Of course, Tokyo Vice (Pantheon, 335 pages, $26) begins with a threat. The dapper Japanese gangster (say it with me: ya-ku-za) ungently insinuates to the American reporter that unless he gives up on his story about boss Goto’s liver transplant, he’ll be forfeiting not only his own but also his family’s lives. This scene is already familiar to anyone who’s watched a film by Beat Takeshi or an American mafia flick. You do what they say, or else some no-neck guys in suits will take your own neck as a souvenir.
The difference here is that it’s a true story—with all of truth’s sloppiness and bureaucracy—and that the reporter, Jake Adelstein, was a gaijin reporter who somehow found a way to both write the story and survive. Though the first chapter threatens a standard noir tale of cross and double-cross, what we get through most of Adelstein’s book is an intro course in the tiring grind of stonewalling, back-scratching, dead ends and general below-the-belt seaminess that composes the life of a crime beat reporter in Japan.
The press and police are both under much tighter controls in Japan as regards what information can be released, and the Woodward-Bernstein-style romance of the journalist has yet to be written there. Among prostitutes, yakuza molls and sex-club hostesses, Adelstein was better off pretending he was an insurance dick rather than part of that malignant, parasitical race known as “reporter,” who are derogatorily named “geishas to the police” because of the amount of ass-kissing they need to do to get even the tiniest scoop.
In any case, after a rocky start as a reporter whose Japanese was spotty at best, Adelstein tells the story of how he managed to not only bring an embarrassing international spotlight on human trafficking in Japan but also eventually help bust up one of the most brutal branches of the Yamaguchi-Gumi crime family, by playing the side who didn’t want to kill him against the side who did. And if I read my book acknowledgements and between-the-lines insinuations correctly, he did this at the merest expense of the life of a close friend, his entire Japanese newspaper career, his temporary grip on sanity and proportion, and perhaps also his marriage—as judging from his thank-you note to his wife in which he “wishes he had done things right or that they had worked out better,” and his hopes that his children might use the book to “learn from his mistakes and lead a better life.”
The better life, it would seem, is one not spent in the Japanese press corps, or on heroic, hollowing crusades surrounded everywhere by death. This book, then, is a gift to those who’d rather understand trouble than actually live through it.
GO: Jake Adelstein reads from Tokyo Vice at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 23. Free.