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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #10 (March 6, 2007), page 16.

Japanese tabloid truth is stranger than fiction

Tabloid Tokyo: 101 Tales of Sex, Crime and the Bizarre from Japan’s Wild Weeklies

Compiled by Mark Schreiber

Kodansha, 2005

Paperback, 256 pages, $12.95

By Oscar Johnson

Tabloid Tokyo reminds us that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers. After all, it’s prefaced with a disclaimer distinguishing "truth" from "a good story." But this hodgepodge of articles does show what draws millions of locals to the pages of Japanese newsweeklies.

In Japan, major dailies boast morning and evening editions with circulations that would be the envy of their U.S. counterparts even a generation ago. But its mainstream media are more likely to toe the state or corporate line than question — much less expose — it. That is relegated to the quirky, murky, and seedy realm of tabloids. But for better or worse, Tabloid Tokyo focuses squarely on the Jerry Springer in all of us.

Were men of modern Japan so coddled as kids that some seek mock maternal affection online — and off? Did a once ideal mom throttle her son for refusing to take extra school classes? Have Japanese women’s breasts really swelled an average 2.5 centimeters in the past two decades? Is there a multibillion-dollar fetish-festooned sex industry beneath the veneer of this straight-laced society? For inquiring minds that want to know, the quick answer to all the above is yes, according to the tabloids. But the devil is in the details, which this book graciously serves up.

Starting with that most popular of page-turning — and selling — topics, sex, we’re taken on a tour of adult shops catering to used-underwear fetishes, swinging couples coffee shops, lifelike sex dolls that provide proven companionship as well as carnal company, and more. Combined with their vague and anonymous sources, many of these tongue-in-cheek tales can evoke disbelief even in the most wishful-thinking of lurid literates. But if knowledge of the Japanese propensity for privacy, which obscures sources in the most serious of news articles, doesn’t temper skepticism, other chapters will.

As in the sections on crime, fashion, food, or "The Other Economy," these stories have recurring themes that point to underlying societal currents. Cops allow gangsters to drag from their station a pleading victim who is later killed over a tiff about a parking space. Online suicide-partner pacts end in rape. Priceless art is auctioned to pay outrageous debts, and moving companies help the indebted disappear.

Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — the first chapter, entitled "The Topic is Sex," is not the end of this best-selling thread. Professionally repressed "office ladies" who don alternative, anonymous personas to revel in sex-related shenanigans, and socially constrained "salarymen" who act out perverted fantasies or heinous crimes of passion, are peppered throughout this work. It would appear that in this staid but non-Judeo-Christian culture, sex is never far from a good scoop.

Readers can rest assured that it is depicted no less graphically in Tabloid Tokyo than in their own local tabloids. The sensitive or politically correct, however, are warned that the book’s misogynistic tone on subjects from male voyeurism and groping (major though scarcely addressed issues in Japan) to rape has all the tact of a locker-room joke. Where to point the finger — the book’s compiler, the tabloids, their readers, or elsewhere — may be best left to the Japanese.

If you’re nonetheless keen on a voyeuristic view of perhaps exaggerated but not entirely untrue aspects of Japan’s dirty laundry — or simply a good tabloid scoop — this book is for you. If you’re not, it may be the next-worst thing to experiencing things about the Land of the Rising Sun that, understandably, you’d rather not.

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