Kodansha Ltd. History

12-21, Otowa 2-chome
Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112-8001

Telephone: (81) 3-3945-1111
Fax: (81) 3-3946-6200

Private Company
Incorporated: 1925 as Dai Nippon Yuben Kai Kodansha
Employees: 1,200
Sales: US$1.65 billion (1998)
NAIC: 51112 Periodical Publishers; 51113 Book Publishers; 51121 Software Publishers; 51211 Motion Picture and Video Production; 51212 Motion Picture and Video Distribution

Company Perspectives:

Under the present leadership of Sawako Noma, Kodansha has set itself new goals in the ever changing media industry and continues to play a dominant role as a leader of Japanese book and magazine publishing. Key Dates:

Key Dates:

Seiji Noma is born.
Dai Nippon Yuben Kai is formed.
Seiji Noma publishes Kodan Kurabu and launches a second company, Kodansha.
Fujin is launched.
Dai Nippon Yuben Kai merges with Kodansha.
Sae Noma, Seiji Noma's widow, takes over the company.
Kodansha America is formed.
Sawako Noma becomes president.
Kodansha author Kenzaburo Oe wins the Nobel Prize for literature.
Sales peak at US$1.8 billion.

Company History:

Kodansha Ltd. is the largest publishing company in Asia. The company is run by a woman, Sawako Noma, which is highly unusual in Japan. Even more intriguing is the fact that a woman assumed the helm of Kodansha--albeit briefly--even before World War II. Moreover, Kodansha is a company dedicated to internationalism, awarding prizes for book publishing in Africa, and zealous in its commitment to aiding fledgling book publishers in Asia. It is the only book publishing company in Japan that has a subsidiary in the United States, Kodansha International/USA, responsible for translating Japanese literature, history, and art into English in order to broaden Western understanding of Japanese culture. Most extraordinary to a Westerner, accustomed to regarding Japanese culture as inimical to individualism, is the individualism of those who founded and led Kodansha, and who have left their imprint on the company.

The Early 20th Century: Seiji Noma's First Magazines

The company was founded by Seiji Noma, who noted in his autobiography that he was born at a time of great turmoil in Japanese history. By 1878, the year of his birth, the political upheavals occasioned by the clash between the Tokugawa shogunate and the imperialist forces who owed their allegiance to the mikado, or emperor, had been over for some years. The social and economic transformation of Japan, however, had only begun. Seiji Noma's family had sided with the shogunate and lost. The result was catastrophic for his parents and grandparents. The defeated daimyos (lords) ended by surrendering their fiefs to the state, and their samurai (retainers) found themselves deprived of their traditional offices and revenues. For the first time in their lives, samurai were on a par with everyone else and had to earn a living as best they knew how. Seiji Noma's samurai father, and his mother, a fencing expert, tried various livelihoods, with little success. Seiji Noma's mother and sister were determined to give him an education, however, and worked hard to pay for it.

Just as his mother's and sister's thrift made Noma into a respected teacher, and later a school inspector, so his wife would steer him toward a more responsible life. What he did have in common with other successful entrepreneurs, however, was boundless ambition and a restless drive to get ahead. In short, he was prepared to take risks. Thus, when a very prestigious administrative post at Tokyo University's law school was offered to him, he accepted. Even though he had little administrative experience, he eagerly left his secure and comfortable niche as a school inspector on the island of Okinawa. Even this did not satisfy him for long. He was delighted when the university yielded to the new craze for oratory--or debating--and allowed the establishment of a debating society in his home. He had a real flair for eloquent speech and never tired of reminding audiences how he enthralled his classes reciting from memory the heroic kodan (sagas) from Japan's medieval past.

The debating society gave Noma's ambition a new direction. He made up his mind to publish the monthly speeches of the students and professors, although he had not the slightest idea of how this could be done. He was flipping through the pages of a telephone book in 1910, spotted the name of the Dai Nippon Printing Company, went there immediately, and astonished the owners with his bold plans for a new magazine. This would be the origins of Kodansha Ltd.

