Population 126m
Internet penetration 94%

Yasuomi Sawa
Journalist, Kyodo News and former Reuters Institute Journalist Fellow

The Japanese media market is characterised by a strong high-circulation newspaper sector and by five national television networks, including a licence-funded public broadcaster NHK

 Japanese newspapers still sell over 40m copies each day, amongst the highest number in the world, with more than 95% of papers still bought through subscription. As elsewhere, though, circulation is gradually falling and the industry lost around 1m further copies in 2016.1 Newspaper sales per household have fallen from as high as 1.13 in 2000 to just 0.78 today. With the readership ageing, many publishers are now offering student or children’s editions as well as creating children’s pages in the main paper.

Partly because print remains so profitable, newspaper groups have been slow to develop online audiences and digital businesses. Yahoo Japan (53% weekly reach) remains by far the most popular online gateway to news, by aggregating and republishing content from traditional sources.

In recent years, however, there has been a new focus on digital, particularly from newspapers like Asahi Shinbun and Nikkei, the world’s largest business daily. Nikkei bought the Financial Times in 2015, partly to learn from its expertise in building digital subscribers. It now includes more Financial Times stories in its print and online editions, a move that has helped it build new digital paying subscribers to a total of more than 500,000.

Ten months after its launch, digital-born player BuzzFeed Japan made its presence felt with an eye-opening media scoop. The online magazine, set up as a joint-venture between BuzzFeed US and Yahoo! Japan, published an investigative report in October about online plagiarism and false information in a popular health and medical information website, WELQ. BuzzFeed’s story revealed that stories were often taken from other websites and that many were not supported by scientific evidence. BuzzFeed also revealed that these stories were produced by inexperienced part-time ‘writers’, who had been told by editors how to avoid detection. Similar plagiarism was later found in all ten information websites run by the website’s owners, a listed company called DeNA. The company suspended the websites.

Public broadcaster NHK was also accused by an online publication, the Business Journal, of running a false story about the economic hardship of a family of a female high school student. But NHK hit back saying that in turn the article criticising the story had fabricated a quote from an NHK spokesperson. The Business Journal’s story turned out to be untrue and based merely on rumours from digital and social media. The Journal retracted it and published an apology.

More generally, tabloid-type magazines in Japan have had a good year both in print and online. Weekly Bunshun has been dubbed ‘Bunshun Cannon’ for its relentless exposes of politicians and celebrities. Its digital edition can be purchased via monthly payment through the blogs and magazines section of Nico-Nico Douga (‘Smily Video’), which was originally established as video-sharing platform but has extended its offer to a range of other subscription content. Bunshun’s strongest rival weekly Shincho distributes its contents through a mobile phone giant NTT DoCoMo’s ‘d-Magazine’ service, in which users can read as much as they want out of 160 titles for 400 yen a month (about US$4), though some contents are excluded.

Uniquely across all the countries in this report, Facebook (26%) is only the third most popular social network in Japan behind YouTube (46%) and Line (32%). In terms of use for news, Facebook (9%) is beaten into fourth place by Twitter (12%). Part of the explanation for this comes in a survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) in 2014, which showed that the Japanese are reluctant to use real names in social media, preferring anonymity online. This tendency has also affected the popularity of LinkedIn, which is used by only 1% of respondents.

Competition between mobile news apps and brands continues to intensify in Japan as accessing news via smartphone has grown to almost half (45%) of respondents to our survey. Line has capitalised on its position as the go-to messenger app to attract news readers to its timelines, but also runs a separate Line News service. The Yahoo! News app has almost doubled its monthly user base over the last two years, while SmartNews says that its personalised app had been downloaded 20 million times worldwide.

Changing Media

TV remains an important source of news in Japan amongst young and old, while newspapers remain an important part of family life. The smartphone revolution started late because of high penetration of earlier feature phones.


Historically, Japanese news brands have been widely trusted, but doubts have grown since the 2011 nuclear accident when it was widely felt that the media failed to report the real truth behind the accident. This year’s stories about plagiarism and false information are contributing to a wider unease about the quality of journalism.