Mr. Vice Guy

4 minute read
Pico Iyer

Yakuza gang bosses in Japan give interviews on TV, dine openly with politicians and traditionally hand out business cards, so everyone knows how to find them. Roughly 40,000 mobsters belong to the Yamaguchi-gumi alone. Everybody knows that the yakuza get money from bars and restaurants, construction companies, even private-detective agencies. But these days some of their principal businesses include securities trading and management consulting. They are increasingly, Jake Adelstein tells us in his gripping descent into the underworld, Tokyo Vice, like bankers “with guns.”

Adelstein should know. As a rare foreigner working the crime beat at the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s (and the world’s) largest-circulation newspaper, he got so close to the yakuza that he found himself buying cigarettes for former gang leaders and being guarded round the clock by a fiercely loyal retired crime boss. This all seems like an unlikely fate for a “goofy Jewish-American” in mismatched socks, as Adelstein presents himself, but his juicy and vividly detailed account of investigations into the shadowy side of Japan shows him to be more enterprising, determined and crazy than most. One assignment saw him teaching English at a Maid Station massage parlor (so-called because female employees are dressed to look like French maids); another moved him to impersonate an Iranian to try to catch an Iranian believed to be a murder suspect. It wasn’t a long step between that and hearing a mobster say things like “Either erase the story, or we’ll erase you.”

(See pictures of the rampage in Tokyo.)

Adelstein arrived in Japan as a teenager, eager, as many foreigners are, to learn about Buddhism, tranquility and the nuances of Japanese. But soon after, he applied for — and, astonishingly, secured — a job with the Yomiuri in 1992 as a Japanese-language reporter. In some of the freshest pages of the book, our unlikely hero tells us about his initiation into the seamy, tough-guy Japan beneath the public courtesies, a racy world filled with reporters given names like Chuckles and Googly. He digs up details in “the Chichibu Snack-mama murder case.” He sleeps with a yakuza’s moll who has a dragon tattoo on her back.

Adelstein builds his stories with as much surprise and grit as any Al Pacino or Mark Wahlberg movie, blurring the lines between the cops, the crooks and even the journalists. “You and I are in the same business,” a gangster tells Adelstein early on. “We’re in the information industry.” As the kid from Missouri begins to disappear deeper and deeper into the demimonde — sleeping in police HQ, drawing dangerously close to a hostess who works at the Den of Delicious and taking on the gangs responsible for human-trafficking in Japan — he comes to lose all sense of where his life ends and the 8th Circle of Hell strip club begins. As a mobster’s mistress (she is one of 15) notes, Adelstein is almost a twin to her criminal lover: “You’re both workaholics, with high libidos, adrenaline junkies and shameless womanizers.”

Much like that line, the dialogue in Tokyo Vice is often so snappy and quotable that it sounds as if it were a treatment for a Scorsese movie set in Queens. “The word isn’t victim — it’s sucker,” one made man pronounces. A cop is described as saying, in English, “Please go get me some smokes, angel.” Yet the facts beneath the noirish lines are assembled with what looks to be ferocious diligence and resourcefulness. For even as he is getting slapped around by thugs and placed under police protection, Adelstein never loses his gift for crisp storytelling and an unexpectedly earnest eagerness to try to rescue the damned. “You’re stupid, obtuse, stubborn and reckless,” a hood he calls Cyclops tells him at a clandestine meeting in a transit lounge at Hong Kong’s airport, “but at the end of the day, I guess that’s what makes a good journo.”

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