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Friday, 10 December 2010

Review: Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein (2010)

Subtitled 'A Western Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan', this book begins with a threat from the yakuza boss Tadamasa Goto delivered to the veteran reporter in 2005. The story then backtracks some 12 years to when Adelstein won employment with Japan's biggest daily general newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, after sitting several competitive tests and passing a number of interviews. After this victory, it's down to business on the beat covering crime in the company's Saitama bureau.

Adelstein gets moved around a lot during the next 12 years. As a regular sei-shain, or full company employee, Adelstein pays the price - long hours, obligatory after-hours socialising with sources, minimal home life, fatigue, routine subjection of his individual judgement to the company line - but reaps the rewards: the status attached to being a sei-shain supports the spirit when times get tough, there's lifetime employment, the pay is decent, and the cameraderie is substantial.

This is a good book to read for those who are interested in contemporary Japanese culture and politics. Its hard-boiled style palls on occasion and it's been written at a rapid pace, but these things may in fact be endemic to reporters once they decide to go down the path to publishing a book. I've come across these failings before with this type of author. In Tokyo Vice, the rapid pace might have been a problem due to the large number of Japanese names involved in some of the cases Adelstein writes about, but it's not a fatal flaw. You generally get the idea of each twist in the plot. You are not left behind. But beware that you need to pay attention. Lazy reading will simply leave you floundering.

As a journalist covering crime, Adelstein is eventually a wake-up to the way Japan views different sectors of society, such as foreigners, yakuza, and politicians. A follow-up volume might focus on the way politicians are involved in the crime world. Now that would be interesting, and I'm certain that Adelstein merely touches on the surface of the pond of data that is available to him.

Once he becomes competent as a senior journalist Adelstein begins to make his own decisions about what stories to cover. He finally chooses two main themes for scrutiny. One is the issue of human trafficking: how young women from Eastern Europe are brought to Japan on promises of work as club hostesses and are then forced into prostitution by their yakuza facilitators. As in other cases Adelstein covers, the story comes to him through a tip-off from a long-time source. Adelstein follows up on the story and tries to get it published but he hits a number of barriers that display an unpleasant side to the Japanese psyche: Japanese people don't really care about foreigners and whether they are mistreated during their stays in Japan.

But the story runs. As a sideline to this thread, he discovers that a major yakuza boss, Tadamasa Goto, traded secrets with the FBI in order to secure a visa to enable him to visit California for a liver transplant. There were several other yakuza who did the same thing, but Goto is Adelstein's main target and in the end his story, once published, leads to Goto being expelled from the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest yakuza group.

There is a price to be paid for all these editorial successes, however. Adelstein ends up burnt out and suffering personally due to the nature of the crimes he is investigating. A postscript might alert readers to how Adelstein's life changed once he finished covering crime in Japan. We know that he returns to the US - his home country - in order to start a new life. We don't know what job he's got now. By the time we finish his book, we want to know. This fact is a testament to the way Adelstein has been able to establish points of contact with his readers: simply, we care. Because he did. So many journalists seem not to.

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