It was surprising that Dai Nippon Printing agreed to collaborate with Noma in such a risky venture, and that they even granted him a modest salary as an editor of the magazine, Yuben, which was to be astonishingly successful. But success was far from easy.

Noma actually founded Dai Nippon Yuben Kai in 1909 to publish his magazine; a year later, the first issue of Yuben appeared. From then on, Noma shouldered the responsibilities of his administrative position during the day and his editing responsibilities at night; meanwhile, the publication costs of his new magazine exceeded his wildest imagination. Most of his time was spent less in editing than in trying to drum up money, an exhausting routine that would undermine his health. Noma was not satisfied with only one magazine, but sought to create another. His publishers were reluctant, gave up the rights to his first magazine, Yuben, and handed Dai Nippon Yuben Kai over to Noma, who became his own publisher.

It was to be the most difficult undertaking of his life, and Noma was not only a neophyte in this enterprise but was wholly without means. Moreover, he had to relinquish his solid position at the university to enter an unfamiliar business.

Although it was less than 50 years since Japan had opened up formally to the West, when the country had had no printing presses and traditional Japanese parchment was still used instead of paper, by 1920 Japan had not only caught up with the West in its printing methods but had overtaken all Western countries, except Great Britain, to become the second largest publisher of books in the world. Seiji Noma was interested in publishing magazines rather than books, but even in this realm there were formidable competitors, none more challenging than Jitsugyo no Nihon-sha, with as many as five magazines. With his wife, a former primary school teacher, Noma arduously learned each step of the publishing business. In the process, his young family became impoverished and heavily indebted while Seiji Noma was constantly obliged to haggle over prices with printers and book dealers. Only his faith in his product kept him from giving up.

Seiji Noma would establish another company, Kodansha, in 1911 to publish his second magazine, Kodan Kurabu, later renamed Kodansha, after the medieval kodan, of Japan. Noma's strong didactic streak now found an outlet in his new magazine. Kodansha would contain the stories of Japan's heroic past, a heroism in which Seiji Noma and his generation believed, and which had been fortified as a result of Japan's war against Russia in 1904. After a weak start Kodan Kurabu had turned out to be surprisingly popular. The stories appealed to the right audience--Japan's rapidly growing population of literate men and women. Illiteracy was wiped out by the 20th century, a tremendous achievement in any country, especially one in which illiteracy had been widespread only 50 years earlier.

By now, Noma had become a successful publisher, and between 1914 and 1923 five more successful magazines had been launched and Seiji Noma's publishing company was well on its way to becoming the leading magazine publisher in Japan. He was in many respects a typical Japanese employer of his generation--his employees worked long hours and were given only two days off each month, and he relied heavily on cheap labor in the form of adolescent boys. Yet few of his workers lost their jobs, even in the recession of the 1920s, and Noma built living quarters with recreational facilities for his young unmarried workers. With the catastrophic earthquake in Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923, Kodansha and Dai Nippon Yuben Kai turned out to be two of the few publishing companies in Japan--most of which were centered in Tokyo&mdashø survive the earthquake intact. Seiji Noma was by then a very wealthy man, the 'magazine king' of Japan and to his competitors, 'the Mussolini of our magazine world.' He was also a cosmopolitan man; he had a European wing built on to his mansion and he eagerly borrowed publishing ideas from the West. His idea for the highly successful magazine Fujin, launched in 1920, had sprung from his perusal of the American Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal. It would be a publication for everyone and include 'all that was interesting and amusing, light and soothing.' Hence not everything he published had to be educational, an impression his memoirs are at pains to convey.

In 1925, toward the end of his life, but still only in his 50s, Seiji Noma launched his eighth and most successful magazine, Kingu (from the English word 'king'). Once again, the tone of Kingu was moralistic and educational. Yet it was phenomenally successful, with monthly sales of more than 1.5 million copies, the most successful magazine in modern Japanese history. Also in 1925, Noma merged his two publishing companies, Dai Nippon Yuben Kai and Kodansha. The merged company was incorporated as Dai Nippon Yuben Kai Kodansha (DNYKK).

