The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

For more than a century, The Japan Times has covered the global and local news in English, serving as a critical bridge between Japan and the world. Through many evolutions­—including its current tie-up with The New York Times­—it has remained a vital part of the international community and, on June 20, ownership of the newspaper passed from Nifco Inc. to News2u Holdings, Inc. The ACCJ Journal sat down with new Chairperson and Publisher Minako Kambara Suematsu, also chief executive officer of News2u, to learn more about her background and plans for the paper’s future.

You’re a bit of an enigma, having declined all media interview requests since buying The Japan Times. So thanks for inviting Custom Media and The ACCJ Journal to be the first to put you on the spot. Please tell us about yourself and News2u Holdings.
I was born in 1968 and spent my childhood in Fukuyama City, Hiroshima Prefecture. Having been born into the founding family of the shipbuilding company Tsuneishi, I grew up in a business environment. My four younger brothers went into the family business, but I chose to move to Tokyo for university and have been based here ever since.

My career really began in the spring of 1993, when I graduated and started my own IT company. Commercial use of the Internet in Japan really started that year, and the areas that first interested me were the creation of corporate websites, web marketing, and providing Japanese-language content for the websites of foreign-affiliated companies in Japan. I was also in charge of the Japan Airlines website, which was the first in Japan through which tickets could be booked online.

I established News2u in 2001 to support the delivery of trustworthy corporate information. We began with the creation of a digital corporate press release service, and then developed a range of websites and other digital businesses to support the dissemination of corporate news. In 2010, I was the proud recipient of an ACCJ award in recognition of News2u at The Entrepreneur Awards Japan, presented by the U.S.-Japan Council.

Since 2012, I have also been a managing director of the family business, Tsuneishi Holdings Corporation which, based in Hiroshima, has operations in the shipbuilding, marine transportation, environm

ent, energy, and hospitality industries. Consequently, I spend a lot of time traveling between Hiroshima and Tokyo.

While my business experience ranges from IT start-ups to heavy industry, I have decided to focus my career on the dissemination of dependable news. This is one reason for my acquisition of The Japan Times.

At a time when fake news is prevalent, how do you answer critics who believe a producer of press releases should not control the country’s oldest and most widely read English-language newspaper?
I’d like to state categorically that there is no cause for concern regarding this matter. The News2u press release service delivers up-to-the-minute, credible, reliable information to those who need it. The service’s mission is the same as that of The Japan Times.

I am deeply concerned about the damage that fake news, stealth marketing, and other practices are doing to the credibility of media. At The Japan Times, I have been strictly enforcing a policy of making a very clear distinction between editorial and advertising—including advertorials. I want to promise that The Japan Times will evolve into an even more trustworthy and credible source of news.

Why did you buy the paper?
Because I believe in reliable and truthful news sources, and that The Japan Times plays an important role in contributing to mutual understanding between Japan and the rest of the world.

Since establishing News2u in 2001, I have been able to offer a service that focuses on the distribution online of reliable information. Sadly, fake news, stealth marketing, and content curation in broad media has severely eroded the trust of long-term, established readers and advertisers. This is the result of the essentially weak platforms used to generate revenue from online content. I believe that, because our product is trustworthy and fair, people will want to associate and identify with us—as either readers or advertisers.

The Japan Times has reliably and responsibly reported news over the past 120 years. This is a magnificent achievement, and I want this history, tradition, and pride to be passed on to future generations, so that the company might still be credibly reporting the news a century from now.

I believe that, by continuing to preserve its assets and creating, if we can, a mixture of the three elements—fairness, reliability, and trust—we can showcase The Japan Times as a model for solving problems faced by online media. Not only do I really want to take on this challenge, but I also believe it is possible to build on the complimentary strengths of The Japan Times and News2u to leverage synergies.

What changes are you planning or considering?
I am inspired by Jeff Bezos and how he turned around The Washington Post. I believe that one reason he was able to do this is that he cultivated a stronger customer obsession with the paper. The newspaper has a large base of potential readers, comprising people interested in news about, and coming from, Japan. To reflect this, we plan to enhance our business pages so that they are more useful for ACCJ members and corporate subscribers. We would like to focus, for example, on the innovative business ideas and ventures that are coming out of Japan. I want to develop the newspaper and make it the primary go-to source for breaking news.

Similarly, to deepen our readers’ faith in the objectivity and fairness of paper, I have concentrated on making far more clear the distinction between editorial content and advertising. We are starting to get more high-end advertising in the paper, particularly in our prime real estate: the bottom right corner of the front page, known in the trade as the “jewel box.” Take a look; I’m sure you’ll see a difference.

What is the current state of The Japan Times?
At present, the paper is strong. While it is the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in Japan, our reach extends further. Our website receives about eight million page views per month, and we currently have three million unique website visitors and well over half a million Facebook followers.

Our readership is 60 percent non-Japanese, many of whom are members of the higher rungs of society and have admirable academic credentials. Approximately 90 percent of our readers are university graduates, 30 percent are in executive or managerial positions, and 30 percent are in higher income brackets.

