A Brief History of Japan’s Weekly Magazine Scene

In-depth Society Culture

If newspapers are the “regular army” of the Japanese journalistic world, then shūkanshi weeklies are more like guerrillas, with small teams of reporters making daring raids to obtain dramatic scoops that more conservative daily writers cannot achieve. The field is changing rapidly, though. Can the once-mighty weekly magazines survive the internet age?

Shūkanshi: Scoops, Cheap Paper and Garish Train Adverts

In Japan, reporters for weekly magazines (known as shūkanshi) are considered jacks-of-all-trades, in contrast to the specialized expertise characteristic of newspaper journalists. In 1958, Ikejima Shinpei, former chief editor and president of Bungei Shunjū magazine, wrote that the former are conscious of the monetary value of their output, while the latter work in blissful ignorance of finances. For most shūkanshi reporters, these words ring true even today.

The rough, pulp paper typical of shūkanshi has earned them the moniker zaragami shūkanshi, the “pulp weeklies.” The oldest weekly magazines are Shūkan Asahi and Sunday Mainichi, published since 1922 by the Asahi and Mainichi newspaper companies, respectively. These general news magazines cover political and financial issues, as well as crime, culture, entertainment, and sport.

Shūkanshi exist outside the sphere of the “press clubs” whose members work in mainstream newspapers and television. Consequently, their reporters need not fear rejection by the inner-circle elite. They live for the “scoop” and write without deference to the wishes of police, prosecutors, or politicians.

Shūkanshi are also known for their racy headline-cluttered posters, which dangle throughout commuter train carriages. Many have now ceased this form of advertising due to financial constraints, instead placing similar ads, albeit black and white, in newspapers. These ads serve as a crystallization of the times in which they appear, thanks to the knowledge the weekly editors bring to bear as they work each week to catch the eyes of potential readers.

Flooding the Market with Sleaze

Ōgiya Shōzō, chief editor at Shūkan Asahi from 1951 to 1958, is credited with establishing the archetype for today’s typical shūkanshi. Nicknamed the “devil of the weeklies,” he became the magazine’s deputy editor in 1947. In 1948, he acquired and published content from the diary of Yamazaki Tomie, who died in a double-suicide with renowned author Dazai Osamu. That issue sold out within four hours. In addition to scoops, he initiated serial publication of essays and novels by famous writers, boosting the magazine’s distribution from 100,000 copies a week to a record 1.5 million in 1958. Essentially, he ushered in the genre’s Golden Era.

The first shūkanshi to enter the field from a publishing house rather than a newspaper organization was Shūkan Shinchō, in 1956, touting itself as the antithesis of Shūkan Asahi. It was followed by a host of weeklies such as Shūkan Asahi Geinō, Shūkan Josei, Josei Jishin, Shūkan Gendai, and Shūkan Bunshun. Magazine sales were buoyed by the “Mitchī-mania” surrounding the wedding of then-Crown Prince Akihito to commoner Shōda Michiko in April 1959. Josei Sebun and Shūkan Post, which would go on to become household names, were launched in the 1960s.

Finally, the influence of publishing house weeklies was a force to rival those of newspaper companies. From the late 1980s, Shūkan Bunshun switched trajectory to chase scoops and scandals.

Photographic weeklies enjoyed a boom in the 1980s, as seen at the Maruzen bookstore in Chiyoda, Tokyo, in November 1987. (© Jiji)
Photographic weeklies enjoyed a boom in the 1980s, as seen at the Maruzen bookstore in Chiyoda, Tokyo, in November 1987. (© Jiji)

In the 1990s, Shūkan Gendai and Shūkan Post began including uncensored photographs of naked female models, pushing circulation to over 1 million copies. Sales for general shūkanshi peaked around 1995, about the time of the series of notorious offenses committed by the radical religious group Aum Shinrikyō and the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, before falling into gradual decline.

Newspapers Encroaching on Shūkanshi Territory

With publishing house shūkanshi having opened up a significant lead, Shūkan Asahi’s circulation dived below 500,000 in 1995. This was a far cry from its glory days: A former Asahi Shimbun journalist explained that, in the 1950s and 1960s, in less urbanized parts of Japan, Shūkan Asahi was better known and more lucrative than the Asahi Shimbun daily.

