The evolving face of Nikkei media



News and entertainment media serving the Japanese-speaking and English-language communities include (from top): the Los Angeles-based Rafu Shimpo, the last remaining bilingual Japanese American community newspaper in California, the Nichi Bei Weekly, BaySpo, J Weekly, the Digital Edition of the Nichi Bei Weekly and TV Japan, a subscription-based Japanese-language TV channel. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

The media landscape was forever changed in the 21st century as readership increasingly moved online and economic hardships in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis rocked the world. Media outlets serving Japanese speakers and Japanese Americans did not escape the turmoil either.

Within the last five years, the San Francisco Bay Area has lost a number of Japanese-language media outlets. San Francisco Radio Mainichi, the Japanese-language radio station, and the two Japanese American bilingual newspapers — the Nichi Bei Times and Hokubei Mainichi, both published for more than 60 years — closed in 2009. In April of this year, the Fuji Telecast and Production Company in San Mateo, Calif. also closed after 42 years.

Today, the Japanese-speaking community in the Bay Area has two free weekly tabloids, a local television station and two English-language Japanese American newspapers.

Outlets Closing

The Fuji Telecast and Production Company, founded in 1972, aired Japanese-language programs in the Bay Area. The outlet first aired their content over KIMO TV and then on KTSF, an independent Asian-language television station, which started in 1976, Victor Marino, director of programming at KTSF said. 

“In recent years, with the explosion of available international programming via the Internet, the TV broadcasting business model has been changing. In addition, the Japanese market in the Bay Area has been shrinking,” he said. Marino, in an e-mail sent in April of this year, said Fuji TV’s advertising revenue had shrunk to a point where the station “could no longer continue.” 

“I was very sad to receive the news from Fuji TV that they would cease broadcasting at the end of March,” he said.

Satoko Kuni, the company’s owner, did not respond to inquiries from the Nichi Bei Weekly when the station closed. The phone number for the station has since been disconnected.

Prior to Fuji TV’s closure, Japanese media in the San Francisco Bay Area had been hit by several other closures, namely in 2009.

In April of 2009, Radio Mainichi, which broadcast Japanese-language radio to the region, closed. June-ko Nakagawa, former president of Radio Mainichi, was with the station for close to two decades during its run from July of 1990 to April of 2009. According to Nakagawa, the station reached about 10,000 people in the Bay Area. The station closed, Nakagawa said, because of the lack of financial sponsors.

A few months later, the Nichi Bei Times announced it would close its doors in September of 2009. The Nichi Bei Times, started in 1946 by Japanese Americans returning to California following the war, published in both English and Japanese. The newspaper published its final English and Japanese issue on Sept. 10, 2009. Kenji G. Taguma, former English section editor and vice president of the Nichi Bei Times, said the closure may have been made prematurely. “It would be easy to generalize that the Nichi Bei Times was a victim of the economic downturn facing general newspapers in 2009, but I don’t know if that would be a complete picture, as we still had a niche — particularly with the English edition,” he said. “Our lease for the office space was about to expire, and I think the board of directors wanted to close while they could provide some level of severance to existing employees.”

A month later, the Hokubei Mainichi ceased publishing its newspaper. Don Yamate, the former chairman of the board and CEO of Hokubei Mainichi Inc., said his paper had tried to implement a transition to publishing online, but the lack of advertising support and harsh economic conditions hampered them from doing so.

“The board felt that since we didn’t have the advertising support due to the economy, it was best to stop publishing the paper,” he said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Our transition into digital media was difficult due to a lack of understanding of the media by our advertisers.” According to Yamate, the majority of the paper’s readership was Japanese speaking and reached, at its height, 12,000 readers. The Hokubei Mainichi printed its last issue toward the end of October 2009.

State of Nikkei Media

Following the announcement of the closing of the Nichi Bei Times, former staff members and other media professionals, along with Japanese American community leaders, established the Nichi Bei Foundation. A week after the final issue of the Nichi Bei Times, the Nichi Bei Weekly, the first nonprofit ethnic newspaper of its kind in the country, began publishing.

