THE MANGAJIN STORY


The Beginnings of Mangajin
The concept of Mangajin magazine began to take shape in 1988. Vaughan Simmons, a businessman and translator who had lived and worked in Japan for 10 years, started developing prototypes of a magazine that would feature Japanese pop culture in a format combining entertainment and language-learning.
The very first prototype of what was to become Mangajin magazine

Simmons's background included 4 years working for George Fields (author of Gucci on the Ginza, From Bonsai to Levis, and noted authority on the Japanese as consumers) at a consumer market research firm in Japan (ASI Market Research, now AC Neilsen Customized Japan). Working with clients like Nestle, Vicks, KFC, and MacDonalds, he saw that American and European companies could be very successful in Japan if they just did their homework and learned a little about the Japanese consumer (= Japanese people). This was part of the motivation for starting Mangajin.

At the time, the trade situation between the US and Japan was like a bad tennis match. The US just couldn't seem to hit the ball and it was getting embarrassing, even to the Japanese. Simmons felt that part of the problem was the fact that Americans just didn't know very much about Japan.

There was clearly a need for new sources of information about Japan. Most of the information available on Japan was from Japanese sources. Some of it had clearly been "whitewashed" for foreign consumption and some of it seemed to suffer from the "fish describing water" syndrome; the Japanese writer or editor didn't have a feel for what was interesting to the foreign reader. Or, the most offensive of all was the writer who glossed over key points because he or she didn't think the non-Japanese reader could understand them. Usually, the problem was that the writer didn't know how to explain them in terms of another cultural vocabulary.

Also, about this time, Japanese language education, especially at the college level, was really taking off, and learning Japanese was considered a smart career move. It looked like Japan Inc. was about to take over the world and people wanted to be able to talk to their new bosses. (Mangajin wasn't catering to that crowd, however; it's goal was to be a part of turning the situation around. )

From his market research days, Simmons realized that to really understand the Japanese people, you had to at least have some insights into the language, and the converse was also true. So something that combined "culture" and language would be ideal. And as for the real "culture," forget about what they say, look at what they buy -- current pop culture provides the best indication of what Japanese people are really interested in. (Of course, it's also true that modern pop culture frequently contains references to "classical" culture.)

Developing the Concept
A publication using Japanese manga ("comics") as a medium seemed like an ideal solution. Manga in Japan are a highly developed medium attracting some of the most talented artists and writers in the country. Also, because of the popular appeal (some manga magazines have circulations of 5,000,000 or more), they are a reflection of the Japanese psyche. Since manga are produced for domestic consumption (by Japanese artists for Japanese readers), they provide a window into the "real Japan," a peek behind the curtain of Japanese society. Manga also show how the Japanese language is really spoken. There are clearly defined levels of politeness in Japanese, and textbooks tend to emphasize the more polite forms. That's not such a bad idea for beginners, but it's only part of the language. No one had really made an attempt to explain colloquial Japanese -- the kind of Japanese you hear on the trains, in the streets, and in the sushi (or other) bars.

Simmons developed a "four-line format" showing the original Japanese, the reading/pronunciation (in English letters), a literal word-for-word translation (showing their "linguistic logic,") and a final translation. In consultation with native speakers, American translators, and language teachers he developed consistent explanations for many of the colloquial forms that baffle even advanced students of Japanese. The end result was that even the most complicated colloquial Japanese was made accessible to anyone, including beginning students.
A prototype used to obtain reprint rights from the major Japanese publishers

Although this format makes it possible for someone who knows absolutely no Japanese to follow and enjoy the manga, the language-learning content of Mangajin was really designed more for the intermediate student -- the kind of person who had taken a course in school, or maybe had spent some time in Japan and knew a little Japanese, but didn't have any way to use it. Mangajin lets them maintain and reinforce what they know and also pick up new words and constructions, all in the context of an entertaining story.

To round things out, the magazine also included feature stories, book, software and video reviews, a "cooking corner," classified ads, and a variety of other content.

