Oshigami: Newspapers sales practises supporting high newspapers circulations in Japan



The mass media industries in Japan are undergoing the same processes of adjustment to the world of new electronic media as other advanced countries. However the reactions and paths chosen by various industries depend to a degree on the nature of the local industry structures and their position as social, economic and political actors.

The Japanese newspaper industry has been studied extensively, yet one aspect has gone more or less unremarked, the importance of the sales infrastructure developed by newspaper to deliver their product to readers. This paper elucidates a little understood and complex, if not obscure, aspect of one of the world’s largest newspaper industries.

Fig 1 Fall in total national newspaper circulations in the UK and Japan, Oct 2001=1. Data from NSK website and UK ABCs (Guardian Newspaper



The Japanese newspaper is synonymous with high circulation figures, and, as AFP reporter Ito Shingo has pointed out(Ito, 2012, Jan 17), ’[p]rinted newspapers may be in crisis in the West but circulations remain enormous in high-tech Japan’. By comparison to newspapers in ’the West’ - particularly it seems the US - Japanese publishers would seem to have relatively little to trouble them. Yet, in March 2009, FACTA magazine carried an article entitled ‘Newspaper industry shudders at stricter ABC report’.1 The ABC in question is the (Japan) Audit Bureau of Circulation (I will refer to it throughout as JABC in order to distinguish it from the United States’ ABC), the body responsible for collecting, auditing and reporting newspaper and magazine circulation figures in Japan. Why would the Japanese newspaper industry, blessed with circulations that are legend, shudder at gaining a more accurate picture of its readership levels, especially if, as 28 Valaskivi (2007) suggests, the ‘Japanese are among the most eager readers of newspapers in the world’?

A sine qua non of any mention of the Japanese national daily newspaper is reference to their vast circulations (e.g. Sugiyama 2000:193, Freeman 2000:18, Cooper-Chen 1997:52, Feldman 1993:11). The figures shown in table are indeed the envy of newspaper publishers in Europe and the US; Germany’s Bild claims the largest circulation (apx 3.3 million)2 of any non-Japanese paper, followed by the UK’s The Sun (apx 3 million),3 USA Today sells just under 2 million copies daily4 in a country with roughly twice the population of Japan. By comparison, the Yomiuri Shimbun’s roughly 10 million sales are impressive.(citation not found: Cooper-Chen:1997) (citation not found: Sugiyama:2000) (Freeman 2000) (citation not found: Feldman:1993) (citation not found: Cooper-Chen:1997) put Japan’s high circulation figures down to cultural and economic factors,

high literacy, relatively high per capita income, evenly distributed wealth, homogeneity, interest in world affairs, good educational system, efficient distribution techniques and heavily used public transportation.

While such features may make up part of the environment which has allowed newspaper sales to reach the levels they have in Japan, they are insufficient in themselves as immediate causes. The huge postwar expansion in circulation achieved by Japan’s daily nationals is not merely a side-effect of these types of cultural and economic factors, it is the result of a very concrete set of factors to do with the regulatory structuration of the newspaper industry, some of which this paper aims to outline. I also hope to show how reliance on the set of methods adopted to reach these levels of circulation has had detrimental, and possibly fatal, effects on the sub-structures that made such rapid increases possible.

The source for the circulation figures which demonstrate the power of the press in Japan inevitably come, whether directly or via intervening publications, from the JABC.5 There is in fact no other source available and there is little choice but for those with an interest in Japan’s mass media to rely on them; these are the ‘official’ figures and there would seem to be no reason to not use them. However, an uncritical attitude towards these officially sanctioned figures fails to pay sufficient attention to the significant, yet, due to its subject matter, exceedingly under-reported, body of material which since the mid-1980s has repeatedly cast legitimate doubts on both their accuracy and reliability. The obvious next step is to look at how the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulation (JABC, see for details) obtains the information it publishes as circulation figures. In short, the answer turns out to be, possibly unsurprisingly, that the information comes directly from its subscribing companies, that is the publishers of the newspapers and magazines whose circulations it is auditing; for the most part the body which monitors the circulation of the press in Japan reports the figures the publishers provide. However, one of the JABC’s most important functions is to perform a regular audit of these figures, to ensure that the publishers are playing ball.6 The shuddering of the newspaper industry at news of a strengthened JABC audit can be put down to the fact that there are good reasons to believe that the newspaper industry has not been entirely honest — or at very least somewhat disingenuous — in its reporting of circulation figures to the JABC. Many of the authors’ whose work I draw on for this paper argue that the Japanese newspaper industry has, for may years, engaged in practises which have systematically inflated circulation figures, a more proactive and critical JABC audit puts newspaper publishers at risk of being exposed as behaving in a rather less than ethical manner.

WSJ Incident


The illicit boosting of circulation figures is by no means limited to Japan as events surrounding the activities of the Wall Street Journal’s Europe edition in autumn 2011 showed. Although the WSJE was eventually absolved of breaking the UK ABC’s rules, its actions did lead to a rethink of the regulations themselves, implying that there were perhaps loopholes which needed tidying up (Sweney, 2011, Oct 13; Sweney, Jan 4, 2012). However, there seems to be a difference in that the systematic inflation of circulation figures in Japan is an integral part of the publishers’ business model rather than an occasional and improvised strategy.

Funding a newspaper business


The newspaper publishing industry makes its money, primarily, in two ways;

  • selling newspapers to subscribers and,

  • selling readers to advertisers.

It is important to understand the assumption implicit in the latter, that subscribers actually read the newspaper they buy and that the two terms are effectively interchangeable. The equivalence of the two is importance as subscription numbers have a direct effect on advertising income. The weighting of incomes from these two sources varies across media systems.


  2. Bild company website, Mediadaten:

  3. Mediaweek website:

  4. USA Today website:

  5. Often via the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, the Nihon Shimbun Kyōkai (referred to hereon as the NSK), or from the Foreign Press Center’s regularly updated ‘About Japan’ series pamphlet, Japan’s Mass Media

  6. This is described in