TOKYO — Gangsters, the sex trade, gruesome murders, adult videos, body discoveries, suicides, police up to no good. These are the core things Brett Bull looks for after hours.
Not to participate, of course, but to write them up.
The 47-year-old Californian is an engineer in Tokyo by day, Tokyo Reporter by night. Bull has created a site that, as its tagline says, delivers “salacious news on crime and culture.” Think of a hybrid of the National Enquirer, the New York Post and Penthouse. Online. In Japan.
There is the recent story about the Buddhist monk charged with murdering a nail artist. And the one about the playboy antics of a limbless author who was being considered as a political candidate by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s party. Not to mention the piece about the husband who used garden shears to cut off the penis of a man he suspected was fooling around with his wife (and then flushed it down the toilet).
“Japan is supposed to be a safe country. But based on what I read, I really don’t know that’s true,” said Bull, sitting in a bar in Kabukicho, the heart of seedy Tokyo, not far from his office.
Bull arrived in Tokyo 17 years ago, speaking no Japanese, on a short visit. But then he saw a job ad from a construction company and, well, the rest is history. He began taking some Japanese lessons and he started going out after work with his colleagues from the engineering firm to “hostess bars.”
Hostess bars — and their newer, much rarer cousin, the host bar — are a unique part of Japanese nightlife. Often viewed in the West as tantamount to brothels, for the most part they are just bars where men pay to chat with and be served high-priced drinks by young, attractive women.
“Back in the day, my office was taking me to these hostess clubs,” Bull said. “The everyday experience was not being touched upon in the regular media. Going to hostess clubs was a very average thing to be doing and was not seen as over-the-top or nasty or dirty.”
So he started turning his conversations with hostesses into interviews and contributing them to a friend’s website, along with other pieces on film and culture.
In 2008, he started his own site, Tokyo Reporter, as a standalone home for all the grisly news that is under-covered in the mainstream media. He trawls through Japan’s weekly tabloids in search of juicy tales about the Japanese mafia, its roaring porn industry and steady stream of macabre murder cases. Then he translates the stories and posts them on his site.
He is modest about his language abilities. “I can do okay, it depends on the subject,” he said. “I’m just reading the news.”
Bull’s first hit story on Tokyo Reporter, translated from a Japanese paper, was about the North Korean military training female agents as honey traps. “It really became big, it knocked the site off-line.”
More recently, opponents of migration in Europe seized upon a report that two Turkish men applying for refugee status in Japan were accused of raping and robbing a woman in Tokyo. The opponents pointed to it as evidence for refusing refugees.
Tokyo Reporter gets about 120,000 unique visitors a month, mostly men in their 30s. About half are from Japan and the other half is from the English-speaking world, mainly from the United States. Advertising comes from Universe Club (“Explore Tokyo with a sugarbaby”) and covers the costs of the servers and meager fees for a few freelance translators.
While some of the stories, especially those involving crime, are reported in the mainstream media, these are often pared-down reports essentially dictated to reporters by the police press offices.
But the tabloids — recognized this week by David Kaye, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for freedom of speech, as having “significant vibrancy” — are unencumbered by reliance on the authorities and tend to go off script, digging into the lurid details and coming up with much racier articles.
“It’s very easy to come up with an interesting story that other people aren’t covering,” Bull said.
There’s the husband-and-wife team from Fukuoka who were basically staging their own fight club, as he put it. The people who died ended up going through a rock grinder. “It was something like something out of ‘Fargo,’ ” Bull said, referring to the Coen brothers’ film in which a body goes into a wood-chipper.
Then there is the hostess who was prosecuted for killing three men but Bull thinks probably killed six. And the voice actress who was going around drugging and robbing men.
The stories carry disclaimers that they are translations of Japanese reports that have not been verified. But they also have this unusual sentence: “The activities of individuals described herein should not be construed as ‘typical’ behavior of Japanese people nor reflect the intention to portray the country in a negative manner.”
Although Bull said he does not get much trolling for his stories, he is conscious that his site is at odds with the image of Japan that the government — and many in the media — want to portray.
The English versions of Japanese news sites are preoccupied with “trying to make Japan look good,” he said. “It’s almost like these are public-relations departments for the government of Japan. It makes for boring reading.”