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Book Review: Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein

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Jake Adelstein is certainly a man with guts. In the early 1990s he was a student at Sophia University in Tokyo, where he wrote for the student newspaper. At some point before the fall of 1992, he decided to try getting a job as a reporter at one of Japan’s biggest dailies. Incredibly, he went on to work for 12 years at Japan’s biggest daily, covering the police beat and writing stories that covered the gamut of human vice. Until he found a story that forced him out of the country.

The most striking thing about Adelstein’s adventure is him even getting a foot in the door of a Japanese newspaper in the first place. It borders on the fantastic, if you consider the ease with which Adelstein slips into Japan’s biggest daily. I can’t imagine a case where a Japanese university student in America, or any foreigner for that matter, gets a job at a major U.S. daily, let alone at the hallowed New York Times, especially one who violates interview dress conventions by wearing a funeral suit to the interview. But Japan was very different and this is exactly what Adelstein managed to pull off, despite going to the interview in a funeral suit. His friends at the school newspaper titter at the comedy when Adelstein appears to them, fresh out of several hundred dollars in a black suit: they suggest he apply to the yakuza instead of the paper. “You could be the first gaijin yakuza!” The Force is with Adelstein to be sure and his wardrobe mix up doesn’t stop him from getting the job.

We’re there along with him in Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan as he makes his way in the world of Japan’s biggest daily newspaper. The stories, sometimes funny, involve Adelstein learning how to do business as a reporter in Japan, his developing sources, and making faux pas like hurling snot at a big-time reporter during a festive meal. He survives with career intact because some Japanese think the gaijin are cute, if utterly clueless.

One of the things that Japan seem to be to the outsider is formal, conservative and buttoned-up, with lots of bowing and scraping. But Adelstein shows us a Japan that is very much like any Western nation, one with its share of problems. Even more surprising is that fact that Japan is more sexually open than America — one of Japan’s bestsellers at the time was a guide to oral sex.

As a crime reporter, Adelstein certainly gets deep into the underbelly of Japanese society and he finds there a few dirty secrets that no one seems to want aired. The early fun and novelty of being a gaijin reporter soon wear off and the brutal reality of crime and corruption set in. The most important story he covers, certainly one which seems to affect Adelstein the most, involves sex slavery. His digging eventually leads to the death of a source, something which still haunts him to this day, and international attention on Japan from the U.S. State Department.

There are frequent brushes with Japan’s organized crime and an FBI link to a yakuza boss’ liver transplant at UCLA. Tokyo Vice is nothing if not interesting and that’s because Jake Adelstein is certainly an interesting and capable guy — singlehandedly he tangled with the dragon of Japanese organized crime and lived to tell the tale.  

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org