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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
THE ZEIT GIST
Living and loving The Alien from Nagoya
Recalling the heyday of the 'juvenile' mag that grew up to be Japanzine
By NEIL GARSCADDEN
The year 1990 might not seem so long ago, but for many reasons, and in Japan especially, it was a completely different world. There was no Internet. There were no mobile telephones. There was hardly any way to get up-to-date English information on places beyond Tokyo and Osaka except by going there. Outside those metropolises, Westerners were far and few between.
In April of that year, the first edition of The Alien, a free flier of satirical news reports and gag articles, was produced in Nagoya. Carter Witt, an American English teacher who had been in Japan a few years already — and who happened to be a fellow resident of the gaijin house I was staying at — devised and hand-wrote the first four-page issue. Photocopies were made (at a local Lawson's), and then the folded copies were distributed to a select number of English schools and gaijin bars.
The name was a pun on the "Alien" signs for the foreigner line at immigration when entering Japan, and the alien registration cards resident foreigners were required to carry. The "L" in The Alien masthead was symbolically printed with black outline and white interior, while the other letters were completely black.
Being one of the few reading materials around in English, and also being quite funny, The Alien developed somewhat of a following among Nagoya foreigners for its satirical take on things. Among some of the news articles that appeared in these early issues were such stunning revelations as "Zsa Zsa in bizarre sex triangle with Woodsy Owl and Hello Kitty" and "Study reveals 70% of subway operators are prone to seizures."
These were the days before the personal computer, so when later editions took a step up in quality, it meant articles were first printed on a "word-pro," then cut out and pasted before finally being photocopied. Issues appeared every month or two (or three).
The Alien then was just a fun, wacky little thing you'd happen to come across if you were lucky. From the first issue I contributed a rather weird column called "The Neil Zone" and would help add some puns for filler, or participate in brainstorming sessions, but basically it was Carter's thing. Later that year, having saved up some money for traveling, I left, not thinking I'd be back.
In late 1991, in Europe and low on funds, I decided to head once more to Nihon, where I figured I could score some more cash. So I returned to Nagoya, and soon ran into Carter. He had just produced the 10th issue of The Alien — a "worst of" compilation, still photocopied, and still looking rough, but expanded to eight pages for this special (final?) issue. Carter had just decided to pack it in and return back home to the States, where a job had been lined up. He suggested that I make some more editions, and he left me with the original copy of the masthead to use.
Taking up his suggestion, over the next year I took the next steps forward in The Alien's development, finding a place that would print copies, adding more pages, beginning regular features and finding new writers. The cover page, formerly newspaper-style with typed columns, was changed to incorporate images and art. It was still very rough-looking, with innumerable spelling mistakes and a sometimes splotchy print quality (completely black and white), but The Alien continued to grow in terms of both readership and physical size. It was especially popular for how it made light of the many wacky surprises foreigners could expect to find in Japan. Carter and I kept in occasional touch by post, and he also sent in a few articles during this period. With the magazine's growing popularity, advertising began to bring in enough revenue to pay for the printing, cover delivery expenses and more.
Near the end of 1992 Carter ditched his job in the U.S. and came back again to Nagoya to be with his girlfriend. After some wrangling we agreed to work together on the project as partners. Within a year The Alien had doubled in size to 40 pages, with a humor section, bar and restaurant listings, comics, an event calendar and even more advertising. 1994 saw the introduction of a color cover. It was still rough in terms of production quality, but — being free and funny — it was hugely popular, and Nagoya gaijin would go out of their way to get the latest issue.
In 1995 a travel section was added, an annual short story contest began and the first Kansai edition appeared. In 1996, with the start of a Tokyo edition, we ventured down the path of having the magazine sold in bookstores, the benefit being that The Alien would now be available all over Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, making it a truly national magazine. The page count during this time peaked at a grand total of 60 per issue.
It became apparent, however, that free distribution was much more effective for reaching readers and for local advertisers. Being small and nimble, we were fortunately able to make the transition back to being a free paper, offsetting the cost of having more issues printed and distributed for free by reducing the number of pages again.
In 1998 the first "Charisma Man" strip appeared, and The Alien rebounded along with this hugely popular character. Throughout these changes and developments, the full-time staff remained just Carter and I. We weren't making a ton of cash, but it was satisfying when each monthly issue came out.
The magazine was always dependent on advertising — and thus revenue would fluctuate wildly from month to month as various bars opened and closed — but anyways, money wasn't only thing we were shooting for: We wanted to make a fantastic magazine, and I think we achieved that. I look back now at some of the issues from this period and am amazed at what the two of us were able to put together month after month (with a lot of help from many writers, artists and unexpected submissions from readers).
The driving force behind the The Alien's explosive growth in the '90s was not only the sheer boringness of other magazines at the time, but also the fun and wackiness the magazine espoused. Readers were invited to send in submissions, so there were always a wide range of opinions, jokes and styles in the magazine. The humor was also sometimes slightly offensive, which shocked some but delighted many, and only added to the magazine's zany reputation. A popular regular feature, Jake's Top Ten List, for example, advised as one of 10 "Things to do while riding a taxi": "At every ¥100 increment, take one piece of clothing off."
In the year 2000, The Alien changed its name to Japanzine, having outgrown its juvenile roughness and indicating its transition to a more mainstream style, in terms of both content and production. "The Alien" had been a great name for a magazine that had run full-page advertisements for "all-you-can-drink nights" together with an image of a giant pitcher of beer, or a regular feature called "Uses and Abuses of Obaasans," but it no longer matched the magazine it had become: a computer-designed monthly with features, reviews, classifieds, an event calendar, imaginative covers and three regional editions — on top of a humor section.
I finished with the magazine in 2001. Japanzine thereafter had continued success, going full-color, adding pages again, holding national music competitions ("Gaijin Sounds") and looking in every respect a professional publication. Last year, after 20-plus years in print, the magazine released its final edition, although the concept lives on as a popular website.
Is there still a place for a humor magazine in Japan? I'd say probably yes, but due to advances in technology, being a foreigner in Japan is now a completely different experience. Nowadays, anyone with a computer can find info on Japan online, translate anything from Japanese — even see satellite maps of wherever they want to go. Before the Internet age, when you told friends you were heading to Japan, they didn't expect to hear from you again for possibly months; these days you just send an email, or even talk live by video. Back then you really weren't too sure where you were even going; one was stepping into the unknown when disembarking from the plane at Narita.
Japan also has seen improvements and undergone many changes over the past two decades. It's a much easier place to get around. In most cities, gaijin, while still somewhat rare, don't always get the special treatment and wide eyed-stares that were the norm before. For all these reasons and more, it was an unusually special time to be a foreigner in Japan — and an uncommonly ripe period for humor.
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