Jake Adelstein: Insider reaching out

Jake Adelstein spent a decade reporting on crime for a major Japanese newspaper, learning a lot along the way about how the country really works, and also about himself — as he relates here and in his best-seller, 'Tokyo Vice'


Author Joshua “Jake” Adelstein supposes that if he’d stayed home in rural Missouri and had never come to Japan, he’d probably have become a small-town lawyer or a very happy detective on the local police force.

“I was always attracted to the law, probably because my father was the county coroner for many years — and still is now,” he says.

But Adelstein has spent roughly half his life in Japan, first as a student at Sophia University in Tokyo and then as a reporter for the vernacular Yomiuri Shimbun, where he landed a job that put him in touch with what he describes as “the dark side of the rising sun.”

Seated on tatami in his sparsely furnished home-cum-office, crammed with books, magazines and manga extolling the exploits of the yakuza (Japan’s homegrown organized-crime groups), Adelstein, who will turn 41 in March, projects an aura of nervous energy as he taps a clove-scented cigarette against the rim of an ashtray.

“I always thought about writing a memoir about my years as a reporter in Japan, because I knew I was getting a look at the underbelly of Japanese society that even many Japanese don’t get,” he relates. “I kept all my notes, photos, articles, tape recordings, memos, rough drafts, related documents and diary entries from the time I started working.”

Although he’d completed his first draft by September 2008, Adelstein’s Japan-based publisher dropped the project out of concerns over violent retaliation by certain individuals mentioned in the book. So he took his manuscript to New York.

“The editor who first looked at my manuscript, Timothy O’Connell . . . was the perfect person to read it,” he says.

“I was very lucky that he liked it, and he worked with me for months to get it into shape and make it all come together.”

Realizing it had a potential blockbuster on its hands, the U.S. publisher Pantheon bumped up the print run and, in mid-October, “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan,” was released to wide critical acclaim.

In addition to embarking on a coast-to-coast book-signing tour, Adelstein made appearances on CBS TV’s famed “60 Minutes” news program and “The Daily Show” with comedian Jon Stewart.

“Tokyo Vice” is already into its third printing. Several foreign-language editions are in the pipeline and discussions are also under way about a film.

In Japan, however, the silence over “Tokyo Vice” has been deafening. Perhaps that will change when, and if, Adelstein finds a publisher for the book’s Japanese-language version — which he says will not be a straight transcript but a rewrite that will protect the innocent from possible recriminations.

You just came back from a whirlwind U.S. tour of book-signings and TV appearances. Did people ask you a lot of dumb questions?

There are no dumb questions. I approve of people asking what they don’t know. Sure, there have been a few times when I wish the interviewer had read the book more thoroughly or prepared for the interview a little better, but it takes some guts to admit you don’t know something.

That’s what one of my favorite Japanese sayings is about: “Kiku wa isshun no haji, kikanu wa issho no haji.” Loosely translated, it means: “To ask may bring momentary shame, but not to ask and remain ignorant brings everlasting shame.”

We learn and get smarter by admitting that we don’t know.

The reviews have exceeded my wildest expectations. Everyone takes away something different from the book — which is interesting. Journalists are fascinated by the mechanisms of police reporting and reporting in general in Japan; true-crime buffs like the bizarre cases; and some people find that it tells them a lot about the dark side of Japan.

I did read one review complaining that the book was too graphic, and I had to wonder what part of the title was too subtle. It’s “Tokyo Vice,” not “Tokyo Nice.” I don’t think you can do a G-rated version of the book.

Do you read a lot of true-crime or crime fiction? Are there any books or writers in English (or Japanese) you enjoy, or who you hope to emulate?

I read tons of books about organized crime in Japan — the yakuza — and crime in general. I’ve probably got 200 books on the mob and the keizai yakuza (financial mafia). I used to read crime fiction years ago, in elementary school and junior high school. I like Lawrence Block, and the “Shinjuku-zame” series in Japan is great, too.

