When it comes to genre, I’m usually more True Blood than true crime. But it’s a wrench to resist Jake Adelstein’s story, as told in his book Tokyo Vice: Jewish-American kid applies for a job at a Japanese newspaper (and not just any newspaper; it’s the Yomiuri Shimbun, which has the highest circulation of any newspaper in the world) and despite his Japanese language score being in the bottom ten, he’s called in for an interview and he gets the job, only to end up sitting opposite a member of the biggest organised crime group in Japan, who is relaying a death threat from his boss. Just another day in the life, really.

Adelstein’s first posting is in half-rural, half-suburban Urawa, a ‘place considered so uncool by urban Japanese that it had spawned its own adjective, dasai, meaning “not hip, boring, unfashionable”’. But, as unfashionable as it is, Urawa is where he cuts his teeth as a police reporter. Navigating the complex spatial politics of the Yomiuri’s office (“Who the hell told you could sit down here!”) and getting up to speed with the house style (“I’ll expect you to know it within a week.”) are small tasks compared to learning how to update the office scrapbooks.

Starting out in any profession is a big ask in any case, but being an American who works for a Japanese newspaper has its own challenges. Adelstein’s first kikikomi (interviews related to a crime) are comedic adventures, with potential interviewees mistaking him for a salesman. The cultural differences serve him well, too, sometimes; “dumb gaijins” can get quite handily behind police tape.

Adelstein is a chummy and deft translator of Japanese culture: from the Japanese reverence for language, as exemplified by the concept of kotodama – the spirit of language that resides in every word; to the underbelly of Japanese culture, which makes our Underbelly look like Play School. Eventually, Adelstein scores a post at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, where he begins to cover the extraordinary crime syndicates of Japan – the legendary yakuza.

As Adelstein explained in an interview on WNYC, the yakuza are more Wal-Mart than West Side Story. On one end of the spectrum, there are the members who ‘own’ the illegal immigrants peddling counterfeit wares on the street. On the other end, you have the supremos who launder money through their innumerable – and legitimate – loan businesses and hostess bars.

It would be hard not to admire the seemingly unassailable extent of the various yakuza enterprises, except that, unavoidably, regular people get hurt or disappear. Adelstein’s career path takes a turn when he becomes involved in the story of Lucie Blackman, a British girl who went missing while working as a hostess in Tokyo’s infamous Roppongi district. In this quest, Adelstein straddles the line between impartial observer and passionate truth seeker. And it wasn’t to be the only time he came face to face with the ugly side of Tokyo.

(Cross-posted from mwfblog.)

Comments (2)
  1. I’m very happy to be amongst the 3,000. My favorite book of the month is SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER by David Geddis. A great noir novel of the 50s.

    • Is that the same as the Truffaut film? Nice. Looking forward to seeing you in Melbourne, Jake.

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