Noma's last magazine venture, a children's publication, was far less popular, but by then, ten years before his death, he had become more interested in entering the highly competitive world of book publishing. Whereas the number of books the company published before World War II was very small, they sold very well and might have established DNYKK as a leading book publisher had it not been for Seiji Noma's untimely death at the age of 60 and the advent of World War II.

Whether or not Seiji Noma was as intensely patriotic as he himself suggests is difficult to ascertain. Of the many hardships encountered in the fiercely competitive world of Japanese publishing, censorship was one of them. In the 1930s, when Seiji Noma wrote his autobiography, government control of the press was absolute. Therefore, Noma's memoirs had to be deeply patriotic, even though censorship must have weighed heavily on him as a publisher.

Despite the Depression of the 1930s, Kodansha continued to produce 70 percent of all magazines in Japan. Understandably, nothing in Seiji Noma's memoirs hints at the growing militarization of Japan and of the intense pressure put on publishers to produce reading matter of a chauvinistic and militaristic character. Like all publishers, Noma had to conform. The year of his death, 1938, was also the year in which Japanese publishing began its steep decline that would end with the cessation of all publishing activity in Japan in 1945. These were harsh years for Japanese publishers. With Seiji Noma's death, his son Hasashi Noma would take the helm, only to die of an illness shortly afterward. Seiji Noma's widow, Sae Noma, was forced to take over. Her leadership of a major company was unprecedented in Japan, where women did not even have the right to vote. Like her husband, she was spirited and intelligent, but was growing old. With her only child dead, she adopted into the family the second husband of her dead son's widow, Shoichi Takagi, who thenceforth took the family name of Noma, becoming DNYKK's director in 1941. During this period, Dai Nippon Yuben Kai Kodansha became known increasingly by its nickname, Kodansha, and eventually the company was officially renamed Kodansha.

World War II was a time of enormous hardship for Japan's book publishers. Aside from having to deal with the military government's control of the press, there was also the extreme shortage of paper and the unpopular rationing system whereby the government determined the amount of paper to be allocated to each company. Naturally there was cooperation with the authorities. Kodansha's was no more marked than others; indeed, had the company not cooperated, it would have suffered the fate of two other prominent publishing companies, Kaizosha and Chuo Koronsha, which were forced to close down in 1944. Nonetheless, as the largest magazine publishing company, Kodansha's 'collaboration' was perhaps the most visible.

Under the circumstances, it was noteworthy that any reputable publications saw the light of day during the war, as indeed they did. Nonetheless, the year 1945 marked the nadir of Japanese publishing, which was forced to a standstill because of the exhaustion of paper supplies.

The Revitalization of the Publishing Industry in Postwar Japan

Once press controls were lifted following Japan's surrender, however, the Japanese entrepreneurial spirit was far from dead. As early as September 1945, before the American occupation authorities had time to occupy the country, an enterprising publisher put out a booklet, minus front and back covers, entitled Japanese American Conversation Handbook. The fact that this paperback sold out perhaps testified less to the quality of the product than to the fact that the Japanese were starved for reading matter. With the coming of the Americans to Japan in December 1945, more specifically the Supreme Command of the Allied Powers under General Douglas MacArthur, Japanese censorship officially came to an end, only to be replaced by American censorship. The formerly stridently militaristic Japan Book Publishers Association now just as vehemently denounced Japan's 'collaborators' during the war, most notably Kodansha Ltd. under Shoichi Noma's direction.

The charges of collaboration had the desired effect: in the first wave of three purges of civilian Japanese, Shoichi Noma was dismissed in 1946 as president of Kodansha. Even worse, nearly all the company's officials felt themselves under pressure to resign, leaving Kodansha a skeleton of its former self. Kodansha's competitors must have been secretly delighted by this turn of events and rumors abounded that Kodansha was nearing its end. But they underestimated a company that had survived the devastating earthquake of 1923 and the debilitating Depression of the 1930s. In 1946, the year Shoichi Noma was fired, Kodansha employees kept the firm going until Shoichi Noma's almost miraculous rehabilitation in 1949.

