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Huge demand from Japan 'sword girls' drives sales of $350 blade-themed photo book

The book "Meito Taizen" ("The complete book of famous swords") displaying life-size images of Japanese swords, and which became a major hit among fans of the online game "Touken Ranbu," is seen in this photo provided by Shogakukan Inc.

TOKYO -- An expensive book on Japanese swords received an unprecedented reprint before even being published in late January, after it saw huge demand attributed to "token joshi," or "sword girls," who are interested in the historical weapons as fans of online game "Touken Ranbu."

A copy of "Meito Taizen" ("The complete book of famous swords"), published by Shogakukan Inc. in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward, costs 38,500 yen (about $350). It shows life-sized images of 200 swords carefully selected among those produced over a period spanning from ancient Japan to the Edo period (1603-1868), including "Inaba-go," a sword made in the 14th century and a designated national treasure which had been missing for many years.

Tatsuru Takahashi, chief editor of Shogakukan's cultural affairs department in charge of the book, attributes its popularity to fans of the game, in which Japanese swords are depicted as male characters. "I decided to make the book after realizing it was problematic that we don't have an authentic publication despite the sword boom," he said.

According to the 60-year-old editor, he asked researchers of Japanese swords to supervise the making of Meito Taizen. He added, "It's basically an academic book, and is not made in accordance with the game."

Life-sized photographs of Japanese swords are seen in the book "Meito Taizen" ("The complete book of famous swords"). (Photo courtesy of Shogakukan Inc.)

Before sword lovers became a social phenomenon, publications on blades were usually sold at large bookstores or in art museums, which often display the actual weapons. However, it was decided that Meito Taizen would also be sold via the Animate Online Shop, which mainly sells high-quality merchandise, such as figures, for anime fans.

"The book went viral on Twitter and the number of orders we received far exceeded our expectations, which is why we decided to reprint it before it went on sale. About a third of orders were placed through Animate before the first publication," Takahashi explained.

The publisher's strategy to sell the high-cost publication through Animate was a success, as the online shop's customer base overlapped with those who purchased the books. Takahashi says Meito Taizen's target audiences are existing middle-aged and older fans of swords, as well as the newly-emerging sword girls market.

"Although we had decided to issue plenty of copies of the first edition, I never imagined we would get so many orders," he said, expressing his surprise over the strong public reaction.

Women who are described as token joshi are mostly in their 30s and early 40s. "These people came to understand the charms of swords through the game Touken Ranbu. I often see token joshi at sword exhibitions held in rural areas," said Takahashi.

A banner for the event "Swords of Kyoto: Master Craftmanship from an Elegant Culture," held in collaboration with online game "Touken Ranbu," is on display at Kyoto National Museum in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward on Dec. 2, 2018. (Mainichi/Rei Oikawa)

According to Takahashi, 60 to 70% of visitors to the Kyoto National Museum in Kyoto's Higashiyama Ward during a special exhibition in 2018 were token joshi. The event, "Swords of Kyoto: Master Craftmanship from an Elegant Culture," was held from Sept. 29 to Nov. 25. He says the fan base is mostly made up of women with ample disposable income and free time, and who are also diligent in their attitudes toward work and hobbies.

During the exhibition, tickets that came with Touken Ranbu merchandise were sold, and visitors could listen to special audio guides in which voice actors from the game read out information on the displayed swords. Life-sized panels of the characters and special illustrations filled one of the museum's halls.

The exhibition was held in collaboration with a larger event taking place in the western Japan prefecture of Kyoto for the third time, in which visitors could collect stamps at facilities, including stations on the Arashiyama Line, and exchange them for goods. Similar Touken Ranbu events have been held numerous times across Japan, attracting masses of sword girls to local facilities and drawing attention to those regions.

During a recent city-wide event co-hosted by the companies behind the game and the Mishima Municipal Government in the central Japan prefecture of Shizuoka from Jan. 7 to Feb. 16, game producer Tokikai Kosaka gave a speech at the city's Sano Art Museum on Feb. 2.

Tokikai Kosaka, right, producer of online game "Touken Ranbu," poses for a photo with the game's fox character Konnosuke in front of Sano Art Museum in the city of Mishima, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Feb. 2, 2020. Kosaka is affectionately known as Dijitarou. (Mainichi/Rei Oikawa)

He appeared with the game's fox character Konnosuke, who also served as director of the art museum for a day. The museum hosted an exhibition of swords in collaboration with the stamp-collecting event held for the third time in Mishima. Stores in the city's main shopping street raised banners with images of the game's characters on them to welcome token joshi.

"Without Touken Ranbu, we would never have had a reprint," tweeted the Iwanami Shinsho editorial department of Japan's major publisher Iwanami Shoten on Oct. 19, 2019. Excluding sales of its renowned "Kojien" Japanese dictionaries, at one point the company reportedly recorded its highest ever number of orders for its book "Nihonto" ("Japanese swords") through its online shop.

As part of a project to reprint an Iwanami Shinsho classic each month, Nihonto's sixth printing was completed in October 2019, the first time it had been to the presses since the fifth printing in 1943.

But the editorial department announced via Facebook on Nov. 16 of the same year, "The huge popularity (of the book) has taken everyone in the editorial department by surprise. The reason (for its popularity) is because all the Touken Ranbu fans, known as 'saniwa' in the games, are purchasing it. Soon after the book was reprinted on Oct. 18 for the first time in 76 years, we decided on a seventh printing on Oct. 21, and now we're going through to an eighth printing. But even so, production can't keep up (with demand)."

The post also explained, "We absolutely did not work on an attention-grabbing collaboration (with the game), but a simple tweet by the editorial department apparently caught the attention of the 'Saniwa'."

A life-sized photograph of the famous sword "Dojigiri," which was produced in the 12th century and designated a national treasure, is seen in the book "Meito Taizen" ("The complete book of famous swords"). (Photo courtesy of Shogakukan Inc.)

Shogakukan, the publisher behind Meito Taizen, is putting efforts into making what it calls "visual books," which show life-sized images of artwork. All the photos in Meito Taizen were taken with a high-resolution digital camera and printed in color, with the images spanning 73 centimeters across two page-spreads, and over a meter on gatefold pages.

Editor Takahashi explained, "In making a visual book, it's crucial to use images which have as much impact as possible, and life-size photos that are reader-friendly. Even at art museums, there are times when visitors can only see exhibited items from a distance, and life-size images allow those people to take a closer look. I think it's one way for paper-based (books) to survive."

The popularity of Meito Taizen, which found a new customer base among token joshi by banking on life-size photos, can be considered an example of successful business practices that show new potential for paper-based books.

(Japanese original by Atsuo Yamaguchi, Cultural News Department, additional reporting by Rei Oikawa, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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