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Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan Paperback – October 5, 2010
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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)--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
More About the Author
I hope you enjoyed the book or at least got something out of it. If you're interested in the dark side of the sun--the problematic, interesting and strange aspects of Japanese society, please see our sporadically updated blog at www.japansubculture.com. I'm also hoping to add supplementary materials in Japanese and English that will be useful for people want to know more about crime in Japan and its other less talked about aspects.
Top Customer Reviews
Full disclosure: I lived in Tokyo for parts of early 80s before finally leaving in 1985, before Adelstein arrived to study at Sophia University. Like him, I began my journalistic career there, although it was as a copy editor at the English-language Japan Times rather than as a reporter for a Japanese daily. Even in 1985, being a 'gaijin' (foreigner) and a female would have put paid to any such plans, even if my decidedly unfluent Japanese hadn't. Adelstein, however, benefited from the passage of time, his language skills and his gender and landed a job at the Yomiuri newspaper, one of the country's largest. Automatically an unusual person in Japan's extraordinarily homogenous society (at the time I lived there, at least, there was no space on a driver's license for hair or eye color -- because it was assumed that all would be the same...), Adelstein ended up covering another kind group of misfits in Japan: the country's yakuza, or organized criminals.
It's a fascinating world, part of Japanese popular culture as much as the Mafia is here, and yet virtually unrecognized outside of the country. Along with writing about the yakuza, Adelstein does a fabulous job of raising the curtain on the lives of ordinary Japanese, finally debunking all the stereotypes. Japanese men gawk at the pictures in Madonna's "Sex"; the male reporters openly read porn magazines in the workspace.Read more ›
At first you're a little worried because, well, who are these guys drinking your beer?
Within a couple minutes, you are not worried anymore. You are ordering another pitcher. And then another one. These guys are two of the best storytellers you've ever met, and the drunker they get, the more they appear to be trying to outdo each other. The stories they are telling you are as engaging as they are strange and unbelievable.
Now imagine that both of these guys, the novelist and the reporter, are actually the same guy, and the stories they are telling are all true. That's what reading this book is like.
The subject matter is the obvious initial draw to this book. Mr. Adelstein's relays his years of experience as a reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun with efficiency, clarity and wit, while at the same time managing to convey some of the structure and texture of a number of complex institutions and sub-cultures (the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, other prefectural police departments in Japan, crime reporters for the Yomiuri and, of course, the yakuza).
Beyond the fascinating subject matter, however, I could and would and will recommend this book solely for the quality of writing. Mr. Adelstein works expertly at the level of the sentence and the vignette. He doesn't accumulate detail, but instead precisely curates it, giving just enough to put you right there with him. Any less detail and the narrative would be flat, lifeless.Read more ›
I gotta say, though, that Tokyo Vice, while it might have fallen into this category, DOESN'T. Jake Adelstein knows his stuff, and the audience can figure that out in the first lines. This is no "ohmygosh-Japan-is-different-because-everyone-is-ASIAN-and-speaks-JAPANESE!" Instead, this is layer upon layer of real information, texture that I don't think anyone could pick up unless they were actually immersed in a culture, and written from a place far past the wide-eyed excitement of a first-time visitor.
The book has an interesting, engaging narrative, that stands on its own even without all the depth of knowledge the author brings. And, though the subject seems like it's straight out of fiction, it's not. I know more about the Japanese newspaper industry, the Tokyo Police Department, and the seedier aspects of life in Japan now than I ever have. And that's saying something.
Frankly, this book could have been a piece of garden variety, semi-racist, often lurid, pulp fiction. Instead, it's a thoughtful look back on an experience no one else on this earth has had.
Tokyo Vice is the autobiographical story of Jake Adelstein, a middle-class boy from the American Midwest who grew up attracted to Japanese culture and language, and how he learned about all this first hand. Adelstein relocated to Japan in his teens to study Buddhism and go to college, and stayed. Amazingly, he eventually managed to be hired as a reporter for the largest Japanese daily newspaper, writing and working entirely in the Japanese language for twelve years. He served on the crime beat, becoming an expert on the seamy underside of Japanese life.
Eventually however, Adelstein went beyond his objective reporter role and stood up as an advocate and crusader, especially on behalf of foreign women whom he discovered being trafficked into sexual slavery in Japan. He was appalled to find that these crimes were ignored by the Japanese establishment; the victims were women, prostitutes and foreigners and therefore triply of no importance.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Excellent book. Well researched and executed. If you are vaguely interested in crime, police or Japan I highly recommend you check this book out.Published 1 month ago by DodgyDarren
Of all things to recommend as an introduction to Japanese/American culture, this is certainly an odd choice (dealing with Japan's rotting underbelly, rather than their clean... Read morePublished 3 months ago by B. Dewhirst
Adelstien knocks it out of the park with this teriffic view into the seedy underbelly of Japan. A must read for any expat hoping to understand how Japan works, it certainly does... Read morePublished 3 months ago by O. Riley
Loved this book so much, I wish he wrote another book. It really shows you the underbelly of tokyo and what really goes on behind closed doors of the Yakuza, If you been a fan of... Read morePublished 4 months ago by Jacob Azizi
Excellent book. Well-written and highly informative. I'd already lived in Japan for several years when I read this, but Jake's willingness to share his experience is invaluable. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Paul
This is a really interesting book about an American in Japan who becomes a crime journalist. It''s filled with fascinating insights into Japanese culture. I recommend it.Published 6 months ago by Amazon Customer
There is one boring chapter in this book, but other than that, what a ride. I recommend it to anyone.Published 6 months ago by friendly woods