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Tuesday, March 5, 2002

MONTHLY BANKS ON QUALITY WRITING, INFO

Local fixture Kansai Time Out still going strong after 25 years


By GARY TEGLER
Staff writer

KOBE -- Squeezing past the bulging shelves of the Wantage bookstore in Kobe, up a narrow, angled stairway lined with hundreds of magazines, one enters command central of Kansai Time Out, the region's, and most likely the nation's, oldest monthly English-language magazine.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the publication that began as a free, four-page flyer and is now a fixture for thousands of Kansai readers.

Though truly a collaborative effort over its quarter century of existence, the magazine is really the child of David Jack, a soft-spoken Briton who wielded a big vision.

He and his wife, Sachiko Matsunaga, oversaw the growth of the magazine until 1997, when the reins were handed over to the present editor, Dominic Al-Badri, the first person ever to hold the position full time.

A lively mix of timely, thought-provoking articles, theater and music reviews and political commentary, Kansai Time Out has a circulation of around 12,000, 20 percent of which goes to regular subscribers.

Many favor the magazine for its exhaustive club, restaurant, theater and concert listings, similar to its counterparts, though unaffiliated, in Tokyo and London.

On Feb. 25, nearly 200 of the creme de la creme of Kobe's foreign and Japanese communities gathered at the Kobe Club to give Jack and Matsunaga a standing ovation for "bridging the best of many worlds," as one celebrant put it.

"The magazine initially had little more than a desk and telephone in an office along the railway tracks in the relatively salubrious drinking area of Sannomiya," writes Jack in the latest issue, which also features articles by noted authors Alex Kerr and Pico Iyer. "It was a world of long nights, cut and paste and the odd hangover."

The magazine now has a core of about 20 regular contributors knowledgeable in fields ranging from Japanese theater to sumo, two associate editors and a full-time staff of five, still headed by Matsunaga. Many a fledgling writer, according to Al-Badri, has gotten a start in the pages of the magazine.

"We are a magazine that does take an interest in the local community," said Al-Badri, who also carries a British passport. "I like to think that KTO can act as a stepping stone in some ways for people who don't have so much experience. Personally, I'm interested in making sure that the range of articles and the writing remain as good as possible."

This is not an easy task in a community as diverse as the Kansai region. Al-Badri explains that articles submitted by North American authors are not rewritten so as to suit readers from Britain, and vice versa. Also, a balance is maintained to ensure that new readers are engaged and old ones stay interested.

"We have to have some ground rules, so we try to assume that the average reader of KTO has been here about two to three years and has an interest in Japan," he said. "That is not as strange as it seems, because there are many people who come here for whatever reasons and they're not particularly interested in Japan. They've been posted here. So we assume some nominal interest and a bit of the language. We open the door, show the people where the door is but we don't take them through the door and walk them all around the temple."

With the famous business bent of Kansai entrepreneurs, the magazine has many regular advertisers, including one Indian tailor who has been advertising since shortly after the publication began. However, the magazine has not been immune to the ongoing recession.

"I'm no economist, but there was a certain amount of flab through the early part of the 1990s where even though the country was technically in recession, there was still a lot of cash. A lot of that has dried up in the last few years," Al-Badri said. "Bars and restaurants will continue to a certain extent, but among other companies who offer services particularly aimed at the foreign community, many are packing up and either leaving Japan or moving up to Tokyo."

Changing times or not, the magazine's long-standing relationship with local establishments and the ad revenues enable it to still be sold at the reasonable newsstand price of 300 yen at a time when many other similar publications are raising their rates. Nor has the advent of the Internet been much of a threat.

"People will always want to read good writing," Al-Badri said. "As people lead very busy lives, the readers will still depend on some people to choose the right articles, articles of quality."



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