The death of publishing: Where are Tokyo's English magazines now?

The death of publishing: Where are Tokyo's English magazines now?

As many move online and others just disappear, is there a future for expat magazines?

Samurai.jpSamurai.jp aims to counter Japan's decades of "myopic and lackluster consumerism."You should excuse Greg Starr for waxing nostalgic. After all, as editor in chief of “Tokyo Journal” during the first half of the 1990s, he presided over an age of hard-hitting, irreverent and money-losing local journalism that would be forever upended by the Internet.

He was editor in 1992 when the magazine published a piece by James Bailey called “The Incredible Inflating Man,” which revealed TV talent Dave Spector’s penchant for inflating his resumé.

The magazine ran investigative pieces on the plight of Filipino laborers, the murder of a Thai hostess and revelations of HIV-contaminated blood in government-run blood banks and a subsequent bureaucratic cover-up.

“As much as I like the blogosphere and think it has a hugely important place in communications -- as proven with the recent earthquake -- I've never found any local journalism on Japan like some of those stories I've mentioned,” Starr tells CNNGo.

Vanity publishing

“Tokyo Journal” was popular, but it didn’t make money. “What a lot of people forget is that none of the sales-based English-language magazines ever made money,” Starr says.

“They existed solely because there was a wealthy publisher with an ego who was talked into it by some eager young foreigner or a foreign-owned company who used it to promote other parts of their business, such as creative and editorial production, or there was some other person unconcerned about losses in that business.”

Kyoto JournalThe “Kyoto Journal” staff holds an editorial meeting at John Einarsen’s house. (Managing editor Ken Rodgers on the far left. Einarsen is next to him in the front row.)

In today’s economy, few have the stomach for a risky venture like an English-language magazine in Japan, especially when the Internet offers a low-cost alternative.

Just ask John Einarsen, founding editor and art director of “Kyoto Journal”, a lavishly produced magazine that published its final print edition in 2010 when it lost the funding of the Heian Bunka Center.

The magazine is being re-imagined as a digital publication to be launched this summer.

Painful transition

“Was it painful? Very! I had a very deep-seated resistance to going digital, having always appreciated the physical beauty of ink and paper,” he says.

“A Buddhist friend, however, told me that the universe sometimes forces change upon us, and rather than lament it, we can choose to see it as an opportunity to grow. That helped me a lot. So we gradually began exploring the possibility of going digital and totally overhauling our website.”

In Tokyo, it wasn’t the universe, but a Scottish couple -- Mark and Mary Devlin -- who forced change on the English-language magazine industry when they launched “Tokyo Classified” in 1994.

That publication morphed into “Metropolis,” Tokyo’s leading free English-language magazine with a claimed circulation of 30,000.

Current publisher Terrie Lloyd worries that the post-quake foreign community may not be big enough to sustain a print edition: “If tourism recovers before year-end, then “Metropolis” will still be available as a paper over the next two to five years,” he says.

End of an era

MetropolisMetropolis recently cut publication of its print edition from weekly to every other week.So is the age of subscription-based magazines dead? “Yes,” says Lloyd, who once published “J@pan Inc,” a business and tech magazine.

“The only papers able to charge subscriptions are those that offer unique information you absolutely can’t get anywhere else or those that are reference sources for the industry.”

Still, publishing is part passion, often attracting those whose love of a good story pushes practical issues aside.

Photographer Kiyomi Tagawa’s passion led him to launch this June “Samurai.jp,” a bilingual print magazine that retails for ¥1,200 and is aimed at rediscovering Japan’s soul after two decades of what he sees as myopic and lackluster consumerism.

Why didn’t Tagawa stick to the much-cheaper web? “The reason is that to express our souls, we believed that we needed something real like a magazine even if there is risk involved,” he said. “We’ll use the tools of the virtual world liberally as well.” 

Meanwhile, Einarsen of “Kyoto Journal” is discovering the advantages of the digital world: “Photographs look beautiful on screens, as they are lit from behind.”

The new digital “Kyoto Journal” will be available from Redwing Book Co. and kyotojournal.org this summer. Samurai.jp will be available overseas via Amazon this summer as well.