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CONFUSION TO FUSION: The Development of Japanese Newspapers

October 20, 2000 Community College Journalist

Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001

In Japan at the Millennium, newspaper readership is high. Advertising revenue is good, and profits are strong. Modern-day reporters and editors are well trained to serve a highly educated populace. Asahi Shimbun (circulation: 12 million daily) ranks among the world's most respected publications and has forged new standards in Japanese investigative reporting. But the stability which all these ideas suggest grew out of something else entirely. Initially, the Japanese newspaper industry came into being in fits and jerks. That it even survived, let alone evolved into a valued and respected industry in Japan, is somewhat surprising.

By today's print media standards, at least, Japanese newspapers appear to have developed in chaos. Newspapers would spring up and die in just a few days or weeks. Journalists would sometimes go weeks without pay. Printers would file claims against publishers for non-payment. On top of that, by Western standards, Japan's newspaper industry developed late. Newspapers (of sorts) appeared in Europe and Mexico in the 1500s and in what would become the United States in the mid- l 600s. But newspapers did not appear in Japan until near the end of what is known as the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868). Few extant records document the exact origins of the newspaper industry in Japan, but it is known that early newspapers in Japan tended to be highly partisan. It is also known that when newspapers did begin to appear in Japan in the 1860s, they also had to compete in the marketplace with other "media." In sum, the overall picture these elements portray is of a vital young industry. Meanwhile, the development of Japanese newspapers provides a window to a highly literate society in the last half of the Nineteenth Century.

The earliest known printing sample in Japan dates to 770 A.D. This is an engraved and handprinted work on Buddhist scripture. ( Printing with moveable type, which facilitated mass production, did not come until much later. Moveable type printing developed in China in the Eleventh Century and spread from there to Korea. Japanese citizens visiting or living in Korea are thought to have brought the technology home to Japan in 1592. It was put into use immediately, and literally thousands of books were published in Japan during the next two centuries. In 1875 alone, about three hundred new book titles appeared. So ardently did the Japanese embrace printing technology that during the Meiji Period (1868- 1912) nearly two hundred magazines came into existence. (Whitaker 183-5)

Newspapers actually came into existence in Japan during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. One 1600-vintage forerunner of what would become newspapers (or Japanese mass media in general) was the "town crier." In early Tokugawa Japan, a compilation of news of bakufu (ruling family) happenings as well as human events - with a strong emphasis on gossip and sensationalism - would be assembled. It would then be read aloud in the streets by the town crier. (Whitaker 183)

Also, for some 250 years, major incidents in Japanese cities (as well as regionally) were reported in handbills and "broadsides" (single sheets of paper which could be posted on a wall or fence for reading) called kawaraban, or "slate impressions." (Huffman 47-8) One of the best known of these broadsides actually was called Kawaraban, and it apparently circulated from 1610 until the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate (1868). (Whitaker 183)

Many of these broadsides, in reality, were probably simple "fact sheets" which summarized a single major occurrence and which were sold for a small fee. Such "fact sheets" resembled the European "newsbooks" which were precursors to newspapers in other parts of the world. The Japanese printers who produced these fact sheets might well have tried to publish something each day, but probably would have been unable to come up with the material to meet such a regular schedule. In all likelihood, too, Japanese publications which proclaimed "daily" production might have appeared intermittently, as did the first newspapers in the United States.

