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Readers slip away from Japanese-American press

''You're looking at a broken newspaperman,'' says Hiro Hishiki, with just the hint of a smile to indicate he is aware of the dramatic touch to his spiel. But Mr. Hishiki has troubles that seem real enough. As the publisher of the Kashu Mainichi, one of Los Angeles's two Japanese-American dailies, he is one of several publishers of Japanese-American papers around the country who are coping with the problems of an ethnic press in decline.

Chief among their woes is a quickly dwindling readership. Unlike other ethnic papers that have benefited from recent large immigrations to the United States - particularly the Korean, Taiwanese, and Hispanic press - Japanese-American newspapers are experiencing an ongoing decline in the number of readers who can understand the complex Japanese language.

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''The problem facing all the Japanese vernaculars is that the isseim (first-generation immigrants) who can read Japanese are almost all in their 80 s'' or 90s, says Hishiki, who notes that most of the niseim (second generation), sanseim (third generation), and yonseim (fourth generation) do not read the language. He also says that English-language sections have largely failed to win over the younger generations, who subscribe to the big metropolitan dailies as their main source of news.

The Japanese-American newspapers offer a combination of locally written community news stories and stories from the wire services on domestic and international news relating to Japan.

Hishiki's plight has become an increasingly familiar one at Japanese-American papers around the US. Last year the 90-year-old Hawaii Times went from a daily to a weekly in an attempt to cope with escalating costs and declining readership. Their competition, the Hawaii Hochi, relies on outside commercial printing jobs to carry the paper through tough financial times.

A declining isseim audience has also made the going tough for such papers in San Francisco and Seattle, the third- and fourth-largest communities of Japanese-Americans after Honolulu and Los Angeles.

Besides the general economic downturn that has affected all American newspapers, the Japanese-American press faces other problems. They include:

* Competition by Japanese-language television stations: ''It's an affluent audience,'' says Paul Niedermeyer, station manager for KSCI-TV in Los Angeles, which broadcasts over 20 hours a week of Japanese-language programming. The station's most popular show is the news, Mr. Niedermeyer says, which is in the form of taped broadcasts from NHK, a large Japanese news network. He also notes that many of the station's advertisers are from the local ethnic community - the same restaurants and retail stores that usually advertise in the Japanese-American papers.

* Antiquated production methods: Many Japanese-American papers operate with the same technology that their isseim founders used. A walk into the Kashu's press room reveals a linotype operation reminiscent of those which dominated many American press rooms during the early part of this century. Breakdowns are common, parts are hard to find, and renovation is expensive. The Hawaii Hochi is one of the few to overcome this handicap, through capital and technology provided by the Chizuoka Shimbun, a Tokyo-based newspaper which purchased the Hochi in the mid-1950s.

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* Lack of new journalistic talent: Most Japanese-American papers are family operations. Mr. Hishiki took over the Kashu from his father-in-law in 1954. The Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles's other Japanese-American daily, is run by the third generation of the Komai family.

But ''young Japanese-Americans, especially journalists who are initially attracted to the ethnic press, become discouraged when they see the salary, so they disappear into the mainstream press,'' says UCLA Prof. Harry Kitano.

Professor Kitano, a sociologist, also says that the flight away from Japanese-American newspapers by the younger generation is symbolic of the preoccupation with becoming assimilated. ''The great majority are still bent on becoming 'American,' '' he says. It is also evidence of the further breakup of the once-tightly knit Japanese-American family, he adds.

But the ''quiet American,'' as one niseim journalist dubbed his generation, has not taken the challenge to the Japanese-American press lightly.

In response, most newspapers have modernized the typescript they use. And they seek to meet the needs of the recent influx of Japanese businessmen and students who come to the US on a temporary basis.

Hopes for an intergenerational audience remain. Says Hishiki: ''If we could get the sanseim, the yonseim, and the goseim (fifth generation), that would be a trick.''

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