Having just celebrated its fifth year, the Nichi Bei Weekly continues to publish, but not without change. The Nichi Bei Weekly faced financial hardships and made a switch to publishing as a biweekly publication in April of 2012. To attract younger readers and reach around the world, the newspaper also started to offer a digital edition in January of this year. The nonprofit went on to focus more on education through its mission “of keeping the community connected, informed and empowered.”

“What I find important is that we are documenting our community’s history as it happens,” Taguma said. “Years from now, researchers will only have the pages of the Nichi Bei to get a sense of the Japanese American experience, our highs and our lows.” The nonprofit also hosted events such as an author’s series, a Films of Remembrance event featuring films related to the Japanese American concentration camp experience and, most recently, the Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage.

Meanwhile, the Nikkei West, established in 1992, also continues to publish. The English-language newspaper publishes twice a month and is primarily distributed in the Bay Area and Sacramento Valley area, according to its Website. Jeffery Kimoto, editor and publisher of the Nikkei West declined to publicly comment on his newspaper.

Further down south, Gwen Muranaka, English section editor for the Rafu Shimpo in Los Angeles, said her paper continues to try to adapt to new demographics among Nikkei and maintain a community focus within the L.A. region. Muranaka said a little more than half of the newspaper’s current readers are American-born. “Our newspaper readers tend to be older, with Japanese readers also reading the English section as well,” she said.

Muranaka said part of the reason why the Japanese American press in Southern California may continue to subsist is partially due to the large number of Japanese businesses operating out of the region, which has allowed for a steady flow of Japanese immigration. The Rafu, currently publishing four days a week, typically has a larger Japanese section than its English section, according to Muranaka. Its Japanese section covers general news from the U.S. and Japan on top of community news for Japanese-speaking audiences while the English section focuses primarily on issues pertaining to the Japanese American community.

“Right now (the English section is) sort of focused on what’s happening in Little Tokyo and all the changes that are going on and what that means for the Japanese American community as a whole,” Muranaka said. “The cultural center (for Japanese Americans living in Southern California) is still in Little Tokyo, so what happens there will always be important … We cover things, we celebrate the victories of the community and when bad things going on, like any community newspaper.”

The paper currently also attracts younger readers through covering various Nikkei sporting leagues in Southern California and having a strong social media presence. “There’s lots going on, we actually don’t have enough people to cover everything that goes on. It’s good that we have all these Japanese American kids out there doing things.”

Muranaka said the whole newspaper industry was struggling, but there is a bright side for ethnic newspapers. “I think where Japanese publications can take some heart are the newspapers that are succeeding are the ones that can target and identify a very clear audience,” she said. “They present content which is unique, which has a lot of value. And I think that’s what papers like the Rafu and the Nichi Bei do.”

Demands for Japanese Newspapers in the Bay Area

Nakagawa, who now serves as executive director of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, said despite the changed media landscape, she hears that the demand for Japanese media is still prevalent within the Japanese community. “People seem to be able to access the Internet and get whatever they are looking for these days,” she said. “But many of us are looking for local news in the Japanese language.”

Despite that, following the closure of the Nichi Bei Times, the Nichi Bei Weekly did not start printing in Japanese. According to Taguma, now president of the Nichi Bei Foundation and editor-in-chief of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the demand for Japanese-language media was not there. “I said from the beginning that if there was an interest and financial means to do so, we would look into producing either a Japanese-language edition or section,” he said. “But the yearning was just not there en masse to justify such an investment of very limited funds.” He went on to say, in contrast, that English section readers offered the Nichi Bei Foundation the financial support it needed to publish the Nichi Bei Weekly. Taguma added that the Nichi Bei Foundation publishes one bilingual edition per year: the Japanese Culture and Cherry Blossom Festival Guide.

Two free Japanese-language weekly tabloids, BaySpo and J Weekly, both in Burlingame, Calif., remain in the Bay Area. Both papers distribute around 30,000 copies each week and cater to Japanese-speaking people who have moved to the region.

