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Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009
THE ZEIT GIST
Did technology kill the KTO star?
After 32 years, sun sets in Japan's west on a Kansai institution
By JOHN SPIRI
In 1977, nine years after Tony Elliott started the then-alternative media London Time Out magazine, Kansai Time Out printed its first issue, an eight-pager with local listings and a smattering of Japan-related articles. Dominic Al-Badri, chief editor from 1997 to 2004, recalls that the info-packed pages had the look of a British tabloid newspaper, but from the start KTO offered something far more substantial for those with a genuine interest in Japan.
"If you made a mistake you had to literally cut out that little bit with scissors," he says of the publishing world in the early days of KTO. "Now it's all done by computer."
Al-Badri reckons it was the move to computers that saved KTO back when the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit Kobe just before deadline on January 17, 1995. Having the great fortune to have just moved from an office around Sannomiya in Kobe — which was leveled in the quake — then-owner David Jack retrieved files from the badly damaged but still operational office near Shin-Kobe Station. Working from backup computers at his home in the Hyogo countryside, Jack managed to save that issue, which led with a striking photograph of the earthquake on the cover.
"I always had the feeling that if they hadn't put that issue out, the magazine would have died with the earthquake," says Al-Badri.
While computers proved to be a lifesaver — or at least a time-saver — to publishers, and a way to make a more polished print product on the cheap, they have proven to be even more useful to readers, who now often eschew the cover price of a magazine and simply access content online at home or on their mobiles for free.
The information age, a lack of business acumen, apathy toward pursuing profit, a quixotic quest for community, or a combination of all the above stopped KTO in its tracks at issue 391. In his final editorial in the September 2009 issue, Senior Editor Christopher Stevens wrote, "We've all gotten used to it by now — print media is losing out to digital information."
Well, not everyone. In that same final issue, referring to what he considers the superficiality of some of KTO's competitors — which include freebies such as Kansai Scene and the Nagoya-based Japanzine (formerly The Alien) — longtime contributor Simon Moran wrote, "If . . . ogling at the nation's women like a drunken Anglo-Saxon tourist in the Mediterranean is the only way to stay in print, then perhaps we're better off out of it."
Stevens concurs, noting that readers who wanted something "even remotely intellectually stimulating" would surely reach for KTO.
On technology's role in KTO's demise, Al-Badri adds, "Foreigners, like those in Japan, tend to be drivers of new technology. If you look at cheap callback phone services, or the presence of the iPhone in Japan, those changes were driven by foreigners. Now with high speed broadband, readers can receive a wealth of information in their living room." Thus, the logic goes, there are now fewer reasons to buy magazines like Kansai Time Out.
Another nail in the coffin was when the sole distributor of English books in Japan, Yohan, went bust earlier this year. Suddenly, distribution to locations including Seattle, San Francisco and New York, as well as areas of Japan outside Kansai, became far more difficult.
Wherever the blame lies, the stats look devastating: From a peak of around 12,000 in the '90s, circulation had fallen to 4,000 by 2009.
Stevens, who started as a writer and proofreader at KTO, has interviewed cultural icons for the magazine including novelist Haruki Murakami, Vietnam War protester Makoto Oda, old Japan hands Donald Keene and Donald Richie, and even Steven Seagal (before he became famous). Despite its policy of aiming to give a space to and nurture aspiring writers, KTO has the dubious distinction of having refused a piece by Jay McInerney years before he earned worldwide fame with his first novel, "Bright Lights, Big City," in 1984.
KTO's writers today are dedicated locals and experts such as Doreen Simmons, sumo expert and NHK commentator. But the highest praise from both Stevens and Al-Badri is reserved for Office Manager Keiko Akizuki, whom they consider the backbone of the magazine's operation.
"We (KTO writers) were like family. We got together for Christmas, celebrated wives' birthdays and baby births, and have been meeting monthly for years," Stevens says.
"KTO was always about community," says Al-Badri. "It's fair to say it was never driven by profit," he adds almost apologetically. And there's the rub: In the end, there just wasn't enough to go round.
