Hirohiko Iizuka is president and representative director of The Sankei Shimbun, the only Japanese mass media outlet that consistently and clearly maintains a conservative stance. Next year marks the newspaper’s 100th anniversary. Going forward, how should newspapers tackle drastically declining sales, an issue facing the entire industry? Toshio Motoya spoke with Iizuka about what makes The Sankei Shimbun superior to other media outlets, and its measures to increase circulation.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. I believe my ideology is firmly in the center, and that my thinking is certainly not right-wing. I also see The Sankei Shimbun as a centrist newspaper, not a right-wing publication.
(I) Thank you for inviting me. As you say, we also believe The Sankei Shimbun is a centrist paper. I would like to take this opportunity to talk a bit about how The Sankei Shimbun came to be. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Minami Osaka Shimbun, which was the start of the Sankei Shimbun Company. Hisakichi Maeda, the founder, successfully operated a newspaper shop in Osaka’s Nishinari area. He decided to publish his own paper and launched the Minami Osaka Shimbun in 1922. He then started the Japan Kogyo Shimbun, an economic paper specialized in the industrial field, in 1933 with an eye to the future industrial era. We regard that year as the start of The Sankei Shimbun.
(M) There seem to have been many newspapers back then, so it must have been one of the most successful.
(I) Yes. A newspaper control ordinance was issued in 1942 under the wartime regime, which specified that there could only be one economic paper in eastern and western Japan, respectively. The new Sangyo Keizai Shimbun – centered on the Japan Kogyo Shimbun – became the economic paper for the area west of Nagoya. The Nihon Sangyo Keizai was launched in the area east of Nagoya based on the Chugai Shogyo Shinpo, then it became The Nikkei afterwards.
(M) So the many newspaper companies at that time were integrated, creating a structure with two economic newspapers for eastern and western Japan, and one paper in each of the prefectures.
(I) That’s right. We were based in Osaka until the middle of the war. After the war ended, Maeda expanded the company to Tokyo and started publishing the Sangyo Keizai Shimbun there. The paper became “The Sankei Shimbun,” its current name, in both western and eastern Japan in 1958.
(M) That’s quite a long history. It seems like fewer people are reading newspapers in recent years. I frequently meet with university graduates newly hired by APA Group, and the number of students who subscribe to newspapers is falling steadily.
(I) Yes, daily papers published more than 53 million copies at the peak, but today that number has declined to about 35 million. And while an extremely large number of students wanted to work at newspaper companies in the past, they have declined considerably as well.
(M) You started working at The Sankei Shimbun right out of university…
(I) I have been employed there since 1981, so my nearly 40-year career has been solely focused on newspapers. Back then I never dreamed that newspapers would be facing the difficult circumstances of today. I started out as a reporter at the Wakayama Branch Office, then moved into the Local News Section. I think I was suited to covering accidents and other incidents. At that time, the newspaper’s stance was to inform readers of incidents and accidents they were not aware of. However, if for example a fire occurs today, TV news is quicker than newspapers, and people in the neighborhood post photos and videos of the fire on social media. People can now freely share information and obtain it at no cost. This has caused great confusion regarding what newspapers, and what reporters on the front lines, should do in this era.
(M) A newspaper company’s rivals used to be TV and radio, but now the Internet is its biggest rival. Although TV news is only broadcast once, you can go back and re-read a newspaper. I think these two types of media have fairly different characteristics.
(I) People said that TV would kill newspapers. However, back then you could carry a newspaper with you and read it on the train, something that wasn’t possible with TV. But today you can watch videos and read text on portable smartphones.
(M) I still believe that newspapers are extremely convenient. My father was a businessman who loved newspapers. He subscribed to three newspapers – national, local, and economic papers – which he always read during meals. He encouraged me to read newspapers and told me to read between the lines of the articles. Thanks to him, I also became a newspaper aficionado and have read them carefully since I was in elementary school. I bought The Year Book of the Contemporary Society because I was frustrated by unfamiliar vocabulary and wanted to look up terms I didn’t know. I believe I have gained a diverse range of knowledge because I read newspapers, and that my business success comes from taking this knowledge and transforming it into wisdom.
(I) That’s fantastic.
(M) I still love newspapers, and I work to always read between the lines and think about what is actually true. I am opposed to test-focused education founded on rote memorization; I believe our educational system should teach students to consider what is correct after mastering a broad scope of knowledge. Newspapers are an optimal way to obtain this knowledge.
(I) More people would read newspapers if there were more people that felt like you do. Today many people don’t see the point of spending money on newspapers when they can get information for free on the Internet. That’s not a good thing. Subscribing to a newspaper is a way to consciously develop one’s knowledge and become an educated person. In general, online information reaches you without you having to make any effort. And since people tend to only view what they are interested in, there is a high possibility that they may end up with more biased knowledge and ways of looking at things.
(M) It seems there are few media outlets around the world that report on society as thoroughly as Japanese papers do.
(I) That may be true. Newspapers contain information that goes beyond what you want to know, and you end up reading that as well. This leads you to discover new, unexpected information and master more knowledge. The Internet is a place where people look only at topics that pique their interest. This is like someone who only eats a few foods, while newspapers naturally provide a balanced, nutritious “diet” of information and knowledge.
