By Takehiko Kambayashi, dpa
Major newspapers in Japan are known for their impressive circulation figures. However, distributors say the numbers are exaggerated and they are coerced into buying excess stock as papers try to hold on to their political influence and maintain advertising revenue.
Tokyo (dpa) – When news about Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal broke last year, Japanese media outlets wasted no time in slamming the German carmaker.
However, Japanese newspapers, like the Nikkei, which last year purchased Britain’s Financial Times, have never investigated their own alleged cheating despite persistent accusations of inflated circulation numbers.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touched on the issue in parliament in 2006 when he was chief cabinet secretary, but has taken no action since.
Last year, online news portal My News Japan reported that major daily Asahi had allegedly exaggerated its daily circulation numbers by 28 per cent for the 2015 fiscal year, citing an internal memo.
Asahi declined to comment on the report.
Tomohiro Kitagawa, who ran several distribution outlets in Miyazaki prefecture for Asahi, told dpa he used to dump a total of 1.7 million yen worth of newspaper copies every month which the daily forced him to buy.
Asahi’s coercive sales practices pushed him deeply into debt, Kitagawa said.
Kitagawa said Asahi even told him not to talk to Tetsuya Kuroyabu, an investigative journalist who reported Kitagawa’s case for My News Japan.
Meanwhile, copies of major newspapers such as Asahi and Yomiuri are given away for free at hundreds of hotels.
Asked if such freely distributed copies were counted in their circulation figures, Asahi declined to comment and Yomiuri said it “provides a proper response, based on the rules of the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulation.”
But the bureau said it did not know if the free newspapers were counted in circulation numbers.
Japan’s media has otherwise been silent on the circulation scandal.
In 2011, Okayama District Court ordered the sales arm of the Sanyo Shimbun, the region’s largest daily, to pay 3.76 million yen (35,500 dollars) to Shigehiro Harabuchi, a former distribution outlet manager for Sanyo, as the court found the company forced him to buy more newspaper copies than necessary.
Virtually no media outlets except for My News Japan reported on the verdict. Predictably, Sanyo itself did not cover it despite then-president Katsumi Sasaki serving as vice-chairman of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association.
Harabuchi said unwanted papers – called “oshigami,” or “pushed papers” – were still counted in Sanyo’s circulation. Ten years ago, its circulation numbers were overstated by around 15 per cent, he estimated.
Sanyo also inflated the number of advertising inserts, including government ads, “so advertisers were overcharged while taxpayers’ money was wasted,” he said.
Newspaper readership in Japan has declined due to the country’s protracted economic downturn, growing environmental consciousness and an increasing reliance on the internet, analysts said.
In Osaka, at two outlets run by Hajime Takaya for the Mainichi daily, about 70 per cent of newspaper copies as of 2007 were pushed papers and never delivered, he said in his book “The Dark Side of the Newspaper History.”
Despite falling readership, Mainichi did not allow Takaya to cut back on the number of copies that he was buying, he said.
Newspapers’ coercive sales practices are tantamount to those of the Yakuza [a Japanese organized crime group], Takaya said.
Managers could not refuse such coercive sales because newspapers threatened to shut down their outlets, Kuroyabu said. “The problem is a one-sided contract,” he said.
Major dailies even provided outlets cash to help them pay bills because they wanted to keep circulation numbers high to preserve the value of advertising space, distribution outlet managers said.
Large circulation numbers were preserved so that leading newspaper executives could continue to exert political influence.
Tsuneo Watanabe, editor-in-chief of the Yomiuri daily, said in a 2000 biography, “No matter how much we want the world to conform to our ideas, we can’t do that without power.”
“For better or for worse, I have the power of 10 million copies. Those 10 million copies have the power to control the prime minister,” Watanabe said despite allegations that Yomiuri numbers were inflated.