Japan Research and Analysis
through Internet Information

by Yasuharu Dando

Net-Based Cultures Have Reached a Turning Point
(October 2004) (Japanese edition:10/Oct/2004) Download Ms-word formatted document

The "mail magazines," a unique Internet-spawned culture of Japan, has achieved remarkable development, which is even exceptional in the world. Another Internet culture, the text-based "news sites" managed by individuals, also has a strong influence on society although these sites are not highly visible unless you run a website yourself. However, both cultural activities now appear to have reached a turning point. Before describing the current situation, I would like to give an outline on these Internet cultures, including how much power they have exerted so far.

Mail Magazines Gave Birth to Net Journalism

The first mail magazines were born in the beginning of 1997 through a distribution system "MagMag" personally opened by Eiichiro Fukami. Before that, there had been a system with which companies dispatched a large amount of e-mail at a time. Under this new system, however, an individual "editor-in-chief" issued his or her magazine for individual subscribers. There are many people who have a desire to share with others their own ideas or information they have obtained. Once registering to the new system, these people could send a hundred or thousand copies of their magazines at any time they chose. Moreover, they could distribute the magazines free of charge. As a result, the number of mail magazines soared dramatically. The weekly magazine issued by MagMag, the king of the business, has already achieved a circulation of 4.4 million. Their system, which distributes 200 million copies of magazines a month, is supported by a huge amount of advertisement income. At present, there are more than 10 thousand different kinds of mail magazines, and the actual number of subscribers has exceeded six million. The present Koizumi Cabinet has also adopted this culture to produce a mail magazine, of which more than two million copies were issued at its peak.

The mail magazines can convey any information as long as it is expressed using characters. Stocks, finance, entertainment, adult, diet, psychology, websites, English learning, job transfer, vehicles, computers, and so on --- it is actually hard to find a field for which no mail magazines have been issued. There are several hundreds of mail magazines that have a circulation of more than 10 thousand, among which a considerable number of magazines have reached a circulation of over 100 thousand. Because of these big figures, a system for obtaining advertisement income has also been established. Actually, there are a lot of mail magazines simply created for the purpose of bringing in a fat income from advertisements.

In addition to the mail magazines that provide practical or hobby information as described above, there is a field called "net journalism." In Japan, not websites but the mail magazines that developed independently have been used as the media of net journalism. You can find a number of mail magazines that discuss the current topics in a proper manner taking great pride in their sharp analysis superior to that of the mass media. Two representative examples are "Sakai Tanaka's International News Analysis" that was a pioneer in this field and economy- and finance-related "Japan Mail Media" issued by writer Ryu Murakami. At present, each of these magazines has approximately 200 thousand subscribers including people in the media business. Meanwhile, the laziness of the established media has long been seen as a problem among the specialists who have interviewed them. For more than 10 years, I have noticed a phenomenon that occurred in the civil society of Japan. It can be described as follows.

The mass media such as newspapers had played a role as the main information provider up until the time Japan entered the period of steep economic growth. However, when Japanese society grew mature after that, many people started to point to issues that had been neglected by the established media. Also, there were an increasing number of people who analyzed specific issues in ways different from that of the media or who made comments critical of the media. The innovation in the information and communications technology during the same period supported this trend. Nevertheless, the mass media were eager to protect themselves from such criticism rather than respond directly to it. The gap between the media and their readers has thus been widened. I assume that, in every field, the civil intelligence will continue to build up towards a peak and the peak will go higher and higher.

Turning Point of Personal News Sites

The "personal news sites" generally consist of links to the news in which the site managers are interested and their simple comments. In 1999, a pioneer site "Muuno Local" achieved a million page views, which was a stunning record for personal sites at that time. This site, however, shut down in August 2002. Still, the number of personal news sites has been growing continuously. A majority of these news sites deal with games, computers, and soft or light social news. There are only a few sites that post political comments like BLOGs in the United States.

The news sites are updated several times a day along with the news articles circulated online by the mass media. The largest news sites receive approximately 150 thousand hits a day. If the managers of the news sites find some interesting news in other sites, they immediately add the relevant links to their sites. This brings about a cascade effect, resulting in a huge amount of accesses like a tsunami in a short period of time. In actuality, when I released "The Music Industry Is Sliding Down a Slope of Self-Destruction" on my website in 2002, I received 10,000 hits within 30 hours after the release. I had experienced a tsunami of hits before that. At that time, however, I could not catch the real figure because I had to abandon the access log because it was becoming too large. Among the 10,000 hits, 4000 were from the largest site, 1000 from the second largest, and 5000 from more than 200 other sites. I felt as if I could see the cascade. It would appear that, with news articles more appealing to young generations, the news sites were receiving a tsunami of 100 or 200 thousand hits on a daily basis.

