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Publisher Takarajima-sha bets on shock therapy to revive its fortunes


Several months ago, this column reported on the announcement by publisher Takarajima-sha that its eponymous monthly flagship magazine (which means “Treasure Island”) would halt publication with its October issue, after a history of 41 years. Use of the word kyūkan (suspending) was ambiguous enough to imply the company hadn’t pulled the plug on the magazine outright, perhaps suggesting the possibility of revival at a future date.

A mid-tier publisher founded in 1971, Takarajima-sha also produces numerous other periodicals and books, although it actually may be best known for its long-running series of “mooks” (magazine books) published as Takarajima supplements (bessatsu) called Bessatsu Takurajima.

Takarajima-sha began the new year with an unnumbered and undated 170-page publication, also named Bessatsu Takarajima, titled “Opening up the History of the Showa Period! Major Incidents [involving] Men and Women.” Selling for ¥500 — less than half the price of most mooks in Takarajima’s regular series — the issue adopts the same B5 format and printing on unbleached newsprint as most weekly magazines.

If this mook’s planners are right, 28 years into the current Heisei Era, the Japanese reading public is becoming increasingly nostalgic for the previous one, which corresponded with the six-decade reign of Emperor Hirohito (referred to posthumously as Showa), from December 1925 to January 1989.

One focus of the latest mook is the man who was arguably the Showa Era’s most flamboyant politician, late Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (1918-93). Another section, titled “Stars’ ‘longest days,’ ” touched on the personal crises of popular entertainers and sports figures of the time.

The era is also fondly recalled for its memorable crime stories. The Bessatsu issue featured 10 that went either unsolved or unexplained. The most enigmatic was the robbery accompanied by the poisoning by cyanide of 16 people (12 who died, including two children) in January 1948, at the Shiinamachi branch of the now-defunct Teikoku Bank. Sadamichi Hirasawa, the artist found guilty of the murder-robbery, recanted his confession and maintained his innocence until dying in a prison hospital in 1987.

A controversial and mysterious death occurred in July 1949, when the mangled body of Sadanori Shimoyama, Japan National Railways president, was found after having been run over by a freight train on the JNR Joban Line. Was it suicide or murder? And if the latter, whodunit? No plausible evidence has ever been produced.

By the final decade of the Showa Era, crime began taking on more international aspects. The best known case was the “Rosu giwaku,” the November 1981 shooting of Kazumi Miura in Los Angeles. (She died the following year, having never regained consciousness.) Starting with a series in Shukan Bunshun, the media became convinced the shooting was arranged by her businessman husband, Kazuyoshi, in order to obtain a large life insurance payout. Miura was to spend a dozen years in prison on a separate charge, but his role in his wife’s death was never proved. Two and a half decades later he was detained by U.S. authorities while visiting Saipan and extradited to California. Miura hanged himself in his jail cell in October 2008.

In a separate “Where are they now?” feature, Takarajima’s reporters tracked down Issei Sagawa, the “Paris Cannibal” who, while studying at the Sorbonne in 1981, murdered a Dutch student and ate parts of her flesh. France transferred him to Japan’s custody, and after Japan released him, Sagawa briefly basked in notoriety as “Japan’s only celebrity cannibal.” He suffered a debilitating stroke two years ago and now, at age 66, is dependent on a caregiver.

Despite the temporary demise of its flagship publication, Takarajima appears determined to stay relevant, as proclaimed last Tuesday via an unusual two-page, four-color corporate ad that ran in four nationally circulated daily newspapers.

The company has said the motivation for the annual ads is “to convey to society messages that it can’t fully relate via its products.” If Takarajima’s aim has been to stir controversy, it certainly succeeded in 2011, when it ran a two-page spread featuring U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur descending from his C-54 aircraft at the Atsugi airdrome on Aug. 30, 1945, en route to presiding over Japan’s surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri. That ad was meant to underscore the need for Japanese to unite and rebuild the nation following the catastrophic earthquakes and tsunami that had struck parts of Tohoku and Kanto five months earlier.

Takarajima’s latest ad is another attention-getter, featuring 72-year-old actress Kirin Kiki in a parody of “Ophelia,” the celebrated painting by 19th-century English artist John Everett Millais, which depicts the deranged female character in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” lying in a stream and singing to herself before she drowns. The ad’s headline reads, “At least when I die, let me do as I please.”

In its corporate statement posted on the PR Times website, Takarajima explains, “By pondering ‘death,’ we thought this would give us an opportunity to think about life, and that’s why we made this the theme of our corporate ad.”

Adopting a theme related to death — particularly at the beginning of a new year — at first glance struck me as being a bit, well, extreme. But that’s what Takarajima did, and once again the public took notice.

One can’t help but anticipate these once-a-year ads, which, if not more uplifting than the company’s publications, are certainly more memorable.