The Excitement of Shuukanshi Irrelevancy


On my Tuesday night commute home, I spied an advert for the newest issue of weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun. The mag promised five stories on the Kameda fight controversy, including dirt on the Korean judge, an interview with the losing fighter, and explorations into the “dark” figures assisting the father. I immediately picked up the issue the following morning and gave it a read on the Ginza line.

Talk about complete and utter letdown! Bunshun offered nothing new to anyone who had been following the story on the Internet, and moreover, would not even name the yakuza boss in Kameda’s support organization. He is listed merely as “ある広域指定暴力団の幹部” — “a leader for an organized crime group with control over a specified large area.” Any third-rate website will give you his name, a link to his Wikipedia page, and pictures of him with the young fighter.

Conversely, however, this lame showing is a very exciting development. Shukanshi used to be the vital leak in a tightly controlled information system. They managed to break the Lockheed scandal in the early ’70s and bring down the Tanaka government in a time when the newspaper reporters all knew about the bribery but refused to inform the public. But now, these once valiant gossip rags are total wusses compared to the irresponsible, amoral tidal wave of free information on the Internet, crashing over evil-doers and drowning them in the 21st century.

Access to information is no longer a barrier in Japan, meaning that we are less dependent upon the ethical leanings of the mass media. The remaining issue is legitimacy. Although not as trustworthy as newspapers, the shukanshi are semi-legitimate publications. The Internet has yet to win that kind of credibility, but the visibility of Kikko’s blog suggests that legitimacy may be just around the corner. What has been interesting for the last two years is the social contract between the mainstream gossip mags and anarchic cesspools like 2ch. The internet chatter provides the leads, and the editors get to breach taboo topics as if they are just reporting on “voices from the street.”

I hope Shukan Bunshun can follow the Kameda story, use their institutional know-how, ask the right questions, and come to more solid conclusions. But if you are looking for raw data, dangerous claims, and anonymous knights of valor, save your ¥350 and buy a mouse.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
August 10, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

24 Responses

  1. Momus Says:

    You know, it’s interesting that you raise the question of legitimacy. I’ve also been thinking about that recently, but in another context.

    You say the shuukanshi still have legitimacy because they’re printed, but their position is surely weakened, caught as they are between conventionally legitimate sources (the newspapers) and the free gossip of the web. Whether you think that’s the best or the worst of both worlds is up to you.

    My interest in legitimacy relates more to our disputes over universality and neutrality, in other words the postmodernism versus “international liberalism” debate. I think the times we’re living through now have seen an unprecedented erosion of legitimacy from the radical right, as the neocons have undermined all the international institutions that confer legitimacy (the UN, etc).

    Now, everyone is situated. There’s only “my view versus your view”, and the one that prevails is the one that’s richer, more powerful, and more willing to smash its opponent with military violence. It doesn’t matter who’s right. That’s Angraeli realpolitik (I exempt the EU, because legitimacy still matters here).

    How is this related to the magazine scene? It shows, I think, that sometimes a “democratization” of information, in the form of de-legitimization of authoritative voices, is actually more likely to lead to a sort of Darwinian fascism than democracy. Sure, there are umpteen interpretations of an event, and sure, some of them may be more accurate than others, but, as that neocon aide famously spelled out, the reading that prevails is the one that can be imposed by brute force. “We create our own reality now.” The iron fist of power no longer requires the kid glove of legitimacy. Or, to put it another way, power and legitimacy are now the same thing.

    So how does Japan stand in this debate about legitimacy? Is the gap between “you can say whatever you like” and “might makes right” shortening, the way it is in Angrael? Do people generally believe (as you apparently do) that equality of information distribution really leads to equalities of power distribution, or merely to a frustrated sense of “we may know the answers, but they have the power”?

  2. ian Says:

    I think this relates the the argument between subjective versus objective analysis of pop culture. Where respected and acknowledged subjective sources have dwindled into irrelevancy, the only way for music (or whatever) to gain legitimacy is through objective signifiers, i.e. sales, marketing budget, media presence. With no subjective system of conferring legitimacy on pop culture, economic Darwinism rules. Anyone who looks at the yawning gulf between major label and indie in the Japanese music scene can see that in action. I wasn’t here during the golden era of 1996, so I don’t know about that, but people seem to pretty much take it for granted now.

