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Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (original 2009; edition 2010)

by Jake Adelstein

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4662022,239 (3.75)22
Member:Capfox
Title:Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
Authors:Jake Adelstein
Info:Vintage (2010), Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library, Reviewed
Rating:****
Tags:Japan, non-fiction, reviewed, biography

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Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein (2009)

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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
This is a bit of an odd one. Non-fiction, written by an American newspaper reporter called Jake Adelstein.

No, me neither.

When I say 'American newspaper reporter', I mean, he's American and he was a newspaper reporter, but in Japan. To be honest, it isn't at all clear just how he came to be in Japan, or why he was previously there long enough to have learned enough of the language, to want to consider trying to get a job on one of Tokyo's leading newspapers. He does rather just jump into the 'story' and almost seems to assume you already know why he was in Japan and what his background is. What does come over well is his love of all things Japanese and inner workings of their society. But I could have done with a bit more background there, to try and explain his motivation, I felt.

Anyway, the 'story', what it is, is basically a collection of linked, roughly chronological recollections of his life as a reporter on the 'Yomiuri Shinbun' Newspaper in Tokyo. They lead to (and are book-ended by), the story of his exposure of human trafficking, money laundering, corruption in general and the downfall of Japan's leading organised crime bosses. But note, he had to leave his job as a reported on this newspaper (Japan's leading paper as far as I could grasp), to complete and publish his exposé. The paper and Japanese publishers in general wouldn't touch it. Fearing the 'Yakuza' crime syndicates too much.

The un-written rules on how you greet someone, how you find your place in what is a very animal-kingdom-like pecking order system, and even down to how you present someone with your business card, are fine and interesting and probably something we could learn from. But when they basically don't want to prosecute people for crimes which we take for granted are crimes which demand prosecution - and successful prosecution...I kind of lose interest.

For instance, in the acknowledgements at the end, he thanks an FBI agent friend (not a Japanese law enforcement official, note) “...for his hard work in getting Japan to partially ban child pornography.” Note also 'partially.' And the book is published in 2009. Way to go, Japan!

The interesting part(s) are the insights into Japanese culture and morals. The frenetic working methods of Japanese newspapers, the lengths they are expected to go to, the sacrifices to their health, their lives and their bank balances they are expected to make, are quite extraordinary. Whilst I've no real experience of how Western newspaper journalists work (apart from the recent phone-tapping scandals and a general cynicism), I can appreciate that Japanese journalists are expected to work in a way that is very, very different. The interesting thought proces for me, was to wonder how their society is, if this is considered unremarkably normal. Just the way it is. But that was me thinking, not the book telling me anything. These 'behind the scenes' sections do work really well. Unfortunately, and it could just be me, but what seems to have been his motivation for writing this book, the human trafficking angle and exposing the dirty secrets of Japanese organised crime bosses, while of course perfectly reasonable, isn't really that interesting. It's fine that that was reason for writing the book of course, but without any idea of who the people are or any kind if pre-knowledge of the crime-traditions and culture they represent, it's hard to build up enough righteous indignation to care all that much. I remained too detached and not as involved as I'm sure he would have hoped his reader would be.

The book is all very fine. Perfectly readable, with many interesting insights that will hold your attention. But if you're looking at it from the angle of questioning if it delivers on the premis he presumably had for writing it, then I would have to say, it fails.

(In case you're wondering how I got hold of the book and why I read it, when it's clearly nothing I'm particularly interested in: I got it as an e-book file from a friend's visit earlier on this year and looking at the cover, I clearly expected it to be more of an Elmore Leonard crime noir exposé than it turned out to be). ( )
  Speesh | Mar 29, 2014 |
Very interesting book which is partly a memoir of the author's time as a journalist covering the police beat, and partly an account of his attempts to expose one of the Yakuza chiefs. It is funny in parts, but also very dark in parts. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Mar 9, 2013 |
There's something to be said for firsts, even if the only thing to be said there is that you can probably get a book out of that first if it's notable enough. Fortunately, that's not all that Jake Adelstein has going for him in Tokyo Vice - the story itself is also quite good. Adelstein was the first white reporter for the Japanese edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the biggest and most prestigious newspaper in Japan. Adelstein takes us from his first moment of deciding to try to join the newspaper and the employment process, through learning to be a police reporter in Saitama, before moving into Tokyo and taking on life in the big city. There's a good amount in here in the early parts of people reacting to this white Jewish guy from Missouri showing up as a reporter, but as Adelstein gets more accustomed to his job, the stories of being a reporter and the more lurid side of Japan come forward more. And in the end, Adelstein ends up pursuing a story regarding the #1 yakuza in Japan at the time, and his work leads him to receive death threats. (Note: this is the prologue of the book, and thus not a spoiler.)

