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Gorilla snot and Tokyo sauce

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TABLOID TOKYO 2, by Geoff Botting, Ryann Connell, Michael Hoffman, Masuo Kamiyama, Mark Schreiber; Illustrations by Hirosuke Ueno; foreword by Mark Schreiber. Toyko: Kodansha International, 2007, 288 pp., profusely illustrated, 1,400 yen (paper)

The success of the first volume of “Tabloid Tokyo” has encouraged the publisher to issue a second. Comprised of translations from those of Japan’s weekly magazines devoted to sensationalism and titillation, both books aim at a foreign audience that, like its Japanese counterpart, is ready for something slightly shocking and somewhat sexually stimulating.

Here we may read about a boot camp for past-prime prostitutes, about raw fish burgers, panty thieves, and straight girls who hire gay guys. Here too is something edible called “gorilla snot,” an expose of mixed bathing, and lessons in how to talk like an otaku. In all, 101 short “news stories” about urban excess in our times.

Most of these originally appeared in the weekly “Tokyo Confidential” column of this newspaper and in the “Wai-Wai” series of the online Mainichi Daily News, both of which still continue. These were in turn sourced from some two dozen vernacular magazines, most of them best sellers. One, the Shukan Bunshun, claims a weekly circulation of 800,000.

The enormous appeal for both audiences (in Japan and, now, among English speakers) lies in the tabloid nature of the publications (always sensational), in their availability (any kiosk or convenience store) and in their length (bite-size). It is often nowadays these slim tabloids rather than the bulky comic-book manuals that you see people reading on train or subway. One article may be wholly consumed between local station stops.

Just how much integrity each contains is another matter. Like the sharebon publications containing tales of the pleasure quarters of the late Edo period, these publications offer information, speculation and hype. In Mark Schreiber’s foreword he speaks of the dizzying cornucopia upended over the reader: “how to win at pachinko, where to find a cheap but tasty lunch — or cheap but tasty sex.”

To provide a continual downpour of such information publishers must be forever inflating accounts and pushing envelopes. The bizarre and risque are reevaluated with each new issue and some kind of editorial choice is made on how far another article on chikan (train gropers) can go. We may imagine that the truth may well slop over into the mendacious. Some of the entries do seem unbelievable.

But then it is not in hopes of the believable that the reader reads on. He or she wishes to be scandalized and titillated, The veracity of what is shown is always less than its emotional import. And in any event the unlikely still seems some distance from the unbelievable.

Seeking more variety, however, the editors of this new second volume have gone further afield and included material not only from Flash, Spy, Playboy, etc., but also from such subculture magazines as Uramono Japan and Jitsuwa Knuckes. These latter publications one of the editors has described as off the wall and barely credible but still capable of showing “the funny and imaginative side of magazine journalism here.”

One of those not laughing is Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara,who is pushing for plastic wrap sheathing all such publications. Since most readers do not subscribe but like to browse and buy at newsstands, already some of the wilder magazines have been driven out of business.

It is difficult to believe, however, that some improbable story on hymen restoration is going to corrupt whole generations, beginning with “the nation’s young,” but then such concern has always ranked high among political implements. In actuality, to be properly titillated you must first wish to be titillated.

Further, what’s wrong with titillation? It’s not the same as pandering, against which some sort of case might be built. To titillate is merely to excite or stimulate somebody. The dictionary says that it can mean a “tingling sensation,” one certainly more pleasurable than not.

This second volume contains a number of tingling sensations, most of them pleasurable, and if you still do not want to enjoy the book on its own level, then you can always put on your anthropological glasses and read it as a menu of what the Japanese are reading. You can thus discover something telling about about the sociology, or the psychology, or the psychiatry of the people among whom we live.

But it’s more fun to be titillated.