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Saturday, Dec. 6, 2008
One man's theory, another's laugh
By ALEX MARTIN
Conspiracy theories, occultism, UFOs and pseudoscience. Society abounds with the conjectures of people thinking far, far outside the box.
It's easy to brush them off as mere lunatics or dreamers who have lost touch with reality, but novelist Hiroshi Yamamoto sees them as shining examples of what not to do as a writer — and good for a hearty laugh, to boot.
"I've learned so much during the process of verifying the accuracy of these 'outrageous books,' " said Yamamoto, who is also chairman of The Academy of Outrageous Books, an independent organization of roughly 130 members ranging from writers and scientists to Shinto priests and fortunetellers.
"We define 'outrageous books' as literature that can be enjoyed when read from an alternate perspective, different from what the author had in mind," Yamamoto explained.
The group, known as To-gakkai ("to" comes from the first kana character of the word "tondemonai," which translates as "outrageous," and "gakkai" means "academy"), gathers every three months to exchange new "outrageous" discoveries its members have made.
"My recent recommendation would be obstetrician Akira Ikegawa's 'Tainai Kioku' ('Memories from the Womb')," Yamamoto said, explaining how in the book, the author claims some infants can recall their time inside their mother's womb.
"He even goes further to cite comments from those who say they have memories from when they were a sperm or an ovary. It's pretty hilarious," Yamamoto said.
The academy also hosts the Japan Outrageous Book Award, which "honors" the most preposterous book of the year.
Chujo Shiose's "Gachinko Shinrei Koyuroku" ("Hardball Psychic Encounters"), describing the author's supposedly true account of his interactions with the denizens of the great beyond, was a winner in 2004.
In the book, the author at one point visits Yasukuni Shrine, the Shinto shrine in Tokyo dedicated to Japan's war dead, and pleads with the spirits there to decamp immediately for the sake of the nation's foreign policy interests.
But he ends up enraging the spirit of wartime Prime Minister Gen. Hideki Tojo, who refuses to budge even at the cost of his life.
Yamamoto traces his interest in such books to one published in the 1980s by Toru Kawajiri that interpreted the prophecies of 16th-century French seer Nostradamus — a favorite of many "outrageous" theorists worldwide.
In his 1998 publication, "Tondemo Nostoradamus-bon no Sekai" ("The World of Outrageous Nostradamus Books"), Yamamoto describes how Kawajiri picked out the French word "demeurance" from one of Nostradamus' prophesies, scrambled the letters to create the phrase "uran de ceme," and thereby "proved" the seer had prophesied the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
In Romanized Japanese, "uran de ceme" roughly translates to "attacking with uranium."
"He also insisted that there was a secret organization that acted out Nostradamus' prophecies," Yamamoto recalled. "The entire assumption was mind-bending."
Founded in 1992, the academy set as its mission squeezing a good laugh out of books that, contrary to the creator's earnest intentions, feature writing, theories and presumptions that were too far-fetched or scientifically faulty to be taken seriously.
Some "outrageous" titles from the Japan Outrageous Book Award winners from those early years include, from 1995, "Atorantisu no Minda Ojo Gohyakki no UFO Shitagae 'Seimei no Ki' e" (Princess Minda of Atlantis Heads to the 'Tree of Life' Followed By 500 UFO's), and 1997 prizewinner "Hatsujoki — Buruma Kensa" ("Hormone Overdrive — Inspecting Female Gym Shorts"), an eccentric porn novel involving elementary school students.
Shortly after the academy's founding, the proliferation of "outrageous" theories, which had been restricted mainly to certain books and occult magazines, took off with the growth of the Internet, according to Yamamoto.
"The 9/11 conspiracy theories are a good example," Yamamoto said. Contradicting the mainstream account of the attacks, some claimed they were a pretext to justify America's overseas wars.
Paired with the still popular Apollo moon landing hoax conspiracy theories — which assert that some or all of the moon missions were faked — Yamamoto said anti-American sentiment seemed rampant on the Net.
"Another recent cyberspace favorite involved China's launching of its Shenzhou 7 spacecraft," Yamamoto said.
Some conspiracy theorists insisted that what looked like an air bubble in the footage taken of the crew's activity outside the vehicle was proof that the image was actually recorded underwater.
"Luckily the rumor was dispelled by scientific experts before it became widespread," Yamamoto said.
The academy's activities, however, do lead to occasional hassles, but so far nothing serious.
"I've received complaints and legal threats by authors of 'outrageous books' in the past, and rumors have been spread on the Net accusing me of being a leftist, but so far no real action has been taken," Yamamoto said.
He added that he takes pains to maintain accuracy in his critiques to avoid being libelous, and said he was confident he would win if a court case should ever arise.
Despite his rigorous analysis of "outrageous books," Yamamoto is sympathetic to the psychology that motivates authors of such literature.
"There certainly are some who intentionally write these fraudulent books to earn cash, but I believe most are well-meaning people," Yamamoto said.
"For example take the 9/11 conspiracy theorists in Japan. Most of them are either peace activists or those who harbor anti-American ideologies.
"They sincerely believe in these theories, and are convinced it is their duty to correct the public misperception of the events. This sense of obligation to justice is their driving force, and that's why they never back down" from their faulty assertions, Yamamoto said.
In the end, Yamamoto said that all The Academy of Outrageous Books really was after was a good laugh.
"We're often misunderstood as an organization bent on bashing occultisms and conspiracy theories, but that's not true. We're neither left nor right, and we don't intend to swim with or against the current of the times. We're just looking for something hilarious to get our hands on. That's all," he said.