Like any modern metropolis, Tokyo’s glittering skylines carefully conceal a more sinister side from the casual observations of an outsider. And like most other things Japan, organized crime in the form of yakuza carries with it cultural quirks that are at times indecipherable for those of us who live outside the Galápagos. Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein is a book that sets out to document and interpret a small slice of this enigma, written from a Jewish-American journalist covering crime stories for the Yomiuri Shinbun. The end result is a thought-provoking page-turner.
I first heard about the book and its author from an episode of The Daily Show last November. Looking at Jake Adelstein’s relaxed demeanour and boyish looks, one would never guess him to be a grizzled veteran reporter well-versed in the workings of the Japanese underworld, but the interview did leave a strong enough impression that I eventually bought a copy of his book. Being the cheap bastard that I am, I of course waited for the paperback release, which is why I am only now writing this review nine months after his Daily Show plug.
I picked up Tokyo Vice without any high expectations. After all, what could a Jewish-American guy possibly manage to uncover about Japan’s crime syndicates, even if he is the first foreign journalist to ever be admitted to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police press club (which is only opened to the Japanese press)? Japan society at large is well-known for its insular nature, much less the secretive yakuza groups with their mystical rituals and honour codes.
As a result, I had expected Tokyo Vice to be a compilation of humorous quirky anecdotes from Adelstein’s time as a reporter there, perhaps only slightly more in-depth and insightful than the typical Japan-is-so-weird drivels that are a dim a dozen at Kinokuniya. There is certainly some fluff of that nature present in Tokyo Vice, but the book is much more personal and serious than that.
The central point behind the book is a record of Adelstein’s journey from an aspiring reporter to a veteran journalist who managed to uncover a huge scoop about how Tadamasa Goto, a then-powerful crime lord in Tokyo, managed to obtain a US visa to receive a liver transplant at UCLA, despite being on ICE‘s blacklist for trafficking and money laundering. The result of his investigation was shunned by the Japanese media, including his own employer the Yomiuri Shinbun, but eventually caught the public’s attention when Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post agreed to publish the story after verifying it with the FBI. He and his family were then put under police protection, while Goto was eventually forced out of his organization (and conveniently became a Buddhist monk while under criminal investigation) as a result of the ensuing scandal. It’s the stuff of TV and movies.
With the popularity of Japanese pop culture, there are many people who dream of studying or working in Japan. But it is actually extremely difficult for a foreigner to enter the Japanese education and corporate systems (which are really one and the same). Most foreigners who do manage to find a living in Japan do so more or less detached from its integrated corporate employment machine (e.g. running a restaurant, working for a foreign MNC, teaching English).
The fact that Adelstein, who is neither Korean nor Chinese (the two foreign groups with the best chance at integration), managed to graduate from Sophia University (one of the top private universities in Japan) and find employment as a full-time Yomiuri Shinbun reporter (a complex process of interviews and standardized testing that only a native can navigate) is a pretty amazing feat by itself. The fact that he managed to not only find a way in but to get to places as an American that even Japanese journalists find difficult accessing is simply unimaginable. The perspective of Japan he offers is nuanced and eye-opening. This is not your typical American travelogue of Japan.
The story that has everything you want from a crime thriller: the murders, the sex, the threats, the corruptions, the battles lost and won. It’s all there, only much more real. Adelstein’s vivd recollection of the many encounters he had has a reporter — with police officers, yakuza bosses, fellow journalists, sex workers — brings his story to life and gives reader a rare matter-of-fact glimpse into a world that, shrouded in the mysticism accorded to it by popular fiction, often seems surreal to those of us living more mundane lives.
Toyko Vice is a hard look at a seldom-seen reality with its share of bitterness and humanity, with the occasional life lesson and a dash of seasoned sentimentality. In a way, it is even inspirational. It is the kind of book that makes me feel that the world out there is a lot bigger than me (and also makes me kind of want to become a journalist.)