Moreover, our readership extends beyond Japan. Just last week we received a handwritten letter from an inmate in a penitentiary in the United States. The inmate uses a GENKI textbook, put out by The Japan Times, Ltd. to study Japanese and was inquiring about other study materials we offer. I was very moved to receive this letter, and I think it demonstrates the global reach and standing of the paper and what we offer. Currently, our sales of GENKI capture 80 percent of the North American university market.

Our publishing business also issues English-language study publications geared to a Japanese audience. For example, The Japan Times ST weekly newspaper is becoming extremely popular for those studying contemporary English through news articles on current issues. Many hundreds of universities in Japan use articles from The Japan Times in their entrance exams.

I would like to see a continued increase in the number of people taking an interest in Japan. I believe that the above points concerning our readership demonstrate a key strength of paper. It has comprehensive, high-quality content which contributes to mutual understanding between Japan and the rest of the world, whether via the daily, The Japan Times ST for younger learners, or our many books, publications, and online apps.

As a rule, we do not disclose sales figures, but I can say that 70 percent of our revenue comes from the newspaper, 20 percent from book publishing, and 10 percent from other sales such as our digital archives, which are extremely popular and can be found in research institutions, libraries, and universities throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States. We have an international team of about 50 working in our newsroom, and we are actively recruiting more reporters, editors, and other staff to carry the vision and mission of the new Japan Times forward.

With women as both owner and managing editor, will you be promoting or recruiting more women and encouraging or helping them to succeed in business, media, and the workplace in Japan?
The Japan Times is already very progressive in this area. More than 40 percent of all staff—and about 30 percent of our managerial staff—are women. I am also proud to say that the percentage of staff who return from maternity leave is 100 percent, and four of our six news desk staff are working moms—one has three young boys!

Regarding childcare, there has been a lot of media attention recently around Mark Zuckerberg’s paternity leave. The Japan Times already has a work environment which encourages this, and we have male staff who have taken paid paternity leave. So, we may have beaten Facebook to the punch on that one! These issues are important, but I also believe that The Japan Times has a work culture in which the right person is placed in the right position and advancement is based on talent, regardless of gender.

What other social issues do you advocate?
Another area in which I am very interested is education, and I’m involved in two education business enterprises. One is Next Educational Environment Development Inc. (NEED), where I am managing director. NEED promotes methods for the development of next-generation educational environments at boarding schools. In fact, my son is at boarding school abroad and, every time I meet him, I can see how much he has developed. This led me to want to create ways to propose these methods to more people so they can cultivate their children’s independence and potential. We also ran a summer school recently, and when I have time I go abroad to look at overseas methods and developments in boarding schools.

I am also the chairperson of Miroku no Sato Japanese Language School, International Institute of Culture. This is where students from other parts of Asia can learn not only about Japanese language but also culture. I feel that we all—not just children—have infinite potential for growth each day, and I want to communicate this idea to our employees.

Who is your hero, mentor, or biggest influence?
My father. I really respect and admire him for making a success of business overseas. When my father was president of Tsuneishi Shipbuilding Co., Ltd., he worked hard to break out of the domestic shipbuilding industry in Japan by venturing overseas. At that time—and even now—Tsuneishi is the only Japanese shipbuilder that has had success abroad. The company has contributed greatly to the Philippines, the fourth-largest shipbuilding country in the world.

One of the interesting things about my father is that he built a factory in the Philippine province of Cebu, where there was no infrastructure, and said that he was there to build an enterprise that would last one hundred years. He built the educational and socioeconomic structure of the region. I learned so much from seeing my father persevere through that situation. I truly believe that he is someone who can identify where we should and where we should not compete globally. I think it was my father’s influence that led me to want to pursue mutual understanding between Japan and the world, to think globally, and to follow the path that has led me to The Japan Times.

Will you be taking a hands-on approach at The Japan Times?
Yes, very much so. Since day one, key executives from News2u have been seated at permanent desks at The Japan Times, including Hiroyasu Mizuno, director and executive editor, and Toshie Yamashita, executive head of administration. Mr. Mizuno is a highly experienced journalist who has held positions as writer, editor, and New York bureau chief of the highly esteemed Nikkei Business magazine. I sincerely believe he will inspire The Japan Times editorial department to up its game. My own executive assistant, Ms. Yamada, is also there frequently, enabling me to be in touch when I’m away. I have also met all the staff and given them the opportunity to ask me anything directly. I definitely do not intend to be an “absent landlord.”

Has your April revamp been well received?
It has been well received. I think the new design and logo fuse the traditional with the new, and that the overall result is a modern, eye-catching product. In particular, I think the new logo really captures the spirit of The Japan Times. Moving from eight columns to six columns makes the paper much easier to read, and we have gotten a good response to the use of more color photos. People have also said that it is much easier to identify the paper at train station kiosks!

How has your digital paywall worked out?
Digital subscriptions have been growing steadily since we launched the option in 2013. Our digital-only plans have been particularly popular with overseas readers.

We are confident that potential print subscribers will see the benefit of unlimited access to our website and the digital content of The New York Times. We feel it gives us a very significant edge over our competitors.

How do you see the future of newspapers in Japan?
I think physical print will always be important, but I believe that the time is very ripe for The Japan Times to be successful in the digital market.

120 Years of The Japan Times
Explore the history and content of The Japan Times at the Japan Newspaper Museum, Yokohama, October 7–December 24.

Simon Farrell is publisher at Custom Media.