A lot of this sounds fairly typical of these sorts of guy-makes-the-beat-and-then-gets-in-over-his-head stories, I suppose, but it's really done well here, and there are a lot of details that make the story quite fascinating, at least if you're interested in Japan stuff. The workplace scenes at the newspaper at the beginning, as he learns about his coworkers and how things are done, how to build up contacts and what goes into keeping them are well-observed, and then later on, when we hear about life in the Tokyo red-light district, it's sobering and harsh, but presented clearly and with the viewpoint of the police contact telling Adelstein about it. I have to say, I really did quite like the writing. It had a lot of impact - funny when it was supposed to be, disturbing and horrifying on call, and then always clear. As I suppose befits a journalist.

It sounds odd to say, but I liked a lot of the characters (or real people) in the book, and particularly Adelstein's mentor, and the Alien Cop. But I really did like the way Adelstein himself slowly and subtly changed over the course of the book, from someone who was doing this because it seemed interesting and he wanted a job in Japan, but whose Japanese wasn't really that great and was clearly an outsider, to someone who knew lots of the connections in organized crime and became so part of Japan that he couldn't really go undercover as a foreigner anymore. And it helps, then, this dual inside/outside status, when he gets involved in investigations of human trafficking in the last parts of the book - the real, horrible record of it in Japan, and his connection to and feelings towards the women involved leading to breaking him down, and roughening his methods. It's all well done, and informative.

On the whole, Tokyo Vice was a fairly fast, engaging read, with a good amount of informative kick, and an interesting, ground-breaking lead to follow. It's definitely worth a read if you're into Japan stuff, or if you like newspaper or crime stories. There's a lot here to offer, and while it's not always enjoyable, I don't think you'd regret trying it. ( )
1 vote Capfox | Dec 8, 2012 |
This isn't a book for those with a sensitive disposition. The crime and the sex are graphic, and Adelstein doesn't sugar coat a word of it. But as an insight into the world of a crime journalist, as insight into the world of an American in Tokyo, as insight into the world of the yakuza, this book can't be topped.

Not an easy read, but a very good one. ( )
  cindystark | Jul 5, 2012 |
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Epigraph
Meeting is merely the beginning of separation. -- Japanese proverb.
Dedication
Dedicated to--

Detective Sekiguchi,
who taught me what it was to be an honorable man. I'm trying.

My father,
who has always been my hero and who taught me to stand up
for what's right.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department and the
Federal Bureau of Investigation,
for protecting me and my friends and my family, and for their constant
efforts to keep the forces of darkness in check.

Those whom I loved and who have left and will not return.
You are missed and remembered.
First words
"Either erase the story, or we'll erase you. And maybe your family. But we'll do them first, so you learn your lesson before you die."
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307378799, Hardcover)

A Q&A with Jake Adelstein

Question: What drew you to Japan in the first place, and how did you wind up going to university there?

Jake Adelstein: In high school I had many problems with anger and self-control. I had been studying Zen Buddhism and karate, and I thought Japan would be the perfect place to reinvent myself. It could be that my pointy right ear draws me toward neo-Vulcan pursuits--I don’t know.

When I got to Japan, I managed to find lodgings in a Soto Zen Buddhist temple where I lived for three years, attending zazen meditation at least once a week. I didn’t become enlightened, but I did get a better hold on myself.

Question: How did you become a journalist for the most popular Japanese-language newspaper?

Jake Adelstein: The Yomiuri Shinbun runs a standardized test, open to all college students. Many Japanese firms hire young grads this way. My friends thought that the idea of a white guy trying to pass a Japanese journalist’s exam was so impossibly quixotic that I wanted to prove them wrong. I spent an entire year eating instant ramen and studying. I managed to find the time to do it by quitting my job as an English teacher and working as a Swedish-massage therapist for three overworked Japanese women two days a week. It turned out to be a slightly sleazy gig, but it paid the bills.

There was a point when I was ready to give up studying and the application process. Then, when I was in Kabukicho on June 22, 1992, I asked a tarot fortune-telling machine for advice on my career path, and it said that with my overpowering morbid curiosity I was destined to become a journalist, a job at which I would flourish, and that fate would be on my side. I took that as a good sign. I still have the printout.

