"Tokyo Vice": Underground with the Yakuza

TOKYO, Japan — The world is not short of journalists willing to risk their safety in pursuit of a career-defining story. But they are not usually to be found pounding the benign streets of Tokyo.

Then again, most Japan-based reporters do not have a CV that reads like Jake Adelstein’s.

That much was clear when I first interviewed Adelstein, a former crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, the world’s biggest selling newspaper, and author of one of the most talked-about new books on Japan.

I was collected at a rendezvous near Tokyo by Mochizuki-san, a former yakuza boss who acts as his minder and mentor, and driven to a private house to talk in a darkened tatami-mat room, the air thick with smoke from the author’s beloved clove cigarettes.

I wondered if he wasn’t taking his security arrangements a little too seriously … and quickly changed my mind.

Adelstein was a marked man, thanks to his admirable — some might say reckless — determination to expose one of Japan’s most powerful crime bosses as an FBI informer.

Eighteen months later, the 40-year-old Missouri native is basking in critical acclaim for "Tokyo Vice: an American reporter on the police beat in Japan," an account of his days covering the country’s dark underbelly.

The book details how Adelstein learned, in 2005, that Tadamasa Goto, then head of a group affiliated with the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate, had offered the FBI information in return for a visa to the U.S. to undergo a life-saving liver transplant four years earlier. "He was a potential intelligence jackpot," said Adelstein.

Goto’s associates took a dim view of Adelstein’s plans to expose the man known as Japan’s John Gotti. “Erase the story, or be erased,” they told him over coffee in a Tokyo hotel. “Your family, too.”

After verifying his extraordinary claims, the Washington Post printed Adelstein’s story in May 2008, only for most of the Japanese media to greet it with studied insouciance.

In "Tokyo Vice," Adelstein goes into more detail about his feud with Goto and confronts other milestones in his reporting career — the murder of British bar hostess Lucie Blackman among them — with a reporter’s eye for salacious detail and, where appropriate, sprinklings of black humor.

Following a successful book tour of the U.S., which included a spot on CBS’s 60 Minutes and a chat with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, Adelstein is preparing to take the "Tokyo Vice" road show to the U.K. and Europe.

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His struggle to find a publisher for a Japanese version is a source of frustration, since it is in his adopted home where he believes the book will truly resonate, not least among the police officers whose yakuza prey are protected by toothless anti-organized crime laws.

Having a criminal conspiracy law in Japan akin to the U.S. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations [RICO] act would be “disastrous” for the yakuza, he said recently.

“It would put a law on the books that would allow the government to seize their offices, their buildings, their companies, their assets … it would essentially put them out of business.”

The inability of the Japanese police to act with the same vigor as their U.S. counterparts means the yakuza are “so embedded in the financial markets that they threaten the very roots of the Japanese economy,” Adelstein said.

The threat from his nemesis may have dissipated with Goto’s decision last year to enter the Buddhist priesthood, but Adelstein is not quite ready to relax.

He informs the Tokyo police of his movements, and Mochizuki-san is an almost constant companion. “If Goto really isn’t angry with me anymore, then maybe in a few months my life can return to normal,” he said.

He is convinced of one thing, though — that he would never have found peace of mind had he accepted an offer of $50,000 from the top echelons of the Yamaguchi-gumi to keep the scandal quiet.

“They were afraid it would set a bad precedent and make them look like ineffectual managers,” he said.

“I thought about it for about as long as it takes to smoke a clove cigarette. But you don’t want to be owned by these guys. And my honor and dignity are worth at least a million bucks.”