Underbelly of Japan

My following book review appeared in yesterday’s Sydney Sun-Herald:

Tokyo Vice: A Western Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
Jake Adelstein
(Scribe, $35)

What’s a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like this? It’s a question that haunts this fascinating memoir about a world largely off-limits to Western audiences.

Japan is a curious modern phenomenon, only recently an enemy then an economic miracle, and mostly in our media because of controversies over whales or US bases. Adelstein addresses these imbalances in spades and explains his entry into the secretive world of journalism and the yakuza.

The process of getting a job with the prestige newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun was challenging. Take this conversation during a second-round interview:
“You’re Jewish, yes?”
“Yes, nominally.”
“A lot of people in Japan believe that Jews control the world economy. What do you think about that?”
“Do you think that if the Jews really did control the world economy I’d be applying for a job as a newspaper reporter here? I know what the first-year salary is like.”

Adelstein got the job.

His first task was to investigate the pound of flesh illegal Israeli street-sellers had to pay the mob for being allowed to sell fake watches and jewellery. “They [the yakuza] get 30 to 35 per cent of whatever I make,” an Israeli tells the journalist. It was his introduction to endemic corruption.

The published story was (laboriously) headlined, “Organised Crime Targeting Non-Japanese Street Vendors. Yakuza Find New Way to Squeeze Out ‘Rent’ by Taking Advantage of Illegal Workers (Who Can’t Seek Police Protection).”

Adelstein’s future stories were far grittier – chasing rapists and investigating sex districts and hostess bars. But one discovery changed everything. He broke the blockbuster yarn of top yakuza boss Tadamasa Goto, the “John Gotti of Japan”, who cut a deal with the FBI to rat on his colleagues in exchange for a liver transplant at UCLA.

Adelstein recently told the US magazine Foreign Policy that the Japanese elite’s connection to the mafia is unmatched in the Western world. The country’s leading political party, the Liberal Democrat Party, was originally funded with yakuza money.

He writes: “If you want to understand the nitty-gritty of Japanese politics, you can’t avoid dealing with yakuza issues on one level or another. There have been a great number of politicians with associations to them, though most of the politicians with yakuza ties usually conveniently kill themselves after an investigation begins. I’ve always taken this to mean that suicidal politicians somehow find it very enticing to do business with organised crime. I suppose you could argue that they actually wind up getting killed and having their suicides staged. Possible.”

Adelstein’s strength as a journalist and author is his brutal honesty, his willingness to ditch the false reporting rules of “objectivity”. “Balance” is the refuge of the weak when faced with humanity’s dark side. Thus, when working on human trafficking stories, Adelstein paid for abortions, even air fares, for women who were abused and often didn’t even know the identity of their attacker.

“I did what I could,” he writes, “and, of course, I was breaking all the rules of objectivity. Don’t get involved. I got involved.”

His marriage started to break down. Like a war correspondent, he began to disengage with everything in the world that didn’t relate to his work. “When lying is part of your job,” he laments, “you forget how love is supposed to work.”

The culture-clash aspects of the story are interesting but eventually the least insightful. Japan reads unlike anywhere else on the planet – a land of repression, deep secrets and haunted whispers. Adelstein loves the place, revels in its insanity. A price remains on his head, a constant reminder of a previous experience that was never half-lived.

This is a book that reads like a demented rescue tale. Adelstein cares for the victims of a Japanese society that spits out the unwanted with vigorous anger. He now dedicates his life to documenting the sick trade of human trafficking.

You’ll never see Japan in the same way again.