Japan's trick to making book sales sizzle: Get naked! Expensive volumes feature nude stars

November 13, 1993|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- Seisido Books in central Tokyo has had book fairs in the past on cooking, famous authors, and photographs of Mount Fuji. On Thursday, it took a radically new approach: large, expensive, coffee-table books on naked female Japanese stars.

Tokyo has always had a risque underground but, with a few quirky exceptions, such as comic books, the public face has been conservative. Even the most revealing magazines must be screened by government censors, and pictures are crudely retouched. Late-night Japanese television, once a free-for-all, is now more restrained than U.S. television.

nTC But now, Japan seems to be easing its attitude toward publications.

In 1991, a publishing company, Asahi Shuppansha (not related to the large Asahi newspaper and television company) issued three high-priced books featuring naked celebrities. The first two generated little notice, but the third, printed in the fall, featuring Rie Miyazawa, an extremely popular 18-year-old model, was a stunning success, selling 1.5 million copies at $45 a piece.

"We knew we could sell the book, but we had no idea about how many copies," said Shigeki Akai. The first printing was 300,000 copies, a major risk, and advertisements were sent to major newspapers with the expectation they would be rejected. The ads were printed, and within two months, sales were over a million.

The exposure did not hurt Ms. Miyazawa's career. She has subsequently made movies and was briefly engaged to one of the nation's most famous Sumo wrestlers, Takanohana, considered quite an honor in Japan. Among her many current endorsements is the "Classy" brand of Borden's ice cream.

Prior to the Miyazawa book, the publishing company Take Shobo specialized in instruction manuals on mah-jongg, a game using dominoes that is popular among Japanese businessmen. The company changed strategy and, in the past year, published eight nude photo books, each selling more than 100,000 copies.

"Nude is a culture," said Satoru Futami, an executive at the company. While no censorship laws have changed, Mr. Futami said, the authorities have become far less strict.

A $32 volume issued earlier in the year featuring Yoko Shimada, a star of "Shogun," has already sold 550,000 copies. Last month, Indonesia was outraged, and Japan intrigued, when Dewi Sukarno, 53, issued a 140-page book of recent nude photos titled "Syuga" ("Superior Elegance"). During the 1960s, Ms. Sukarno was working in a hostess bar in Akasaka, a Tokyo business district, when she met Indonesian President Sukarno, later becoming his third wife.

The book is a featured selection among dozens of others at Seisido.

Who are the buyers? Everyone, said Shyuji Iwata, branch manager of the bookstore.

"Even young women come in here to look through these books," he added. "No one seems to be embarrassed. This is the latest fashion. If you don't accept this, you are behind the times."

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