By Michael Reid Busk
Like those cinematic characters, Adelstein’s past is sketched only briefly: he grows up Jewish in the Midwest, moves to Japan for college, flirts with the possibility of becoming a Buddhist monk, but instead wrangles his way into a reporting job at the Yomiuri Shimbun, the best newspaper in Japan. Apparently Japanese newsrooms are like America’s were circa 1935—the reporters are chain-smoking alcoholic misogynists, and at first they haze their gaijin (foreign) colleague and, in one instance, assault him.
But Adelstein perseveres, and through a combination of moxie, luck and a seemingly endless expense account, begins to get scoops while working on the police and vice beats: murderous dog breeders, serial rapists who film themselves in the act, torture, human trafficking and more sex than a manga marathon on the Cartoon Network. Every other scene seems to take place at a topless club, where buxom strippers are constantly stuffing their nipples into Adelstein’s mouth. This doesn’t inhibit his work, since he does more listening than talking, plying policemen and yakuza soldiers with sake as they dish out inside information. Besides sex, rice wine becomes the book’s other constant: often it seems as though the only time Adelstein isn’t hung over is when he’s drunk.
Some of the book’s appeal stems from this sort of white-collar wish fulfillment: today the typical American reporter’s life is comparable to that of other office-bound professionals, where Google searches and conference room meetings outnumber guns and call girls a hundred to one. But Jake Adelstein has his cake and eats it too, living the Grand Theft Auto lifestyle while still being the good guy.
It’s the good Adelstein does that saves the book from merely being a tawdry exposé. Adelstein’s reporting helps change Japanese loan sharking laws, ends a human trafficking syndicate, and brings to light the story of four yakuza bosses who bribed their way to liver transplants at UCLA’s Medical Center. (One of the book’s best details is that cases of liver cancer are unusually high among the yakuza not only because of their alcoholism, but because their full-body gang tattoos disrupt the natural function of the sweat glands, inhibiting their bodies’ ability to evacuate toxins—like the alcohol found in sake.) When the yakuza catch wind of the liver transplant story, they threaten to kill Adelstein and his family, and after he enters police protection, the yakuza offer him $500,000 not to publish it. “I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to take the money and run,” Adelstein writes, in the streetwise vernacular typical of the book. “But if I had, they would have owned me.” After numerous news organs turn the story down, Adelstein finally publishes it in The Washington Post, which leads to the dethronement of the most powerful of the four yakuza bosses.
But Adelstein’s personal war on crime is not without its casualties, the most heartbreaking of which is Helena, an Australian English teacher-turned-prostitute who helps Adelstein snoop around one of the yakuza’s front companies, only to be caught, tortured, raped and finally murdered. At times, Adelstein’s world-weary self-pity is overbearing in its cliché (“There was a time when I was sure I was one of the good guys. It seems like a very long time ago.”), but Adelstein’s description of his torment after her murder is one of the few moments in the story when the veneer cracks, revealing the tremendous human costs of Adelstein’s pursuit of justice.
With tales as wild and fast-paced as these, it’s easy to imagine the book being adapted into an “inspired by a true story” movie with a wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal slowly hardening into a seasoned veteran, a 21st century Philip Marlowe, an outsider for reasons beyond the color of his skin. And when in the voiceover the Adelstein character talks about the price of truth being scars no one will ever see, he’s probably right.
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein, Pantheon Books, Hardcover. 352 pgs. List Price $26.