Tokyo Vice is three things: an outsider’s perspective on Japan in the nineties and noughties; an insider’s view of the complex, often contradictory symbiotic relationship between that country’s press, police force and organised crime syndicates; and an example of the classic journalistic dilemma – how far a person is willing to compromise their own principles in search of a story.
American Jake Adelstein goes to Japan as a college student, to learn the language and perhaps even become a Buddhist monk. What he ends up doing is scoring a gig as a crime reporter on the Yomiuri Shimbun, a prestigious newspaper with the largest circulation in the world. It’s an amazing feat for a Westerner, made more amazing by the fact he sticks it out for 12 years, overcoming cultural barriers to produce articles that actually bring about positive social change.
The cases recounted in his memoir range from the quirky – a suit-wearing master pickpocket who treats his illicit enterprise like a 9-to-5 job and returns victims’ wallets to their pockets after removing only the cash – to the ghastly. The latter category includes an exotic animals salesman who also deals in murder for those who oppose or anger him. Then there are the more sensitive issues, such as the way the Japanese justice system deals with the mentally ill, and a particularly sinister form of loan-sharking designed to entrap individuals for life.
We soon learn that there isn’t much Jake won’t do if he thinks there’s a scoop to be had, whether this means going undercover as a male host, brawling with a bouncer or taking tea with a high-ranking member of the Yakuza. However, he never tries to make himself out to be some kind of action hero, and his writing is thoughtful, at times deeply regretful, and peppered with insights into the Japanese mindset, as in sayings like, “To not know and to ask a question is a moment of embarrassment; to not know and not ask is a lifetime of shame.”
Adelstein plays a prime role in investigating the disappearance of English girl Lucie Blackman in 2000, and he makes it his personal crusade to stop the human trafficking operating virtually unchecked in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. He also attempts to expose and bring down a mob boss guilty of screwing over not just innocent civilians, but fellow Yakuza and the US authorities – an undertaking that results in the death threats to himself, his family and his friends that underlie the entire book. A case of publish and you may very well be damned.