The word “mook” is a portmanteau of the words “magazine” and “book.” I had long assumed, mistakenly, that it was one of those examples of wasei-eigo (Japan-made English terms), such as “open car” (a convertible) or “virgin road” (the aisle down which the bride walks at a wedding ceremony). But from online searches I learned the term apparently originated in Europe, making its first appearance in 1971 at a convention of the London-based International Federation of Periodical Publishers.

Unfortunately, the title and language of history’s first mook was not forthcoming, but the genre has become widely popularized in Japan. While it’s almost impossible to generalize on the themes, designs and other details of such publications, according to data from the publishing industry, mooks do have certain features in common: They adopt the magazine-code system, which enables them to be treated as magazines for distribution purposes; the size of their print run typically exceeds those of books, enabling them to achieve greater economies of scale; unlike books, they may run advertisements, helping their publisher recover initial costs; and likewise, many are believed to be put together at comparatively lower costs by outsourcing editing and production work.

Mooks also give publishers more leeway than magazines in terms of setting sales dates, the size of the print run and sales price. And, in general, they do not carry a sales expiration date (a deadline for unsold returns), enabling them to remain on sale for extended periods.

Sales of mooks boomed toward the end of the 20th century, when various publishers issued history-related series. The Asahi Shimbun released 100 separate mooks between Jan. 28, 1999, and Dec. 28, 2000, under the title “Weekly 20th Century.”

The publisher perhaps most closely associated with the format, however, is Takarajima-sha, whose “Bessatsu Takarajima” series made its debut in 1976. (Bessatsu means “separate volume” or “supplement.”) The company released its 2,457th mook on April 22: an 111-pager about the semi-legendary Prince Shotoku (574-622), a key figure in the formation of early Japan, whose visage adorned both the ¥5,000 and ¥10,000 banknotes until 1984.

In February, publisher Yosensha released a 111-page mook titled “Ni-niroku Jiken no Shinjitsu” (“The Truth of the 2-26 Incident”). This mook, which credits four authors, covers the failed coup d’etat in February 1936 by junior army officers and over 1,000 troops against Japan’s civilian government. It was suppressed after three days by 20,000 troops under the orders of Emperor Hirohito (posthumously known as Emperor Showa).

Intended to mark the 80th anniversary of the event, the issue is replete with dozens of historical photos and maps, as well as the final testaments of the coup leaders who were executed. Fifteen of the officers were executed by firing squad in July 1936, at a military prison in Shibuya. The uprising’s civilian instigators, Ikki Kita and Mitsugi Nishida, and two other officers were executed at the same location in August 1937.

Directly across the street from the entrance to NHK headquarters, a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, and a wall bearing inscriptions marks the site of the executions.

Earlier this year I laid out ¥650 to purchase “Explore the Underground History of Japan,” a 96-pager published by Taiyo Tosho. The issue leads with a piece about the spate of terrorist bombings that took place in the ’70s, including the Aug. 30, 1974, explosion in Tokyo’s Marunouchi business district that killed eight people and wounded 376. Several photo spreads therein show images of former red-light districts in various cities and the present incarnations of old black market streets in Tokyo’s Ueno, Shinjuku and Yurakucho districts.

A number of other mooks of note adorn my bookshelves. “Dark Tourism Japan Vol. 1” (published by Million Mook in 2015) features a former leper colony on Nagashima Island in the Inland Sea and photos of four separate memorials erected for the Class-A war criminals hanged in December 1948. With its awkward English title, “A fearful woman’s history of a mystery incident” (published by Asahi Geino in 2013) features the sordid exploits of Meiji Era (1868-1912) murderess O-Den Takahashi, the last woman to be executed by decapitation, and includes data on the surprisingly low (2,226) number of women incarcerated in Japanese prisons (as of 2011). “All that condemned criminals” [sic], (published by Million Mook in 2009) introduces all 96 individuals who were languishing on death row in 2009 (the number has since increased), complete with police mug shots, starting off with Chizuo Matsumoto (aka Shoko Asahara), former head of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult. Retired featherweight boxer Iwao Hakamada, also included, had been convicted in 1968 of murdering his employer and the man’s three family members in Shizuoka. In 2011, the Guinness World Records named Hakamada the world’s longest-held death row inmate. He was released in 2014 after a judge ruled that evidence in his trial was unreliable.

Perhaps the most notorious mook to appear in recent years was the 128-page “Kyogaku no Gaijin Hanzai Ura Fairu: Gaijin Hanzai Hakusho 2007” (“The Shocking Underground Files of Crimes by Foreigners: the 2007 White Paper on Crimes by Foreigners”). Published by the late, unlamented Eichi Shuppan, its contents included articles with English titles such as “The realities of foreigner sex industry.”

Denounced as racist in a number of English-language publications, the protests it inspired resulted in its being withdrawn from FamilyMart convenience stores. Not long afterward its publisher filed for bankruptcy.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.