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On the ‘Tokyo Vice’ beat with Jake Adelstein

TOKYO (TR) – The extortion, racketeering, prostitution and gambling rings associated with Japan’s yakuza criminal organizations have been written up in books and glorified in films too numerous to count. Yet a substantial first-hand peek inside this insidious underworld by a foreign journalist has not existed.

Enter reporter Jake Adelstein, a 40-year-old Jewish-American and the author of the recently released memoir “Tokyo Vice,” an account of his 12-year stint of working the crime beat for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper.

Following the successful completion of the paper’s entry exam in 1993, Adelstein began covering Japan’s seamier side. Written in a fast-paced, acerbic and sometimes humorous style, “Tokyo Vice” recounts his investigations into serial rape, child pornography, murder and his greatest scoop: providing details on how four gangsters were able to travel to the U.S. between 2000 and 2004 to receive liver transplants. “Either erase the story, or we’ll erase you,” was the subsequent threat from the particulars involved. “And maybe your family.” Substantial repercussions linger to this day.

Indeed, many of the characters filling out the book’s 352 pages are, as expected, tattooed and pinkie-less hoods, but more crucially readers will be given an insight into understanding the way the Japanese police operate, what the press is willing to report upon and how a foreigner is able to blend into this bizarre and chaotic world.

The Tokyo Reporter sat down with Adelstein, who splits his time between Tokyo and the U.S., to discuss his compelling new book and the world of crime in Japan today.

Could you describe your beat when you were a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun? What types of stories did you cover?

I started by covering two local police stations in Saitama Prefecture: Urawa-Nishi and Omiya. After that I graduated to the police headquarters press club, where I covered the organized crime control divisions, theft, and public security.

I wrote up your typical sporadic murders, robberies and as well stories about busts of complicated organized crime enterprises. I did spend some time covering local politics and environmental issues. One of the pieces of journalism I was most proud of was uncovering how Saitama Prefecture systematically altered data from a study on dioxin contamination in mother’s milk to make it appear that there was no real significant pollution in the areas where waste disposal plants were in abundance. But most of the time at the Yomiuri, in one way or another, I was covering crime.

When I got put into the IT news section, I ended up writing about Internet fraud, hacking and yakuza providing venture capital for these new types of hi-tech firms. After I was transferred to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police beat, on a typical day, I might write an article about a robbery, a yakuza loan-sharking operation or maybe a drug bust. Of course, one of the things I liked about the job was that there was usually a good degree of variation in the types of crimes, scams and schemes that I got to cover.

Document (October, 2009)

There are articles saying that the challenges in getting “Tokyo Vice” published were numerous. Can you provide a summary?

The international branch of the Japanese publisher that had originally planned to publish it last year decided to pull out after doing a risk analysis. That was in September of 2008, when Tadamasa Goto was still very much in power. He is the yakuza Godfather who I reported as being one of four gang members to receive a visa to travel to the U.S. for a liver transplant at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center after he brokered a deal with the FBI by providing information on money laundering, yakuza member names and dates of birth. He was one of the most powerful and wealthy bosses in the Yamaguchi-gumi with over 950 people under his command within his own affiliated gang, the Goto-gumi. In 1992, when director Juzo Itami made a film (“Mimbo no Onna”) parodying the yakuza and urging citizens not to give in to extortion, Goto’s goons attacked the man in front of his home and slashed him up. Goto was never proven to have ordered the attack. Itami later committed “suicide,” but I have my doubts about that.

So the risk then to the publisher was that if they published my book their offices may be bombed, employees may be kidnapped and generally that violent retaliation was likely. So I can understand why they backed out. I don’t hold it against them. However, on October 14th, Goto was kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi, primarily because I had exposed his deal with the FBI, but that’s not the official reason. It’s still considered a taboo to discuss that in the yakuza fan magazines, of which there are quite a few released monthly. After I wrote up the nitty-gritty details of the yakuza liver transplants in a Japanese book, “Japan Taboo Encyclopedia,” I was kind of honored that one yakuza magazine actually touched upon it and accused me of being a pawn of the CIA, an actual CIA clandestine operative or part of the international Jewish conspiracy.

What then was the official reason for Goto getting kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi?

Goto had called unwanted attention to the organization by having celebrities attend his birthday party in September. This was written up by the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, which named the celebrities, mostly famous enka singers, but did not have the guts to name Goto in the article. This was then picked up by NHK, which banned the singers from their programs. I was, frankly, a little disappointed with Shukan Shincho for not writing Goto’s name — especially since I still write for them now and then under a pen name. You might think that I passed on the information about Goto’s birthday party to them but that wouldn’t be true — I certainly didn’t directly tell them. I did play a part in making sure that they got that information. If I had written the story, I would have made sure they printed Goto’s name as well. It took some guts for Shukan Shincho to write it, and it was a nice pretext for the Yamaguchi-gumi top members to essentially fire him.