  3. marxy Says:

    Big questions, and I am bit tired to go full out with answers.

    Legitimacy has always struck me as being fundamentally hinged to elitism, and we are seeing a total breakdown in respect for elite institutions. What is interesting though is how fast we will bestow legitimacy to new institutions – even if they are not linked with “the establishment.” People will naturally put their trust in those who get things right most of the time or sound like they are telling the truth.

    I don’t think we will see a full-out Darwinian war, although the neo-con/Fox News model does abuse the destruction of ostensibly “elite” trustworthiness to make its own version of reality for those who already want to hear it. We will see fast-shifting allegiances. Kikko may be scooped as a fraud by another blog and so on.

    The Japanese news market has been so stiff and elitist for so long that I think you are not seeing the little picture: just the idea that you can find out about anything now without big companies’ permission.

    Where respected and acknowledged subjective sources have dwindled into irrelevancy, the only way for music (or whatever) to gain legitimacy is through objective signifiers, i.e. sales, marketing budget, media presence.

    You perfectly summed up the Japanese culture markets. But again, there have never been any real meaty subjective sources. Money becomes the one source of judgment.

  4. nate Says:

    is that “first time” link new? I just noticed it…

    if it’s new, you might reconsider the internet diffusion bit. I think you’ve been off the mark on that one.

  5. Momus Says:

    We will see fast-shifting allegiances.

    Ha, but isn’t that just a nice way of saying “We will see endless betrayals based on self-interest”?

  6. merxy Says:

    Broadband diffusion does not mean high usage. Forrester just did a big report on that. Japan has great bandwidth, low sophistication of use. India is the opposite.

  7. Chris_B Says:

    mary that is true. tonari no obaachan recently had hikari installed because the nice young man from NTT suggested that she should. Need I mention that she doesnt own a computer or know what one even looks like?

  8. Chris_B Says:

    momus & marxy: I for one dont believe that there will be a great shift of media power here away from mass media, maybe a little wobble but no real long run change. There has always been gossip, now its just faster. From what I can tell talking to my ojisan friends, there has always also been a tacit understanding that the voice of authority was tatemae.

    Folks I think were lookin at this whole thing thru round eyes.

    Oh and momus, besides the dusting of venomous pseudo political screed, I think you have some interesting ideas somewhere in there.

  9. alin Says:

    there have never been any real meaty subjective sources.

    that’s as crass a your very first neomarxism – you’ve told momus a few days ago that you’ve matured a bit since then. how about as an exercise (as absurd as some of your statements) you take enka as a starting point and work your way from there.
    (i can see you come to the conclusion that there’s no subjective meat there either , then i urge you to apply your steel logic to say grunge)

    i seem to recall you saying you can’t process fish or sashimi.

  10. alin Says:

    considering what i wrote above (habitually and in a hurry, underslept i think i might have also sub-consciously edited other slices of neomarxisme into this one – partly blame you for that coz they’re almost the same) and re-reading what you say made me think i missed your point. But then thinking again i don’t think i have.

  11. P P Says:

    re-reading what you say made me think i missed your point. But then thinking again i don’t think i have.

    re-reading what you say made me think i missed your point. But then thinking again i don’t think i have.

  12. Carl Says:

    Have you read this article in the New Left Review? It’s probably old news to you, but I’d be interested in hearing your take. The thesis is that the bureaucratic powers that have really controlled Japan since the Meiji era are still in full swing, and Koizumi has done nothing to impact their power. It touches on a lot, from the founding of the LDP to the downfall of Horiemon.

  13. nate Says:

    “And the low rate of internet diffusion…” are your words, ‘sall I’m sayin.

    Still, even the broadband diffusion, internet use distinction seems seems like a red herring considering all those statistics about blogging in Japanese that seem to keep flowing in. If we presume that spamblogs are primarily an english language phenomenon (and maybe they’re not), that puts the English language, spoken by umpty-kajillion people, running neck and neck with the Japanese language, spoken by Japanese people, and patient anime fans. So if they blog, if they iTunes, they post-napster P2P, they order pizza… what is it that’s unsophisticated in comparison?