It was the middle of 2003 that mail magazines, which had been simply growing until then, began showing signs of change. The magazines that had a large number of subscribers peaked and began to take a downward turn. Comparing the issue counts between the beginning of March and that of May in 2004 showed that almost all magazines declined by 3% to 4%, except for a few magazines that are still growing. This applies to both hard and soft news magazines. The decline is rather obvious for magazines that post practical or hobby information. Substantial hard-news magazines are falling rather slowly. For the weekly magazine issued by MagMag targeting almost all subscribers, the number of issues peaked at the beginning of 2003. After that, it has been hovering around 4.4 million without any significant change.

The cause for the decline is clear. It is because the news sites do not get any more new subscribers. The mail magazine subscribers can be divided into two groups. One group consists of people who liked the magazine and continue reading it, while the other group consists of people who quit reading the magazine after a while. Now, the number of retiring subscribers exceeds the number of new subscribers. Why is the number of new subscribers on a plateau? According to the "Internet use rate by generations" in the telecom use trend survey conducted in 2003, the Internet use rate has already reached 90% among people in their 10s, 20s, and 30s. The rate is 84% for those in their 40s. No new magazine subscribers can be expected to be found among these groups. The only unexplored field is the generations in their 50s or higher in which a digital divide trend is notable.

As for the personal news sites, after the former influential sites such as "Virtual Net Idol - Tiyu, 12 Years Old" and "Ore News" shut down, there have been no sites that can compensate for their loss. The site of "ReadMe! Japan" provides various ranking data regarding text site hits. I checked a transition in the daily access ranking by calling back the data of "ReadMe! Japan" using the Wayback Machine. The transition reveals that even the surviving sites are not so vital as they used to be although they still receive an increasing number of hits. They were probably experiencing some burnout.

Shortly after, I happened to find a clue to the explanation of this disappointing phenomenon close by. When I released "A Worst Possible Beginning to University Reform" in the middle of May, I requested two personal news sites to introduce my article. I was rather hesitant because it was a hard story, but one of them agreed to my request. Through this news site, no less than 1800 people visited my website within 24 hours. It was equivalent to 12% of the number of hits of the news site for the day. I was surprised at this, of course, but the manager of the site also said he was surprised. He said that the readers of his news site were mostly young people and therefore probably interested in university reform. This suggests that the primary cause for the lethargy of the news sites was not due to a shortage of good news articles but in poor sorting of news articles. It is possible that the site managers have simply overlooked the needs of the readers of their own news sites. This might be a limit of the personal news sites.

Linkage of News Sites and BLOGs Can Create a Large Tsunami

If there were a way for the personal news sites to survive, I think, it would be a tie-up with BLOGs. Although BLOGs came into fashion in Japan from around the end of 2003, their influence and mobilizing power have not yet come close to those of the mail magazines or news sites. However, the situation may change drastically if the BLOG managers begin to make high-quality incisive comments and the news sites catch them quickly and start to spread them around. At the present stage, I see that both the quality of BLOGs and the sorting power of the news sites are not enough. If they could be improved, however, there would be a new turn of events.

The manager of a website says, "For a long time, we only had passive means for collecting information. However, when we learn something, we want to pass it on to other people. This is human nature, and it created the wave of information transmission by individuals. To "process information" is to grasp what the information really means and make an appropriate comment or review about it. Unprocessed information has wings and excites all kinds of speculation. Because the mass media was too lazy to carry through this work, the personal news sites have become prosperous." Again, the citizens' critical mind functioned and a spontaneous movement occurred outside the vision of the old media.

As for the future of the mail magazines, I will try to find some measures for their second growth as one of the magazine issuers after the Spam mail problem that has caused many people to draw away from e-mail is settled. I simply cannot believe that the vast world opened up by the mail magazines will come to an end so easily.

(Special thanks to translation by PHP Institute Inc.
"JAPAN CLOSE-UP" October 2004)

Related work!!---"How the Internet Is Saving Japan from Becoming a Nation of Lifetime Singles"

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