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Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012
CLOSE-UP: Shigesato Itoi
Shigesato Itoi shares lots of 'delicious life'
Shigesato Itoi is an established name in the Japanese cultural scene, but what he is known for may differ depending on who you ask.
To some, the 63-year-old is one of the most acclaimed advertising copywriters, who created an astonishing body of honed and catchy slogans, claims and come-ons during Japan's upbeat period of high economic growth in the 1970s and '80s. Others may remember him as a talk-show host or regular guest on prime-time variety shows — while some know him as the designer of Nintendo's popular computer game, "Mother 2" (titled "Earth Bound" for overseas).
Even if none of these claims to fame rings a bell, however, movie buffs may recognize Itoi as the voice-actor of the father of Mei and Satsuki in Hayao Miyazaki's popular animation film "My Neighbor Totoro"; while TV fans may know of him as the real-life husband of actress Kanako Higuchi, who plays the mother of the family in mobile-phone company Softbank's ongoing super-cult "Otosan" ad series.
Over the past 14 years, however, Itoi's work has centered on his role as editor-in-chief of Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shimbun (Almost-Daily Itoi Newspaper), his own corner of the Internet.
Despite his use of the word "shimbun" (newspaper) in the title of his media organ, Itoi's version is far removed from conventional newspapers at the basic level of it not carrying news reports per se. Nor does it rely on wire services such as Kyodo, AP, Reuters or whatever.
But the stories on Hobonichi, as it is known, are original and very engaging. In a recent segment, for example, Itoi moderated a discussion between former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, gardener Seijun Nishihata and Yuji Kishi, a Keio University natural science professor, about how to revive the forests in Honshu's northeastern Tohoku region. Meanwhile, other recent features on Hobonichi — which attracts more than 1 million page views every day — have included a couple of the 49 staffers interviewing 94-year-old Masazo Takenami, a resident of Honshu's far-northern Aomori Prefecture, who has kept a picture diary for 56 years. Then there has been a series of funny stories from readers about what they tell their kids to get them to listen to them.
Long before Hobonichi, though, and despite his outstanding success, Itoi distanced himself from advertising in the early 1990s when he became disillusioned with the way creativity in the field was thrust into a back seat behind costs as the economic bubble burst. In fact his response was the classic "gone fishin' " — which is precisely how he spent his time while pondering how to fashion an environment free of sponsors and bottom lines in which he could realize his own initiatives.
Change came in 1997, when Itoi encountered the then-new world of the Internet. Itoi says he was pleasantly shocked and excited to discover how it was transforming people's way of gathering and providing information — as well as how they connected with each other.
So, on his 49th birthday, on Nov. 10 that year, Itoi bought his first Macintosh computer and started exploring cyberspace in earnest, convinced that the Internet would allow him to actualize his ideal.
He didn't waste much time getting going, because, on June 6, 1998, he launched the Hobonichi website — including "almost daily" in the title as a ready-made excuse if it couldn't be updated some times. To date, though, Hobonichi has never missed a day in delivering Itoi's essays and its wide spectrum of other content — whether interviews with celebrities and features about them, or material drawn from unknown or little-known people involved in handicrafts, cooking projects, photography or whatever. Also, ever since the March 2011 disasters, Hobonichi has consistently focused on stories about how people in the affected parts of Tohoku have been recovering.
Another major, and defining, characteristic of Hobonichi is that as a matter of policy it does not carry any advertising. Instead, its revenue comes from marketing Hobonichi-brand products including T-shirts, towels and curry rice plates. And, of course, the stories behind developing those original products feature on Hobonichi, too.
Despite completely bucking the regular media's ad-based business model, in fiscal 2011, the Hobonichi company posted ¥2.8 billion in sales, and a net income of ¥300 million — bottom-line proof that it could do it its way, even in Japan's super-sluggish economy.
Among the most successful Hobonichi product is the Hobonichi Techo, an original daily schedule planner spanning a calendar year, which sold a surprising 460,000 copies in 2011. However, that figure's only likely to rise this year, the 12th year of publication, as an English-language version of the planner made its debut on the market. "In a nutshell, we want to go global (with the Hobonichi Techo)," Itoi says.
