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Sunday, April 16, 2006
Editor on a mission for consumers
By TOMOKO OTAKE
Some people sarcastically refer to journalists in Japan as "sarariman reporters." That's because even though the Fourth Estate potentially has enormous power and influence, its members are often timid, risk-averse and happy to cozy up with the politicians, government agencies and corporations they cover. Or worse, they are too lazy to check facts spoon-fed to them by the powers that be.
Not Mori Kitamura, editor-in-chief of Nikkei Trendy, a monthly magazine run by a wholly owned subsidiary of the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper group that is currently recording sales of around 250,000. Laziness is not in his nature; and "kowtow" isn't in his vocabulary.
Since his editorship began in January 2005, the consumer-driven title has relentlessly squared off with corporations as its staff pries out detailed data on their products and services, and nags them as to why they don't offer punters more for their money.
"In an era like this, it is important to make the rights or wrongs clear," declared Kitamura, an imposing 39-year-old man with loud voice, a big grin and hair that stands up 5 cm from his scalp. "And checking out products inside out is fun."
For proof of his dedication, look no further than the current issue of Nikkei Trendy, which includes a 50-page special on highway service stations. For that one feature, Kitamura had three male-female pairs of reporters hit the road to rate all the service areas along eight major expressways across the nation. Armed with an 80-item check list, his sleuths scrutinized such points as the decor and opening hours, the ratio of Western-style to Japanese-style toilet seats and the number of restaurant menus.
One station on the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture, called Dangozaka, received the top score of 70 points out of 100, for its exotic decor and a glass-walled patio in the restroom, which "will no doubt make your body and soul refreshed," the magazine quipped.
Sahagawa Station on the downline of the Sanyo Expressway in Yamaguchi Prefecture, on the other hand, earned the lowest score of just 27 points. "It is the least attractive station on the Sanyo," the feature declared, adding that "You won't miss anything if you pass it . . . There is no restaurant [and] the food court is so small and mundane that the trip's excitement will be lost."
In February, Trendy fearlessly trained its sights on the controversial consumer issue of condominiums. Just three months after the Aneha scandal broke, Kitamura was under intense pressure to get it right.
In a hard-hitting, 40-page special titled (in translation), "The Safe Home! What house, what condominium should I get, then?" Trendy asked 27 developers to disclose details of their operations. Reporters accompanied by a real-estate expert also visited model rooms posing as customers, and made surprise visits to the building sites of all the developers. One major condo builder, Tokyu Land Corporation, refused to disclose data, citing a lack of time.
"When a reporter said they wouldn't give us data because they were 'too busy,' I said, well, tell readers the truth," Kitamura said. "They might have been really busy, but wasn't Orix Real Estate Corporation [whose entry ran next to Tokyu's] busy? Weren't all the developers busy?"
The result was a large, eye-catching blank space on the section headed Tokyu -- silent commentary in the otherwise data-packed feature.
"It's not that I have an excessive attachment to goods; it's just that I cannot stand getting ripped off," said Kitamura, who spent his mid-20s to early 30s reporting and writing scoops for the magazine. In the mid-1990s, for example, when the number of keitai users started to surge, he wondered about the truth of cellphone companies' claims that their products were "more connectable" than others'.
While most other publication's sarariman reporters asked the telecom companies if the claims were true, Kitamura decided to test connectability for himself. After learning from telecom officials, off the record, how they test the connection and voice quality, he did even more detailed checks. In the end, his team ended up making 1,000 calls on each phone they reviewed.
Trendy's core readership is men in their 30s and 40s, and it's perhaps a love of gadgets and performance data that lures them back each month to pore over articles that test and rate all manner of consumer items from flat-screen TVs to digital cameras, rice cookers to mountain bikes and much, much more.
While reticent to comment on a "very influential magazine," for fear of jeopardizing relationships, one spokesman at a major electronics manufacturer whose audio/visual equipment and home appliances are often critiqued said that Trendy is particularly important because its verdicts affect wider media attitudes, if not sales directly.
"Trendy serves as a benchmark for other media," he said. "If the magazine gives a favorable review of our product, we get more inquiries and requests for interviews."
Kitamura's fascination with product-testing dates back to his childhood in a fishing town in Toyama Prefecture where one day he came across a magazine at home called Kurashi-no-techo. That household magazine, founded by hardcore editor Yasuji Hanamori, changed his life, he says.
Once, Kitamura recalls, the magazine featured microwaves, which had just come on the market and were being advertised as "dream cookware." The magazine compared various models by assessing the time, labor, energy costs and tastes of the resulting dishes from them compared with stove-cooked ones. In conclusion, the magazine brutally commented: "It's no magic cookware. It's good for heating, but not for cooking or defrosting."
The young Kitamura was bowled over by the magazine's candid reporting. Three decades later, he says he is still fascinated with the art of rating, though he has come to understand that psychology -- not just hard statistics -- also affect consumer behavior.
"Consumers are not fools," he says. "But they act irrationally at times."
Not surprisingly, this guardian of all things trendy is just as serious when he picks up stuff for his own consumption. "Checking is my job," he says with pride "and my reporters are watching what the editor-in-chief is buying."
But doesn't he ever get tired of being so attentive to . . . goods?
"No. Shopping is a test of your will. What kind of digital camera to buy, what kind of PC to use . . . and excuse me for dressing not that great today, but what kind of clothes to wear . . . Those are important decisions," he said, pointing apologetically to his plain black shirt and gray jacket. "They define the kind of person you are."
Clearly he's a man with a mission, driven to lay bare the pros and cons of everything from "super power" vacuum cleaners to 8-million pixel digital cameras, or most anything else on which consumers might be tempted to spend their hard-earned cash.
As he sees it, "It's all about enjoying your life."
Try telling that to one of those dutiful sarariman reporters.