A lot is written today about Japan’s media, particularly because of accusations that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to silence critics. It’s fair enough, but media in Japan is much more complex than many give it credit for. And press freedom is still by and large in tact.

As well as traditional media, there’s an entire weeklies system that deserves attention. There’s also a vibrant social media scene and plenty of online only news sites. All sort of depend on each other. I recently interviewed Kosuke Takahashi of the Huffington Post Japan for the ACCJ Journal on the role that online media plays in Japan. Below is the full interview.

Are you able to cover stories like the Kawasaki murder and compete with more mainstream outlets?

We haven’t been to the site of the incident (murder in Kawasaki), but we carried a lot of stories and blogs. We don’t have enough people to send a reporter there. But we interviewed professionals and wrote blogs.

How many of you are there?

Including sales and editorial, we have 15 people. Including assistants, there are 11 people in editorial.

You’re just operating during the Japanese work day?

We run the site from about 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. If big events happen though, people will work. During, for example, the terrorist attack in Tunisia. So one editor worked overnight.

We run about 50 stories a day. About half of them are original news written by our editorial staffers. The rest of them are blogs and a handful of reprint of wire-service articles written by Reuters and Asahi. Thinking about the number of staff we have, 50 is a lot. We are terribly busy. If you don’t put up that many stories every day, you will not get enough traffic.

What’s your vision for the Huffington Post Japan?

When I became the editor-in-chief, I put the priority on civic journalism. In Japan traditionally, the government and authorities have been very strong. People tend to trust the government, the emperor, authority figures such as teachers, but civic society is not so strong. Japanese media tends to follow the government’s resources, which are sent to the press clubs.

Huffington Post Japan is trying to follow ordinary people to foster democracy, by giving people a chance to hear ordinary people’s voices and opinions. We provide a forum for readers, where they can discuss what the government has to do.

You seem more fearless than traditional media. For example, you guys were pretty critical of Ayako Sono and the story ended up getting picked up internationally.

We carried a lot on Ayako Sono. Traditional Japanese media tends to hesitate to criticize rivals. We do not. We do not have strong ties with other media, there’s no reason for us to restrain ourselves from criticizing the Sankei.

But that sort of stuff is not enough for you?

The U.S. Huffington Post was established in 2005, 10 years ago. It first reported on the so-called low-brow stories. High-brow stories are on politics, economy and that sort of thing. Low-brow stories are on entertainment, cats and dogs etc. Huffington Post in the U.S. first carried only low-brow stories, but now, they have a Pulitzer Prize. They already shifted to a balance between low-brow and high-brow stories. At HuffPost Japan, we were just established two years ago, so we still need to focus on low-brow stories. We have a limited number of staff, and monetization is important.

Are you profitable?

We are monetizing. We have four salespeople. We are still not in the black yet but we will make it.

How are you making money?

We offer the usual banner advertising and also native advertising. More than half of our readers come from smartphones, the rest come from PCs. The revenue from smartphones is still much lower than for PCs. As you can see, advertising banners are small on smartphones, compared to PCs. Although we get much more people from smartphones, it is difficult to make money, so we do native ads. If Toyota pay us money, we will write them a sponsored article. This doesn’t totally rely on traffic, they just trust our brand.

Japan’s media is always rumored to be giving in to advertising demands. The massive companies such as Dentsu are said to lean on newspapers to make sure, say, Tepco is treated gently. Do you get pressure from advertisers?

So far we have had no pressure from advertisers. Why? I don’t know. Maybe we are still too small for Dentsu or something? Maybe it’s because we focus on ordinary people’s lives?

Another point for us is that we focus on minorities. We write about LGBT issues, foreigners, women, the handicapped, those that tend to be less represented in Japanese society.

How many hits are you getting?

We focus on unique users. We have 15 million a month. That’s a lot right? If you want to just get page hits, you just put up more slide shows. We focus on unique users instead.

That’s interesting. It seems a bit different in the U.S. these days. All about hits maybe. You must have seen that Dress article, about the different colors. It got about 80 million hits from Buzzfeed and they seem to be monetizing. But your model is different… 

We got lots of hits. But those kind of stories [The Dress] do not help us to get native ads. We need to enhance our brand image to get native ads from big clients. So we have a dilemma. We need traffic, but those stories don’t help our brand. People want international news, local issues, environmental issues, stories about how local people are suffering … that’s civic journalism. The Dress is less important, but our traffic is very good, that is true.

But you need the cash for the civic journalism…

We are half way there. We had a scoop, but we need more. About a year ago we got one, about the Diary of Anne Frank. One of our reporters, Chika Igaya, had been covering Japanese libraries, and she heard about the damage to the diaries, so she investigated. The report became international news, it was a big scoop.

A libraries correspondent?

Among the 11 editorial staff we have, two came from the Asahi. Maybe they will return there in a few years. They are juniors to me, I am 46, they are fourthsomethings. We have a few people in their 20s, most are in their thirties. They come from Rakuten, the Sankei, some IT media, they have different DNA, come from many quarters of the Japanese media. We are always fighting… well, discussing what to do a lot.

I guess the former Sankei people didn’t follow the Sankei line? I had a friend work there and he was… sane.

Haha. I used to work for the Wall Street Journal Japan, and the staff said they didn’t like the editorials.

So where does the HuffPo fit into the Japan media landscape?

