TV & Radio
Nothing is not fit to print
July 12, 2005 - Sydney Morning Herald
As scandal sheets go, Tokyo's tabloids can mix it with the best when it comes to lurid detail or mind-popping absurdity, writes Deborah Cameron.
EVER wonder what happened to the masterpieces that Japan's mega-millionaires outbid Australia's Alan Bond for back in the money-mad 1980s? Know any kids with "game brain" from too much time on the computer?
For more details, refer to Japan's tabloid press. These publications, equal to the National Enquirer in every respect, are a treasure house for some of life's madder moments. No fetish, no perversion, no crime, no weirdness is unfit to print. And they have a yuk factor that creeps up on the reader.
"We knew we needed to come up with a different line of business," said one entrepreneurial type in a story a few months ago. "We ran a normal hot dog joint for about a year, before deciding to start using ice-cream instead of franks." Where does it end? Not with ice-cream dogs, that's for sure. Some other examples: Tokyo schoolgirls who sell their underwear right out from under their uniforms; other young women who strike nude poses in passport photo booths; grown men who write to the personal columns begging older women to become their "mommies".
"I'm looking for a mommy in her 40s. I'm a 23-year-old company employee," one man wrote. "I've always been spoiled, but young women today are too headstrong and they won't spoil me at all. Would you clean my ears for me as I lay my head on your lap about once every week? I can pay about 10,000 yen ($120) a time."
When four journalists, an Australian among them, set about translating the Tokyo tabloid press and publishing it in English, they knew there would be some eye-popping moments.
"It is a view of Japan not normally seen in the West," said Ryann Connell, an Australian who works for the newspaper Mainichi Daily News and is one of the co-authors of the newly released book Tabloid Tokyo: 101 tales of sex, crime and the bizarre from Japan's wild weeklies.
As news sheets, the weekly magazines are an antidote to Japan's establishment newspapers which stick with reporting mainly the top end of town. Their view, readers quickly realise, is a "correct" interpretation of Japan. The trouble is that sometimes they leave out the most interesting things because of cosy arrangements in which only reporters who belong to certain clubs can attend press conferences, ask questions or receive information.
The journalists who work for the tabloid weeklies are barred from the clubs and so ferret around for their facts without fear that they will upset a source or be drummed out of a club. The stories they uncover, plastered on posters in every subway carriage, are read by millions of commuters. One masthead alone has weekly sales of 800,000 copies.
"The weeklies get to the heart of the matter," said Geoff Botting, a Canadian who co-authored Tabloid Tokyo and has worked for four news organisations in Tokyo including the national broadcaster, NHK.
"They are forced to go digging around the edges to capture the essence of a story and be as funny and entertaining as possible."
"Game brain" is an example of a subject that Japan's powerful forces, in this case the electronics games makers, might want suppressed. While Botting's translation of the original story leaves room for scepticism, it may also contain some truth.
In his account, a doctor identified "game brain" by studying the brain waves of compulsive gamers, emailers and movie watchers. In short, the doctor found, normal brain activity stopped. He said he had seen an eight-year-old with the affliction who had been "gaming constantly since he was 18 months old" and who frothed at the mouth, hurled his game device around and went "off the deep end" when he played. It was a form of dementia, the doctor said.
And so, perhaps, was Japan's earlier madness for masterpieces.
You can stop wondering what happened to those art masterpieces bought by the likes of the chairman of a Japanese paper company who paid 10.8 billion yen for a Renoir and 11.4 billion yen for a van Gogh. And no, he did not take them with him to the crematorium as he said he would.
The pictures, say the Tokyo tabloids, haven't been seen since those bubble economy days. Having halved in value and been seized as collateral against bad loans, they are in creditors' vaults. Sumitomo Bank is said to hold 7000 items.
"A while back, I was able to visit a warehouse where some of these works were being held by a bank," a source told the tabloids. "Most of them still bore the wrapping put on by the auction houses. They'd been there all these years, and their purchasers never even unwrapped them for a look."