Japanese fact sheets were often sold in the street two or three days after the event. They were often referred to as yomiuri and were probably published on a one-time basis by printers attempting to earn extra money. They were usually produced from clay or wood engravings (materials which deteriorate quickly) and were hand illustrated. By the fall of the Tokugawa Bakufu, about three thousand of them had been published and distributed. While not really "newspapers," these fact sheets did, indeed, introduce the idea of printing and selling news to the Japanese nation. (Huffman 47-8)

According to one account, the first publication that really could be called a "periodical" in Japan was printed in Edo (Tokyo) towards the end of 1850 (Rai 45). Its contents, interestingly, seem to have been mostly taken from Dutch newspapers and translated. This is not surprising since around this time the Dutch were trading with Japan. It would stand to reason, too, that the Japanese people - whether they were literate or not - would have an interest in what was going on in the outside world, especially since they had been isolated for so long. The Tokugawa shogunate had barred foreign visitors in 1616 and had followed by forbidding Japanese from going abroad. As part of the effort to keep Christianity out of Japan, all books from the West were banned. Japan remained closed until Perry's arrival in 1853. (Hane 127-8)

Three other weekly newspapers came into existence during the 1850s and 1860s, although the names of these publications have evidently been lost to historiography. What several scholars, including Whitaker, have called Japan's first "modern" newspaper, however, was Shimbunshi. Shimbunshi was a privately owned news journal. It may have been one of several similar journals begun by the shogunate; if not, it certainly had the blessing of the shogunate. Shimbunshi first appeared in Yokohama in 1864. Along with other information, it carried translations of stories from Dutch and English newspapers published in Hong Kong and Shanghai. (Whitaker 183) In 1871, the same year Japan's postal system was created (Hane 231), the first daily Japanese newspaper came into existence. Mainichi Shimbun was first published in Yokohama in February, 1871. (Rai 45) So high was the literacy rate in Yokohama that by 1875 one in every five readers was a commoner. (Whitaker 185) Mainichi Shimbun was followed in quick succession by a surge of newspaper startups in Tokyo. Nichi Nichi in March, 1872, was Tokyo's first daily; Hochi appeared in 1873 and Yomiuri in 1874 (Rai 45-6). By 1874, Nichi Nichi had established itself as Japan's leading politically moderate newspaper by, first, concentrating on coverage of cultural and financial happenings and, second, by hiring the country's most energetic reporters. (Huffman 81-3) By the end of the Meiji Period (1912), more than five hundred newspapers and journals were being published in Japan (Whitaker 185), including twenty-one daily newspapers.

At the same time, Japan's population, which in 1891 totaled40million,grewto50millionby 1912. ( At the beginning of the Meiji Period, the population of Edo (Tokyo) exceeded one million, potentially a fertile field for enterprising publishers. (Steele 148) Obviously, such a proliferation of reading material as Japan experienced could not have been possible without a commensurate literacy rate. Scholars commonly agree that in Japan, by 1900, the literacy rate had exceeded 90 percent (today, the Japanese literacy rate exceeds 99 percent).

James Huffman argues that the early Japanese press underwent three major periods of development. First among these was its infancy in the 1860s, a period when printed periodicals appeared irregularly and were born and died with predictable frequency. Next carne a period which saw the growth of political influence of the press in the late 1860s and early 1870s. William Steele agrees with Huffman and notes that Edo's Chugai Shimbun was the first of the pro-Tokugawa newspapers. A short period of open political criticism bolstered respect for the press with the Edo public. (Steele 135) Finally, a period of journalistic independence from extensive government influence evolved in the 1880s, which furthered the commercialization of the press. (Huffman 5)

In 1868, the year of the fall of the Tokugawa Bakufu, Fukuchi Gen'ichiro began publication in Edo (Tokyo) of Koko Shimbun. From the beginning, it was popular and was filled with gossip about officials and samurai. But it also sought to appeal to readers interested in things other than sensationalism. It carried, for example, translations from foreign newspapers as well as what news could be gathered from around Japan. It also devoted a small section to haiku, beginning a trend which many Japanese newspapers still honor today. Koko Shimbun, which means "World Newspaper," was the first "Western" style newspaper in Japan. (Huffman 47)