Shoichi Noma was another self-made man who, like his predecessor Seiji Noma, owed his good fortune to a good education--he graduated with a law degree from Tokyo University in the 1930s&mdash well as to his native talents and to key women in his life, most notably his friendship with Seiji Noma's widow and his marriage to Seiji Noma's widowed daughter-in-law, which led to his adoption into the Noma family. Made director of Kodansha in 1941, he became its president shortly before he was fired in 1946. Returning as president in 1949, he set forth--very like Seiji Noma&mdashø modernize and reorganize the company, cost what it might. When he stepped down in 1981 in favor of his adopted son, Shoichi Noma had changed the face of Kodansha. Of the 34 magazines that Kodansha published in 1981, only Fujin was a survivor of the prewar era, and book publishing, tentatively begun before World War II, was now Kodansha's main business. Shoichi Noma was extremely successful perhaps because, like Seiji Noma, he had grand ambitions and was not easily satisfied; he wanted nothing less than to make his company a major force in the international publishing world.

The time was propitious for this. The Korean War had broken out in 1950 and lifted Japan out of the financial doldrums, resuscitating its industry. By the time the war ended, the publishing industry in Japan had recovered fully from the ravages of World War II. By then, Kodansha also was making a gradual recovery. Shoichi Noma had the same instinct as Seiji Noma for determining the right magazine to publish. In Shoichi Noma's case, the pivotal turnabout in his company's fortunes was the publication of the literary magazine Gunzo, which attracted some of Japan's finest modern writers. Shoichi Noma also showed himself to be a maverick by engaging in large-scale co-publishing projects with foreign publishers to produce such highly acclaimed and profitable book series as Museums of the World and Sanctuaries of World Religions. In fact, it was Shoichi Noma who first embarked on the mass publication of books in Japan, earning him the honorific 'Father of Japanese Publishing.' Soon Kodansha was churning out 1,000 book titles a year. In 1963 Noma decided to try the market in the United States, a daring venture for a Japanese publisher. Unlike Japanese cars and televisions, very few Japanese books were being exported abroad. Kodansha International/USA in New York City would become one of Kodansha's most important and successful branches, churning out hundreds of titles on Japanese art, literature, and history in English translation. By 1980 Kodansha was the largest and most successful publishing company in Japan.

Shoichi Noma's innovations in the field of publishing were matched by his pioneering work in fostering international understanding. His brainchild, the Publishers' Organization for Cultural Exchange, was established to introduce Japanese culture abroad and to introduce foreign culture to Japan.

This was followed in 1979 with the establishment of the Noma Asia/African Scholarship, to enable promising Asians and Africans to study in Japan, and the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, set up in 1980, was a prize for the best book written and published in Africa. The same year also saw the establishment of the Noma Literacy Prize, to go to the group or individual who has done most to combat illiteracy.

In 1981, Shoichi Noma retired in favor of his adopted son Koremichi Noma, who was president of Kodansha until his death in 1987. During this period Kodansha entered the audiovisual computer age with a broad range of videos and computer software and, like most Japanese publishing companies, expanded its array of comic books until in the 1990s the number of Kodansha's comic book titles reached almost 3,000.

Information Technology in the 1990s

With Koremichi Noma's untimely death, his widow Sawako Noma stepped in as president, the second woman leader in Kodansha's history. The university-educated, English-speaking Sawako Noma, mother of five children, continued her predecessors' strategy of strengthening Kodansha's global publishing position and furthering its humanitarian concerns.

