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. Social life revolves around getting drunk; the job of a police reporter like Adelstein includes paying evening calls to the homes of his detective friends. Adelstein shows how phenomena like the hostess clubs are fueled by "alienation, boredom and loneliness."
That said, this is a very uneven book. The first half, in particular, seems to be the story of a foreigner who gets himself a job at a Japanese newspaper, thinks to himself, "wow, this is cool and different and maybe I'll write a book about it, too, because not many people have done what I've done." The glimpse behind the scenes of a Japanese newspaper were interesting enough, but after a while the long paragraphs, one after another, of people talking became wearying. So did Adelstein's self-congratulatory air: Getting words of praise from a colleague is "a good feeling"; another story is "a nice little scoop", or "our investigative reporting had the gratifying result of spurring the Saitama police into arresting the people responsible for the bank failure." Yawn. And I could have done without the insights into his sex life, as when he leaves his 'girlfriend' hanging on in the love hotel room they have rented by the hour in order to deal with an editor. "Honorable me, I knew I owed her. So I turned my beeper off for the first time in months." At times, he sounds almost smug.
And yet, just as I was about to give up on the book, it took off and turned into an extraordinary chronicle, revealing in the process an entirely different narrator, someone passionate and thoughtful enough about the world he sees around him to be willing to stand up and be counted. He becomes the nail that sticks up and must be hammered down, in the Japanese saying used of people who place their independent thoughts above smooth social relationships. And the people who wanted to do the hammering were Japan's yakuza, as Adelstein's beat takes him into an investigation of sexual slavery and abuse in Japan's hostess bars, 'soaplands' and brothels. What had been almost flippant before (see Jake Adelstein as a male host!) becomes deadly serious, and I ended up reading late into the night to discover what happened, just as I would have done with a great thriller. The catch, of course, is that the crimes and abuses committed by the yakuza, for which the police are unable or unwilling to prosecute them, were and remain real. Adelstein points out the difficulty of prosecuting human trafficking offenses in a country where the victims are promptly deported -- and then the police and law enforcement officials point out that they have no complaining witnesses! He points to the impact of the casual racism and sexism on law enforcement, from attitudes to Koreans of Japanese descent to the women who arrive in Japan to work as hostesses. And ultimately, he puts his life on the line -- literally -- in an effort to expose some of these abuses.
The heroes of Adelstein's book come from across the board -- this is not smart gaijin hero versus thick-witted racist Japanese, or evil Yakuza versus courageous journalists. Some of the most poignant and heartfelt parts of this ultimately very moving book are those devoted to one of his closest friends, a Japanese police detective, and to an Australian bar girl who becomes a friend of sorts. And ultimately Adelstein sheds that self-satisfied foreigner abroad persona, recognizing that his all-too-human failures as a person and a reporter meant that "I'd endangered every person I cared about, liked, loved, or simply knew. (They had become) potential leverage for (the yakuza target of his investigations) who had no qualms about using people like cannon fodder." It's a cry from the heart, and the story of Adelstein's investigations and efforts to get his worked published make this book a 'must read'.
I'd like to think that the Japanese fascination with what other nations think about them would mean that this book will be translated into Japanese and have a wide audience there. Given the difficulty Adelstein had in finding a Japanese publisher for his journalistic scoops about the yakuza's worst crimes, I'm not sure it will happen. Moreover, the home truths that Adelstein tells -- from a position inside Japanese society, not from the usual gaijin perspective of having one foot in Tokyo's expat community -- about everything from the ugly realities underlying the hostess bar culture and the treatment of a female fellow reporter and friend at the Yomiuri, to the horrors of human trafficking, may prove hard for them to digest. In any event, it's a fascinating read that I'd recommend to anyone with an interest in Japan or thinking of going to live or work there.
A few other recommendations: For more insight into the dysfunctional part of Japanese society (if not the criminal element), try Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation (Vintage Departures) or Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan. Some dark comedy and brilliant film-making comes from Juzo Itami, who, it appears, may have been murdered by yakuza rather than committing suicide. Many probably are familiar with Tampopo; just as good, IMO, is A Taxing Woman; the sequel, A Taxing Woman's Return, is still available only on VHS. Both are great and hilarious examples of a crusading tax inspector battling her own bureaucracy and the criminal elements who happen to be evading their taxes. I can't recommend either film strongly enough.
on October 13, 2009
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. Any more detail would drag it down, make it feel like a reading assignment. Instead, Mr. Adelstein's prose has a tactile quality to it. It is measured and balanced and paced in such a way that you live the story with him. I would buy this storyteller an ongoing supply of beer just to keep listening to him tell stories.
on 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.
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. This also led him to understand how organized crime works in Japan, including evidence of corruption at high levels in the government.
His crusade has had some effect; through investigative journalism and contacts with the US government he eventually shamed Japan into beginning to respond to these problems. Also Adelstein uncovered the story of top yakuza who found ways to receive needed liver transplants at American hospitals ahead of long waiting lists - an investigation which led to him and his family receiving serious death threats.
