MISTER VICE GUY
Back in July, we published a review of the excellent Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein’s memoir of his time as a crime reporter—and very much an outsider—on Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. Recently, we were fortunate enough to be able to speak to Jake and ask him some follow-up questions…
Would it be more or less difficult now for a Westerner to break into Japanese crime reporting?
It’d be harder because I touched on so many taboos that I think people there would look at hiring another Westerner as a potential lightning rod for controversy and trouble. It wasn’t my intention to make it more difficult. There were things I wrote about in Tokyo Vice that I thought were obvious, but they were such taboos that no Japanese publisher will touch the thing.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you’d do differently?
Yes. I wouldn’t have asked Helena to look into that [Yakuza] front company. I wouldn’t have even mentioned it to her. Part of being a good reporter is knowing the limitations of your assets. Hindsight is 20/20, but I realise, looking back, that she wasn’t very stable, and it was a bad idea to ask her—even though she wanted to help. She was capable, but she had a lot of emotional turmoil in her life, and she had a drug problem as well. I should have picked up on that.
Have the sorts of crimes taking place in Japan changed much?
Let me say something nice about the Japanese government—they’ve done a wonderful job of cracking down on human trafficking since the book came out. They’re much better at enforcing the laws, and the flow of foreign women into Japan to be exploited in the sex industry has definitely diminished. Other than that, crime remains what it always was, although the Yakuza have moved into much more white-collar crime—massive fraud, stock-market manipulation, venture capital. Areas where you usually didn’t see them before.
Is it dangerous these days for, say, Australian girls to get work as hostesses in Tokyo?
You cannot be a hostess in Japan on a working visa. So not only is it a potentially dangerous thing to do, it’s also illegal. If they raid the club where an Australian girl is working, there’s a good chance that her holiday will be terminated and she’ll be forcibly repatriated on her own dollar. However, if it was an “English conversation salon”, which is a thinly disguised hostess club where women sit and chat with the customers in English, that might be okay. And not that I want to encourage Australian girls to break the law, but technically you have to repeatedly engage in this work to violate your visa. So if you are an illegal hostess and the police do raid your club, I suggest telling them that you only started working there that day, and insist upon that. In Japan, you can be held in custody for up to 23 days, with no access to a lawyer, so it’s a long time to have to stick to your story. But if you deny, deny, deny, they will be unlikely to prosecute you. But the smartest thing is: if you go to Japan, don’t work as a hostess. There’s always the risk of going home with the wrong customer and not coming back. And when a girl vanishes on an outside date, I can guarantee you that the hostess club will not talk to the police.
And yet we still hear strippers talk about going over…
Classically, when strippers go over, they arrange a fake marriage, which costs about $3000 on the black market. Once you’re a Japanese spouse living in Japan, even while that’s pending, you can pretty much do any job you want. I’m not advocating that—it’s still a crime; it’s a fake marriage.
How about a dude who wanted to go over and be a host—would he find the situation any different?
That would also be illegal. Host clubs, like hostess clubs, are adult entertainment venues. However, there are these weird places called butler bars where men serve women tea and coffee, and sometimes even feed them with a spoon, while dressed as English butlers. The pay can be good, but the job is apparently really horrible.
What can you tell us about the scandal happening in the world of sumo?
Recently, there’s been a huge scandal about the fact that many of Japan’s sumo wrestlers and officials were placing bets on baseball with a bookie operation run by the Yamaguchi-gumi [the largest Yakuza group]. What isn’t reported in the papers is that the lawyer who was placed on the Sumo Association to clean up the committee is allegedly closely tied to the Yakuza and, in the past, was on the board of what was exposed as one of their front companies. It kinda makes you wonder how serious they are about cleaning up their operations.
Where do you see that case ending up?
I think they’ll arrest a couple of members of the Yamaguchi-gumi and maybe some sumo wrestlers for gambling. For the Yakuza, there’s a small amount to be made on baseball betting, by taking a percentage from the wagers. But the real money is made by getting sumo wrestlers heavily in debt from this, then having them throw a match on which you’re betting. But if the police pursue it to that logical conclusion, then everyone is going to lose faith and interest in sumo. As a matter of fact, a senator in the ruling party has had a secret meeting with one of the Sumo Association chairmen, so it looks like the fix is in.
Do you think sumo is a dying art?
It’s losing a lot of popularity because many of the wrestlers who are now on top are foreigners. Japan is a fairly xenophobic country and without a home-grown sumo winning, people lose interest. Sumo is also old, it’s not flashy and there’s no cute, young Japanese sumo wrestler who other young people can identify with. Honestly, if you remove the Yakuza presence from sumo, I think it will seriously suffer because the base pay is horrible and many wrestlers are subsisting on handouts given to them by their Yakuza sponsors (who are often from the same home town). So unless they completely nationalise the sport and do it on tax-payer money, removing the Yakuza will cause many people to quit and may be the ruin of sumo. It’s ironic, but that’s the reality.
On that note, is it true traditional Yakuza tattoos are disappearing because the members no longer want to be easily identified?
Yes, it is. One of the brightest Yakuza I know has no tattoos or missing fingers. And a former college classmate of mine, who left a very lucrative job to go and work for them, he also has no tattoos or missing fingers. Those things aren’t an asset anymore. Nowadays, if you screw up, you pay a huge amount of money—and if you can’t afford to pay, you just vanish. Occasionally, you’ll still have an old-school yakuza tell an underling, “Chop off your finger and bring it in atonement,” but that’s pretty rare.
We love your idea of getting real Yakuza members to review the videogame Yakuza 3 (for boingboing.net). Was it hard to arrange?
You’re Penthouse magazine, so I can tell you the story. One of the reviewers was very reluctant to do it, but he made me an offer. In a roundabout way, he said he’d review the game if I did him a favour, which was to have sex with his girlfriend while he watched, because that really got him off. I’m not gonna say what my reply was, but we worked out a compromise and he did help with the review.
Tokyo Vice was an absolute page-turner. Any plans for a follow-up?
I have two books under way. The first is going to be called The Last Yakuza. It’s the biography of my bodyguard and driver, who was a Yakuza member for 25 years and a boss for 10-15 years. He’s an incredible guy with a fascinating story. His mother is actually a Japanese American who came back to Japan rather than be put in an internment camp [during WW2]. He wants me to write it as a testimony for his son—because he’s actually very proud of being a Yakuza—so I’m going to try to tell the past 30 years of Yazuka history along with it. The second one is more obscure. Called The Nine-Fingered Economy, it’s about how the Yakuza went from being gamblers and drug-runners to the “Goldman Sachs with guns” model that they are now.
When can we expect The Last Yakuza?
I’ve got about three chapters to go. I think it’ll take me another year to complete it. I’m talking to cops who arrested him in the past, his mother, his father… Obviously, I could just speak to him, but it’s more interesting to talk to other people who know him, both inside the organisation and out. The agreement that I’ve made—and he didn’t ask for it—is I’m giving him half of whatever royalties there are for the book, and hopefully that’ll be a nice retirement plan for him.