Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

Jake Adlestein, an American reporter working the police beat for a Japanese newspaper, begins his true crime story with a meeting he took with two members of the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime group.

“Either erase the story, or we will erase you. And maybe your family. But we’ll do them first, so you learn your lesson before you die,” one of the yakuza members said to Adelstein.

Adelstein writes that this seemed like a straightforward proposition.

“Walk away from the story and walk away from your job, and it’ll be like it never happened. Write the article, and there is nowhere in this country that we will not hunt you down. Understand?”

Adelstein understood. In Tokyo Vice, Adelstein notes that it is never a smart idea to get on the wrong side of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest organized crime group. With about forty thousand members, Adelstein writes that it’s a lot of people to piss off.

The yakuza, Adelstein explains, are the Japanese mafia and one can call themselves yakuza, but many of them like to call themselves gokudo, meaning literally “the ultimate path.”

“The Yamaguchi-gumi is the top of the gokudo-heap,” Adelstein tells us. “And among the many subgroups that make up the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Goto-gumi, with more than nine hundred members, is the nastiest. They slash the faces of film directors, they throw people from hotel balconies, they drive bulldozers into people’s houses. Stuff like that.”

Although the history of the yakuza is murky, Adelstein explains that there are two major types:

“There are the tekiya, who are essentially street merchants and small-time con artists, and bukuto, originally gamblers but now including loan sharks, protection money collectors, pimps, and corporate raiders. Another large faction is made up of dowa, the former untouchable caste of Japan that handled butchering animals, making leather goods, and doing other “unclean” jobs.”

Adelstein writes that the Japanese National Police Agency estimates that there are 86,000 gangsters in the country’s crime syndicates, making the yakuza much larger than the Cosa Nostra or any other crime group in America.

Adelstein writes that the yakuza are organized as a neo-family, with each organization having a pyramid structure. The modern-day yakuza have moved into securities trading, and they have infected hundreds of Japan’s listed companies.

“Goldman Sachs with guns,” is how Adelstein describes them.

Although the Japanese were my father’s brutal enemy in World War II, he was forgiving, and he maintained a lifelong interest in all things Japanese. Like my father, I’ve long been interested in Japan.

I visited Sasebo and Nagasaki many years ago when I was in the Navy, and I have fond memories of my time in Japan. Although I am hardly an expert on all things Japanese, I’ve long been interested in Japanese history, literature, films and music and my personal library has many books on Japan. And over the years, I’ve talked to a good number of Japanese men and women who have visited here. 

And as a student of crime and a crime reporter and columnist, I’ve long been interested in the yakuzaTokyo Vice is a good addition to my library.

Tokyo Vice reads like a crime thriller, with Adelstein narrating the tale in a noir-style voice. The book also contains a good bit of self-deprecating humor. He is very open about his personal life, although parts of which I could have done without knowing about.

Adelstein tells an interesting story about a nice Jewish boy from Missouri who travels to Japan to study Buddhism and the martial arts and becomes the only American to write for the Yomiuri Shimbun, a major Japanese newspaper.

Adelstein’s father was a county coroner, so he was always interested in crime and what he calls the dark side of the human condition. This interest led to his becoming a reporter covering Japan’s world of crime.

Adelstein covered many stories about murder, prostitution, the sex slave trade, drugs, and assorted crimes. He befriended a Japanese police officer who guided him through Japan’s complicated culture and the ways of the yakuza.

I found his stories about the Japanese cops, who lack the authority American cops have in fighting organized crime, to be the most interesting part of the book. His mentoring cop friend accompanied him to his meeting with the yakuza who threatened his life.

The story that led to his being threatened was a case concerning a yakuza boss named Tadamasa Goto. In Tokyo Vice we learn that this boss informed on his own organization to the FBI in order to receive a liver transplant in America, jumping ahead of American citizens on the waiting list.

(So much for Japan’s universal health care. Look at the lengths a powerful crime boss went to come to America for our health care system).

Adelstein wisely did not publish the story in the Japanese press, but he left Japan and published Tokyo Vice in America.

Tokyo Vice is a fascinating book and I recommend it if you’re interested in Japan, Japanese organized crime, and a very good crime story.

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