I did well enough on the initial exam to get to the interviews, and managed to stumble my way through that process and get hired. I think I was an experimental case that turned out reasonably well.

Question: How did you succeed in uncovering the underworld in a country that is famously "closed" or restricted to foreigners? Do you think people talked more openly to you because you were American?

Jake Adelstein: I think Japan is actually more open than people give it credit for. However, to get the door open, you really need to become fluent in the spoken and written language. The written language was a nightmare for me.

You’re right, though; it was mostly an advantage to be a foreigner--it made me memorable. The yakuza are outsiders in Japanese society, and perhaps being a fellow outsider gave us a weird kind of bond. The cops investigating the yakuza also tend to be oddballs. I was mentored into an early understanding and appreciation of the code of both the yakuza and the cops. Reciprocity and honor are essential components for both.

I also think the fact that I’m too stupid to be afraid when I should be, and annoyingly persistent as well--these things didn’t help me in long-term romance, but they helped me as a crime reporter.

Question: Do you feel that investigative journalism is being threatened or aided by the expansion of the Internet and news blogs, and the closing down of many printed newspapers?

Jake Adelstein: In one sense it is being threatened because investigative journalism is rarely a solo project. It requires huge amounts of resources, capital, and time to really do one story correctly. Legal costs and FOIA documents are expensive things. The bigger the target, the greater the risk and the more money is required. The second-biggest threat to investigative journalism is crooked lawyers and corporate shills who sue as a harassment tactic. In general, it’s rather hard and time-consuming to be an army of one. It took me almost three years to break the story about yakuza receiving liver transplants at UCLA on my own. The costs in financial terms were immense, and so were the losses along the way. A team of reporters could have done the work much faster, probably.

However, these things said, blogging is also a great source of news that might go unreported, or be overlooked, by the mainstream media. Twitter, too, has had an interesting impact, actually helping a journalist get out of jail in the case of James Karl Buck. We’re beginning to see kind of a public option in investigative journalism, too--such as things like ProPublica. They do an awesome job at investigative journalism, partly through donations, and they have a great web site. So the Internet is not all bad for investigative journalism, as long as we proceed with caution and forethought. At the same time, real intelligence-gathering work actually requires you to put down your cell phone and your computer and get off your ass and meet people in the real world. As odious as it may be, we have to sift through garbage, pound the pavement, and visit the scene of the crime. Not all answers can be found in front of a keyboard, or on Google, and the “it’s all in the database” mentality is the bane of reporting and often generates shoddy reporting.

The individual journalist can do great investigative work--it’s just a lot harder, and usually financially difficult to do unless you’re independently wealthy, like Bruce Wayne. Most of us don’t have the time or the resources or the luxury of holding down a day job and doing investigative journalism on the side, as a hobby.

Question: What do you hope your American audience can learn from your book?

Jake Adelstein: I think everyone will take away something different from the book. I suppose you can learn a lot about how journalism works in Japan, how the police work, and how the yakuza work. I would also hope that people take away from the book an understanding of some of the things I really like about Japan and the Japanese, things like reciprocity, honor, loyalty, and stoic suffering. I think in Japan, I learned how important it is to keep your word, to never forget your debts--and not just the financial ones--and to make repayment in due course. Perhaps that’s what honor is all about.

There’s a word in Japanese, hanmen kyoshi, which means, more or less, “the teacher who teaches by his bad example.” At times, I’m an excellent hanmen kyoshi in the book.

Everything I’ve learned that’s important to me is in the book somewhere. I hope there’s something universal in the contents beyond just making people aware of cultural differences between the United States and Japan, or reiterating the importance and value of investigative journalism. Like a book I would choose to read to my children, I hope there’s some kind of moral to it all. Maybe the real lesson is to be kind and helpful to the people you care about whenever you can, because it’s good for them, and good for you, and your time with them may be much shorter than you imagined.

(Photo © Michael Lionstar)

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:55:29 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

From the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police press club: a unique, firsthand, revelatory look at Japanese culture from the underbelly up. For twelve years of eighty-hour workweeks, he covered the seedy side of Japan--extortion, murder, human trafficking, and corruption. Here, he tells the riveting, often humorous tale of his journey from an inexperienced cub reporter to a daring investigative journalist with a yakuza price on his head. With its visceral descriptions of crime in Japan and an exploration of the world of modern-day yakuza that even few Japanese ever see, this is a fascination, and an education.--From publisher description.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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