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World Cup 2002 - Interview with a Tabloid Journalist

12/5/2002

by R. Sanborn Brown

Soccerphile recently met with Makoto Era, who covers the entertainment and sports beat for Sports Nippon, the tabloid that enjoys the highest circulation in Japan. "Spo-nichi," as the paper is known, is a part of the Mainichi Shinbun group, which is one of Japan's three major newspapers. Differing perhaps in degree from other tabloids, Sports Nippon like its peers offers its readers a steady and predictable diet of sports, Japan's gei-no-kai (the lurid goings-on of figures in the public eye), sex, and scandal.

Sports Nippon.Sports coverage fills much of the paper and consists mainly of stories related to baseball, horse racing, golf, soccer, sumo, track bicycle racing, motor boat racing, boxing, and fishing. Japan's gei-no-kai is the local entertainment industry, which in scope and silliness and following bears little resemblance to Hollywood. The "Spo-nichi Adult Page" is clearly written by, about, and for middle-aged men. It is filled with erotic fantasy. There is a daily feature on a woman working in the mizu-shobai, Japan's ubiquitous "waterworld," with a picture, a description of her tastes and speciality, and the address and phone number of her establishment. A cartoon about a very pathetic man called "Nori Yama-chan" appears frequently. Reviews of adult Internet sites and the top ten adult videos are used as filler. On the global front, there is also a column on salacious happenings around the world called "World Report: Slippery Slippery." Finally, a section called "Play Plaza," where ads for brothels take up the bottom quarter of the page. The scandal page is mined from two ever-reliable sources: the gei-no-kai and domestic politics. Unless it involves global drama or devolves into scandal, hard news is usually buried deep within the paper.

In a recent issue, a brilliant color photo of baseball player grimacing at the moment he was struck by a fastball adorns a typically artistic and eye-catching front page. Superimposed over the player are huge yellow Chinese characters that scream, "[Hanshin] Tigers in First Place!" Underneath, in smaller, equally garish lettering: "Team Goes on Batting Rampage Following Scuffle." The paper is financed by ads for sarakin, or loan sharks; magazines (manga, gei-no-kai, sports); hair removal products; wigs; brothels; Viagra-like sexual enhancement products ("salamander extract, for both men and women: guaranteed sexual desire!!"); and, of course, more sarakin. For only 120 yen, or less than a buck, it's all yours. Lifelong baseball fan Era-san met with Soccerphile over drinks in late April.

Soccerphile: Would you explain what you do at Sports Nippon, your every day routine.

Makoto Era: Basically what I cover is the gei-no-kai. But, depending upon need I get to cover non-gei-no-kai areas as well. For example, politics, crime, murder cases. My main beat is the entertainment industry as a whole but I also get to venture into television dramas, films, music. As I said before, though, in the event of a sudden big story--the paper will have me work on that. A good example is the upcoming World Cup. I'll be reporting on the tournament as a sociological phenomenon, what its influence on society is.

Soccerphile: When you began looking for work at a newspaper, and then got your current job, were you hired from the beginning to cover the gei-no-kai?

Era: No. At Sports Nippon, there is the editorial side and the business side. The third and final section is internal affairs. So when I passed the interview and exam, I was asked where I wanted to work--and of course I requested the editorial side, as I was interested in reporting. My true first choice was sports, especially baseball, but that's the most popular section of a tabloid...I'm not really sure why, but the paper ended up putting me in the entertainment section. At the time they were short-staffed and needed a young reporter. It was a matter of timing. To be honest, before I started working at a tabloid, I didn't even know there was an entertainment page--I only read the sports section...I'm in my seventh year now, and in the future I hope I will get the chance to move over into sports.
The work up till this point has though been very rewarding. In addition to entertainment, I have covered political scandal and crime. Of course, when you are covering, for example, a murder case you have to keep in mind the feelings of the victims, but it has been interesting work.

