Within a couple of weeks of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, major magazine publishers and newspapers were already putting out extra editions covering the disaster. The first were mostly A4-size on glossy paper, which made them easy to display in the magazine racks at convenience stores and bookshops.

The most common tag on the covers of such publications appeared to be zōkango (extra edition), with others using terms like kinkyū zōkan (breaking news extra edition); hōdō shashin-shū (reportage photo collection), hōdō shashin zenkiroku (the full record of photo reportage) and hozonban (keepsake).

As of July 8, a search for “Higashi Nihon Daishinsai” (Great Eastern Japan Earthquake) in the domestic book department of Amazon Japan returned 695 hits, including 413 hardcover and softcover books (tankōbon) and 131 pocket-size paperbacks (bunkobon and shinsho). Due to the way Amazon’s search works the actual number of titles is not clear, yet the figures are impressive.

Bunka Tsushin, a small news agency that covers the vernacular media, estimated that even if limited only to publications from major media organizations, total sales of specialty publications on the March 11 disaster had already reached some 2.5 million copies as of May 16.

Bunka Tsushin’s breakdown of sales showed that the Asahi Graph special edition (Asahi Shimbun-sha, ¥500) had gone into five printings totaling 600,000 copies; Aera, also from Asahi (¥500), went into two printings totaling 200,000 copies; a special edition of Sunday Mainichi (Mainichi Shimbun-sha, ¥500) went into five printings of 420,000 copies, and one from Friday (Kodansha, ¥580) went into two printings totaling 200,000 copies.

Among regional publishers, a special edition issued by the Sendai-based Kahoku Shimpo (¥1,000), which went on sale from early April, claimed eight printings of 400,000 copies and one from the Fukushima City-based Fukushima Minposha (¥1,300) six printings of 60,000 copies. To date, The Japan Times (¥1,050) and Kahoku Shimpo (¥1,260) appear to be the only publishers with special editions in English.

A few of the special editions made efforts at differentiation, such as those published by Tokuma Shoten and Takarajima-sha focusing on rescue efforts by the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

“Publishers are always prepared to exploit current or past events and consumers are used to seeing the special issues,” explained Bill Wetherall, an independent researcher in Chiba who has collected many such magazines over the years. “To some extent they are barometers of interest in an event in real time or in retrospect. For some consumers, the disaster specials are vehicles for vicarious experience. For others they are verifications of experience.”

In an impromptu poll of about a dozen Japanese friends and acquaintances, however, this writer was unable to find a single person who admitted to having purchased a special edition.

“I saw one or two stacks of the special editions at a bookstore in front of the station and was surprised to find they’d come out so soon after the disaster,” said a retiree living in suburban Tokyo. “I was kind of tempted to pick up a copy but did not. I think folks buy them because it is a once-in-a-lifetime event and keep them to remember. Prices of those books are not cheap, unlike those weekly mags, so I suppose people will keep them.”

A Setagaya Ward resident told me he disapproved of the special editions as being overly commercial, but admitted he had saved a copy of Time Magazine issued immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Even now, when I pick it up and look at it, it’s still harrowing,” he remarked.

“I may be a bit biased, but it would seem that because no one type of media can claim a monopoly on incisive news, we Japanese prefer to learn about events through a potpourri of sources, including newspapers, magazines, TV and radio,” remarked a former coworker by way of explanation. “I guess you could describe the way we obtain information as being analogous to a makunouchi bentō (a box lunch with a hodgepodge of different tidbits, accompanied by rice).”

Nearly four months on, disaster-related publications continue to appear, with coverage shifting to the Fukushima reactor accident and long-term implications of nuclear power usage. The initial wave of disaster coverage has also given way to economic analysis, such as by the Economist (published by the Mainichi Shimbun), on the long-term economic implications of the disaster.

Even amidst the gloom, there’s room for humor. At the end of June, Gentosha issued “Itsumo kokoro ni kūru gyaggu wo” (“There’s always time for cool gags”), a 365-page book by American TV commentator Dave Spector containing hundreds of the Twitter messages he tweeted subsequent to March 11. Most are strewn with Japanese language puns, Spector’s speciality, which unfortunately don’t translate well into English. A portion of sales from the ¥1,260 book have been pledged to Tohoku relief efforts.

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