At 1,000 yen for 150 quickly-digested pages, Hiroyuki Ishii (石井裕之) and John W. Culver’s book on “black cold-reading”—“The Cold Babble: Confessions of a Pseudo-Psychic” or “Aru nise-uranaishi no kokuhaku” (あるニセ占い師の告白) —was an ironic presence on the shelves in 2009.
Picture this: A book with the stated purpose of teaching its readers to recognize and resist emotional manipulation, advertised with “Banned from sale?!” (発売禁止！？) in large print beside a tiny “Pick it up before it is!” (になる前に手にとってください！) alongside —not to mention the sister volume on “white cold-reading” released at the same time for the same price—well, you could be forgiven for concluding that the first lesson is to wait for it to turn up on the 105-yen shelves at Book Off.
There’s nothing wrong with the content of the “Confessions.” The writing is purple, but not labored. The account of Culver’s early psychic wood-shedding is pointless fluff, but the sentence-by-sentence breakdown of a sample cold-reading session is a decent introduction to the topic. The most interesting thing about the book, though, is that one of its authors doesn’t exist.
“This book,” Ishii explains in the first sentence of the introduction, “is in the form of a translation of John W. Culver’s ‘The Cold Babble: Confessions of a Pseudo-Psychic’ [...] but, in fact, this is a work of fiction by myself, Ishii Hiroyuki.” He goes on to explain (or claim) that this was one of his first ideas for writing about cold-reading (a term the katakana version of which, incidentally, Ishii appears to have trademarked), rejected by the publisher for being too “provocative,” but that he has decided to revive the idea in the hopes that it will help shock Japan out of its ongoing susceptibility to fraudulent spiritualists and ore ore scams.
Ishii is not the first Japanese author to fake a foreign nationality. Yuichi Inukai (犬飼裕一) has argued that pretending to be a foreigner in order to criticize Japanese society is “a tradition” in Japan. One of the best-known examples of this trend is Shichihei Yamamoto (山本七平), who used the pen name “Isaiah Ben-Dasan” in the 1970s to publish “Nihonjin to Yudayajin” (日本人とユダヤ人) or “The Japanese and the Jews,” to attack Katsuichi Honda’s (本多勝一) Asahi Shimbun series on the Asia-Pacific War.
A few years later, Taisuke Fujishima (藤島泰輔) began his twenty-odd volume “Fushigi no kuni Nippon” (不思議の国ニッポン) or “Wonderland Japan” series under the name “Paul Bonet.”
Of course, there are differences. “John W. Culver” is pure glamour: A fake psychic based in America, the land of celebrity and crime, is a good—if unadventurous—hook. “Ben-Dasan” and “Bonet” were partly about glamour and gloss too, but more importantly, they were meant to suggest objectivity from the standpoint: “I have no particular stake in any Japanese culture war; here is what I think.”
Ishii candidly reveals the truth about “Culver” in his introduction, while Yamamoto reportedly did not ever fully admit to being “Ben-Dasan”—one is show business, the other is sock puppetry.
Either way, it’s disappointing that Ishii decided to pound on a blue-eyed straw man like that. Surely, Japan would have been better served by an exposé on cold-reading within its own borders.
MATT TREYVAUD is the Literature/Language Editor for the website Neojaponisme.com where his article originally appeared. He is also the owner of www.no-sword.jp, a blog about Japanese language and culture.