News consumption in Japan is characterised by high-circulation print newspapers and five nationwide TV networks, including the public broadcaster NHK. The continued strength of traditional media has reduced the urgency of digital transformation but the pandemic has accelerated change.
Japan’s once enormous circulation of print dailies shrank further last year. Data from the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association show total circulation at 33m or 0.57 copies per household, down by 6% from the previous year and by 38% from 2011.1 During the same period, the number of newspaper reporters declined by 16% to 17,148. Gender balance and diversity remain a significant industry problem, with newsrooms still dominated by men (76% male/24% female).
Some of the largest Japanese media companies continue to pursue radically different digital strategies. Nikkei, which also owns the Financial Times, has been focusing on building online subscriptions for its Japan Economic Daily, reaching 797,362 paid subscribers – up 4.9% in a year.2 By contrast, the largest publisher, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, still refuses to offer an online-only subscription, to defend its 7.4m circulation from cannibalisation. They do, however, provide a limited amount of free content online, in part to attract new subscribers. The Asahi Shimbun newspaper, another digital pioneer, operates a subscription model for its national daily, but separately operates more than 20 advertising-supported verticals covering lifestyle subjects such as college sports and pets. Finally, the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper attracts digital audiences with long-format analysis by academics and experts, in a section named ‘Premiere’ published exclusively online. Local newspapers have also been accelerating digital subscription strategies, following a galvanising ‘Innovation Report’ by Shizuoka Shimbun in 2020.
Efforts to monetise online content in Japan have been hampered by the popularity of free sites such as Yahoo! News, SmartNews, and Gunosy that aggregate online content from multiple publishers.
Newspaper reporters are increasingly turning to audio and video channels to engage audiences, explain news, and share behind-the-scenes stories. Asahi’s former international correspondent Daisuke Kanda has become a host at Asahi Podcasts (or Asa-Poki), including a series with news-related raps by hip-hop singers, named Journa-Rhythm. Mainichi’s political correspondent Kenta Miyahara has been developing a YouTube channel with 5,000 subscribers, providing analysis and live conversations. Our Digital News Report data show that YouTube remains by far the most popular social network for news, used by around one in five of our sample (22%), ahead of Twitter (18%) and Line (16%). The growing trend towards consuming video-based news online partly prompted three national dailies, Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun, and Sankei Shimbun, to launch NewsVideo, a joint website and app to showcase video clips produced by their journalists. Three local newspapers later joined the service.
Television viewing in Japan strengthened through the second year of the pandemic, as the government introduced a series of emergency measures – not least during the Tokyo Olympics. Government data show live television viewing, which started to decline in 2017, bouncing back strongly. 3 But as elsewhere, the popularity of on-demand streaming and catch-up services is disrupting traditional models. TVer, an on-demand service set up by five commercial broadcasters in 2015, partly to compete with streamers like Netflix, saw its monthly viewing figures double in a year, surpassing 200m in October 2021.
However, the biggest winner was the internet, with users spending an average of 168.4 minutes on weekdays,4 overtaking TV real-time viewing for the first time. Internet advertising has also eclipsed the combined total for TV, print, and radio.5 The impact of these changes is shown in commercial broadcasters’ operating income, which plunged by 11.3% in 2020, and is yet to return to pre-COVID levels.
As the Japanese spend more time online, there have been urgent calls to address the impact of cyberbullying and harmful content. In October 2021, Yahoo! News, Japan’s largest news site, introduced a feature that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to automatically remove comments from its news site if the algorithm judged them to be harmful or defamatory. These moves came as the government toughened penalties for insults to deter online libel and cyberbullying, leading some academics and NGOs to voice concern that this may lead to censorship.
Journalist and Professor at the Department of Journalism, Senshu University
NHK, Broadcasting Culture Research Institute
Online and social media news consumption together have overtaken television in the last few years, putting pressure on traditional models. The smartphone is now the dominant way of accessing news in Japan, with the COVID-19 pandemic appearing to accelerate the rate of change.
Pay for online news
Listen to podcast in the last month
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Overall trust in the news (44%) has risen by seven percentage points in the last two years, perhaps reflecting the important role the media have played during the pandemic. Public broadcaster NHK remains the most trusted news brand, followed by Nikkei and the other big commercial broadcasters and then the national dailies. Weekly magazines such as Weekly Shincho and Weekly Bunshun tend to be less trusted.
% who think media are independent from undue political or government influence (change from 2017)
% who think media are independent from undue business or commercial influence (change from 2017)
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1 The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association, Circulation and Households. https://www.pressnet.or.jp/english/data/circulation/circulation01.php ↩
3 Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Survey Report on Usage Time of Information and Communications Media and Information Behavior. https://www.soumu.go.jp/main_content/000765135.pdf ↩