In 1988 Simmons was working as a free-lance translator, using the "down time" between jobs to develop prototypes of what was to become Mangajin. It was also at this time that he made contact with Wayne Lammers, at that time a professor of Japanese at the University of Wisconsin, and secretary of the Association of Teachers of Japanese. (He's also an award-winning translator.) Lammers recognized the value of the "Manga approach," and provided some valuable input as well as moral support during the difficult early days of the magazine.

Making It Into Print
The prototypes Simmons developed in 1988 and 1989 were used to solicit feedback from various people in the Japan-America community, as well as from potential investors and advertisers. After two trips to Japan, Simmons secured written agreements from the major manga publishers to translate and reprint their material, and had come up with seed money. The initial capital raised ($20,000) was used to purchase computer equipment and produce a final prototype. This prototype was used to solicit distributors and advertisers, and to fine-tune the layout and design. Upon completion of this stage, and with positive market research results from the prototype, additional capital ($30,000) was raised from Sekai Shuppan, a group of Japanese businessmen who formed a corporation primarily to pursue this project. This money was used to publish and promote the first issue.

Looking back at it now, trying to launch a magazine with $50,000 was not just overambitious, it was stupid. It's a fairly common scenario: people go ahead and launch a company knowing they don't have enough money, figuring they will just cross that bridge when they come to it. About two months later, when the money starts to get tight, they are frantically rewriting the business plan and spending half their time talking to potential investors. This takes time away from the business, which has yet a further negative effect on cash-flow, and thus the vicious cycle starts.

At any rate, the first issue was published in June, 1990. The inside pages were all B&W;, and were printed from 300 dpi laser output (not typeset). In spite of its less-than-polished look, the magazine's solid content and excellent translations quickly earned it a reputation as a reliable, authoritative, and entertaining source of information on Japan and the Japanese language.
Mangajin No. 1, published in June 1990

Through innovative "guerilla" marketing, along with the outstanding content, Mangajin reached a worldwide circulation of 17,000 by the end of 1991, surprising many people who never expected it to top 10,000. In 1995, it reached a circulation of almost 30,000, and with over half of that in the US, enjoyed the largest paid circulation of any English language, Japan-related periodical in North America.

Still, Mangajin was expensive to produce and difficult to market, and it had that problem of being under-financed which had dogged it since the very beginning. From the start, Simmons usually spent more time writing business plans and trying to hustle up investment money than he did working on the actual magazine. Dealing with some of the new investors was also a drain of time and energy, and the financial reporting became more and more time consuming.

Although Simmons spent considerable time and effort pursuing investors in the US, in the end, most of the money came from sources in Japan. Hiromichi Moteki, president of Sekai Shuppan, and himself a major investor, was the one who came up with most of the financing for Mangajin. In that sense, his support and enthusiasm were essential to the existence of Mangajin.

Changes in the Market
Shortly after Mangajin was launched in 1990, the Japanese economic "bubble" burst, and although the drop-off of interest in Japanese language was gradual, it was unmistakable. Through aggressive marketing, Mangajin was able to keep circulation growing through 1995, but starting in 1996 it began to fall off, creating a downward spiral.

Advertising also took a turn for the worse after 1996. The Japanese language "boom" was happening in the early 90s, and there was a new crop of language-learning products like the proverbial mushrooms after a rain. Japanese seemed to lend itself to computerized learning, and there were a multitude of new software products. All of these products wanted to (needed to) advertise in Mangajin, and most of them wanted full-page, color ads.

It was clear that the market could not support all these products, and Mangajin's management started a push to expand advertising to include more general, non-language-learning advertisers. Even though the demographics were great -- high income, well-educated, internationally-minded readers -- the circulation was still small for major advertisers like airlines, beer companies and hotels, and apparently the fact that the magazine featured comics was a barrier to US ad agencies and marketing managers.