I don’t think there was anyone I was trying to emulate. Among others, you yourself have compared the writing to a “hard-boiled detective novel.” I did try to strike a neutral tone. I think years of dealing with crime, cops and criminals has made me a little stoic, and I don’t like outward, over-the-top displays of emotion.

There’s a saying that goes: “Naite kurasu mo issho, waratte kurasu mo issho.” My personal interpretation has always been, “You cry and go on living and it’s one life, or you can laugh and go on living and it’s one life — either way, you only have one life.”

So I prefer to laugh when I can. I have a terribly dark sense of humor, but that’s an occupational hazard. Maybe that attitude comes across as hard-boiled.

However, I made a conscious effort to write the book as if I was speaking to a very good friend who I’d been out of touch with for years.

Why do you think so many readers tend to be fixated on the yakuza aspects of the book?

The yakuza make a lot of appearances in the book and they are anthropologically and socially a very interesting phenomenon in Japan. The trappings of the yakuza — the blood oaths, so to speak, the tattoos, and the sheer numbers of them — coupled with that latent kamikaze mentality in the organizations, that’s fascinating for people in the West. It’s a lot harder to talk about human trafficking, or loan sharking, or the minutiae of being a police reporter.

I’m delighted when people appreciate my not-very-subtle hammering on about the importance of investigative journalism, and I would be too if they take away from the book the idea that journalists do play an important function in seeing that justice is done in Japanese society and in any democratic society.

There is a view that the yakuza are accepted in Japanese society as a “necessary evil,” because organized crime is preferable to disorganized crime. Why do you think the authorities have made so little headway since the antigang law (Act for Prevention of Unlawful Activities by Criminal Gang Members) went into force in March 1992?

The authorities, meaning the cops, don’t have the tools to crush the yakuza — even if they wanted to.

When you look at how the FBI dismantled the mafia in the United States, certainly undercover work played a part, but basically they got all the guys on the bottom to snitch on the people at the top — and extensive wire-tapping aided that process as well.

Japan doesn’t allow plea-bargaining. The wire-tapping laws are very restrictive and make it almost impossible to apply wire-taps as an investigative technique. There is no witness relocation program or comprehensive witness- protection program. What this means is that not only is there no incentive for the low-level yakuza to rat out their bosses, but there is a hell of an incentive for them to keep their mouths shut.

Look at it from the viewpoint of Joe Yakuza. If he talks, he still gets the same sentence, and he’s likely to be killed or at least brutalized once he gets out of jail. However, if he keeps his mouth shut, then when he gets out he rises up in the company, he gets a cash bonus for time served and he’s treated like a hero. You’d have to be a total idiot to confess to the cops anything more than necessary.

This is why one of my cop friends who’s been doing yakuza cases for years likes to say, “Our job usually ends up just clipping the branches; we almost never get to the roots. Snip, snip, snip: The yakuza are like stubborn weeds that keep on growing, mutating and getting strong, and the government won’t give us any weedkiller.”

There are some police officers and politicians who really do believe the yakuza are a necessary evil — better them than the hordes of barbarian foreigners they anticipate taking over Japan if the yakuza vanish. They also believe the yakuza keep street crime down, such as muggings and purse-snatchings — and there is probably some truth to that.

The other factor we tend to forget is that a lot of Japanese still think of the yakuza as heroes — as bearers of traditional Japanese values. In some ways the yakuza in Japan are like the Boy Scouts, a recognized fraternal organization, except with merit badges for extortion and blackmail.

The yakuza themselves are very aware of how they are perceived and how to sway public opinion to support them. That’s why every yakuza fan magazine usually has articles about “the gaijin (foreigner) mafia” or “the gaijin menace,” as if to say: “Well, better the enemy you know than the one you don’t. If you think we’re bad, watch what will happen when the Koreans or the Chinese or the Nigerians take over. It’ll be really scary!”

