did not read the paper in the morning he felt uneasy for the rest of the day. But there were clear indicators that younger generations are choosing to get their information from the Internet, with net usage measured at over 90% for respondents in their twenties and thirties, and only slightly less for the 15–19 age group. The proportion of self-declared net users declined steadily from the forties bracket upwards, to a meager 20% of respondents in their seventies.

Internet usage overall came to 66.8%, and when respondents were asked for more detailed indications of their online habits, 81.2% mentioned reading the news on search websites, while 46.4% said they looked at newspapers’ websites.

Table 2 National Media Usage Survey, 2013

Age group (nos. of respondents) Newspaper subscribers (%) Regular TV viewers (%) Internet users (%) Regular radio listeners (%) Regular magazine readers (%)
Total(3,801) 83.6 98.0 66.8 52.4 68.2
15–19 (240) 55.0 95.4 89.6 23.3 62.5
20–29 (345) 61.2 95.7 93.6 35.4 66.7
30–39 (571) 76.0 98.2 92.8 48.3 70.8
40–49 (675) 84.4 98.7 88.3 53.9 73.6
50–59 (596) 92.1 98.0 70.6 60.9 69.0
60–69 (774) 93.0 99.0 43.0 61.6 68.0
70 and over (600) 93.5 98.0 20.0 55.5 62.3

Notes: Compiled using figures from a household drop-off/pick-up questionnaire survey conducted by Pressnet, November–December 2013. Responses were sought from individuals aged 15–79, with a 54.3% cooperation rate. For further information, see http://www.pressnet.or.jp/adarc/data/read/data01.html (in Japanese).

Efforts to Build an Online Presence

Amid all this, there is also a continuing decrease in newspaper publishers’ gross sales (including advertising and other revenues). The combined total for the top 92 newspaper publishers in 2013 was down over ¥16 billion from the previous year’s figure for the top 93 publishers, falling from over ¥1,915 billion to around ¥1,899 billion. The difference compared with 10 years ago is more striking still: in 2003 the gross sales of the top 98 publishers were calculated at over ¥2,357 billion, a figure which indicates an overall drop since then of over ¥458 billion. It seems clear that the situation for newspaper publishers is getting tougher with each passing year, and in 2013 the Jōyō Shimbun, a local paper in southern Ibaraki Prefecture, was forced to cease production.

Of course, this is not simply a case of the newspaper publishers sitting on their hands. Many are making strenuous attempts to broaden their appeal through such measures as expanding coverage aimed at female readers and offering their publications to students at discounted prices. But by far the biggest issue that publishers face is the question of how they adapt to the Internet age. In many respects the Nikkei has led the way in this department, boosting the number of paid subscribers to its online edition from around 218,000 in June 2012 to over 300,000 as of 12 months later and to over 335,000 in January 2014. Another figure to note is the proportion of these who are online-only subscribers; in January 2014, this share reached 50.1%, just over half of the total. 

Along with the Nikkei, many of the nation’s newspaper publishers are beginning to devote more energy to their web editions. The Yomiuri is offering a digital package to its print subscribers that for just ¥150 a month gives them online access to most of the articles from the print version, as well as the facility to search and browse past articles. The Asahi also offers a similar service to its print subscribers for a fee of ¥1,000 yen per month, and various local papers are also beginning to address this issue.

According to research by the Planning and Development Department at Pressnet, as of January 2013 there were 27 newspapers offering a digital edition or subscription-based online service. Of 86 publishers with some level of web presence, 42 operated an email service, while 51 offered online video content, and 47 carried images from their print edition on their website. Ten had a social network presence and 66 were engaged in some sort of collaboration with outside sites.

  • [2014.12.05]
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