“Yomiuri’s 10-million-copy claim is a charade”

In 2000, Akira Uozumi, a former Kyodo News agency reporter, published a biography of Tsuneo Watanabe, Yomiuri newspaper’s media baron. The title of the book from publisher Kodansha is “Watanabe Tsuneo – Media to Kenryoku” (Tsuneo Watanabe – Media and Power).

Mr. Uozumi has produced some best-selling books, and this is one of them. I first read this one in 2013.

Mr. Uozumi told me nobody had ever disputed the 2000 book.

Below are some excerpts from the book (pages 376 and 377), translated by a group of professionals.


            The role of journalism is to keep those in power in check and protect the freedom and rights of citizens. At least that was the intention in Japan, which paid heavily for the prewar newspapers’ lockstep march with the military toward a devastating war. In that respect, the war was a point of departure for Japan’s postwar journalism.

            The war became a point of departure also for Watanabe.  His youthful days during the war were spent protesting Japan’s militarism under the Imperial tenno system. After the war ended, he joined the Communist party with a desire to see the Imperial system toppled.

            During his days at the University of Tokyo’s covert cell, as members debated Japan’s role in the world, Watanabe argued for individual freedom and respect, and delivered harsh critiques of the totalitarian tendencies lurking just beneath the dissident organization’s surface.

            A half-century later, the freedom-loving young philosopher turned into a man of tremendous power who stood in the way of freedom of speech in the name of nationalism. Watanabe is trying to change the very idea of journalism from a newspaper that confronts government to one that works with government.

            Toward the end of the 10-hour interview held at the president’s office in the Yomiuri Shimbun headquarters, Watanabe said, “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. I speak with Prime Minister Obuchi every week. Also with Ichiro Ozawa. I have all the political parties, the LDP-Liberal Party coalition included, at my beck and call. When it comes to the issue of lowering income tax and corporate tax, it all turns out the way Yomiuri predicted a year ago. Could there be anything greater than this? If I can’t be satisfied with this, karma will come back and bite me.”

            A general meeting of the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association took place June 18, 1999, while the guideline-related bills, the Act on the National Flag and Anthem, and the wire-tapping bill, all of which were backed by the Yomiuri editorial, passed the Diet in rapid succession.

[and some excerpts from the book’s epilogue]

[from page 379 to the seventh line of page 381]


    One bone-chilling evening in early 1999, I witnessed on the outskirts of a large city an eerie sight that could only be described as a newspaper graveyard. Thick stacks of newspapers, still bundled in vinyl wrap, piled up in a warehouse two stories high. These were not recycled newspapers, but undelivered papers collected from sales outlets from around the area.

   The color of the vinyl strap identifies the newspapers: Yomiuri, Mainichi, Sankei and Asahi. But the mountain is so large that I can’t begin to guess how many papers there are. During the few hours I spent at the warehouse, six two-ton trucks stacked to capacity arrived after having completed their rounds of collection. A quick calculation tells me I’m looking at about 12 tons of newspapers.

    I heard that these mountains of newspapers are chemically processed, then sent to paper factories as raw material for recycled paper. Why are newspapers that don’t get read printed at all and sent to the sales outlets? A sales outlet manager in eastern Japan for Yomiuri explains:

    “It’s about “Oshigami” (forced sales). The company decides what the annual sales target is, then delivers them to the sales outlets. Yomiuri says it sells 10 million copies, but that’s simply a number it sends to the outlets. In reality, a fair number of copies get stacked on the stairs of the outlets. The number of unsold copies may be different by outlet, but I don’t think there are any around here that are less than 10%.”

    Three years after Tsuneo Watanabe was appointed president, the newspaper broke through the 10-million-copy mark. Ever since, Watanabe has taken every opportunity to shake his fist about defending that number. At the Yomiuri sales conference held at the Tokyo International Forum on January 1999, Watanabe addressed a crowd of about 2,800 leading sales outlet managers.

    “This will become the year of the battle for corporate survival. We will witness the dramatic unfolding of events, such as bankruptcies and mergers among leading manufacturers and distributors,” said Watanabe. “The same goes with mass media companies. We must never flounder below 10 million copies — that’s the main condition for Yomiuri’s survival.”

    There’s more significance to 10 million copies than meets the eye. Ten million is an absolute must for Watanabe if he wants to wield power and be a unifying force as head of the Yomiuri conglomerate. It is the source from which he draws his dictatorial powers. In order to maintain those numbers, sales-outlet managers hang on to undelivered, leftover newspapers and pay Yomiuri for them.

    Why don’t outlet managers turn away newspapers that are forced upon them? Another sales outlet manager in eastern Japan for Yomiuri explains:

    “If we turn them down, we face the risk of getting fired. As a sales outlet, the revenue we derive from the ad inserts is considerable. The fee we receive for the inserts is based on the number of papers the newspaper sends us. It makes more financial sense for us to stack up unsold newspapers and get paid for the inserts than to increase readership. We have no defense if the advertisers accuse us of fraud.”

    In May 1995, a conference was held for local sales outlet managers at a Tokyo building. A Yomiuri employee in charge of sales suddenly yelled at the group: “It is your responsibility to maintain the 10 million copy sales. You managers who don’t make the annual target are Class-A war criminals!”

    The crowd of 50 or so became silent as if they had just had ice water splashed in their faces. The man from the sales department scolded the managers with sales figures that fell short of the newspaper’s goal. Then he handed out sheets of paper that said, “Class-A war criminal” to those outlet managers.

[from the eighth line of page 382 to the eighth line of page 383]

  According to influential outlet managers in eastern Japan, two to three days before a surprise investigation by ABC, a sales staff member from Yomiuri will show up at the outlet and forge the sales data. 

   A former top sales official of Yomiuri explains:

  “Currently, Yomiuri’s circulation is said to be 10.2 million copies. But if you subtract the number of newspaper copies that are never delivered, I think the actual circulation is considerably below 10 million. Yomiuri’s 10-million-copy claim is a charade. But the company can’t admit anything below that figure because Watanabe’s presidential powers are predicated on having achieved that number. He is getting caught in his own trap. When I think about how much paper and ink is getting wasted everyday for this, chills run down my spine. . .”

   For the sake of accuracy, I have to say here that forced papers are not a problem exclusive to Yomiuri. Other newspapers, while the numbers are slightly different, are in the same situation. The only difference with Yomiuri is Watanabe’s fierce attachment to 10 million copies and the incredible amount of pressure he puts on the sales outlets to keep up those numbers. A sales outlet manager in west Japan for Yomiuri had this to say:

   “We are all shedding tears over this forced paper issue. Even when we ask the salesperson at the head office to ‘please remove the waste,’ the response we get is, ‘There’s no way we can do that at a time like this when we have to protect the 10-million-copy mark.’ If we reject the extra papers, we are told we are not performing up to par and get fired. At this point, all of us sales outlet managers agree that unless we start a riot, nothing will get done. I wonder if Watanabe even knows about this. I would like to say to him, ‘Mr. Watanabe, you are the Emperor with New Clothes.'”

   Such voices from the sales outlets have never come out in the open because the managers feared retribution from Watanabe. But now, their collective anger and dissatisfaction are rumbling right beneath the surface of Watanabe’s empire.


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