Within the first six months of 1868, many who were angry or upset about the fall of the Tokugawa bakufu turned their talents to publishing, rather than joining the sporadic attempts at military insurrection. One result of this was that many newspapers sprang up (which were usually published in small pamphlet format). This array of papers was led by Chugai Shimbun, which called itself "the father of Japanese journalism." Although not completely accurate, the paper could claim some element of truth in the slogan. Chugai Shimbun concentrated on printing reports taken from English newspapers; it also published all government orders. It lasted for fifty editions. (Huffman 49)

Newspapers of the Meiji Restoration Period like Chugai Shimbun tended to be operated by former Tokugawa devotees who found themselves on the "outside" when the Meiji government took charge. Such newspapers were published irregularly—probably depending on how often the publisher could come up with the necessary money—and circulation was small. Accuracy was definitely questionable. Henry Norman points out that reporters who could not find news were "compelled to bring home fiction, as they are paid by results." (Norman 46-7) Pay for reporters and editors came as intermittently as publication. In essence, the picture Norman and others paint is of a burgeoning industry in the early stages of evolution, the time when many newcomers fall by the wayside, and when readers demonstrate preferences by choosing (and thus contributing to survival of) one newspaper over another.

Meanwhile, governmental reaction to what was happening in publishing was in the works. The Meiji government instituted press laws in 1868 and 1869, most likely because officials from the old Tokugawa government published many newspapers at the time. Regardless, the institution of press laws had the effect of slowing the rapid proliferation of newspapers. Press law at various times required that publishers make a "security deposit" with the government, which the government could then use to levy any fines imposed on the paper by a court. The press law also mandated published retraction of libel.

Perhaps most importantly, press law of the Meiji Period established the authoritarian nature of the Japanese media system: While private ownership of newspapers was permitted, the government retained the right of censorship. Newspapers which violated a censorship order were subject to court-ordered suppression for a period of time. Publications also could be prohibited altogether. (Rai 46-8)

By 1887, Japan had more than 550 publications (Norman 43) which could be called newspapers. In design, of course, these newspapers were vastly different from what Western observers were accustomed to seeing. According to Norman, the reader of a typical Japanese newspaper of the 1880s could expect to see the following:

Our last page is its first; its columns only run half the length of the page; it has no such thing as head lines or "scare heads," and its titles run from top to bottom instead of across; it has but a few rough illustrations; it prints few advertisements, but those are paid for at a comparatively high rate; its price is low, ranging from one to two cents a copy and from 25 to 50 cents a month; and it knows nothing yet of sensational advertisements, or flaming posters, or deeds of journalistic "derring do." In general, its scale is much more that of the French newspaper than the world-moving monsters of London and New York. The only evidence of it that one sees in the streets is the newsman, either a lank and lean middle-aged man or else a boy, clad in meagre cotton clothes, trotting along with a bundle of neatly folded papers under his arm and announcing his passage by the incessant tinkling of a little brass bell tied to his waistband behind. (Norman 43)

The cheap price of the newspaper is interesting, as is the lack of headlines. As for the former, newspapers in New York and the centers of Europe at about the same time were expensive - five to seven cents a copy. The lack of headlines may provide a clue to the Western (especially Dutch) influence on the Japanese press: European and U.S. newspapers did not begin using headlines as we know them today until the mid- to late 1890s.

The average newspaper employed nearly one hundred fifty people. The news operation consisted of an editor-in-chief, several assistant editors, four or five proof readers, a dozen or so reporters, three or four compositors each with half a dozen apprentices, twelve men in the press room, several distributors, and perhaps a "political director." Compositors, or type composers, had to wear magnifying goggles in an effort to preserve their eyesight as they hunted for the correct character from among the four thousand available. Each compositor had five or six apprentices (or "printer's devils") to help him. Newspapers used kana (more formal than the commonly used hirigana) as the written language of choice. Type compositors worked with lead type, and printing had become mechanical by 1870. Paper was always needed, and the use of machine-made paper, rather than the more expensive hand-made variety, came on the scene in the early 1870s. (Norman 44-6)

Newspaper content was not structured and can only be described as haphazard:

Their [Japanese newspapers'] local correspondence is virtually non-existent. Their foreign correspondence is a matter of accident. They have no telegraphic service worthy of the name .

