The Press in Japan
Newspapers developed fairly late in Japanese history - from the 1850s - out of single broadsheets, or kawaraban: literally 'tile block sheets', as they were produced from clay or wood engravings.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, kawaraban were one-off fact sheets reporting a particular event two or three days later, often as a way of making a bit of extra money for the printer.
They would be posted on a wall or fence for common perusal. The only other news media at the time was the town crier.
This tradition still survives in Japan with the special, single page newsheets often printed and distributed after special events such as natural disasters or sporting occasions.
Japanese newspapers include English language and local papers
In 1850 what could be called the first newspaper appeared in weekly form made up largely of translations from Dutch newspapers - the Dutch being the only foreigners permitted to trade in Japan, albeit from their base on an offshore island, Dejima in Nagasaki.
In spite of carrying little local news, it was snapped up by a populace that had till then been denied knowledge of almost anything deemed foreign.
After the arrival in Shimoda of the American 'black ships' headed by Commodore Perry in 1853, Japan was forced to completely abandon its 237-year-old seclusion policy, and in the next two decades three more privately owned weeklies began, including the bi-weekly Nagasaki Shipping List and Advertiser, published by an English trader A. W. Hansard, who relocated to Yokohama and re-named his paper the Japan Herald.
Then in February 1871 - the same year as the launching of the postal service - the first daily, the Mainichi Shimbun ('The Daily News'), began in the major port town of Yokohama, which commemorates this historic event at the NEWSPARK Japan Newspaper Museum, with replicas of the original publications and some of the original printing presses.
The Yomiuri Shimbun, now Japan's biggest, began three years later in 1874. In 1879 what is now considered the most prestigious of the Japanese dailies, the Asahi Shimbun, started in Osaka, in western Japan.
While government censorship was strict to begin with, control was loosened somewhat from the 1880s, leading to a burgeoning of newspaper publication.
Just under 40 years later when the Emperor Meiji died in 1912, of the 500-odd newspapers and journals being published in Japan no less than 21 were dailies.
Until the advent of the Asahi Shimbun, and even after, the quality of reporting was sporadic at best. The Asahi Shimbun was the first to adopt an impartial editorial policy and insist on accuracy from its reporters.
Not only was news generally being reported inaccurately, but during the 1880s impartiality became less and less the ideal.
This was because editorial policies came to be consciously adopted, aligned clearly either with or in opposition to official policy, as a way of adding 'personality' to the newspaper and thus increasing circulation.
Today there are said to be 121 daily newspapers that are members of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association ('NSK' in Japanese).
Not only is that more newspapers per thousand people than any other country, but their combined daily circulation of over 71 million also tops world statistics. This scale of circulation makes for a staggering 10,000 tons of newsprint consumed every day.
The Yomiuri Shimbun leads with almost 10.3 million copies printed daily, followed by the Asahi Shimbun with about 8.3 million, and the Mainichi Shimbun with almost 4 million.
(Compare this with USA Today's 2.25 million, the Wall Street Journal's 1.8 million, the New York Times' 1.1 million, and the Times' (UK) three quarters of a million.) What is more, the major papers publish both a morning and evening edition.
90% of the newspapers printed are delivered to homes, reflecting the country's high literacy rate of over 99% (by 1900 it was already over 90%), the demand for news (about 75% of Japanese are said to read a newspaper daily), and the fact that commutes are often between one and two hours, meaning that for most workers there is ample time to read one or two newspapers a day.
While this level of home delivery makes for great business stability, maintaining such vast circulation tends to encourage editorial 'prudence' and consequent dilution of any editorial policy for maximum palatability.
Also, retail prices for newspapers are guaranteed by law, further 'spoiling' the media giants. As well as home delivery, Japanese newspapers can be purchased in convenience stores, railway station kiosks and from vending machines. Many major railway stations will stock at least one Japan-published English language newspaper such as the Japan Times, the Daily Yomiuri or the Herald Tribune/Asahi and sometimes all three.
Of the English dailies only one, the Japan Times, is exclusively English language. It competes with the English versions of the Asahi Shimbun (in conjunction with the Herald Tribune), the Yomiuri Shimbun, and the Mainichi Shimbun (now only offered online).
Taking public transportation anywhere in Japan will reveal the fact that there are also a large number of what are called 'sports newspapers', or tabloids. The Yukan Fuji, the Nikkan Gendai and the Sports Nippon are three of the most popular.
The Japanese press has been notorious for its exclusive Press Club system whereby member journalists covering a particular field are stationed in the relevant Press Club 'journalist room' of a major government office or big company.
Press Clubs have come under criticism for allegedly being handed information by the organization they are stationed in without necessarily having to engage in investigative work.
Also, they have the privilege of regular round-table conferences with officials or management, leading to further accusations of cosiness.
The situation was ameliorated somewhat in 1993 with the (still selective) admission in that year of the previously excluded foreign journalist. Certain foreign media, among them Reuters, are now admitted to several press clubs.
The rationale of the Press Club is that it is, according to the NSK, a means of 'applying pressure to public institutions reluctant to disclose information by banding together'.
However, mindless reporting and susceptibility to manipulation are the inbuilt dangers: dangers attested to by the total subservience of Press Clubs to official censorial policy during WW2.
The Newspaper Foundation for Education & Culture (Nihon Shinbun Kyoiku Bunka Zaidan), founded by NSK in 1998, opened the The Japan Newspaper Museum, incorporating the National Newspaper in Education Center, in Yokohama in October 2000.
Click below for English-language Japan news and newspaper websites:
A knowledge of the basic kanji (Chinese characters) is essential to be able to understand a Japanese newspaper