The next decade saw tremendous growth for Kodansha, with sales reaching a peak of US$1.8 billion by 1997, an increase of 32 percent since Sawako Noma became company president. Much of this success resulted from the company's eagerness to explore emerging technologies as means of developing new products. In the early 1990s Kodansha became one of the few Japanese publishing companies to provide information about its book titles on the Internet, and in July 1997 it became the second Japanese publisher to offer online book ordering. In the later part of the decade Kodansha also participated in several joint ventures to promote innovation in electronic publishing. In 1998 it was one of 30 publishers in a consortium dedicated to marketing e-books through a network of satellite-linked computer terminals, which were situated in retail outlets throughout the country. The next year Kodansha introduced the FD Bookclub, a line of Web-based talking books for the hearing impaired. In the year 2000 the company joined eight other publishers in creating a virtual bookstore, with the aim of offering exclusively digital content products.

The manga sensation of the late 1990s also proved immensely profitable for Kodansha. Manga--the Japanese term for graphic novel--first became popular in Japan in 1959, with Kodansha's publication of Weekly Shonen, a serialized comic book. The form did not achieve widespread success in North America until several decades later, with the appearance of a number of animated films based on manga characters, most notably Akira and, in the last years of the decade, Pokemon. In the early 1990s Kodansha licensed the rights to Akira to Marvel subsidiary Epic Comics, authorizing them to create a comic book version of the story specifically geared toward the American audience. In 1996, at the height of the manga craze, the company cosponsored a competition in Japan calling for story and character ideas that might be adapted for publication or film. That same year, Kodansha launched a new business in North America dedicated to marketing Japanese-made animation software, and in 2000 the animated series Cardcaptor, an original Kodansha production that was immensely popular in Japan, premiered in the United States.

The shift into the electronic marketplace did not diminish Kodansha's reputation as a publisher of print literature. In 1993 Kodansha America started Kodansha Globe, a line of paperbacks devoted to a range of world cultures. In 1994 Kodansha author Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for literature, and several of the publisher's titles were bestsellers throughout the decade. At this time Sawako Noma also introduced an extensive new series of company-sponsored literary awards, including prizes for excellent translations of Japanese works. In the United States Kodansha America dedicated increased attention to publishing the work of American writers, in addition to expanding its line of English translations of Japanese works. On the domestic front, the company directed its focus to the growing women's magazine market, launching a series of successful new publications, including Voce and Mine. Although the company continued to contend with numerous challenges at decade's end, including copyright infringement in other Asian countries and a decline in reading among Japan's adolescent population, its proven ability to recognize new opportunities helped it maintain a prominent position in the Japanese--and international--publishing world into the 21st century.

Principal Subsidiaries: Kodansha Publishing Co., Ltd.; King Record Co., Ltd.; Kodansha International Ltd.; Kodansha International/USA, Ltd.; Kodansha Famous Schools, Inc.; The Nikkan Gendai Ltd.; Sansui-sha Publication Co., Ltd.; My Health Co., Ltd.; KBS (Kokusai Bunka Shuppan Ltd.); ASK Kodansha Co., Ltd.; Asmik Corporation; Kodansha Images; Kodansha Institute of Publication, Ltd.; Daiichi Shuppan Center Ltd.; IPEC, Inc.; Kodansha Scientific Ltd.; Scholar Publishers Inc.; Planning Editorial Center Ltd.; Daiichi-Tosho Storage Ltd.; Toyokuni Printing Co.; Daiichi Paper Co., Ltd.

Principal Competitors: Asahi Shimbun Publishing Company; Time Inc.; Times Publishing Limited.

Further Reading:

  • Charle, Suzanne, 'The Kay Graham of Japan's Media Industry,' New York Times, January 11, 1999, Sec. C, p. 15.
  • Goozner, Merrill, 'Manga Mania Heads for the U.S.: Comics Craze May Be the Next Japanese Export to Sweep America,' Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1994.
  • Miyatake, Hisa, 'Internet Making Crossroads in Japanese Business World,' Kyodo News International, Inc., February 10, 1995.
  • Noma, Seiji, The Nine Magazines of Kodansha, London: Methuen & Co., 1934.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 38. St. James Press, 2001.