If you’re thinking about putting an ad in the paper to sell that old sofa which is cluttering up your apartment in Tokyo, I have four words of advice for you: forget about it, Buster.
The reason is very simple: not only are there no Want Ads in Tokyo papers, there are really no Tokyo papers per se. In Japan, you can’t sell used items without a license issued by the police, so foreigners end up gleefully furnishing their apartments with nearly new televisions and stereos thrown out by Japanese with no other way to get rid of them. And there is no such thing as a local Tokyo paper, with only national dailies such as the Asahi, Yomiuri, Mainichi or Nihon Keizai Shinbun being sold in Tokyo. When you realize that these papers generally all have circulations around the three million mark, you can well imagine how expensive it is to advertise.
Because Tokyo is chopped up into incomprehensible blocks, which makes finding anything a major and sometimes impossible chore, you would think that Tokyo, more than anywhere, needs ads in the local papers to tell people what’s going on and where to get their bargains on fluorescent goldfish. As there are no local newspapers, even if you did advertise in a big national daily a space about two inches square (5 cm x 5 cm) costs roughly US $1,800 for a three-day run. A full page costs about US $85,000, so advertising is limited to the very top of the tip-top companies.
The end result is newspapers with almost no advertisements for movies, jobs, used goods or real estate, and certainly no grocery store coupons to clip. Newspapers have ads for major brands of autos or televisions, some big-shot Hollywood movies, and little else.
We sometimes lose sight of what really comprises the news. It’s not just Serbs getting murdered in Bosnia, and it’s a real reason why neither the Internet or TV or radio can ever quite play the role that newspapers play in our life. Newspapers tell us what’s going on in our tiny neighborhoods — who got into Harvard and who’s going to reform school — as well as what to buy and where. Because their newspapers don’t tell them this, it’s one of the biggest problems that Japanese, both buyers and sellers, have to get around.
You would think with newspaper advertising being so expensive your mailbox would be deluged with junk mail. Think again. Such bulk mailing rates as Japan has are few and far between and meant to benefit large-scale bulk mailers like the telephone company, not Joe’s corner grocery. Also, mailing costs are very expensive compared to America. Not only is a first class letter nearly three times as expensive as the USA, but there is no magazine rate, so sending catalogs is almost out of the question.
Before you heave a sigh of relief at no junk mail, here’s the big question all over again: how are you going to find out about the big deadbolt sale going on at the hardware store?
Chances are pretty strong that you might find out about it on the next pack of Kleenex that gets handed to you. For collectors of Kleenex, or “tissue" as the Japanese call it, Japan is paradise.
Every time you get near a station there is someone waiting to shove a pack of tissue in your hands. The advertising message is printed on the tissue pack. The Japanese figure that if you just give people a flier, it will end up right on the street. But if they give something of minimal value, like a small pack of tissues with the advertising message printed on it, the customer will accept it.
Of course, everyone does this, so you are deluged with packs of tissue wherever you go, but laddie, it’s the thought that counts.
The other way around this problem is to resort to private mail delivery services. With the cost of mail delivery being what it is, dozens of cut-rate services have popped up in all the major cities to deliver chirashi, which are small advertising flyers. Chirashi deliverers concentrate on a single area and deliver chirashi by hand to every mailbox. If you are running a grocery store, for example, you will have them hand-deliver grocery coupons to every household within a few hundred meters radius from your store, maybe up to a kilometer away. Also, you can tell chirashi deliverers to be very specific — for instance, to deliver only to dentists, or if you are trying to sell washable silk blouses or oseibo gifts, only to companies where there are large proportions of women.
Indeed, you can tell both by the size and paper quality exactly what the chirashi is for. If it is printed on small pieces of paper, high gloss on only one side, about two or three times the size of an average postage stamp, you know that you shouldn’t let the kids see it — these are offers by young ladies to perform remarkable feats of agility at any time of the day or night, your place or mine. If it is printed on thicker stock, but comparatively crummy paper with the ink spreading slightly and is postcard sized, you know to file these away: these are offers for discount office supplies. Bigger pieces of paper printed in glaring greens and screaming reds are discount coupons from your local grocer. Full A4 (8.5" x 11") size high-gloss, printed both sides in exquisite lithography, can be nothing less than a chirashi for that old, traditional Japanese food: deep pan pizza.
Japan continues to go its own way, where junk mail is a welcome oddity and where more lawyers, not less, are needed. Despite stopgap measures like handing out packs of advertising tissue and stuffing mail boxes full of chirashi, the fact remains that the average Japanese is frequently badly informed about what goes on in his own backyard. The Japanese often move through a mental landscape of half information or even misinformation, where word of mouth, recommendations and introductions assume a weight totally unknown and inconceivable outside of Japan.
A local newspaper is far more than just a medium for the news or grocery coupons. It is where the dialogue about a community's very nature and existence takes place, on both the broadest and at the same time most focused stage possible. Perhaps the greatest failure of Japanese society, when seen from a strictly American perspective, is the failure of effort of the Japanese to know even their most intimate and local community.
Editor's note: Bill Stonehill hails from Chicago, Illinois. Trained as an engineer and China specialist, he has now been living in Tokyo for well over 20 years. He imports Swiss watches, is expert at taking them apart, and if anyone knows what makes Japan tick too then he does. From 1999 until 2001 he wrote a regular Japan column for the Morrock News Service (sadly discontinued), which was enjoyed by Web-surfers around the world. We greatly appreciate the author's allowing us to republish some of his very best articles here in Japan Perspectives.