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Classic tales of newsprint noir

Crime journalist exposes Tokyo's darkest, seamiest, most entertaining corners and characters after 12 years on the job

by Mark Schreiber

TOKYO VICE: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, by Jake Adelstein. Pantheon, 2009, 352 pp., $26 (hardcover)

While a senior at Tokyo’s Sophia University, 23-year-old Missouri native Jake Adelstein was heading home from a Shinjuku cinema when, on a whim, he dropped into a game arcade and popped ¥100 into the slot of a fortunetelling robot for some mystical career advice.

“The job you are best suited for is . . . something involving writing,” read the Tarot card chosen by “Madame Tantra.” “If you always keep your antenna out probing for information and nurture your morbid curiosity in a good way, fate will be on your side.”

This unlikely advice turned out to be spot on: Soon afterward, Adelstein breezed through a battery of interviews and in 1993 found himself a rookie reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, which assigned him to its bureau in tacky Saitama (“the New Jersey of Japan”).

“Tokyo Vice” is the American’s gritty, true-to-life account of 12 years on the news beat as a staffer for a Japanese daily — and it is exceptional. Its classic atmospherics rekindle memories of Walter Winchell and Eliot Ness. It’s a tale of adrenalin-depleting 80-hour weeks, full ashtrays, uncooperative sources, green tea, hard liquor, and forays into the commercialized depravity of Shinjuku’s “adult entertainment zone,” Kabukicho.

Adelstein, the “morbidly curious” observer, presents his stories with a newsman’s objectivity, using self-deprecatory humor, pathos and occasional horror. He does not refrain from harsh criticism, but his writing never condescends.

“Tokyo Vice” is at its best when Adelstein lays bare the cozy, you-rub-my-back-and-I’ll-rub-yours relationship that exists between crime beat reporters and the cops, whom the hacks constantly badger for off-the-record nuggets of news with which to scoop the competition.

A droll chapter titled “The Chichibu Snack-mama Murder Case” involves a homicide in which an Iranian national was the main suspect. In covering the story Adelstein neglects his girlfriend, who is peeved enough to walk out on him (“She’d even cleaned out the bathtub and taken out the trash. It was the most considerate breakup I’d ever experienced”).

Meanwhile, the cops launch a dragnet for a person of interest, assumed to be a compatriot of the suspect. The chief of forensics views the composite sketch, recognizes Adelstein, and bellows at his detectives: “You idiots, this is no Iranian. This is the Yomiuri’s gaijin reporter pretending he’s an Iranian!”

Among the continual highlights is a tense account of Adelstein’s incognito pursuit of a shadowy serial rapist in darkest Roppongi, following the disappearance of British hostess Lucie Blackman in the summer of 2000. The search gradually homes in on a wealthy businessman who admits connections to the missing woman — who was later found dead — but maintains she and dozens of other victims allegedly raped by him had merely engaged in harmless “subjugation play.”

“Tokyo Vice” did not make it into print without a few stumbles. Adelstein wrote a stunning expose, published in the Washington Post, of four members of underworld syndicates who, in an informant deal with U.S. authorities, were allowed entry into to the U.S. to receive liver transplants at UCLA Medical Center. The article earned Adelstein the antipathy of some genuinely scary people and he was obliged to seek police protection. A Japanese publisher got cold feet and backed out of a deal to release the book. Happily, it has been rescued by Pantheon, an imprint of Random House.

Fiction set in contemporary Japan has become something of a wasteland of late, and “Tokyo Vice” may inspire a few more talented writers to work this country into their plots. Within its own genre, it definitely raises the bar. It is a classic piece of 20th-century crime reporting.

Author Jake Adelstein on the battles fought before deadline

What are the most apparent differences between crime reporting in Japanese and English newspapers?

Well, Japanese crime stories rarely, almost never, have snappy intros. It’s still basically “Just the facts, ma’am.” The pattern is pretty set. And of course, the names of the detectives investigating the case or a senior police officer never appear. It’s usually something like “the Omiya Police announced” or “Urawa Police said,” as if the police force was some sort of individual entity.

Your life, and your family’s lives, were once threatened by a gangster while you were in the company of a policeman. Why wasn’t the man arrested on the spot?

Because he’s smart. Japanese has a wonderfully vague quality, due to the fact that you can have sentences without pronouns like “I” or “you.” What was said . . . could mean like “Erase the article or something else will be erased. There is a family also.” I had a very clear idea what he meant, but thinking it and proving it are different things. He didn’t show me his organized crime business card so that made it even harder to prove that I had been threatened. These guys aren’t stupid . . . . Police have discovered that the yakuza have been taking tests and having study groups about how to avoid getting caught under the new anti-organized crime laws. The Goto-gumi has been doing that for years.

You had problems getting the book published in Japan . . .

Well, a risk assessment was done and the conclusion at the time was that publishing the book could result in unpleasant things like arson, dump trucks being smashed into the (publisher’s) building, and the kidnapping of the publisher’s employees and other acts of violence that have made the Goto-gumi such a feared entity over the years. I don’t blame them for opting out. Will “Tokyo Vice” be published in Japanese? If so, will its contents be identical to the English edition? I doubt that I will find a Japanese publisher with enough guts to print “Tokyo Vice.” Hell, after two months I couldn’t get anyone in Japan to publish the contents of my article for the Washington Post — which is why I ended up writing it for the Post in the first place. Although I think it’s a futile task, I am almost done writing the Japanese version, which is essentially the same as the English version, although sources will be more obscured. It’s not a translation as much as it is a reconstruction of conversations and materials that were originally in Japanese. I’m not handing the book over to a translator.

The book looks at issues surrounding collaboration between U.S. and Japanese law enforcement. Do you think it is likely to have any repercussions there?

In an ideal world, the book would so embarrass the Japanese government that they would stop condoning the ownership of child pornography and that the National Police Agency would finally start cooperating with U.S. law enforcement.

What are your plans as of this moment? Do you have a sequel in the works?

Next, I wait to see how angry the book makes people and I try like hell to find some way to get my bodyguard and his family (in Japan) a place to live safely. I would like to do a sort of first-person biography of a yakuza boss that I know and respect, and one more tentatively called “The Nine-Fingered Economy: The Yakuza in The Financial World,” which would examine the so-called keizai (economic) yakuza. It will have vignettes about Tokyo Disneyland, Citibank and others who got burned by the yakuza over the years.