But, as an Asahi publication, it needed to retain a degree of dignity. It could not publish extreme gossip and scandal, nor gruesome or sexual material, including what had come to be called “hair-nude” pornography skirting the edges of Japan’s legal bans on displays of genitalia. There was no way it could compete with publishing houses, who used every trick at their disposal.

Then, from around 2000, shūkanshi began to feel the winds of change. One reason was an increase in lawsuits seeking stiff damages for defamation. They called into question the disinformation and unsupported claims that were the Achilles heel of shūkanshi, forcing them to tidy up their act.

The magazines took a further beating with the rise of the Internet. The emergence of online news sites led more people to believe that information was free, causing a steady fall in newspaper and magazine circulation. Most shūkanshi endeavored to secure profit through tandem print and online media, but most were unable to achieve reliable revenue from print sales.

Even so, some magazines, such as Shūkan Bunshun, continued to maintain a significant presence thanks to their big scoops. News and television reporters followed the lead of the “Bunshun cannon,” which targeted and occasionally succeeded in toppling politicians and other high-profile figures. It proved that the uncompromising shūkanshi still had a role to play.

Who Pays for Information in the Online Era?

In the view of a former shūkanshi chief editor, “We’ll continue seeing weeklies cease publication. Most online news sites simply repost, quote, or comment on newspaper or magazine reports. Magazines that carry stories too hot for newspapers have significance. But with the rise of online news sites, we’re failing to nurture media to take up the reins.”

The Internet is certainly flooded with information, but it is mixed in with bogus or speculative stories, written without collecting evidence from the parties concerned. Evidence-based reporting is now a given for serious shūkanshi. Opinions on particular publications or journalists will of course differ, but the loss of a magazine from the market still spells the loss of a significant amount of information.

The same editor paints the picture thus: “The key issue is who will bear the cost for the right to know. The spread of the Internet has led many people to believe that information is free, but the newspapers and magazines that report the news spend significant amounts on their work. If more of them close shop and news coverage is further undermined, potentially, it will diminish our access to important information. This would be to the detriment of the general public.”

The belief that information is free weakens the reporting structure, unwittingly leading us into an information wasteland. It would also be a serious blow to the right to know, which is foundational for a democratic society.

A Former Giant Suspends Publication

Recently, after sales for Shūkan Asahi fell below 50,000 copies a week, its publisher announced it would suspend publication of the venerable weekly. In reality, the announced suspension is effectively the end of the magazine.

The structural challenges faced by paper media are shared by all shūkanshi, but Shūkan Asahi also had other issues. According to many of those concerned, its troubles date back to discriminatory information it published in October 2012 concerning the ancestry of Hashimoto Tōru, then mayor of Osaka. The demonstrated lack of awareness on human rights triggered a backlash leading to the demotion of the editor in chief and the resignation of the president of Asahi Shimbun Publications.

Officials from Asahi Shimbun Publications apologize to Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru (left) on November 12, 2012, and present a report on the investigation into the article concerning him. (© Jiji)
Officials from Asahi Shimbun Publications apologize to Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Tōru (left) on November 12, 2012, and present a report on the investigation into the article concerning him. (© Jiji)

According to one source, “The formerly independent and assertive editorial department was subsequently expected to keep out of trouble, and became spineless. Its inability to perform as a shūkanshi led to its demise.”

There were also suggestions that quiet discussions were taking place at Asahi Shimbun Publications with the idea of freeing the weekly magazine from 100% ownership by the company and finding an alternate investor.

“In the longer term,” says one manager at the publisher, “they hoped to eliminate the influence of the daily Asahi. The magazine was considered subordinate to the newspaper, which frequently interfered in its articles. Their greatest wish was independence. If they’d achieved that, they might have produced a more aggressive magazine, akin to a publishing house shūkanshi.”

But the Hashimoto saga sapped the magazine’s vision, and it failed to break free from the spell of the newspaper. What kind of magazine would have emerged if it had gained independence?

(Originally published in Japanese. Reporting by Fujisaki Ryōgo. Banner photo © Kyōdō.)

media magazine journalism newspaper