    Whether its the momus stance that they don’t like “over information” or the marxy stance that democracy of information takes some getting used to, I’m afraid we’re stuck with a cultural explanation, no?
    If it’s the lack of a rabidly political blogosphere, I think there’s no real place for it. People blog about what they talk about with their friends, whether that’s their exciting lives, or hermeeutics. Thus you see a hell of a lot of people blogging about the food at disneyland, and no one blogging about domestic politics. Maybe that should change, but don’t go blaming poor distribution, or lack of sophistication for the lack in Japan of an especially American cultural phenomenon.

  14. Momus Says:


  15. nate Says:

    aside from that complaint though, I think the first timers piece is pretty hype. I hadn’t read the “3 good albums” entries before.

  16. marxy Says:

    this article in the New Left Review

    The classic Leftist position on Japan is that it is a elitist, non-democratic bureaucratic state in cahoots with the CIA and American economic interests. For some reason, the Relativist Newer Left ignore all this because politics no longer exists. If Momus is the true mouthpiece for this totally consistent body of political thought, China is the new ideal for humanity. Also in the post-9/11 paradigm, Japan is a great alternative to the U.S. – which is why Koizumi sends troops to Iraq and they work together to demonize NK.

    If it’s the lack of a rabidly political blogosphere, I think there’s no real place for it.

    I would love to spend a lot of time researching this more, to see whether things are “different” or “lagging.” A comparison to Korea would be much better than a comparison to the U.S. – although Korea has a true grassroots democracy that lends itself to open information, opinion, and activism.

    Ignore politics for a minute: how many of the weekly magazines put any content online? How many of the great world-changing Internet platforms have been invented in Japan? How much would Mixi go for on the open market compared to Myspace? Is Japan’s 20% eldery population making their way onto the web? The OECD report has some number that kids in Japan are the least likely in the civilized world to touch a computer — either at school or home. In Forrester’s words, the Japanese are the “least optimistic” and the “most pessimistic” about technology in general.

    The YouTube boom has been super-encouraging and things are looking up. Is it still a slow diffusion? Hard to say things are really maxed out yet.

  17. Adamu Says:

    What I think we’ve seen since the earthquake safety scandal is the belated rise of the Internet as an acknowledged story-breaker/political force or what have you. This Kameda thing seems like it should be minor, but it’s sparking a HUGE backlash (at least as far as I can tell sitting in Thailand).

    It is interesting that the weeklies won’t publish a widely-available name, perhaps to avoid messing up a lucrative source. There are interviews with anonymous yakuza bosses all the time in weeklies, and those sell. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the stories broken/amplified by citizens on the Internet (Soka Gakkai muckraking, Masashi Tashiro’s bumbling, tarento Abiru Yuu’s admission to a childhood burglary, and Kameda are some examples that come to mind) seem skewed toward things that a) actually interested the general public; and b) were information that the public had ready access to. The obvious exception is Kikko, but who knows where her info is coming from?

    So while the “irrelevence” development is very exciting (much like the youtube explosion), I just want to mention that the weeklies at least serve a number of functions other than breaking scandals – political/industry gossip that no one cares about, bureaucratic beat reporting (why was THIS guy made head of METI’s subcommittee on X), irreverent columns (like News Archaeology by Naoki Inose) etc. As the Internet grows in legitimacy some of those functions will likely come online as well – Inose’s weekly web magazine sometimes reprints his columns, for one.

    Another possibly interesting development are nascent efforts by the mainstream to cash in on news blogging and video sharing – IZA by Sankei (a blog site with 62 of its reporters blogging themselves) and ClipLife by NTT. The execs must have read the numerous Web 2.0 features that graced the covers of the business magazines in recent months.

  18. Chris_B Says:

    marxy said: The classic Leftist position on Japan is that it is a elitist, non-democratic bureaucratic state in cahoots with the CIA and American economic interests.

    Wait… I’m confused. I thought that was the classic Rightist position on Japan.

    How many of the great world-changing Internet platforms have been invented in Japan?

