The Washington Times
Friday, February 12, 2010


By Jake Adelstein

Random House, $26 352 pages


One fine evening during his career as a crime reporter in the land of harmony, i.e. Japan, a gangster warned Jake Adelstein, “Either erase the story … or maybe we’ll kill your family first so you learn your lesson before you die.” The terrified Mr. Adelstein’s eye twitched.

Nevertheless, he went on to publish his expose of the underworld kingpin who needed a liver transplant in the United States. The criminal had paid off an American hospital to receive the lifesaving operation, ahead of honest Americans, Mr. Adelstein laments, and promised the FBI that he would expose Japanese criminal chieftains in exchange for an entry visa - but welched.

This is only one engrossing tale that Mr. Adelstein, himself a complex man best described as one-third demon and two-thirds angel, shares about his adventures as a foreign journalist covering the purgatory of Japan’s crime beat.

In “Tokyo Vice,” Mr. Adelstein writes with the brio of an old-style detective novelist taking readers on a noirish tour of Japan’s mean streets. He undertakes his task as something of a social anthropologist, chronicling the machinations of insular Japanese newspapers, the sprawling sex trade, the sometimes honorable police and the yakuza, the criminal underworld.

Mr. Adelstein reveals a society where regimentation guides much of civilian life. A colleague asks, “How could we lose [the war] to a bunch of sloppy Americans? Barbarians with no discipline, no culture, no honor?” The author insists that many Japanese spurn these slurs, but this reviewer knows from living in Japan that many also embrace them. He recalls that after he first exposed the transplant story of the gangster in the American press, the Japanese press ignored the tale, as if protecting the miscreant. Only after the Los Angeles Times featured the news did his Japanese counterparts cite the coverage.

Mr. Adelstein includes a colleague’s damning memo that instructs each police reporter to be like a “male geisha.” They should pander to the cops they cover, offering them gifts in contrived nighttime trysts.

He adds that the monopolistic press clubs exclude foreign reporters, as American scholar Ivan P. Hall has expertly documented. A reader might wonder, however, why this tough-minded American investigator doesn’t indict this exclusion born of fear of competition - and prejudice.

In fact, Mr. Adelstein found that such prejudice proliferates. He notes that after a fluent Japanese speaker questioned Japanese witnesses, upon “seeing my white face, they were mostly stunned into silence.” Answering the phone in Japanese, he would explain that he is a bilingual foreigner. Baffled Japanese callers, however, insisted that he was a programmed machine - provoking them to hang up.

Mr. Adelstein also relates that the Japanese sex trade is closed to foreign men. He fails to cite the reason for this, however, namely the prevailing belief that only foreigners are diseased, and the recurring fear of foreign “competition” that compels Japan’s insecure men to cartelize the red-light district. Mr. Adelstein observes how Japanese men enjoy foreign women, but fails to condemn the hypocrisy.

Although Japan boasts a lower crime rate than the United States, the section on sexual slavery will convince readers that it is years behind Americans in curtailing this vice. Mr. Adelstein interviewed foreign women who were promised jobs in Japan but imprisoned in brothels. One doomed Korean victim, violently beaten, had cigarettes stubbed out on her chest, was impregnated and was infected with HIV.

Mr. Adelstein relates how the police offer excuses not to pursue the villains but will arrest the female victims, or extort sex from them. The reader cheers Mr. Adelstein when one of his exposes recounted here shutters a sordid club. Although breaking the rules of objectivity, the kindhearted Mr. Adelstein sometimes buys the victims a plane ticket out. He now handles public relations for the Washington-based Project Polaris Japan - - to combat human trafficking there.

Mr. Adelstein’s decency contrasts with his raging ambition. For example, in a pickpocketing case, he wrongly steals police evidence and trades it back for investigatory information denied to other reporters.

Nevertheless, the book’s fascinating cultural insights will teach even veteran Japan hands. When Mr. Adelstein finds a young woman’s dead body in a park, for instance, he notes that her footwear is still on. This rules out suicide because the ever-polite Japanese often kill themselves barefoot since it is more respectful to enter the afterlife shoeless.

Mr. Adelstein’s psyche suffers awfully as the rookie reporter turns veteran. He gets too close when writing about rape and murder, and so his feelings chill. He abandons his wife to sleep alone, and his isolation renders him suicidal. He exclusively told this reviewer that he might have held on to his wife “if I had been a better man.”

Overall, Mr. Adelstein’s book expertly melds classic writing about the police beat - replete with its public corpses, clean or rotten cops, smoky rooms and gangsters who eventually seek redemption - with a candid journalistic memoir that details this profession’s moral and mental dilemmas. At the center is a complex protagonist - both jaded and emotionally deep - whose drive and positive impact win respect as he offers, perhaps, something as rare and fascinating as a black pearl, namely the most compelling insider’s expose yet of Japan’s opaque society.

Victor Fic is a freelance writer now in Beijing who has lived in Japan.

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