J Weekly’s motto is, ‘to support the Bay Area’s Nikkei businesses and community!,’” Jun Kubota, a manager at Sports J Co., publisher of J Weekly, wrote in an e-mailed statement in Japanese. “We aim to be a ‘Japanese oasis’ for our readers, especially those who have recently moved to the Bay Area from Japan (for work or school).” The weekly tabloid, which publishes sports and entertainment news, a local events calendar, features on local destinations, a classified section and restaurant reviews also includes information for recent newcomers to help them settle down in the Bay Area. Kubota said the Nikkei community in San Francisco is growing and his publication aims to support them.

A request for comment to BaySpo was not answered at press time, but its publication also caters to similar demographics and publishes similar editorial content to J Weekly.

Channel Surfing

For Japanese-language television, the source and quantity of shows have also changed over the years. Previously, KTSF aired Japanese programming daily. The channel aired morning news from Fujisankei Communications International in Japanese and hosted Japanese content on prime-time television hours on the weekends, Fuji TV on Saturdays and Tokyo TV of Burlingame, Calif. on Sundays. According to Marino, Tokyo TV ended their relationship with KTSF in April 2011 as well, leaving no Japanese content on the television station after Fuji TV’s closure.

Tokyo TV currently provides Japanese and English content through its over-the-air channel 27.1 and airs a block of Japanese-language programming on Crossings TV’s Sunday evening on Comcast channel 238, similar to its programming lineup with KTSF. According to Tokyo TV’s Website, the company still airs classic favorites such as “3 Min. Cooking,” “Hello Restaurant” and NHK’s “Taiga Dorama” in its weekend lineup. FCI continues to air its daily morning news on Crossings TV and on Tokyo TV’s over-the-air channel as well.

FCI, a subsidiary of Japanese media giant Fuji Media Holdings (no relation to Fuji TV), said it continues to provide programming for free and paid channels. “In the past we’ve provided news and entertainment from Japan,” said Michael Schelp, senior director of creative development and production at FCI. “We now focus on providing entertainment shows for TV Japan’s paid content and continue to air news for the regular channels.”

Meanwhile, shows with entertainment value such as anime and dramas have moved to subscription-based channels such as NHK’s TV Japan. Since beginning its broadcast in 1991 under Japan Network Group, TV Japan has grown to 80,000 households across the U.S., 29.3 percent of which is living on the West Coast, according to Yuichi Tatsumi, secretary and general manager of NHK Cosmomedia. With their channel provided by AT&T, Comcast and Dish Network paid service providers, demand for TV Japan has grown steadily since 2006, said Tatsumi.

Hiroko Kajino, a volunteer at Nobiru-Kai, a Japanese newcomers service group in San Francisco’s Japantown, said her apartment building collectively subscribes to Comcast, but did not pick up TV Japan as part of the subscription. “I wish there was more Japanese content,” said Kajino, who has resided in the U.S. for 51 years. “It’s only the daily news now, and most of the content is from NHK. There aren’t a lot of choices out there.”

For want of additional Japanese content, Kajino said she subscribes to TV Japan through satellite dish to supplement her regular cable service. She remarked that the loss of programming from KTSF is perhaps hardest for the elderly population, who looked forward to Japanese programming on the weekends.

Toshi Sueishi, owner of Futaba hair salon in San Francisco’s Japantown, said he has watched the Japanese programming provided by Fuji TV and Tokyo TV since arriving in the United States in 1976. “That’s where I’ve watched ‘Kohaku Uta Gassen’ and ‘NHK Kayo Hall,’ as well as the ‘Taiga Drama.’ There were tons of good shows like ‘Oshin’ and the ‘Iron Chef,’” he said in Japanese. Sueishi said he does not subscribe to the other Japanese language channels due to cost. “If I were retired and home all the time, I could consider subscribing, but it’s too expensive otherwise. It would be nice if Tokyo TV stepped up to provide more programming. Saturday evenings are a little lonely now.”

Japanese language media persists amid Nikkei media today. Coping with a changing atmosphere of new technologies and changing demographics, different outlets continue to provide an essential service to Nikkei communities today, albeit not without difficulty or cost.


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