Mean streets



By Jake Adelstein (New York: Pantheon, 2009, 335 pp., $26.00, hardcover)

Chasing stories for the world’s biggest newspaper was tough on Jake Adelstein. As a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun, he had his share of run-ins with yakuza thugs. Getting occasionally slapped around by Japanese gangsters ranked as one of the more harrowing occupational hazards, but the job also featured a pretty brutal daily grind. Pounding the pavement in search of witnesses, pumping sources for intel, or slaving away over a keyboard in the rush to make deadline — this was Adelstein’s wretched existence for more than a decade.

“Tokyo Vice” represents the distillation of these years into 335 pages. The book tracks Adelstein from the end of his time as a student at Sophia University in the early ’90s, through the highly selective Yomiuri Shinbun interview process, to his cub reporter days hustling around Saitama Prefecture, and then on to a stint covering vice squad ops in a seedy entertainment district of Tokyo. Along the way, Adelstein comes across a wide and wacky cast of characters, and wades through all sorts of human depravity in search of headline gold.

The centerpiece story of this memoir revolves around the case of Tadamasa Goto. A high-level boss in an especially vicious yakuza faction, Goto received a liver transplant at UCLA in the summer of 2001; given his infamous reputation, however, he should have never been allowed into the U.S. Adelstein learned of this trip and began hunting down leads, eventually finding out that Goto had cut a deal with the FBI that would let him enter the country in exchange for dirt on various mob personnel and activities. It was a huge scoop, eventually first published by The Washington Post because Adelstein couldn’t find anyone in Japan willing to print it. The release of “Tokyo Vice” serves in large part as a way to more aggressively force this tale into the official record of public consciousness.

Yet what impact a book like this can have remains up for debate. Its yakuza portrayals fall in line with how these legendary gangsters always seem to get described — in a manner that reinforces the sense they are all but untouchable, as thoroughly entrenched in Japanese society as any branch of government. The purpose of the narrative, then, boils down to provocation, pushing most readers to react with a complex mixture of titillation and disgust at what criminals — and for that matter, cops and reporters — are capable of. Adelstein is unlikely to achieve what appears to be his loftier journalistic aim of spurring justice by revealing misdeeds, but he’ll definitely satisfy anyone eager to ogle at Japan’s grimy underbelly.

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