It's not a pretty story. The most upsetting episode concerns a beautiful Australian woman working as a prostitute in Tokyo who became a close friend and informant of Adelstein. When she attempted to help him investigate the trafficking, she disappeared - with credible evidence she was tortured to death by the yakusa. The book is about fairly recent events so we cannot expect the full story. Nevertheless it disturbed me that Adelstein seems not to fully accept that this was the direct result of his association with her.
A riveting story but not well written. There are tedious dialogs, off sentences, many cliches. Puzzling because Adelstein is a professional writer; in May of 2008 he published a straightforward essay in the Washington Post (still on the Internet) summarizing the story succintly. But this book length version has been turned into something like a Mickey Spillane novel-noir, with way too many tedious conversations with Japanese cops smoking way too many cigarettes. Perhaps the author received some bad advice from his publisher and editors, who wanted him to jazz up his account with more 'vivid' personalities? I also would have appreciated more in the way of third party context - quotes from the Japanese newspaper articles or government documentation which would show some reality besides the author's.
Finally, Adelstein has a peculiar, almost coy attitude in writing about one key element - himself. Even though his personal life is intertwined with the story at every level, he leaves out more than he tells. He marries a Japanese woman but does not talk about her or how they met. He becomes personally involved with his informants but does not explain. It is understandable for him to protect his sources, but I liked it less when he seemed to be protecting himself.
Bottom line: A gripping insight into contemporary Japan. One must admire Adelstein for his courage in acting on his outrage and for his ongoing campaign to shine a light on abuses in Japanese society. But the book could have been more cleanly written and the author could have been more open about his personal saga.
on October 24, 2009
Jakes ability to express himself is a rare gift that few are given. He often mentioned that grace and agility did not come naturally. As a freshman in college in the midwest, he fell two stories down an open elevator shaft.
This resulted in a few injured bones and a mild concussion. The result was a loss of short term memory. At the time he was enrolled in Japanese at the University of Missouri. His Japanese memory was gone,but soon recovered with the help of a tutor.
Tokyo Vice, not only explains how he was able to learn to read,write,and speak Japanese, but to use it as a reporter. Although somewhat biased, it was hard to put down the book. His personal stories and reporting revealed things that even a mother doesnt want to know.
on October 13, 2009
The book was pretty great. It was really interesting to read about a Midwestern Jew who moves to Japan and assimilates himself into the culture so well. It's hilarious reading about how he can never blend in, even though it would be advantageous for an investigative report.
I loved reading about the cultural differences and seeing how business is done in Japan. Life, love and the perception of men is interesting, especially compared to America.
The brotherhood that was shown between Jake and his friends was endearing. These reporters all have each others backs. The friendships that were formed were the best part of the story. You could tell that Jake really cared about these people.
I don't know if I could give it a better compliment than to call it gritty and real. Well written and fun to read.
on January 31, 2013
I bought this book off amazon used after a trip to Japan with a curiosity about the yakuza. It was highly recommended and well reviewed on the site. The author is a 42 year old from Missouri that went to Japan as a college student, learned Japanese fluently and managed to get himself hired as a reporter with a prominent Japanese newspaper. By itself this was an impressive feat. The book is an autobiography which follows his career from junior reporter to seeming superhero investigator/reporter/champion of the people, relationships with police, reporters, sources, frequent sexual transgressions, up to his coup d'etat exposing a crime boss who received a liver transplant at UCLA. After getting about 2/3 through the book which was actually interesting reading, I started looking up everything I could find online about the author as his story was becoming sensational, he successfully defended himself twice against physical attacks, he described a Japan that is so corrupt with human trafficking, sex industry, and white collar crime that the culture is nothing of what it seems at the surface. According to the author, yakuza are fully infiltrated and integrated into the political system and government that he suggests they even played a role in the fukushima disaster. According to online reports the author now claims to have "liver cancer making him just like a yakuza" and his wife is kept safe by living in a pagoda in Missouri. Additionally the author sued and apparently lost after he left a national geographic special on yakuza. I finished the book because I felt I had obligated myself to, but in the end I felt as though I was reading the musings of a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Unfortunately there is not enough information available in the book or what has been written in credible us news outlets to verify or discredit the author's claims. If true, Japan is a much seedier and messed up place than I had ever imaginined. The picture painted is in stark contrast to the Japan you see as a tourist where crime seems non-existent and everything is extremly clean. Everything has a dark side and surely there is truth in his stories. I just don't know how much and until this book is clearly vetted as complete truth I would recommend a friend to look elsewhere to satisfy a curiosity about yakuza.
on July 4, 2010
I picked this book up because I thought it had everything that I normally love in a crime-tell-all. Excitement, seedy stories, seedy bars, the kind of information only gleaned from immersing oneself in that kind of world. To an extent, it has these things. This is definitely the story of a journalist on the crime beat going about his business. There are stories about sources, bosses, cops, other journalists, and they all seem to be cracking the same joke throughout the book: that the author is not a very good writer.
