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Promises of ‘taboo’ topics rarely live up to the billing

by Mark Schreiber

It is to the credit of 18th-century British navigator and explorer Capt. James Cook that the word “taboo” — derived from the Tongan tapu or Fijian tabu and variously meaning consecrated, inviolable, forbidden, unclean or cursed — became part of the English language.

By the Meiji Period a century later, “taboo” had found its way into Japanese. Sanseido’s Dictionary of Katakana Words (1998 edition) defines tabū as 1) “a religiously forbidden practice among primitive tribes”; and 2) “by extension, things that are forbidden, banned or which may not be spoken about.”

Taboos, of course, have existed in every human culture. When referring to Buddhist proscriptions, for instance, Japanese use the term kinmotsu, literally “a banned thing.”

Even in today’s secular, multicultural society, some very ancient taboos remain. In the Hebrew Old Testament, the name of the supreme being — written using the four letters YHVH (possibly pronounced Yahweh, but rendered in some texts as Jehova) — long ago ceased to be spoken aloud. Scholars have suggested it originally meant “He causes to be” or “He creates”; in Jewish religious services it was replaced by the Hebrew adonai (the lord) or other euphemisms. Japanese translations of the Bible abide by this practice, using shu (lord or master).

In contemporary Japanese usage, however, “tabū” has evolved drastically from its original nuances, and in the tabloid media refers mostly to topics that are avoided by the mainstream press.

A perusal of Amazon Japan found 919 works containing “tabū” in their title. Even more than books, the word appears particularly prevalent in so-called mooks — an amalgamation of magazine and book — which are modified A4-size publications printed on glossy paper that report on a central theme or topic. Because the mooks typically employ multiple authors, they can be planned, compiled and rushed into print in a matter of weeks, making them a sort of CliffsNotes study guide for current news topics.

For instance, last month, Takarajima-sha, publisher of the long-running Bessatsu Takarajima series Of mooks, released “Daigaku Byoin Tabu-na Uragawa” (“The Unseen Side of Taboos at University Hospitals”).

When you see the word “tabū” in a headline, it’s probably not really a taboo, mainly because self-censorship ensures that topics that really are taboo are treated with commensurate caution. Thus, an article claiming to expose some taboo might titillate, but probably won’t reveal enough to invite libel litigation.

A few cynics have rightly pointed out that as often as not, flaunting “taboo” becomes a case of what Japanese call yōtō kuniku, an old Chinese aphorism for false claims that literally means to display a sheep’s head (yōtō) and sell dog meat (kuniku).

While intelligent readers eventually catch on to these more deceptive uses of taboo, subculture publications still trumpet the word with gusto. In 2013, Coremagazine Inc. launched a new monthly magazine named Jitsuwa Bunka Tabu. Its name, which defies idiomatic translation, literally means “true culture taboos,” which it attempts to convey through an iconoclastic, pull-no-punches editorial policy, although it succeeds mostly at being mean-spirited and/or offensive.

If you don’t insist upon minor details such as proper attribution, conscientious research and meticulous fact-checking, Japanese sites on the Internet are brimming with taboo topics. One outspoken blogger who goes by the name Wagamama Oyaji (Selfish Daddy) describes himself in self-deprecating terms as a balding man with partial dentures, no sex appeal and suffering from diabetes that has rendered him impotent. His writing, nevertheless, is quite funny.

Oyaji has compiled a list of Japan’s biggest taboos, which include the “chrysanthemum taboo” (the Imperial family); the “crane taboo” (a reference to the Nichiren Shoshu sect of Buddhism and affiliated lay groups); the “cherry blossom taboo” (the police); the “thorn taboo” (a reference to the descendants of former outcasts, or burakumin, who may still be subject to discriminatory treatment); Korean and Chinese taboos; the Dentsu taboo (concerning the operations of Japan’s largest advertising agency); the “diamonds taboo” (a reference to the emblem of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime syndicate); the nuclear power taboo; and so-called “trivial taboos,” involving the powerful promotion agencies that represent showbiz performers and entertainers.

Nineteen years ago, one publisher’s attempt at exposing a “taboo” had disastrous results. On Jan. 17, 1995 — the same day that the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated Kobe — the now-defunct monthly magazine Marco Polo went on sale containing a 10-page article titled “There were no Nazi gas chambers.” Professing to reveal “new historical truths” on the “greatest taboo of the postwar period,” its appearance, callously timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, spurred outraged protests from Jewish human-rights organizations, leading Volkswagen and other firms to withdraw their advertisements. In a show of contrition for denying the European Holocaust, publisher Bungeishunju-sha permanently pulled the plug on the magazine.

Publications that vow to expose genuine taboos seldom do. Rather, the broadcast and print media typically observe the tenet of safety in numbers, reacting en masse to the scent of blood in the water by unleashing a feeding frenzy of reportage. Whenever this happens, I always find it instructive to sift through as many examples as possible, seeking telltale signs of taboos by hunting for what publishers may have purposely left out.