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"Tokyo Vice": Underground with the Yakuza

An American journalist strikes a chord with his reporting on Japan's criminal underworld.

American writer Jake Adelstein poses with his book "Tokyo Vice" at a red-light district in Tokyo, Oct. 9, 2009. A 12-year stint covering crime for Japan's biggest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, brought Adelstein into contact with the seamy side of Tokyo that most Westerners never see, from loan sharking to murders to trafficking in sex workers. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

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.