From a foreign reporter’s view, how “open” is Japan in terms of access to information? And what other impediments are there in the way of publishing one’s findings?

Tough questions because I’ve been inside the system longer than out of it.

The press club system (the practice restricting access at government ministries, and police authorities, etc., to reporters from designated media) is a huge barrier — it prevents us from talking directly to the government officials involved in making decisions, or the cops working a case, and it denies foreign reporters the same access to news sources that Japanese established media have.

There is a freedom of information act, but it’s cumbersome and often the documents obtained are so redacted that it’s like getting a sheet of black paper with one or two visible words rather than the other way around.

If you’re publishing in English, the impediments are lower, but the insidious Personal Data Protection Law (PDPL) that came into force in April 2005 has seriously handicapped the freedom of the press here. It’s much easier to get sued and lose, and corporations, private individuals and politicians use the law as a shield to make sure anything they don’t want written is buried. It should be called the Politicians’ Protection Act. It was created by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party after Yoshiro Mori, who was prime minister for a year from April 2000, got tired of the weekly magazines writing about his social connections to the yakuza and other things that were embarrassing, such as his alleged detainment during a prostitution raid when he was younger.

Ironically, the only ones to have benefited from this, besides corrupt politicians, are the yakuza. The law makes it much harder to investigate and label yakuza front companies. It’s been a boon for organized crime and a bane for those who fight them.

What do you see as the greatest stumbling blocks to getting news on Japan out to the English-speaking world?

The greatest stumbling block is that foreign correspondents are dropping like flies.

Time magazine is supposedly shutting its Tokyo bureau office — and Business Week as well. Of course, Time could move their offices out of the uberexpensive Roppongi Hills and come down off their high horse and still maintain a presence in Japan — but they don’t. The bean counters that now run the place really don’t care about international news anymore, as far as I can tell. They figure they can just cut costs and content, I suppose. Well, the magazine is already so thin that sometimes it’s hard to tell if you have a magazine or a pamphlet — but I guess it could get thinner.

The Tokyo bureau is probably Time’s oldest office in Asia. It’s my opinion, so forgive me if I’m wrong — but Time leaving Tokyo is an insult to its readers and the final resignation of any pretensions of being an international news magazine. I think no one running the magazine knows what it’s supposed to be anymore. It’s time I subscribed to the Economist.

It’s possible to cover news in Japan cost-effectively and well. Hire someone who is living in the country and bilingual, and then you don’t need to pay for a translator, too — saves money. The New York Times hired Hiroko Tabuchi, locally, and she does amazing work — not only because she’s an excellent reporter but also because she’s literate in Japanese and bicultural. The International Herald Tribune relies on The Japan Times’ own Kaori Shoji for relevant coverage. I hear the Washington Post is thinking of sending another correspondent over to Tokyo who doesn’t speak Japanese. That’s inefficient, costly, and nonsensical in this day and age.

You covered the deadly fire in the central Tokyo “entertainment district” of Kabukicho in August 2001, in which 44 people died. There was speculation in the tabloid media that it was arson and that organized crime, and possibly foreigners, may have been involved. What’s your impression of Japan’s tabloid media and its role in dissemination of news?

Well, the Kabukicho fire was a terrible tragedy and it was hard to cover because so many victims perished in rather dodgy places — a mahjongg parlor probably engaged in illegal gambling, a sex shop, etc. — that there was an internal debate as to whether we should publish the names of victims. We did publish some in the first edition of the evening paper, but not in later editions, judging that the families of the deceased would be embarrassed.

Of course, the weekly magazines wrote a lot of speculative articles about the fire — but the mainstream newspapers also had some seriously mistaken “scoops.” Weekly magazines in Japan are the first to challenge taboo issues, and they perform a critical function in keeping the Japanese media vital and bringing to light topics that major news outlets may ignore for numerous reasons. Frustrated newspaper reporters who have their stories squelched often secretly leak them to the weekly magazines. Police officers unhappy with their investigations being suppressed have also used the weekly magazines to get their cases coverage so they will be allowed to proceed with the investigation.

