Review: Tokyo Vice

A hardcore hack

By Toby Lichtig, August 26, 2010
Jake Adelstein: a rising son making his mark in the land of the rising sun

Jake Adelstein: a rising son making his mark in the land of the rising sun

By Jake Adelstein
Constable, £8.99

Jake Adelstein is a tough-nut journalist of the old school: a bourbon-slugging, chain-smoking, smooth-talking cynic with a sharp eye for a story and a strong sense of injustice. Fresh out of university, this "weird Jewish guy" from Missouri rocks up in Tokyo and dazzles his way into a reporting job at Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper.

Entry into this "high-end fraternity" as a gaijin ("foreigner") is no mean feat, and Adelstein quickly distinguishes himself for his industry and tenacity, despite some struggles with the language and Japan's arcane social mores: "The Japanese believe there's a right way to live, to love, to induce female orgasm, to chop off your pinkie, to take off your shoes, to swing a bat…".

Adelstein's Semitism gives him an advantageous air of inscrutability (Many Japanese, he avers, are believers in the "International Jewish Conspiracy") while he learns the rules of successful reportage: "journalism is always about the results, not the effort". He gets used to never taking holidays, rarely sleeping and hanging out in seedy bars and hostess joints. He explains in fascinating detail the complex process of buttering up police sources: giving gifts, visiting families, sending cards.

"If you think this system creates a very cop-friendly, biased reporting style, you are absolutely correct." Like the best journalists, he is an information "whore": "Information is neither good nor evil; information is what information is."

Adelstein covers a series of horrific crimes including rapes, murders and extortion rackets. He becomes an expert in the murky world of sex trafficking and the bane of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest mafia outfit. His accounts of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) illustrate how entrenched this aspect of society is in the Japanese economy as a whole (like "Goldman Sachs with guns"); but while some Yakuza become uneasy friends, others try to kill him.

An exposé involving a mafia boss given entry into the USA for a liver transplant (via a little help from the CIA) elicits a death threat that causes Adelstein to leave the country. Ever-resolute, he eventually returns to finish the story.

Tokyo Vice fairly bounces along: "I was tired of always being tired. Tired of chasing after scoops. Tired of being scooped by the competition." It is also a brave and enlightening investigation into the shadows of the Rising Sun.

Adelstein may like the sound of his own voice too much and his modesty can ring false. But it is precisely this sort of self-confidence that makes him such an intrepid reporter.

His insatiable hunger for information endangers friends and compromises loved ones. But though you may not wish to live with the guy, you'd sure as hell like to meet him for bourbon.

Toby Lichtig is a freelance reviewer

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011