I think we're supposed to think it's funny, that he's "not a good writer" and yet he's got a book out, so what do they know? And yet...
It's very disjointed. There seems to be no clear premise for the book. It starts with an anecdote about the Yakuza threatening the writer to silence, building up the idea that this man is doing important work. The Yakuza have their eye on him, what an exciting story! A story that won't be revisited until 3/4 of the way through the book.
The chapters have little relation to one another, it reads like a collection of short stories. It's not a bad idea in theory, but individually the chapters don't contain any internal logic. They meander almost without point, sometimes seeming as ways to expound on other, unrelated stories. There are many tangents that lead nowhere and many asides, all of which seem to start with a cliché. Stories within stories; I gather that most of them are included to try and make the criminals seem more threatening, but they fall flat. Their sheer number is the problem. They appear when you least expect them, just as you're starting to get interested in the story at hand, and then you groan as the writer picks up with, "but on a loosely related note, did you hear what happened to ___?" It sounds more like the writer is trying to impress us with his wealth of knowledge. This could explain why passing background figures are given biographical workups only to disappear a page later from the book entirely.
His other problem is cutting off a paragraph with, "but that wouldn't become important until later" or "I wouldn't know that until later." It's the clumsiest form of foreshadowing. Halfway through they become stock, as everything seems to "become important later, little did I know."
There's an almost strange focus on the sex in the book, which appears rarely but comes completely out of nowhere. Stories containing prostitutes have an almost ludicrous amount of detail, particularly of a ludicrous nature. Again I get the feeling that the writer is trying to impress us with his story and not concerned at all that it disrupts the flow of dialog to continuously describe someone sucking on nipples while talking. But this is not surprising, as for the most part the dialog is poorly written, stilted and weak. It drags at the pace of the book, often containing the dreaded phrase, "let me tell you something..." It's not at all the punchy, quick-witted style I would expect from a reporter. What this book needed more than anything was a good editor. Cutting a shifting of text would have made this a lot more readable. It's as if he's still drunk in a bar, telling his disjointed life.
There's some interesting material here, and straight information not related at all to his reporting life is told in an interesting way. This means the beginning of the book, where he is describing the Japanese educational and police systems, is more interesting than the end, which is all biographical (and devolves into an "and then this happened, and then THIS happened, and THEN this happened" formula). I did also discover things I did not know and will hopefully lead me to other texts. It's the poor presentation that's the problem.
It's a good train or plane read, but I wouldn't recommend paying full price for it. It's a $5 read.
on September 24, 2014
As someone who's lived in Japan, I am awed by Jake Adelstein's achievement. A foreigner who made it as a fluff-writer for a regional paper in Japan would be impressive enough, but Adelstein made it to the toughest beat -- vice -- of one of Japan's premiere national newspapers, Yomiuri. That alone would make a solid story, but Adelstein went two or three light years beyond that and ended up reporting on Japan's most dangerous organized thugs.
Not a career path chosen by those who plan to live a long life.
What really makes this book so compelling are his soul-bearing accounts of personal relationships -- with an unfailingly honest cop who mentors him in the realpolitik of reportage, with a fellow Yomiuri reporter who makes a critical career misstep, and with a gaijin bar girl who starts out as a source, becomes more than a friends, and ends up . . . Well, I don't want to give away too much. But suffice to say that this last relationship for me was the most controversial aspects of Adelstein's tale.
Few Americans have ever been granted access to this world, and upon gaining that access, Adelstein didn't just peek around; he kicked over desks and looked in all the closets. His is one of the ultimate stories of an outsider making it in a highly insular world, like Lawrence of Arabia but instead of a dagger and pistol with sunglasses, clove cigarettes, and notepad.
on February 24, 2011
I really liked Tokyo Vice.
There are a multitude of books/blogs/journals written about Japan from the pov of a white westerner, but few have taken the hard work to really get to know the country as Adelstein has. Becoming completely fluent speaking, reading and writing Japanese is a large task for any foreigner, but bringing it up to a professional level good enough for the largest newspaper in the country? Amazing! His book is populated by colorful and memorable people from his experience living in Japan as a journalist for the Yomiuri newspaper.
And of course, the main attraction, the yakuza, are present and detailed in depth, from honorable outsiders to the sadistically brutal, Adelstien explains the yakuza as real people not easily blanketed under general descriptions. People such as yakuza Cat, cop Sekigahara, and hostess Helena really fill out the book and Adelstein makes clear that his investigations into the yakuza were not a solo venture but a product of the author's courage and hardwork, as well as the invaluable help of the friends he made in Japan.
He has an easy-going, fun to read style that feels like a close friend relating his stories from abroad. Highly recommended!