There’s a romantic side to Japan that’s easy to get swept up in. It’s great to appreciate cherry blossoms, good food and samurai. But there’s also a dark side to the country. Human trafficking, prostitution and ruthless crime families and are all harsh realities that people deal with everyday in Japan.
Much of the corruption is attributed to the yakuza and the role they have in Japanese society. Tokyo Vice, written by Jake Adelstein, gives real insight into the world of the yakuza and Japan’s criminal underbelly. Provocative and gripping, Tokyo Vice is a worthy addition to any Japanophile’s book shelf.
Another side of Japan
The book draws from Adelstein’s real life experiences of working as an investigative journalist in the world of Japanese crime. From the first page, Adelstein’s darkly humorous writing style draws the reader in. Early topics focus on how he started his journalistic career at the Yomiuri newspaper and the kind of back breaking work that he had to do to make a name for himself.
“Getting scoops was difficult. It involved getting wind of a breaking story, finding the detective in the lower ranks who was working the story, gaining his trust and the information he had, then running it up the food chain in such a way that the people at the top didn’t know you were culling data from the bottom.”
Adelstein’s brutal honesty about his methods of getting information during the time is eye-opening. Whether it involved sleeping with the ex-mistress of a yakuza or trolling the streets of Roppongi in disguise, Adelstein paints a vivid picture in his words.
Taking on the yakuza
The author’s presentation of the yakuza is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. The classic image of Japan’s criminal organisation is dark suits, tattoos, a few missing fingers and a sense of honour. Adelstein breaks down the myth quickly. He explains how ruthless they are and how they’ve integrated themselves into the upper echelon of Japanese society.
“The yakuza are structured as a neofamily. New recruits pledge their loyalties to the father figure known as the oyabun. Ties are forged through ritual sake exchanges, creating brotherhoods, and those who are in the business world are allowed to become kigyoshatei, or corporate brothers. Each organisation is usually a pyramid scheme.”
“The modern-day yakuza are innovative entrepreneur; rather than a bunch of tattooed nine-fingered thugs in white suits wielding samurai swords, a more appropriate metaphor would be ‘Goldman Sachs with guns.’”
But at the same time, Adelstein doesn’t make any excuses for relying on the yakuza as a source of information. His relationship with the organisation became so complex that he eventually went head to head with the notorious leader of the Goto-gumi clan, Tadamasa Goto.
Adelstein’s beef with Goto came about through a human trafficking scandal that was prevalent in the 1990s and early 2000s. He campaigned tirelessly to shut Goto down and expose him for all his crimes, even on threat of death.
Adelstein’s views and experiences are raw and emotionally resonant. Even as he became burnt out and cynical over journalism, he never loses the sense of optimism that made he want to become a reporter in the first place. This attitude can be seen in his relationship with Detective Sekiguchi, a friend and father figure.
By the end of Tokyo Vice, I felt like I’d gained a wider view of what Japan is like. It’s not all romance and sunny skies. There are dark things hiding in the Land of the Rising Sun. But thanks to people like Jake Adelstein, there’s more exposure to it now. It’s been brought into the light and more is being done to stop the yakuza from preying on innocent lives.