    Lets be a little more clear, how many registered internet protocols were invented in Japan? Zero. How many protocols have the Japanese done important research on? One. The Kame project as part of IPV6. Too bad IPV6 will probably fail for the same reasons all japanese designed networking protocols before TCP/IP failed: designed by committees of beurocrats.

    Little known fact, there were two major government sponsored attempts to build nation wide networks here. The basic requirements were it had to be 100% japanese protocols which followed the ISO Seven Layer model exactly and it had to be done 100% on equipment built and designed in Japan. Of course in the end nothing happened except alot of beurocracy and wasted money by NTT, Hitachi & Fujitsu.

    How much would Mixi go for on the open market compared to Myspace?

    I still like mixi better, both are sewers but Mixi is such a pretty sewer.

    In Forrester’s words, the Japanese are the “least optimistic” and the “most pessimistic” about technology in general.

    And this ends up creating great job opportunities for lots of inshored jobs.

    The YouTube boom …

    The oyaji next to me on the train today was reading an article about youtube in his sports paper.

  19. nate Says:

    marxy: Is Japan’s 20% eldery population making their way onto the web?

    Actually, docomo and AU are seeing to it that they don’t have to, with their stripped down phones for oldies. They don’t need any pesky access.

    But lets spin that another way. If the elderly aren’t hopping on the net, that group of minimal significance in cultural production is functioning as an illusory anchor of sorts, holding the numbers of the very-connected younger people back. In ten years, after they’ve cashed their last pension check, they’ll be replaced by those younger more connected people, and the statistical hole will close.
    The mere passage of time still presents a possibility of continued growth in net culture in Japan… in America, connections are still slow (and lack of net neutrality will not improve that problem), the government is loathe to do anything to encourage growth, and the pro-copyright crusaders and established big business hold ALL the cards. I agree that american culture is more net connected than Japanese. I also agree with what has been the standard marxy line until recently, that the internet will have a huge impact on the information and culture distribution systems of the country.
    but I think you’re seeing an america that has reached it’s capacity in some ways. American ISPs are pretty aggressive about p2p, the infrastructure doesn’t rate and the prospects aren’t good, and the “culture” you’re championing in the next entry is incredibly low-brow, and for the most part consumed by users who wouldn’t be on the internet at all if it required a lick of computer knowhow.
    And at the same time, you’re seeing a japan with its fingers in every pie. I wouldn’t say it’s a given that japan’s gonna pwnzor the internet in the next 5 years, but there are a lot more positive signs for the future of the net here than “back home”.

  20. nate Says:

    by the way, I moved to tokyo today. you guys have a lot of neat stuff here.

  21. nate Says:

    this must be what it feels like to be momus, sitting around in a cool city with nothin but time and an internet connection on my hands, botherin marxy.

  22. Momus Says:

    Yes! Except that when I’m Tokyo, I’m more likely to be sitting with him in bar overlooking the Aoyama Dori, agreeing about the steepness of the izakaya “friends tax” and the crazy price of taxis.

  23. Martin Webb Says:

    Thanks for the link to the New Left Review article, Carl. I liked this passage:

    “Prime Minister Koizumi’s insistence on worshipping at Yasukuni Shrine is a profoundly demoralizing spectacle for anyone hoping that Japan has the political maturity to cope with [turbulence in East Asia].

    [The disturbing thing] is not so much the act itself―irresponsible and offensive as it is―as what it says about the structural problem with Japan’s politics that has plagued the country since Meiji.

    Much of the commentary on Yasukuni focuses on its enshrinement of convicted war criminals among the tens of thousands of Japan’s war dead. But what really makes Japan’s neighbours gag is Yasukuni’s visible presence as an unreconstructed remnant of the 1930s apparatus of State Shinto and Emperor-worship.

    With its museum glorifying Japan’s war on the rest of Asia, Yasukuni is a constant reminder of the potential for another wildly destructive spree in a political culture that still has no institutional mechanism to impose accountability.”

    That includes a self-censoring media, weeklies included.

    Can the net impose accountability on Japan’s gerontocratic oligarchy?

    Not if they and the MSM can help it.

  24. Martin Webb Says:

    I just got back from a short trip to Manila. The apartment I stayed at overlooks the American Cemetary which is home to 17,206 World War II military graves.