On a recent afternoon, Itoi talked to The Japan Times at his office in Tokyo's posh Aoyama district in Minato Ward and shared his thoughts on Hobonichi, the various Hobonichi projects, copy-writing — and the impact of last year's Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami and nuclear crisis it triggered.
I want to ask you about your successful Hobonichi Techo. Did you especially like daily planners, and how did the idea of creating an original one come about?
I'd not been able to establish a good relationship with planners when I had them myself. I repeatedly started to use one and ended up abandoning it. It seemed as though many people had similar experiences.
When I was young, I didn't really think it was necessary to record things. I used to think people who took notes were fools! (laughs). I was someone who pretended to be wise, and I thought that things we forget were just things we forget — so they weren't important.
But then later I used to write down all sorts of things, and I was vaguely aware that the stuff I scribbled down often turned out to be useful when I revisited it. Eventually, I came to think that it would be convenient if I could integrate all of those memos so it'd be easier to read over them again.
Then at one point I realized that dates do help, because as long as the dates are there as a structure, you can't be messy and use the planner the following year, too.
We came up with one that dedicates a whole page for a day, big enough to write an essay on it.
I also wanted a cover with a cool design that made you feel good about carrying it — and I made sure the planner had side pockets where you could put business cards, bank notes and things. So, from the start we were able to create a planner that has all you need during a lunch break. It was the planner I needed.
Do you see a connection between the rising sales of the planner and people visiting the Hobonichi website?
Yes, definitely. Quite a lot of people encounter the planner first and then "Hobonichi." You'd think it would be the other way around, but I've long hoped for this to happen.
When I started Hobonichi in 1998, there weren't many people who knew what the Internet was. Eventually more people began to have access, but still today I don't think the Internet has taken over the world. I believe that at the core of society there are people who get their information from newspapers. Even today, we need to remind ourselves that there are people who don't know what Hobonichi is.
In that regard, among the things people physically encounter, everyone who uses the planner will spend a whole year with it. It's a joy to be able to meet with many people that way through the work we do. The more we do it, the more I feel good about releasing this planner. There are really few things that people spend an entire year with.
Last year, after the earthquake, we heard from some tsunami victims that they were hoping to get the planner because the ones they had were washed away. So we placed an announcement on the Hobonichi website saying we would give disaster victims planners for free. That was something positive we could do.
At the time, we weren't sure how many people we would be able to reach, but it turned out that a surprising 1,400 people contacted us. In the thank-you e-mails we received, many spoke of how losing the planner had had a big impact on them. They also said how happy they were to get back the same planner.
I was touched. I've traveled around the country and have asked many users to show me how they are using their planners. But when we saw how so many people were desperate to get this planner after the experience of such disasters, we felt proud of the work we do. We shared the e-mails with the people at the factory that makes the planners, and they were also happy to see that.
Let me ask you about your work as a copywriter. Why did you choose that profession?
I couldn't find any other job. I dropped out of university. So there wasn't anything waiting for me.
That was right in the middle of the 1960s student movement, and I participated in that in my freshman year. But I dropped out in my second year. I quit just to get away from it all; I didn't even want to meet my comrades.
So I had to start looking for a job, but I didn't know how. I thought that acquiring some kind of skill should help, and I started to get information from different schools.
Back then, I had never heard of copywriters. But when a junior high school classmate told me that she was attending a school to become one, I thought that was for me. It was clear to me that I was more qualified than her, because I was anyway already constantly trying to come up with words to make people happy. I thought that was what I wanted to do and so I went to a school to become a copywriter.
Were you good at writing as a child?
No, I was completely the opposite. I wasn't good at writing essays about fixed things. I hated them. But I really enjoyed it when we were tasked to write personifications.
School teachers always like it when students included frank and outspoken things in their essays. "Parents, you guys were fighting, weren't you? Your child was watching" — you know, they like things like that. But I hated writing those things because I grew up in a complicated family situation.
On the other hand, if we were given a chance to write an essay titled "I am an eraser," I could do that because I could make up everything. I still remember clearly how much I enjoyed doing that.