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Sunday, June 12, 2005


In Japan's tabloid world, truth trumps pulp fiction

TABLOID TOKYO: 101 Tales of Sex, Crime and the Bizarre from Japan's Wild Weeklies, by Geoff Botting, Ryann Connell, Michael Hoffman and Mark Schreiber. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2005, 255 pp., 1,400 yen (paper).

Reviewed by TIM HORNYAK Aside from the sight of middle-age Japanese businessmen happily reading comic books, the Tokyo train commute also features the contrast of prim, sober-looking commuters sitting under advertising posters of busty babes falling out of their bikini tops. These are the lurid ads for Japan's tabloid magazines, and their black and red kanji headlines scream of celebrity news, scandal, sex and crime. Sanitized mainstream newspapers often play catch-up with tabloids that readers turn to for the scoop on political corruption scandals or the reigning sumo champ's philandering.

They rip the mask from the face of an outwardly orderly society of conformists to reveal its secret peccadilloes and addictions, warts and eccentricities. They can be as journalistically believable as a respected broadsheet or as yellow as the worst Bigfoot-obsessed supermarket rag. They can also be very funny: men who fall in love with their life-size sex dolls, a thief whose fetish for uniforms filled his house with purloined company duds, and a club for women who enjoy baking pies and then hurling them at others.

These are only a few of the translated magazine gems found in "Tabloid Tokyo," a collection of pulp offerings originally printed in Sunday's popular Tokyo Confidential column of the Japan Times and the naughtier WaiWai page of the online Mainichi Daily News. Following up on their superb 2001 anthology also called "Tokyo Confidential," translators Geoff Botting, Mark Schreiber, Michael Hoffman and Ryann Connell present such irresistible reports from the front lines of the bizarre as "Humans Cloned By Con Artists," "Believers Worship Giant Penis" and "Moms Mistake Kids for Pets."

The book is a zesty cornucopia of the prurient oddities of modern Japan: creepy gropers moving with ninja slyness in packed trains, or exclusive bars where customers are invited to fornicate in front of others.

Students of Japanese can also spice up their Nihongo with such recherche terms as "burusera," shops that sell panties used by high-school girls, and "atari-ya," thugs who specialize in getting hit by cars to extort motorists. Some articles strain credibility, but that's beside the point since the whole forms a slice of Japanese life that reads better than pulp fiction.

As colorful and curious as the sensational stories are, those dealing with how ordinary Japanese are struggling to cope in a changing world are more revelatory. There's the pathetic tale from Yomiuri Weekly about Shinichi Yamamura, an unwanted company man who was put in a "restructure box" -- relegated to work in a corridor, then a locker room and finally a warehouse. A piece from the weekly magazine Josei Seven begins with a couple and their 5-year-old daughter waking up at home, which consists of vinyl tarps and cardboard boxes on the banks of the Sumida River. But what's next? A quote from a sex counselor who runs a deflowering service for old virgins. Such is the wild ride of "Tabloid Tokyo."

The wild yarns in "Tabloid Tokyo" are the raw stories the Japanese tell themselves and as such provide rich insights into the popular culture that undermine any stereotype about this society. They are translated with a vim and polish that also makes exploring these contradictory, outrageous and fascinating demimondes tons of fun.

For the serious watcher of contemporary Japan, they are required reading. For the rest of us, they're better than a sake-soaked night in Kabukicho. And their bite-size length makes for perfect reading material when hanging from a train strap under the latest tabloid ad.

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