March 23, 2010


An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
by Jake Adelstein
352 Pages, Pantheon

Review by S.F. Winser

I'm sick of reading biographical works that have one truly interesting story to tell... and then the author is forced by publishers to streeeeeeetch out the one interesting story with padding, waffle or other boring incidents. I'm looking at you, “Dewey: The Library Cat.” (Okay – that was still a fun book. But padded. With waffle. And it's not the only such book I've read in the past few months.)

'Tokyo Vice' is billed as being about the story crime-journalist Adelstein discovers, only to find that the Yakuza don't want him to write it. They REALLY don't want him to write it. He is threatened about it and offered bribes so he won't write it. And, in this book, Adelstein writes it even more thoroughly than before.

That story is a very interesting story. Any story the Yakuza don't want you to tell: that's an interesting story, by definition. Even if it's an accounting story, there's interest in the fact that the Yakuza don't want you to tell that story about Form 2b/a73.

Thankfully, Adelstein's story is more interesting than that. Though it's still not enough to pull off a 300-plus page book.

However, even more miraculously, Adelstein knows this. And, instead, gives us many, many interesting stories. This book is NOT about the story the Yakuza don't want him to write. This is a book about Japanese crime, and vice and sexuality. It's a book about investigative journalism, Japanese work-culture and slippery moral slopes. It is full of incident, insight and even the odd bit of good writing. And, after it all, you feel kinda dirty and suspicious that, despite Adelstein's shocking candidness about some of the things he felt drawn into, that he isn't telling the whole story.

We read non-fiction to learn, though maybe not always to learn profound things. What we learn in 'Tokyo Vice' is all very interesting. The symbiotic life of cops and journalists in Japan. The need to court cops and befriend them just to get tidbits of information that may only pay off a year later. The way this life can take over your soul. It's very telling that Adelstein, in this book, spends more words on two daughters of one of his mentor cops than he does on his own children – he doesn't even reveal the name of his own son in the text until long after we find out about the child's birth. However, he notes the growth, hairstyles and conversational quirks of these two unrelated kids with real warmth.

We learn about Japanese sexual mores, theme brothels, Yakuza influence on politics and their deification in some parts of the culture. It's all very titillating, and simultaneously relevant to the book. Did you know Yakuza have fanzines in Japan? I didn't.

We track murders with Adelstein, find out more about the easy culture of suicide and how it can impact lives suddenly and with real force. In many ways, 'Tokyo Vice' is a kind of cultural travel book. Adelstein shows us through many varied aspects of Japanese life, from marriage to work, through to sex and death, and he's a handy and erudite tour guide. Unfortunately for Adelstein, he sees all this through his role of crime-desk investigative journalist. All of these sights come through the twisted mirror of cops, criminals and sex-workers. We see, and Adelstein describes, the gradual feeling that he is losing his moral bearings in this world of work-pressure and sex and greed and death. Adelstein does not stay pure, and he's honest about it.

The book is, really, about a few of Adelstein's more major stories. A few murders, THE Yakuza story, some other, less life-threatening stories about the Yakuza. And, eventually, human trafficking as well. After leaving journalism, Adelstein became a researcher and advocate for ending Human Trafficking, and that section of the book is heartbreaking and poignantly told by someone finally feeling the depth of the human cost of a life he's been part of for many years.

But what Adelstein shows us with these, often interwoven, stories, is the fascinating but grimy underbelly of the Pacific Dragon. It's an insight into a culture that is frequently envied, romanticised and seen through Zen-tinted glasses. Adelstein loves Japan – it comes through every word – but the life he led has left him with no illusions about it, either.

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