Their reporting is almost a by-word. They do not even give their readers any accurate information about the cases tried in the Law Courts, and in the great majority of instances no reliance can be placed on the items of miscellaneous intelligence they unhesitatingly publish. (Norman 48)

Chaotic as this system may seem, it bears a striking resemblance to the great 1890s newspaper war between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in New York. Even so—and it may be some thing of a wonder—stable, profitable, respected

newspapers eventually emerged from this early chaos. Though the telegraph was not a completely reliable device in the early years of the Japanese press, by the mid-1880s, it was widespread and much improved. By 1885, in fact, the government was operating what was virtually a nationwide system. This made possible vast improvement in the content of newspapers, since correspondents could relay news and information with fair reliability from all parts of the country. Such an improvement meant a rapid escalation in the accuracy level of the papers. (Mason 227, 253)

Meanwhile, newspapers began to bolster their circulations in Japan by doing, subtly, what European newspapers had been doing for some time. At the risk of running afoul of the government (unless they supported it), Japanese papers slowly began to adopt political views and affiliations. Many of the papers gravitated toward more liberal views, but plenty backed the government, probably for the pragmatic reason that they were less likely to be shut down if they did. Eventually, when political parties would be formed, radical newspapers would seek alignments which would match their "pet" theories. (Latourette 135-7, 160-3)

Against this backdrop, it is interesting to note that one of the world's most important contributors to press freedom is a Japanese newspaper. Today, Asahi Shimbun is generally considered to be the most prestigious (and the most outspoken) of Japan's newspapers, commanding the stature of the New York Times or Times of London in Japan. Founder Ryohei Murayama (joined soon after by Riichi Ueno) published its first issue in Osaka in 1879. At first, the paper was a four-page publication in the smaller tabloid format. It sold about one thousand copies a day. Within three years of its first edition, Asahi Shimbun issued guidelines to its reporters and editors (and to the public) placing priority on impartiality. This marked a highly unconventional approach at a time when most papers were aligning themselves with political factions, but it caused readership to jump immediately, although actual figures have been lost to time. The newspaper's policy of impartiality remains in place today. It was Asahi Shimbun which investigated and exposed the collusion between government, big business, and civil service in a variety of scandals. Most recently, the paper was responsible for exposing government kickbacks to a parcel delivery service. That expose and others like it have repeatedly led to major reforms. (http://

From the most humble of beginnings and through amazing political turmoil, newspapers have evolved into a cornerstone of Japanese society, a window for the Japanese to view the world, and a window whereby the world can view Japan. The early newspaper industry in Japan endured chaotic beginnings, sporadic publication, and political bias. As a result of the latter, the industry was also forced to tolerate government censorship. Readers, for their part, endured a press which was not always truthful, not always accurate, and certainly not always impartial. Even so, out of that morass has grown an industry which today ranks as a major contributor to the global information order.

Works Cited

Asahi Shimbun Web Site. cinfo/English/history.html

Hane, Mikiso. Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.

Huffman, James L. Politics of the Meiji Press. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1980.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. The Development of Japan. New York: Macmillan, 1941.

Mason, R.H.P. and Caiger, J.G. A History of Japan. New York: The Free Press, 1972.

Norman, Henry. The Real Japan: Studies of Contemporary Japanese Manners, Morals, Administration, and Politics. 2nd edition. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1892.

Rai, Lajpat. The Evolution of Japan and Other Papers. Calcutta, India: R. Chatterjee, 1918.

Steele, M. William. ,,Edo in 1868: The View from Below." Monumenta Nipponica. 45:2 (Summer l990), 127-156.

Whitaker, Donald P. Area Handbook for Japan. 3rd edition. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974.

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