Back to Contents of Issue: October 2005

"Is Tabloid Tokyo's Japan... the 'real Japan?' " asks Michael Hoffman in the book's preface. "Not the real Japan, but certainly a real Japan, or a part of the real Japan."

by Burritt Sabin

Just what is the real Japan?
Lafcadio Hearn, shortly after landing at Yokohama in 1890, described "wind-waves from the snowy cone of Fuji" and limned a reality where "everybody is small, and queer, and mysterious." Hearn's and others' beautiful effusions helped create a storied Japan of Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms, pine-fringed promontories, and kimonoed lasses serving tea beneath trellises heavy with violet wisteria -- a lotus land sought by some visitors even today.

Tabloid's Japan is certainly "a real Japan" in its eschewing such exotic constructs and revealing what the Japanese actually do.

"A real Japan"... ipso facto the incidents herein are true? The ex-first lady was caught in a sex scandal, con artists do clone humans, and mothers do mistake junior for pooch. Or do they? Some stories would be hard to verify; their protagonists appear under an alphabet soup of initials, and sources are often unnamed. The writers believe the characters exist. As old Japan hands, they know these sorts of people. And, confesses Hoffman, they are, on occasion, like them.

Tabloid comprises 101 stories culled from "Tokyo Confidential" in the Japan Times and "Waiwai" in the online Mainichi Daily News and originally selected from Japanese magazines published since 2001. Convenience-store fare, with glossy frontispieces and pulp pages, these no-holds-barred free-wheeling nothing-is-sacred rags surfeit readers with exposé and anti-establishment broadsides. Provenance in these magazines injects Tabloid with an outr?Eexuberance.

Selection criteria were, foremost, that a story be good and also long enough for summarization, a process known as "translation with commentary." The writer-translator not only renders the text into English but also fills the cultural lacunae. He must tailor the story for non-Japanese readers. The tailoring is his voice.

The voices of these four writers -- practitioners of the form par excellence -- ring in Tabloid. Indeed, a short way into the book you can anticipate the parenthesized monogram at a story's end. Hoffman strikes a philosophical tone. Puns and literary references are Mark Schreiber's shibboleths. Alliteration is a favorite fancy of feuilletonist Ryann Connell. Stories sans fingerprints are Geoff Botting's.

Stories are arranged into ten chapters including "The Topic Is Sex," "The Criminal Mind," and "The Other Economy."

The last offers tales of priceless art scooped up during Japan's bubble era shopping jag and now gathering dust in waterfront warehouses, of the post-bubble's human detritus displaced by under-the-cherry-blossom revelers in Ueno Park, of the risutora-nigeya, specialists in the clandestine relocation of families of breadwinners "restructured" and now forced to flee creditors.

Risutora-nigeya is surely an occupation unique to Japan -- as are many others in Tabloid. Take the shiokinin, or "punisher." Yuji Kato was a cop turned shiokinin because vengeance paid more than locking up lawbreakers. His website listed his services: ruining wedding engagements, ending extramarital affairs, and wreaking revenge on lovers. Kato was arrested not because of the nasty things he did but because he allegedly bilked a client.

Or the getekyaba. This is a cabaret with a difference -- hostesses selected for girth rather than beauty, their business cards touting their body weights.

Or the burusera -- shops selling used female panties and bras and schoolgirls' middy blouses. Or their (yet unnamed) offshoots peddling men's soiled skivvies.

These businesses refute the belief that the Japanese are imitators. One story exults in Japanese inventiveness. An analyst, explaining the growth of the sex trade despite the recession, cites "the dynamism, the endless innovation. There's no country in the world that offers the variety of sexual services Japan does." Perhaps the sex industry should run Japan, muses the story's author.

Tabloid ends with a macabre twist on Hans Christian Andersen's "Princess and the Pea." In the fairytale a queen places a pea on a bedstead and piles mattresses on top of it. If the young woman who sleeps in the bed can feel the pea, she is a real princess.

In Tabloid's tale 12 successive women sleep in a love hotel bed under which lies a body. Not one notices the lumps in the mattress. Not one is a real princess.

After all, real princesses don't tryst in love hotels. Crack open Tabloid for tales of women who do... and wind up stiffs under the mattress. JI

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