Our rivals are Toyo Keizai online, Blogos and Yahoo online. But Toyo Keizai online is our main rival, they have almost the same editorial line. It’s a friendly rivalry. I am good friends with their editor.

Are you able to grow any further? There has to be a limit to the size a Japanese blog can reach.

We expand by about 3 million unique users a quarter. We still have a long way to go, and can get a lot of new users. Many Japanese do not know the Huffington Post. My staff will call local governments and say who they are. The people at the other end will say ‘Huh?! Washington Post?’” Only people active on the net know our name, not ordinary people.

If we expand our social influence by getting scoops and delivering important news then we will attract more ordinary people.

Do you follow the same method as the HuffPost in the U.S.? Grabbing onto stories and firing out as many posts as possible on them to get traffic. Things like the death of Kenji Goto must be good for traffic. I saw that from the traditional media and online media sides, and there’s no way the papers can keep up.

We got lots of traffic in January when Goto-san was killed. It happened at 5 a.m. One of my staff was connected to a chatroom on his phone. He woke up because his phone started buzzing a lot. He saw Goto-san was killed and got straight to work. If you wait for traditional media’s reporting on this, it can be too late. On the other hand, the traditional way of reporting, hearing rumors, confirming them and publishing stories [can be safer].

So are you trying to outpace traditional media?

We don’t focus much on breaking news. If we focus too much on that we would lose because we don’t have enough staff. For example, the other day we wrote about “hakko icchu,” the wartime government slogan Junko Mihara said in the Diet. Many young people don’t know the phrase, so we summarized its meaning and the story proved a megahit. Then three days later, Asahi politics did the same thing. We also did a slideshow of Mihara, because she is very popular… she’s beautiful. People from my generation like her, and they just want to see her photos.

Young people don’t read newspapers as much as they used to. So if they want explanations, they come to our site. Newspaper circulations are declining a lot. So people lack basic knowledge of the news. So if we can summarize, and explain the background of what is going on, we get people coming to our site.

But you need traditional media then? If they weren’t covering Mihara, you couldn’t follow that story. But at the same time, traditional media revenue is declining. How can journalism sustain itself?

The media that conquers smartphones in Japan will win. It’s happening in other fields too. Look at the Nintendo-DeNA deal. As I said, more than half of our readers come from smartphones. So if you cannot make a smartphone-friendly news site, you cannot win. The U.S. is now redesigning to make a smartphone focused site.

Are you following the U.S. in doing this?

Japan and South Korea have good WiFi systems. In the U.K., people still read free newspapers on the train because they can’t get a signal, for example. Arriana Huffington says Japan and South Korea are experimenting in the media world. They are following us, in a way. So we need to focus on mobile video. People are good at PC video, but we are now changing to mobile video. We will launch a service this year, but the details have not been decided yet. But we will launch video in the in May or June.

So you have total independence from the U.S. site?

Since I joined the Huffington Post in September, I have been to company conferences in London and Munich. We have 13 editions, so twice a year, people get together and discuss what we will do globally. This year, we will launch in Australia, Mexico and an Arabic edition. This helps the group. We can use each other’s articles.

Do you do the U.S. thing of getting celebs to blog to pick up hits?

We use around 300 bloggers. Maybe Shigeru Ishiba gets the most hits. Or Taro Kono or Takafumi Horie. These people allow us to reprint what they wrote on their blogs. HuffPost Japan is a liberal media platform, but we still need to carry conservative views for readers to create a good opinion forum.

How are your readers? I have a rule to never read comments under stories…

We get a lot of Facebook comments. Some are crazy and some are not. People comment from all corners of Japan.

Most of our readers are in their 30s and 40s. Gunosy targets people in their late teens and early 20s. SmartNews targets early 20s to early 30s. HuffPost and Toyo Keizai online readers are in their late 30s and 40s. HuffPost’s selling point is international news, so we get people in their 30s and 40s, company workers.

What about the Japanese news? Does that get translated for the U.S. site?

On the March 11 anniversary, the U.S. site translated two of our stories into English. The Korean site also translated a piece into hangul.

So what’s next?

What I want to do here is… Many places have a digital-first policy. We are digital only. We have to be strong on social media, and on smartphones. And we need to target young people. Elementary school students today are shooting their own videos on smartphones. They are our future readers. And we also need to be strong with visual elements … video and slideshows.

There’s a lot you can do beyond video. I remember one story on the New York Times that felt like a completely new way of publishing…

We are looking at doing global stories. For example, on environmental issues, we can make a world map, an infographic, and if you click, say, Brazil, you can get information from that country. Each edition can contribute the facts. We have COP21 in November, so we decided to do it. We also decided to do a global story on the rise of the right wing. In developed countries, there are fewer children and more immigrants. And the right wing don’t like it. So we will cover this story in each country. At the same time, we will look at good examples of positive immigrant integration.

Sounds like you are going to become a media empire. Totally worldwide.

The Huffington Post Group is trying to establish in China. But the country is sensitive to media, so Arriana Huffington said we will start with a focus on lifestyle and then expand.

How do you perform compared to other Huffington Post sites?

Globally speaking, the U.S. site is the most read, then the U.K.; we are No. 3. We just overtook Canada. We have some bloggers overseas, there’s one in Munich. That must mean there are some overseas Japanese reading us.