Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihōshi and Revitalization Journalism

Melek Ortabasi, Simon Fraser University [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 3 (Book review 4 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2014.

Anthony S. Rausch, Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihōshi and Revitalization Journalism. New York: Routledge, 2012. 157 pp.

In a country where modernisation has often been synonymous with urbanisation, Japanese cities have long been cultural and political centres. By contrast, rural regions have suffered from various forms of economic impoverishment and now, in recent decades, disproportional depopulation due to Japan’s aging society. Within this historical context, it is no surprise that the mass media industry, that engine of modern nation building, has been concentrated in the cities, especially Tokyo. As a result, the “regional” view has often been relegated to the periphery. Anthony Rausch’s book seeks to give voice back to regional Japan by examining the social, cultural, and economic role of chihōshi (local newspapers) in their home contexts. In so doing, he hopes both that readers will discover “one way of understanding not only the local places of Japan but also of understanding Japan on the basis of its local places” (140).

While the newspaper industry in Japan is highly centralised, and dominated by national newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun, Rausch makes the case that local newspapers are a vital source of local information. After pointing out in his short introduction that the newspaper as a medium is currently in flux on a global scale, he begins to argue that local newspapers’ relative stability as a medium and their “focus on ‘place’ is an often-overlooked contribution” (4) that researchers of Japan would do well to take better advantage of.

Chapter 1 covers the current state of “The Japanese Newspaper Industry” in global context and provides a variety of useful statistics; it also comments on the general global trends in declining readership and changing media loyalties. We are also introduced to the structural particularities of the industry in Japan, political proclivities of the various newspapers, and finally the types of local and free papers. As a proportion of the market that “accounts for nearly half the consumption of newspapers overall,” Rausch is justified in saying that “the local newspaper of Japan warrants examination” (29).

Rausch provides more context in Chapter 2, “A Brief History of the Japanese Newspaper.” A simple table (p. 32) sums up the historical changes that have characterised the Japanese newspaper industry from 1850 to the present. It is only very recently that local newspapers, traditionally dependent on the national newspapers for most of their content, have become a valuable source of information themselves, “providing the specifics of local news to the national newspapers” (43). The chapter concludes with a brief outline of the local newspaper’s place in this history, as well as a short discussion of newspaper daiji (or logos) and how their evolution over the years bespeaks a history of its own.

Chapter Three, “Assessing the Japanese Newspaper,” seeks to define the particular social and cultural role of newspaper journalism in Japan. Of course, the newspaper worldwide has certain basic functions, but Rausch is more interested in the ideological aspects that underpin these functions in the local context. Of course, he finds that the supposed objectivity of newspaper journalism is often compromised by business and political interests. In Japan, the self-censorship among journalists is particularly noteworthy, producing a “stifling conformity” in perspective (63). Rausch finds that amid such troubling data, the future of Japanese journalism may lie in public journalism, which is more democratic in spirit. Rausch suggests that recent regional growth in this movement could begin to “put the local newspaper at the centre of not just reporting the news, but rather also creating the news” (69).

The regional variations in format, layout, and content of various regional newspapers are the concern of Chapter 4, which performs a “Comparative Content Study,” or close reading, of several different papers. Rausch hopes that local papers will receive more attention at this detailed level, since a comparative reading could “bring highly isolated local sentiments regarding an issue to a critical mass” that would finally catch the attention of “the political and cultural elites… at the national center” (93).

Chapter 5, “The Reality of the Local Japanese Newspaper,” turns to the issue of readership, especially in terms of demographics and the sort of content that interests consumers of the newspaper. Rausch provides statistics at the national and local levels, and concludes that the numbers show a significant readership of local newspapers that is however, probably as a reflection of the wider newspaper industry, in decline. Given this result of the current “tensions between the newspaper as business and newspaper journalism as professional practice,” it remains to be seen whether “local public journalism will come to constitute a new Japanese journalistic professional ethic” (pp. 113-114).

The last chapter of the book, “A Future for the Japanese Local Newspaper,” speculates on the fortunes of the newspaper industry as a whole and local Japanese newspapers in particular. Rausch wishes to make the case that chihōshi can play a significant role in the discourse around “revitalising” Japanese rural regions in economic decline, and presents some concrete examples of this “journalistic activism” from the Tōōnippō, a local newspaper in Aomori Prefecture (121).

Finally, the “Afterword,” three brief appendices, the references, and a compact index should, as the author hopes, help future researchers “understand, and effectively use, the local newspaper” (140).

About the Author

Melek Ortabasi is Associate Professor in the World Literature Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. She has published extensively, on issues as diverse as Japanese foklore, Yanagita Kunio, and women writers in the Meiji Era.

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