Ancillary Activities
Even before the drop in circulation and ad revenues after 1995, it was clear to management that trying to build a viable business with just the magazine was an "iffy" proposition. To make the most efficient use of its production capabilities, to get maximum value from the stream of information created by the magazine, and to provide a more stable revenue base, Mangajin has expanded into book publishing, tape publishing, and even did a CD-ROM. The books did fairly well, as did the tapes, but they were not enough to support the falling revenues from the magazine. Also, the consolidation that was going on in bookstores, with the big chains essentially taking over the market, was making life much more difficult for small publishers.

The Concept of the Catalog
One of the marketing problems Mangajin had faced over the years was the low incidence of potential readers of Mangajin in any of the identifiable groups or mailing lists. To get around this problem (and tap into a larger market than the language-learning niche), a catalog with a wide range of Japan-related products seemed to be an ideal solution.

Such a catalog would have a wider appeal, and thus could be mailed to any of the Japan-interested lists available. A promo piece for the magazine could be "piggybacked" on the catalog, solving the problem of the low incidence of potential readers in most of the lists. Actually Mangajin had been building up a small catalog/DM operation through the magazine itself, and although it was possible to expand this through drop-shipping and co-op deals with suppliers, it was clear that additional capital would be required to launch an effective and efficient operation.

Because of Mangajin's reputation in the market, two potential sources soon appeared but both were asking for such restrictive conditions that in the end, the existing partners in Japan came up with interim financing to get the catalog started.

The Japanese Resource Guide
The first issue of the catalog (Mangajin's Japanese Resource Guide) was launched in Nov. 1996 on a limited test basis through a variety of groups, organizations, and also Japanese restaurants. Overall results were very positive, with revenues coming in as projected. It was especially encouraging that orders came in from many people who were not even aware of the existence of Mangajin magazine.

In 1997 the catalog operation was expanded, with 2 catalog printings scheduled for March and September. A network of 1,000 Japanese restaurants was set up to serve as the main channel of distribution for the catalog. Each restaurant would get an average of 20 copies of the catalog per month, for five months (no catalog would be sent in the last month of the cycle), adding up to 100,000 copies. An additional 80,000 catalogs were to be distributed through various lists and to Mangajin's own database (about 30,000 names).

The copies of the catalog distributed through restaurants generated a good volume of orders, and also provided access to people who were interested in Japan, but were not on any lists, were not members of Japan-related organizations, and would not otherwise be reached. Catalogs distributed through restaurants were also picked up by Japanese ex-pats lining in the US. (Most restaurants estimate their clientele as 20% Japanese and 80% American.) Catalog No. 2 included some bilingual content and products targeted at these Japanese ex-pats.

Because the catalog was launched on a shoestring, many of the items (especially software products) were drop-shipped. Although drop-shipping seems attractive since there is no investment in inventory, in practice, with orders for multiple items, drop-shipping of one of the items results in double (or more) shipping costs to Mangajin. It is also difficult to get favorable discounts on inventory using this method.

Mangajin also needed to produce more proprietary products, and import certain items from Japan to improve margins and enhance the appeal of the catalog. So the plan was to take what had been learned with the first two catalogs and bring that to fruition in the third catalog, but it was never to be.

The Beginning of the End
Circulation of Mangajin magazine had been falling off in the US as well as Japan, but toward the end of 1997, sales in Japan took a nosedive. They were down to 6,000, less than half of the 1995 peak, and projected to drop to 3,000 or so in 1998. At that point the magazine was just not sustainable, and there was no choice but to suspend publication.

Least anyone get the wrong impression, costs at Mangajin had always been kept at extraordinarily low levels. Everyone worked on folding tables (except the business manager who got a desk when the people next door moved), computer equipment was adequate, but just barely, office space was no-frills office park (1990-1996), or older in-town office/warehouse. Everyone kept a close eye on expenses, and partly because of the Japanese partners, financial records were well-kept and constantly monitored. Oh, and salaries were so low that had there not been the attraction of working for a first-rate niche publication with an excellent reputation, recruiting would have been impossible.

