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Japanator Recommends: Tokyo Vice

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First off, I should point out that I'm not a journalist or reporter or anything more than some guy in front of a computer who can type with two, sometimes up to four, fingers at a time. I don't spend all day thrashing out stories and all night chasing down leads. I don't shake down a suspects to get them to crack and spill their guts. Hell, I didn't even read Tokyo Vice with pen and paper at the ready like some sort of responsible person. I just read it. So I'm not here to inundate you with all the gory details about the book, filling up my word count with paragraphs worth of transcribed quotes and any sort of detailed analysis. I mean, I've got the book sitting right here next to me but I'm not going to bother hunting down any of numerous lines that would make your jaw drop, head-spin, heart-sink or other body/verb combination. You know, it's a book. It's there to be read.

Anyway, speaking of gory details, there are plenty of them in Tokyo Vice to go around, both on the page and off. Most of it is the sort of violence that builds up in the far-flung corners of a person's brain. Like the way the police are often helpless or, even worse, passive participants in the crime around them. Soon you start to feel like the yakuza phantoms that author Jake Adelstein chases are the ones with all the honor. Adelstein isn't a saint either. Adelstein is the kind of guy who does do all the wetwork involved in being are real journalist. No, he never does anything really terrible but, like the yakuza, he has his own set of rules he follows in order to justify his passion for getting to the bottom of things. He wants to do good, to help abused women, to help people with yakuza debts that drive them to suicide, help families looking for their missing loved ones, that sort of thing. But there are also people who suffer for his obsessions along the way.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
By Jake Adelstein
Pantheon Books / October 2009
$26.00


In the book Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein guides us through his twelve years being the only American ever to work for Japan's Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper. It's a world that wants little to do with him, which oddly enough makes it easier for him to slip through the cracks. Playing the role of the bumbling gaijin turns out to have its uses. Starting in the early '90s poking around murder scenes, he graduates to long nights in the seedy strip clubs and massage parlors of Soapland and eventually finds himself in face-to-face verbal sparring matches with yakuza bosses in the mid-'00s. After many years of very hard work and burning dedication, Adelstein manages to cultivate an impressive cadre of contacts and sources, both friendly and antagonistic, as well as friends and enemies on both sides of the law. He takes the reader through several cases in great detail and with a style (and more than a little dark humor at times) that places you right alongside him as events unfold.

The bulk of the book is just the set up for the big finish in the final third. The more common crimes eventually lead him to rumors that one yakuza boss found himself a new kidney in America. Suddenly Adelstein finds himself looking into not only the yakuza, but UCLA, the CIA and the FBI. To say he becomes a marked man might be something of an understatement.

Does it end well? No, of course not. It's not like Adelstein manages to take down the entire yakuza empire by the last page and win the girl and make his police detective mentor proud. At least, not exactly. Adelstein does do a lot of good by the end. The only problem is the cost to not only his own health and family, but the lives of many people who become close to him over the years. Many of the people he thought were on his side quickly melt away when the serious shit starts to fly. At times it's easy to forget that this is a non-fiction account of events that really happened. It's easy to think it's just another schmaltzy, over-the-top yakuza flick. The characters really are “characters,” but they also happen to be real people. If anything, this is real life imitating art, but doing a really messy job of it. It's a riveting tale that gives an unromantic look at what life is really like in modern Japan. It's a must-read for anyone looking to remove the rose-tinted glasses and learn a little more of what the real Japan is like outside of press releases and glossy travel agency photos.

Even though Adelstein left the reporting game before the final events in the book, he is still mired in that dark world. Generally speaking, he seems to be doing well, working on various projects including a new book. His Twitter feed is often just as interesting as Tokyo Vice. There are occasional echoes of people and events from the book, adorable tales of his children, commentary on current events in Japan (mostly about yakuza, which is understandable) and, perhaps most alarming, tales of his various heath issues. In one series of increasingly muddled tweets from this past February, Adelstein has a small stroke. Luckily he was near a hospital:

"think I'm having a stroke or something like that. can' t see out lof left eye, nauseos, head hurts like a motherfucker."

"clinic donw the street faster than ambulance, four minutes away. am close."

"Don't think the last thing I evervwant to write is a twert. Nothing witty to say either. This fucking traffic light takes an eternity to chg"

"Might need to cancel some appointments. The rest of 2010."

"I had a mini-stroke:TIA (transient ischemic attack). 一過性脳虚血発作. Cause unknown. No perm damage. I got aspirin and am scheduled for tests later"

"On the + side, I don't have any bleeding in my brain so that's nice. But the numbness in my right hand is not going to help my bowling score"

"As I was tweeting, waiting for the light to change, it occurred to me: I need a snappy exit line, for that final tweet, if it happens."

"There are worse things than dying. Dying while saying something stupid. Totally uncool."


Taken all together, it is proof that you can be just as much of a bad-ass working for the good of the people as you can in trying to feed off of them.

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