To its credit, KTO did succeed in bringing the Kansai — and to some extent Japan's — English community together. Every month the full-color magazine listed several pages of meetings, religious services, flea markets and classifieds. In addition, regular columns filled readers in about cinema, visual arts and music. As Al-Badri notes, "KTO has everything from traditional dance to underground punk shows to ikebana workshops."
The articles were equally eclectic. Al-Badri cites an example of a professional journalist from Germany who wrote for KTO for a spell.
"He looked like your archetypal Nazi skinhead thug. He was huge! But he actually convinced Japanese rightwingers that he was on their side, so he ended up riding on the rightwing sound trucks, which gave us an article from an insider's perspective rather than the perspective of one being blared at."
Other controversial articles touched on whaling, the Imperial family, North Korea — literally everything imaginable under the rising sun.
The magazine enjoyed an uncommon degree of editorial freedom from its inception, with David Jack as owner, through to the present day, says Stevens. In 2007 Jack sold the magazine to a Japanese printing company called Hit's, owned by Hirooka Kazunori, an ex-employee of the original printing company, Daihatsu Insatsu. With limited English-language ability, he exerted zero pressure in terms of content. In fact, with the new owners in charge, the editors felt even more freedom to explore more innovative layouts, courtesy of designers Nathan Hanners, Brad Howe and, of late, Chris Fagala.
However, due to the necessarily multicultural nature of the magazine and its followers, misunderstandings did sometimes occur.
"There was one article by an English writer — which was quite obviously to me tongue in cheek, with a certain amount of satire — about Western men dating Japanese women," Al-Badri reminisces. "It touched a nerve with readership, and the mail bag was overflowing. The letters of complaint tended to be from North Americans. Then other letters came in to criticize the criticizers! I half regretted not running it in a peak month."
Meanwhile, Stevens recalls a great number of complaints in response to an article about eating dog meat in South Korea that ran with some fairly graphic photos.
"It's hard for some to separate issues," Stevens says of readers. "They get emotional. I'm vegetarian myself and would never eat dog. We just believe everyone should have their say."
KTO helped create and energize the community in ways beyond introducing readers to activities, events and NGOs. Moran notes in the September sayonara issue, "KTO has encouraged people to get involved locally; to take up their pens, hiking boots, twitching devices, get out their guitars, give to unfashionable charities, honour the departed and, giving a leg up to many a writing career along the way," all the while boasting "often bloody-minded, cantankerous editorial independence."
Another longtime KTO contributor, Japan Times staff writer Eric Johnston, in the same final issue notes, "With KTO's demise also comes the end of locally owned monthly English-language information about (Kansai). If you pick up other magazines that feature the Kansai region, you're reading something owned by people who do not live here."
Jack, who started Kansai Time Out in 1977 and owned it until 2007, still resides in Kansai, but declined to comment other than to question the value of an article about KTO's demise. However, in a March 3, 2007, article commemorating the magazine's 30th anniversary, he had been hopeful about the future. "No matter what the technological changes may be, clarity of expression and relevant writing is always in demand," he was quoted as saying.
The proliferation of digital media, blogs and freebie publications is certainly part of the story behind KTO's downfall. The japanbloglist.com Web site lists well over 100 blogs about Japan, although they vary greatly in terms of quality and authority. But digital media can't take all the blame. London Time Out — connected to KTO in name only — flourished far beyond its wildest dreams as a hip underground magazine. It is now a global phenomenon, producing guidebooks and other publications around the world from Almaty to New York. Fans of KTO are left to wonder.
"I would have paid way more (than the subscription price)!" laments "samuraifingers," one of at least two fans who took the time to create and upload videos on YouTube bemoaning KTO's demise. The cover price has been ¥300 for as long as anyone can remember.
"We constantly talked about the possibility of finding a proper salesperson but never could find anyone appropriate," Stevens says. "We encouraged management to hire somebody, but they never did."
But Stevens reckons the magazine would be relatively easy and inexpensive to restart — if the current owners found a buyer.
"I hope there's somebody out there, maybe even an NPO. It's invaluable, with information you can't otherwise find about Japan."
Only time will tell whether the magazine is just taking a time out, or if technology killed the KTO star.
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