(M) It’s also surprisingly difficult to find the information you need online. If you read newspapers for many years, you can easily locate the information you require. I feel that we still need newspapers in this Internet era.
(I) I believe we must preserve these types of publications.
(M) When did you become The Sankei Shimbun’s president?
(I) I’ve already served in this position for 3.5 years. The baton was passed to me in exceedingly difficult circumstances, and I am pushing forward with various reforms.
(M) It seems like newspapers, TV companies, and other mass media outlets are recently shifting into the real estate and building rental sectors. All of these companies have land that was sold off in great locations around Japan.
(I) Yes, that’s right.
(M) Back in the Kakuei Tanaka era, a healthy media was seen as necessary for a sound nation.
(I) The Sankei Shimbun hopes to be a healthy media company, as well. Our activities are founded on the “Sankei Creed,” which says nothing about maintaining a conservative stance or the like. The very first item states that “Sankei will fight for democracy and freedom.” This is above all other items because we believe that democracy can only be safeguarded with a free news media that prints factual reports.
(M) That’s a wonderful creed. I do believe that media outlets should have different views, but all papers besides The Sankei Shimbun are left of center. If The Sankei Shimbun is centrist, I think it would be okay to have more right-leaning papers as well.
(I) One of my friends has subscribed to The Asahi Shimbun for many years. He said his ideology doesn’t align with the tone of its editorials, but he thinks that newspapers probably assert idealistic discourse. I recommended that he try out The Sankei Shimbun, then I asked him about his impressions. He said, “I share a common mindset with this paper, but is it okay for a newspaper to write articles like this?” Many people think that newspapers only print idealistic content. Sankei believes in realism, and our articles report the true opinions of many people. I wish that more people were aware of this.
(M) I see. I think The Yomiuri Shimbun, which has a stance comparatively close to The Sankei Shimbun, should have a more realistic, non-idealistic tone.
(I) The Yomiuri Shimbun has a much larger circulation than The Sankei Shimbun, so I imagine its readers have many different views. In contrast, The Sankei Shimbun prints fewer copies, but we have many people who subscribe because they endorse our views.
(M) National papers have large circulations overall, but some local papers have conspicuously large shares in specific areas.
(I) Yes, for instance there is a local paper with an 80% share in one of the prefectures on Shikoku.
(M) National Diet members, governors, and other politicians cannot win elections if they do not go along with what those local papers say. I’ve heard that these papers are extremely powerful, which can bring about negative impacts. This does not apply to The Sankei Shimbun, which is a national paper. I think it is distinctive because it provides information from a broad-ranging, nationwide standpoint.
(I) Yes, we are conscious of making a newspaper that takes Japan’s national interests into account. The Sankei Shimbun has a conservative tone because it faced difficult business circumstances in the 1950s, after expanding to Tokyo, due to its late start. At that time The Sankei Shimbun had the support of people in business circles, including Shigeo Mizuno, president of Kokusaku Pulp Kogyo (the current Nippon Paper Industries), Nisshin Spinning President Takeshi Sakurada, and others regarded as the “four leaders of the financial world.” Liberal papers endorsed the showy labor movement of that time. With this backing from the financial circles, The Sankei Shimbun gained an increasingly strong conservative stance. In the postwar era it was integrated with Jiji Shinpo, a newspaper founded in 1882 by Yukichi Fukuzawa, and his way of thinking was incorporated into The Sankei Shimbun as well.
(M) I did not know that.
(M) I think that great delivery systems are another excellent feature of Japanese newspapers. People say this is why Japanese newspapers have total circulations of the top class in the world. I’m so thankful for home delivery; in many other countries you have to go to a store to buy a newspaper, which makes them about half as useful.
(I) Newspaper companies have networks of affiliated newspaper shops as well.
(M) That’s a wonderful business.
(I) No, these business are also in dire straits, especially due to COVID-19 pandemic. Flyers included in newspapers, which account for a large part of these shops’ earnings, fell 20 to 30% year on year during the state of emergency from April to May 2020. All events were cancelled, and there were no flyers aimed at new sports gym or culture school members in April, the normal timing for that type of advertising. Supermarkets as well chose not to advertise their sales because this could lead to too many people coming to the stores at once. Customers go to drugstores regardless of whether they distribute flyers. Newspaper companies are facing severe problems because they have to support these struggling shops.
(M) I’ve heard that some stores are delivering multiple newspapers together.
(I) They are short-staffed. Morning paper delivery is a difficult task that starts at 4:00 a.m. and must be completed by 6:00 a.m. Fewer and fewer people are doing this job every year, which is why they are delivering multiple papers at once.
(M) Many students used to deliver papers.
(I) There is still a program that gives scholarships to student newspaper carriers. Comedian Kimimaro Ayanokoji left Kagoshima and came to Tokyo to deliver The Sankei Shimbun while attending university. These students have upheld paper delivery, but today few of them are interested.
(M) There are more scholarships available these days that you don’t have to pay back.
