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Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

Written by Jake Adelstein
Vintage Books/Random House, 352 pp.
Rating: NA

Tokyo Vice is exactly what the title says it is. It’s a memoir spanning Jake Adelstein’s career in Japan as a crime reporter for it’s most widely read newspaper, the Yomiuri, and several of his investigations made during this time. The primary selling point and most notable of these is a piece he began investigating while with the Yomiura but wouldn’t write about until after his time there, namely an article on Tadamasa Goto, the former head of Japan’s most powerful yakuza organization, the Yamaguchi-Gumi.

While the Tadamasa Goto story is the one that’s most associated with Tokyo Vice it doesn’t really take center stage until the very end. This may lead to some disappointment for people who were expecting it to be nothing but a full, detailed retelling of this particular incident. Instead it spans Adelstein’s career and time in Japan highlighting several notable cases and incidents that he was involved in while there. These range from his earliest days with the Yomiuri, with some fascinating details explaining the interactions and relationships between the police, yakuza and reporters, hilarious details on office life, a touching chapter on a close colleague of his, details of Japan’s sex industry and the convoluted and bizarre laws that regulate it, information on another notable murder mystery that would later be the inspiration for the movie Cold Fish and more. Throughout each chapter a wide assortment of reporters, prostitutes, police, yakuza and more all appear, some more often than others. Unfortunately since it’s all true he often changes names, fudges certain details or otherwise skips over certain intricacies of the various investigations he was involved in. You add that into the fact that often times months or years may pass between chapters and the result is a disjointed but compelling read.

Tokyo Vice paints a fairly poor picture of the Japanese Police, their laws, their criminals, politicians and society in general. The callousness and casualness with which the police and society turn a blind eye towards some of the incidents within the book will shock those who are only passingly familiar with the country’s reputation for a low crime rate. That said, it does highlight several police, reporters and others trying to make the best of a bad situation and who are working to raise social awareness of some of these issues and change the laws focusing on them. The most notable of these come in the forms of police officer friends by the names of Sekiguchi and Alien Cop. In fact I almost wish that the book had spent more detailing Adelstein’s relationship and encounters with these two. While Sekiguchi is fairly prominent we don’t know much of his work outside of his encounters with Adelstein who paints him a very positive light. Alien Cop is even more of an enigma though he does come through for Adelstein in a very untenable time in his life. Part of this is due to the focus of the story being Adelstein’s experiences and partly due to Adelstein undoubtedly attempting to protect their identities. Adelstein himself doesn’t exactly come off as squeaky clean. He’s very honest about his flaws, even when he attempts to play coy with certain details and aspects of his life. He’s upfront and forthright about being a horrible, unfaithful and neglectful husband and at crossing professional lines and making his work personal on several occasions. I was a little surprised at his frankness and how he has little problem depicting himself in a negative light, but at the same time found it refreshingly honest.

Perhaps it’s because the story is at times so outrageous that it can’t help but be compared to works of fiction, but while reading it I couldn’t help but think of The Wire, the critically acclaimed crime drama that drew it’s inspirations from one of the producers own investigations and contacts from his time as a crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. The bits dealing with human trafficking and the attempts of the various law enforcement departments to shove it off on each other were eerily similar to the events of Season 2 of The Wire. This is turn led me to think about similar US crime and how one only has to look to the history of Craigs List now defunct adult services section to find stories about underage girls and foreign women being forced into prostitution. While certain cultural aspects of Adelstein’s stories are unique to Japan, the essence of it, the corruption, crime, apathy and more can and does happen in our own backyard and I think that’s where a great deal of the books power comes from. It may be taking place half a world away, but it hits awfully close to home.

Tokyo Vice: An America Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
is available now from Random House.

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