Mangajin also considered changing the format of the magazine. For one thing, the nature of the market was changing. Interest in learning Japanese for business reasons continued to drop off, but Japanese pop culture seemed to be making some real inroads in the US for the first time, and there were more and more people who into Japanese animation, manga, and even Japanese pop music. This tended to be a younger crowd, high school or even junior high, and coincidentally, that was where Japanese language study was growing.

Still, there was no way to guarantee that a change in the format and content would actually attract those readers, or that ad revenues could be pulled back up, and then there were those creditors who were starting to get impatient.

Another part of this picture was that Sekai Shuppan had put a lot of time and money into a project for the English language-learning market in Japan. This is a huge market, but it is also very competitive, and when there is an economic downturn, parts of this market get soft very quickly. PR can work miracles for book sales, and that was a major part of the plan, but apparently some PR contacts were transferred at the last minute, and to make a long story short, the book fizzled. Had it been a huge success, there would have been no problem in financing the catalog, and subsequently, Mangajin's recovery, but that was not to be.

So there was Mangajin with no magazine sales, no money to print and distribute a catalog, and a growing pack of wolves howling at the door. The only possible solution was to cut back to one or two employees (staff layoffs had been going on since Nov. 1997; by Jan. 1998 there were three full-time employees), get out of the office space, and starting with an electronic format (minimal overhead), try to bootstrap back up.

In other words, the magazine and catalog operation would go completely on-line. Mangajin had a fairly extensive website, including a complete online catalog, but it had been set up pretty much as a supplement to the print catalog, and had not been generating much in the way of orders.

In January 1998, Simmons started developing a new website, Mangajin Online, but in the meantime, the creditors had to be convinced that it was in their best interest to give Mangajin a slightly extended grace period, rather than demanding immediate payment, even though most accounts were overdue.

Most creditors realized that Mangajin had no cash, and that if they squeezed now, they wouldn't get anything, whereas if they waited a few months, there was a very good possibility they would eventually be completely repaid.

Two of the creditors (DynED in California, and Mack Printing in Pennsylvania) decided they couldn't wait and they turned Mangajin's accounts over to collection agencies. Eventually these cases would have wound up in court. The debts were completely legitimate, and the end result would have been a judgement against Mangajin, leading to a liquidation of assets. First of all, that would hardly be fair to the other creditors, and if there was any possibility, Mangajin wanted to at least see the assets go to someone who understood the value and would use them as intended (for example, not sell all the back issues to be recycled for pulp).

A Chapter 11 reorganization looked attractive, but the legal fees were far greater than any amount Mangajin could muster, and Ch. 11 also depends on the creditors' agreeing to the restructuring plan. So, eventually it looked like a Ch. 7 liquidation was the only way. In Ch. 7, the assets are turned over to a court-appointed trustee who finds the best way to dispose of them. In this case, a group of investors was able to acquire the remaining assets of Mangajin Inc. and use them as the starting point for a new entity.

The Mangajin name was part of those assets, and there are certainly many former subscribers who wonder if the magazine will be revived. A group in Japan has expressed some interest, but they are not able to come up with the total amount of money necessary, and they do not have any presence in the US, so they are still looking/waiting for a partner.

Part of the problem with reviving the magazine is that royalty payments to the Japanese publishers of the original mange material had fallen way behind. Although the Ch. 7 proceedings legally "discharged" that debt, if anyone wanted to continue with the concept of a magazine named Mangajin that used authentic Japanese manga, they would have to do business with the big Japanese publishers, who would expect to be paid those back royalties.

So that is how the Wasabi Brothers Trading Company came into existence. Since Vaughan Simmons had recently become unemployed, he seemed like a good person to run the new operation, and has now become the main Wasabi Brother.

As we continue to look for ways to revive the print Mangajin magazine, we'll do what we can with the E-Zine version. Likewise, we want to bring back the catalog (Japanese Resource Guide), so we ask for your support as we regroup. Most recently we've joined forces with Jim Rose and the Rolomail Trading Company, who have grown over recent years to be an influential force in distributing Japanese educational products world-wide. They're doing everything they can to help revitalize the Managajin legacy, and administering a second chance "back issue subscription" for those who missed out the first time.




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