(I) The newspaper scholarship doesn’t have to be repaid if you continue delivering papers until graduation, but students tend to choose those that don’t come with a work requirement…
(M) I’m so grateful for getting the paper every day. I am always sad on newspaper holidays.
(I) Now we have one newspaper holiday a month to give carriers at least one day off. Of course, reporters still work on those holidays.
(M) I think you should charge a fee for delivery.
(I) Few people feel that way, but it is certainly true that newspaper publishing costs a great deal of money including printing expenses, personnel costs for reporters and other employees, and delivery expenses. From our standpoint, the cost of 120 or 150 yen per paper doesn’t seem like much at all. Yet people today won’t even spend that much to read a paper.
(M) I love newspapers and want to do something to encourage more people to buy them. I launched two contests to stir up conversation: the “True Interpretations of Modern History” Essay Contest and the APA Japan Restoration Grand Prize. I wanted to inspire interest in having a profound understanding of Japan’s history.
(I) In 1985 we established the Seiron Grand Prize that is given to scholars and intellectuals by Seiron, our magazine.
(M) You could also start some kind of contest to award prizes to Sankei Shimbun readers. I’ve published Apple Town magazine for the past 30.5 years. Today it has a monthly circulation of 100,000 copies. I work to express my views in addition to carrying out my business, and these two realms have positive impacts on each other. I am happy to hear responses from many different readers, but people do say that I am “right-wing.”
(I) I think that’s fine for a magazine. Seiron and The Sankei Shimbun are not exactly the same; we are able to publish edgier articles in the magazine.
(M) Yes. I do all of the editing for Apple Town. This requires a great deal of labor, but I am inspired by my desire to make Japan into a better country.
(I) I understand that. Newspapers and publishing aren’t very profitable businesses, but we work hard every day with the aim of improving our country.
(M) The people of the world have positive views of Japan, but that isn’t the case inside Japan. Traveling abroad shows that no other country is as unified, tranquil, and wonderful as ours. Yet many people who don’t realize this think that Japan is a bad or problematic nation.
(I) Sankei Shimbun’s Seiron has a policy of loving Japan and taking pride in our history, which lines up with your way of thinking. If you look back at history starting in the Meiji period, you will see that the prewar age wasn’t all bad – there were good things in each era.
(M) The way Japan caught up to the Western powers in such a short time after the Meiji Restoration, and built a strong structure to resist colonization, is unprecedented across the world. Many people should fully understand this first of all. However, the Japanese mass media guides people toward the left wing, so many people don’t understand what makes Japan great. We must bring them back to center, which is why we need media outlets with a further-right stance than The Sankei Shimbun.
(I) Democracy is founded on having the freedom to express your opinions. It wouldn’t be good for everyone to agree with what we say in Seiron, or to go along with in everything printed in The Asahi Shimbun. It’s important to have an environment in which people can state what they believe. I welcome the appearance of media outlets that are farther to the right than The Sankei Shimbun. I hope to see them debate all sorts of topics.
(M) What is the newspaper industry doing to cope with the shrinking readership?
(I) The entire newspaper industry is working to have newspapers used as teaching materials at schools through our Newspaper in Education (NIE) initiative, since it is vital that children habitually read the newspaper. Perhaps some people who are unfamiliar with newspapers assume you have to start from the front page, but there’s no need for it to be that difficult – a child who likes baseball could start with the sports section. That’s the first message I want to share. Online and TV news is something you “watch,” while newspapers are something you “read.” These two actions are different; reading is an independent, active task that is totally different from aimlessly watching something. I want children to understand this. A survey on the relationship between school grades and newspaper subscriptions reported that children have better grades in households that subscribe to newspapers.
(M) Perhaps those households are also more affluent…
(I) That might be true, but there is certainly a correlation. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s Curriculum Guidelines clearly state that newspapers should be incorporated into curricula.
(M) It’s true that gaining knowledge makes it more fun to read newspapers, which then leads to learning more things. I want children to experience this for themselves. You mentioned having children start with the sections they are interested in. When I was young, many kids loved the four-panel comic strips in newspapers. I think more young people might enjoy newspapers if they printed something every day that appeals to elementary and junior high school students.
(I) Yes, we need to take more creative measures. People cancel their subscription if they find the newspaper to be uninteresting or without value. Giving free gifts isn’t the way to retain subscribers; this is a task for the editors and editorials. At work I am always saying that we need to rack our brains to keep our readers.
(M) Japanese newspapers are fantastic publications, and I want to help teach more people about their worth. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(I) Of course, I want to tell them to read newspapers to gain more balanced knowledge.
(M) I agree. Thank you for joining me today.
(I) Thank you.
Date of dialogue: February 3, 2021
Born in Hyogo Prefecture in 1957. Entered the Sankei Shimbun Company after graduating from Shiga University’s Faculty of Economics in 1981. After working in the Local News and Economics Sections, Iizuka served in a variety of positions including head of the Local News Section in the Osaka Headquarters Editorial Office, head of the Editorial Office, director and head of the Tokyo Headquarters Editorial Office, and senior managing director. He was appointed president and representative director in 2017.