Book: Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

Fascinating book about an American reporter working for a Japanese newspaper

Jake Adelstein
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
Pantheon, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-307-37879-9
328 pages

Tokyo Vice is a fascinating book, though it's not without some flaws. Happily, the flaws are pretty minor, especially in comparison to the book's virtues. The biggest flaw is that the book really contains two stories stuck together a trifle imperfectly. But both stories are good.

As for the first story, it's a good thing that the book is non-fiction because if this were a novel, it would be immediately dismissed as absurdly improbable. Jake Adelstein is from Missouri and ended up at Sophia University in Tokyo as an exchange student. Somehow (Mr Adelstein doesn't say how) he ended up with the right to stay and work in Japan. He decided to take the competitive exam to go to work as a reporter at the Yomiyuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily newspaper. He passed (his Japanese must have been better than he lets on) and, more surprisingly, passes the subsequent interviews. Japan is a lovely and welcoming country but, like most countries, the number of foreigners working as reporters for its major media outlets is small. Mr Adelstein is clearly very smart, but again, I suspect that there's a little more to the story than he lets on. I'm willing to chalk that up to his desire to concentrate on the parts of the story that he thinks most interesting.

In any case, the story of his becoming a cub reporter assigned to the police beat and figuring out how police reporting is done in Japan is an excellent one and told well. (People who know something of Japanese culture will be unsurprised to find the relationship between crime reporters and police to be rather cozy.) Mr Adelstein turns out to do the job, which requires delicacy, tact, and judgment of a particularly Japanese sort, better than many Japanese reporters. And he investigates some interesting cases. That's not only an interesting story, full of memorable and entertaining characters, it's also a story you're not likely to read anywhere else. And it's also often very funny and Mr Adelstein doesn't mind making fun of himself.

The second story grows out of one of the stories that Mr Adelstein investigates when he's a more senior reporter. Members of Japanese organized-crime groups as called yakuza and they like to, or at least used to like to, think of themselves as having some honor. But as of Mr Adelstein's becoming a journalist (he worked for the newspaper from 1993 to 2005) some of them were engaging in trafficking of women, with all of the terrible human costs that inevitably follow. Furthermore, one of the yakuza involved in doing that is granted a visa to America and seems to have an unusually easy time getting a liver transplant at a UCLA hospital. As a result of his investigation, Mr Adelstein receives a very credible death threat. Getting the story out was part of Mr Adelstein's motivation to write the book. Now that the story has been published, there's little reason to try to silence him.

The second story is told rather like a news story. Mr Adelstein's writing about it is serious and her is very clear about what he knows and what he only supposes. And that's as it should be. But it makes the story a little less fun than the entertaining story of his being a reporter. Still, the book puts Mr Adelstein in the company of people like Theodore Bestor, John Nathan, and Alex Kerr , who have brought real insight into Japanese culture to readers of English.

Posted: Wed - March 10, 2010 at 09:14 PM   Main   Category: