|BIG IN JAPAN
"Buy me out! Leaving Japan and want to sell the contents of my
apartment. Perfect for one newly-arrived gaijin. Call..."
"Gay English man seeks Japanese male or fun girl for language exchange. I speak
Japanese like a chicken reads Braille, but it' fun. Please call..."
"Help! I need a girlfriend. Write..."
Free ad papers containing classifieds like these are not a new concept. An association of
such papers has existed since 1986; well before then free ad papers existed in many major
cities, even Moscow. As communities became more amorphous, the ways in which goods moved,
circulated and were reborn as a neighbor's cherished new item changed as well. Add to this
growing environmental awareness, and former ways of disposing of goods (the local
landfill, for example) no longer sufficed. And for those who don't live close to a
Meddling Mabel, meeting the perfect mate becomes more, well, work than it used to
be. Enter the free ad paper.
Except, until very recently, in Tokyo. Yes, there were classified sections in the English
dailies (the weekly job offerings in The Japan Times, or items for sale in The Yomiuri),
but these publications filled only a small part of a huge potential niche and were by and
large aimed at a gaijin audience. They were not classified-driven publications, nor did
they serve as any kind of community forum. When Tokyo Classified started, it was hard to
sell advertising to Japanese companies because most of the company honchos didn't know a
classified ad from an ocha pot.
So why, outside of English publications, such a dearth of free-ad papers in Japan? First,
readers were afraid of printing personal details, like phone numbers, in a magazine.
Second, the long-held prejudice against "old," secondhand items. In a country
that traded in its cars every few years, and spent millions of yen annually on high-status
Gucci bags, used items were decidedly "out." Gomi shopping was the provenance of
What changed? Economy and attitudes. The consumption tax, though small compared to sales
taxes in other nations, hit housewives hard. Some wards and cities changed their sodai
gomi (over-sized garbage) disposal policies to require payment. And don't forget
"internationalization," that tired buzzword of the nineties. A recent article in
ALC's Business English posited that Tokyo Classified's Language Exchange section
contributes to Japan's "internationalization" efforts. Going a bit far, perhaps,
but there's no denying that English-language free ad papers are used by many Japanese
advertisers and readers who see them as the best way to reach gaijin who can't speak
Japanese. Add to that a convoluted distribution system that pads prices, and a revolution
was ready to be borne.
The first Japanese-language free ad magazine to go on sale ("free" refers to the
ads) was the 300-page Quanto for buying and selling secondhand goods. Jamaru-for personal
ads - was launched in 1996. It now sells over 400,000 copies each month.
The mainstream press has started to take notice. In its Jan 3, 1997 issue Olive magazine
profiled the classifieds as a means for Japanese and foreigners to meet and interact. An
article in the Aug 1998 issue of Ginza let its Japanese readers in on how gaijin in Tokyo
were coming across all these deals; cheap apartments, furniture, computers - classified
ads. Across, an an, Being A Broad, CNN English Express, Esquire Japan, MacWorld, Oz, and
Panja magazines, Nihon Keizai and Japan Times Weekly papers have also turned their
spotlights on the classified ad phenomenon.
What does the future portend? Classified ads will be around as long as people need and use
them. Look for the number of Japanese-language free ad papers to skyrocket in the next few
years, as the concept of "expensive is not necessarily better" finally puts down
roots - one beneficial byproduct of the extended economic downturn. "Tall Taro seeks
slim Sachiko" will soon be as mainstream as arranged marriages once were.