If the weeklies were a little better about fact-checking, they’d probably have more influence. Many Japanese doubt their credibility, but they do some amazing stuff.

You say in your book that “Japan has more than its fair share of news media, which are also more vital than in the United States.” What do you mean by that?

I mean that Japanese media still spend a lot of money and time on investigative journalism, and the competition among the papers and magazines helps spur proactive journalism.

Japan’s conviction rate based on confession is around 99 percent. In Japan it is routine for suspects to be held in police detention without habeas corpus for up to 23 days, to be interrogated by professionals and subjected to all manner of stressful situations. In such circumstances, the risks of wrongful conviction based on confession-backed circumstantial evidence are obviously magnified. Do you have any thoughts on how this judicial procedure might be improved

There are a few things that could be done to ensure confessions are not forced.

First, lawyers should be allowed to observe the interrogations — which they are not. Interrogations should also be videotaped. And confessions should not be signed before the accused’s lawyer has had a chance to read the confession and advise his or her client.

The problem is that most guilty convictions in Japan rely on the confession — since judges always conclude that no one would confess to a crime they didn’t commit, therefore a confession must be valid. If confessions vanish, the conviction rate will plummet.

Japanese police and prosecutors worry that without unrestricted access to the accused, they will be unable to get a confession and thus be unable to get convictions. Well, then they will need to be better able to prove their cases with actual evidence.

I think if Japan is going to alter the way suspects are interrogated, they need to legalize plea-bargaining, make wire- tapping feasible, and institute a witness-relocation act so that the guilty can be convicted with actual evidence rather than dubious confessions. This would also make sure that the system remains effective.

How do you think the introduction of the citizen-judge trial system might impact the justice process in Japan?

Not much. Japan has institutionalized double jeopardy. You can be tried for the same crime twice. The prosecution almost always appeals when they lose, and the appeals will be heard by a panel of judges — not a citizen-judge panel. If someone is found not guilty in the first round, they’ll probably lose the second round.

This process will be repeated until people realize the citizen-judge trial system is effectively a sham. It’ll take years.

In your book you refer to “An Overview of Japanese Police,” an English-language report by the National Police Agency (NPA) distributed to foreign police organizations. You quote this 2008 report, saying: “Yakuza groups pose an enormous threat to civil affairs and corporate transactions. They are also committing a variety of crimes to raise funds by invading the legitimate business community and pretending to be engaged in legitimate business deals. They do this either through companies, etc., which they are engaged in managing, or in cooperation with other companies.” would you care to elaborate?

The yakuza have an enormous influence on the stock market. About two years ago, the SESC (Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission), the FSA (Financial Services Agency), the NPA and TSE (Tokyo Stock Exchange) got together to share information on organized crime-related listed companies or related companies, and they put together a list of over 400 of them. Other companies that were not listed companies included stock brokerages, securities firms and auditing firms — everything you’d need to game the system and play the stock market like a casino. Some of those firms have since been delisted or bankrupted, but many remain.

To what extent do you think Japan’s asset-inflated (property and land price) economic bubble during the 1980s was connected with the large yakuza presence in real estate in Japan that you cite in your book?

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the banks, the National Tax Agency and much of the Japanese government was afraid to seize assets from the yakuza and yakuza-related companies — forestalling the cleanup of those bad debts.

The yakuza played a huge part in creating the economic bubble and prolonging the cleanup. A former NPA official called it “the yakuza recession,” and he was probably right.

Of course, the greedy banks and real estate developers that were happy to work with the yakuza, when it was in their interests, also bear blame as well. Let’s credit the yakuza for a third of the mess — it’s an arbitrary number, but that’s my gut instinct about it.

