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Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) [Kindle Edition]

Jake Adelstein
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (172 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A riveting true-life tale of newspaper noir and Japanese organized crime from an American investigative journalist.
Jake Adelstein is the only American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, where for twelve years he covered the dark side of Japan: extortion, murder, human trafficking, fiscal corruption, and of course, the yakuza. But when his final scoop exposed a scandal that reverberated all the way from the neon soaked streets of Tokyo to the polished Halls of the FBI and resulted in a death threat for him and his family, Adelstein decided to step down. Then, he fought back. In Tokyo Vice he delivers an unprecedented look at Japanese culture and searing memoir about his rise from cub reporter to seasoned journalist with a price on his head.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews Review

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)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A young Japanese-schooled Jewish-American who worked as a journalist at Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun during the 1990s, debut author Adelstein began with a routine, but never dull, police beat; before long, he was notorious worldwide for engaging the dirtiest, top-most villains of Japan's organized criminal underworld, the yakuza. A pragmatic but sensitive character, Adelstein's worldview takes quite a beating during his tour of duty; thanks to his immersive reporting, readers suffer with him through the choice between personal safety and a chance to confront the evil inhabiting his city. He learns that "what matters is the purity of the information, not the person providing it," considers personal and societal theories behind Tokyo's illicit and semi-illicit pastimes like "host and hostess clubs," where citizens pay for the illusion of intimacy: "The rates are not unreasonable, but the cost in human terms are incredibly high." Adelstein also examines the investigative reporter's tendency to withdraw into cynicism ("when a reporter starts to cool down, it's very hard... ever to warm up again") but faithfully sidesteps that urge, producing a deeply thought-provoking book: equal parts cultural exposé, true crime, and hard-boiled noir.

Product Details

  • File Size: 2937 KB
  • Print Length: 404 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 7, 2009)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B002RYXA0Y
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #52,592 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
100 of 104 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The nail that sticks up, gets hammered down... October 29, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Or, in Jake Adelstein's case, it doesn't -- thankfully, because American readers now finally have access to a book that chronicles the real Japan, free of stereotypes and even more well-rounded and nuanced as any of the 'foreigner abroad' books we are accustomed to reading from Americans who head off to the more culturally-familiar terrain of Europe.

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.
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119 of 131 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Imagine you're at a bar... October 13, 2009
By C. Yu
with a pitcher of beer, sort of watching the game. A novelist and a reporter sit down on either side of you. They want to make you a deal: they get to have some of your beer and in exchange, each of them will take turns telling you incredibly good stories.

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.
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61 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars holy japan! October 13, 2009
I wasn't sure what to expect from this book -- most stories about Westerners moving to Japan are simple, ego-driven pieces of "finding yourself" trash.

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.

Read it.
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37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable story, imperfect book January 30, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Japan is not entirely the land of Zen gardens and precision cameras as most Americans born after WWII tend to believe. It is a nation with a major dark side, openly racist and sexist, with a wide public tolerance of perversions such as child pornography. Japanese 'salarymen' in suits stand on their lunch hour reading comic books about teenage schoolgirls. This is also the country that was equalled only by Nazi Germany in their wartime cruelties against civilians and prisoners. But the Japanese above all believe in social cohesion, and these regrettable parts of human behavior are regarded as inevitable, so why not provide for them in a socially integrated way? Thus it is not surprising that organized crime is considered just another part of daily life, with office buildings and business cards (!) for the so-called yakuza.

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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars So you think Japan is a lovely place...
Think again. Tokyo Vice will resonate with those folks who live or have lived in Japan for a number of years. Read more
Published 8 days ago by Edward K.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Wonderful what a life :)
Published 14 days ago by JP
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth a try
My two main objections with this book are first, that it is badly written and at times pretty boring, and, second, that it does not offer much novel information to anyone who has a... Read more
Published 16 days ago by Themistoklis Katsimihas
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written expose of both sides of the law in Japan.
Adelstein earned my respect with Tokyo Vice. He details many aspects of Japanese culture and expertly interweaves them into his biographical narrative of his life as a foreign... Read more
Published 1 month ago by JJ Spartan
4.0 out of 5 stars A Rare Glimpse into a Fascinating World
I first saw this book in 2009 or 2010. I thought long and hard several times about purchasing this book but passed on it. Read more
Published 1 month ago by "Johnny Salzone"
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great read!
Published 3 months ago by N. Lee
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking In From the Outside
Adelstein is both an insider and the ultimate outsider—it’s not like he could “blend”—and he’s packed this story with great character touches, tons of eloquent detail and just... Read more
Published 3 months ago by katherine tomlinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Great
Excellent product, good price and delivered on time.
Published 4 months ago by William T. Collins
2.0 out of 5 stars Two Stars
Can't get into it.
Published 4 months ago by Peg
1.0 out of 5 stars Easy to read, try to buy a used copy...
I was made aware of this book by a friend of the author, a person who is mentioned in the book. Therefore I was inclined to be somewhat sympathetic to "Jake". Read more
Published 5 months ago by hiplnsdrftr
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More About the Author

Between writing books, I'm currently editing I was born in Missouri and first went to Japan in 1988 as an exchange student at Sophia. I spent most of my time in college living in a Zen Buddhist temple in Tokyo, failing to obtain enlightenment or even a little, tiny satori. I became a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper (circ. 10,000,000 daily) and was there from 1993 until close to the end of 2005, primarily as a crime reporter. I worked for a year on a human trafficking study of Japan sponsored by the US State Department from 2006-2007. Currently, I travel back and forth between Japan and the United States, writing both in English and Japanese for various publications under my own names and pen names. I do some consulting work on occasion. I'm also the temporary public relations representative for Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and other exploitation issues in Japan.
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 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.

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