Soccerphile: The big three--the Asahi, Yomiuri, and Mainichi--papers in Japan, all of which belong to the kisha kurabu [press clubs, which exist at all ministries and agencies in Japan and serve as vehicles for self-censorship], tend to report only the press handouts they are given by the respective ministry, and in the same way. Only when a scandal has broken does a torrent of news--all of which is of course well known by reporters beforehand--fill up these papers. How are the sports newspapers different from the above?

Sports Nippon.Era: The tabloids do not belong to the press clubs. Since we are not constrained by this, we are more free to report on what we see fit. Also, since we don't get the daily press handouts, we put more priority on actually going to the location and doing legwork. It is true that we will on occasion touch on subjects the major dailies will not--at least not until after we have. The press clubs foster great peer pressure, so some stories are left to the weekly magazines and us.

Soccerphile: When a Japanese professional baseball player or soccer player transfers to an overseas team, a veritable army of reporters from Japan follows him there and then covers his every move. Why?

Era: Historically, Japan has had an inferiority complex towards the West. Therefore it is less the Japanese media initiating the intense coverage, but rather our readers who demand it. When Ichiro [Suzuki] wins the MVP in the Major Leagues, or even a [mediocre player] like [Tsuyoshi] Shinjo does well, it is thrilling.

Soccerphile: From an American perspective, this is odd. Americans consider it a matter of course that Americans will succeed everywhere at the highest level. The emergence of a player of Ichiro's caliber, therefore, should be a matter of course--if not even a bit late in arriving--coming from a country with Japan's population and economic strength.

Era: It's probably still a numbers issue. This year there are 11 Japanese playing in the Major Leagues, so it's still relatively rare. Especially in the case of Shinjo, who was not a mega star in Japan, there is great interest in Japan at just how far he will be able to go in the Major Leagues...

Soccerphile: What influences daily sales, the amount of papers you sell on any given day?

Era: It varies by region, but here in Osaka it is undoubtedly the Hanshin Tigers [baseball team]. Whether they are faring well or not. For our younger readers, though, entertainment news is equally if not more important. This has always been true of women, but younger men also are very interested in the gei-no-kai. Soccer is a niche market--a growing and strong niche--but still the Tigers are the main thing. Different from the past though are the fans who now follow both baseball and soccer.
Japanese baseball compares pretty well with the Majors, if you don't count superstars of the level of a Barry Bonds. The J-League, though, is a poor cousin to the Serie A in Italy, Spain's Primera Liga, and the Premier League in England. At the outset of the J-League, there were big name stars--Zico, Leonardo, Lineker, etc.--but recently that has not been the case at all. After the World Cup is over, there are real worries for Japanese soccer.

Soccerphile: Who is the typical reader of Sports Nippon?

Era: The image is definitely of a man in his 40s or 50s. In research we have done, that type of reader is well represented; however, we also have many younger readers as well. Women make up 20-30% of our readership, thanks primarily to entertainment news.

Soccerphile: What kind of pressure do you feel from your sponsors?

Era: Not much, I think. But, for example in the case of a sarakin [loan shark] company getting into the news for something, say, a bit unsavory, nothing is really said from the editors but there is definitely an understanding...we are also a part of the Mainichi group--which includes the newspaper and Mainichi Television Station--so we would rarely criticize them.

Soccerphile: In your opinion, what is the image of a sports tabloid?

Era: A paper for the masses. Simple writing that anyone can read easily. When I write stories, for example, I have to keep it basic. [A tabloid is] An entertainment paper that should be entertaining.

Soccerphile: Last question. Is there anything you won't or can't cover? The Emperor? The Burakumin (the traditional untouchable class)?

Era: Basically no, we'll cover anything. Religious organizations are tough. We have to be careful with Soka Gakkai, for example. Any time you have a large, powerful organization in Japan--no matter what it represents--you have to tread carefully...the paper itself does not really have a political hue, so the fact that I'm to the left of center and have some reservations about the Imperial System does not influence my work at all.

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