You spell out that — with an NPA estimate of 86,000 members of organized crime groups in Japan — the mob here is far more numerous in absolute terms, and infinitely more per head of population, than ever in the United States or Italy. To what extent do you think organized criminal interests continue to shape Japan?

I think the yakuza have a tremendous influence in all aspects of Japanese society, and having been associated with them appears to be no obstacle to doing business or holding office. The yakuza is probably a nebulous term to use, because right now the de facto rulers of the Japanese underworld are the Yamaguchi-gumi, with 40,000 members and probably another 10,000 affiliated members. They have tremendous influence. They have people in immigration, sympathizers in elected office, magazine writers that work for them, at least one cop on their side — and lately they are doing things like putting their lawyers into businesses as spies, collecting information on the cops that are supposed to arrest them, and even running auditing firms that rubber stamp the business dealings of their front companies.

The NPA recently set up a special task force to dismantle the strongest division of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Kodokai, after it became apparent that the Big K (Kodokai) was effectively intimidating, monitoring and collecting information on the police officers who are supposed to put them out of business. Of course, it says a lot when the NPA has to concentrate its resources on one faction because it acknowledges it can’t dismantle the entire group. The Kodokai has brought a lot of heat on the entire organization. Personally, I think menacing police officers is probably not acceptable yakuza behavior — traditionally.

The other thing that makes the yakuza powerful is they have lots of money — they’re the biggest private-equity group in Japan.

In his book “Tokyo Underworld,” Robert Whiting says the LDP was founded with yakuza money. Do you think Japan has ever had a prime minister in the pocket of the yakuza?

Well, former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s grandfather was widely reckoned to have close ties with the Inagawakai Yokosukaikka, a yakuza group that actually has a pretty stellar history — that is to say a little better than most yakuza groups. Anyway, he became a Cabinet-level minister and was known as Irezumi Daijin (The Tattooed Minister).

We’ve already talked about former Prime Minister Mori. The yakuza ties to politics are still very deep. Among the current Cabinet ministers is one individual who received huge donations from the yakuza in the past. Probably still in bed with them.

Can you ever see the yakuza being eradicated in all but vestigial form in Japan?

No, I can’t conceive of it ever happening. If they drive them underground they’ll lose power and influence, but they’ll never completely vanish.

Are you concerned that your public exposure might become an impediment to future investigative work?

Public exposure has been a boon in some ways — people are reading the book and providing me with information. In some cases there is more to work on than I can handle. I need a few good, altruistic bilingual investigative reporters to start working on what people are sending me.

It’s true that my face is more well known than it was, but I’m hoping all foreigners look alike to most of the Japanese (laughs), or that a pair of glasses and a hat are enough to keep me from being easily recognized, so I can work incognito.

If there is a Japanese edition of “Tokyo Vice” — and Japan Uni Agency is working on contracts with Japanese publishers — I’ll probably make sure my face isn’t on the jacket. Personally, I feel that I’m stepping on so many toes in the book that Japanese publishers will tiptoe away quietly once they’ve read it.

At the book’s conclusion you wax philosophical about how your Jewish roots have intersected with Buddhist beliefs. As far as I know, this approach is virtually unheard of in a book on true crime. Is this intended as a plea for reader understanding, perhaps out of your desire to convey what goes on in a writer’s mind when he’s forced to grapple with moral and ethical contradictions?

Life doesn’t follow a narrative arc. Sometimes we impose one on the events that happen — we try and find a greater meaning in a series of coincidences and events that seem to follow a theme or be connected — but ultimately may have no link at all.

I started out my time in Japan living in a Buddhist temple trying to pursue a saintly life, aspiring perhaps to become a Buddhist priest. But by the time it was all done, I ended up becoming very much the opposite of what I wanted to be — a womanizing, hard-drinking, chain- smoking, burnt-out human being.

I have good days, but I’ve had chronic insomnia for two years now, and when I do sleep I have nightmares or flashbacks so bad that I wake up covered in sweat. This week I had a dream where I was being very heroic, and I woke up after slamming myself into the wall. My shoulder still hurts, and that really made me feel like an idiot. I’m not complaining — that’s just my karma. I deal with it, probably deserve it.

On the other hand, it seems like I changed places with my nemesis (a former big-wheel yakuza). He’s now doing good deeds and building orphanages in Cambodia and meditating, and I’ve got PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), struggle not to smoke, and alternate between being very angry and depressed and occasional bouts of happiness. I’m happy to be working with the Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children — and that, I feel, is worthwhile.

I would like to believe that there is something to be learned from our lives, the decisions we make, and what we do. I don’t expect the reader’s understanding — I can only convey what I think I’ve learned that is important from 16 years of covering a violent, treacherous — sometimes exciting and fun, don’t get me wrong — but ultimately venal world. And that is this: You will never find happiness by making others suffer, and it’s important to love and protect and be kind and reciprocate the kindness that has been given to you in your life, because you may find that your life and the lives of your loved ones may be a lot shorter than you imagined.

There are things that cannot be fixed, so all you can do is not break them in the first place.

Not to sound like a Buddhist priest, but the religion does place an importance on right livelihood — earning a living that does no or little harm, and that makes the world a better place and helps people. For me, investigative journalism is that livelihood, and while I’ve done some questionable things, actually many of them, I still feel like I’ve done some good deeds as well in the course of my career. At the end of the day, that’s some sort of solace.

Everything I’ve ever learned that was important in my life is in that book somewhere. That would include the truths that you can fight cruelty with kindness, lies with truth, and ignorance with knowledge. On the other hand, the pen can be mightier than the sword — but sometimes only when you can get close enough to jab the pen into the larynx of the swordsman. So in case more noble methods fail, it’s always important to carry a very sharp pen.

Tasty takes from ‘Tokyo Vice’

Fundamentals of business etiquette:

The rituals of meishi (business card) exchange are well known. . . . You hand your card over with one hand to show that you are a lightweight, a nothing, and humble. You take the other man’s card with both hands, to show that he is more substantial and weighty than humble you. . . . You never fold, spindle or mutilate the other person’s card, which would be a grievous insult.

On debunking stereotypes of foreigners:

(Sekiguchi) used his skewer to poke out the eyeball of a fish and offered it to me. I popped it into my mouth. Not bad. The two girls were watching and gave me a standing ovation.

Giving credit its due:

Everything in Japan, even theft, is an art. . . . Sato (a professional pickpocket) was a master of his art.

Advice from a wise old reporter:

“Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. . . . Don’t let the constant flow of new news let you forget about the unfinished news.”

Isn’t Kabukicho (a central Tokyo “entertainment district”) a hotbed of criminal activity?

“It is. But that doesn’t make it newsworthy. . . . People get killed or injured here all the time. But who cares if some Chink, yakuza thug, or whore gets whacked? The cops don’t, and the public doesn’t either.”

On-the-job training at a host club:

“You have to compliment women skillfully. You can’t just throw around generic lines. You don’t want to say things that make them feel old. . . . If she has freckles, you ask her if she is part-Caucasian.”

Wouldn’t a law punishing the customers discourage prostitution?

“Sure it would, but who the f**k do you think wrote the laws? Guys. Hell, in the 1950s probably half the Diet was frequenting soaplands (brothels).”

Taking aim at the media’s callousness:

I still had my police-beat mind; I was thinking like a cop. Punish criminals. Don’t rehabilitate them. . . . All of us in the Japanese media at the time were taking one case of a mentally ill person performing a horrible crime and extrapolating it to imply that all mentally ill patients were capable of or likely to commit similar crimes.

On the subtleties of language:

The Japanese have words for sadness that are so subtle and complicated that the English translations don’t do them justice. . . . yarusenai . . . is grief or loneliness so strong you can’t get rid of it.