October 9, 2008 Shukan Shincho promotional flyer indicating Goto birthday incident (at left)
October 9, 2008 Shukan Shincho promotional flyer indicating Goto birthday incident (at left)

The Los Angeles Times followed up on the Goto story after you wrote it up for the Washingon Post, largely by wondering how a medical institution could give priority to such dubious individuals. How did this come about? Did the Japanese media touch it at all?

After being put under police protection in March of 2008, a cop I trusted told me that it was essentially “publish or perish.” He told me that the primary reason the Goto-gumi had a grudge against me was that I had information that would embarrass the leader and if they killed me they could easily suppress that information. However, if I wrote up everything I knew, well then there was a lot less incentive to whack me. So I did what he said to do. In many ways, it’s better to be a very public target because people pay attention when you die or vanish. It’s a better deterrent than being unknown and easily disposed of.

But the Japanese press didn’t want to touch the story. I wanted it printed somewhere, anywhere. I took everything I had — my notes, my tape recordings, contact numbers — and gave it to a few reporters and told them that they were welcome to write the story and that I didn’t need to be credited. No one wanted to do it. I thought a weekly magazine might, but the one I contacted kept stalling and then refused. Only this year did the editor working there tell me that the story got buried because the magazine’s boss feared violent retaliation by the Goto-gumi if they published it.

After realizing the story would never get published in Japan, I wrote it up for the Washington Post in May. Even after that article ran, I got calls from Japanese reporters who wanted to know essentially, “Is it safe to ignore your story or do we have more to worry about?” When I said that I didn’t know whether there would be more news, they all happily dropped the story.

I ended up working with the Times so that the article would get on their front page, which it did at the end of that same month. This made it so that the Japanese media couldn’t really ignore it. What they did was write stories that read, “According to the Times…” and then summarized that article and didn’t follow up on it at all. Probably this was the easiest way to write about it but not really write about it.

Could you explain how your reporting has resulted in ongoing repercussions with the Goto-gumi?

When the contents of my book were leaked out on the Internet in November, due to human error, I quickly realized that I might be in trouble. Even though the materials were written in English, apparently yakuza also are able to use Google Alerts.

The Goto-gumi has since been split into two groups, and Goto has been studying to be a Buddhist priest in Kanagawa Prefecture since April 8th of this year. Hopefully, he doesn’t hold a grudge. This summer I visited Goto’s priest and teacher, Tsukagoshi-san, who told me that he, Tsukagoshi, would take responsibility for the actions of his disciple. Tsukagoshi even said that he would kill himself by disembowelment if Goto was ever to do anything violent now that Goto had found the way. I said to him, “I think you mean well and I will cry at your funeral because I don’t think the man has changed.”

I still see cars belonging to his organization in my neighborhood now and then. They usually have the license number 5-10 or 510 which can be read as go to. I’m not sure what that’s about. Obviously he didn’t appreciate having it written up that he snitched on his comrades to the FBI in order to get an S non-immigrant visa for entry to the U.S.

Jitsuwa Jidai (October, 2009)

You mentioned yakuza fan magazines. There are also three tabloids (Shukan Asahi Geino, Shukan Jitsuwa and Shukan Taishu) that each week print a rather lengthy article about the Yamaguchi-gumi or its affiliates. Considering that all of these magazines are available at nearly every convenience and book store across Japan, to what do you attribute the indifference by the general public to what amounts free advertising by gangster groups?

The general public still actually kind of likes and/or admires the yakuza. And thus those magazines sell. It’s fantasy fodder for a lot of Japanese men who would like to imagine a life outside the bounds of being a white-collar worker and logging in hours of unpaid overtime.

In quite a few articles you have described the modern incarnation of the gangster organization as increasingly something like “Goldman Sachs with guns” — implying that they have ties if not outright employment inside respectable financial institutions. Why the shift from the streets to the office now? What has changed since the enactment of the Anti-Criminal Organization Law of 1993?

Actually, you can trace the beginnings of the keizai yakuza (economic mafia) back to the laws in 1993 which made it difficult for yakuza to display their organization symbols and names. Many set up front companies to circumvent these laws and then began using the companies for criminal activities. The relaxation of Japan’s financial regulations under Prime Minister Koizumi, was also a huge boon to yakuza groups, who saw a chance to turn the stock market into a giant gambling casino — which is what they did. Basically, Koizumi’s financial deregulation — partially based on the advice of some businessmen with underworld connections — had the effect of removing the security cameras, background checks on the employees, and the plain-clothes detectives from the “casino” and left the doors open for the yakuza.

Revisions to that same law over the past year or so have resulted in interesting reports in the press — everything from gangsters taking tests on proper protocol to adopting codes of conduct. Are you able to describe the training gangsters undergo? Do you have any first-hand observations?

I have a copy of the notes of one organized crime group’s study meetings. The person lecturing them is a former prosecutor. Ex-prosecutors often end up in the big pockets of the yakuza. One interesting thing in the documents was that since the new laws forbid rewarding a felon for going to jail on behalf of the organization it is suggested that the yakuza set up fake companies and then put the ex-convict on salary and give him a bonus as part of a legitimate-appearing salary. The new revisions will probably further encourage yakuza to set up front companies and businesses.

Partial list of Goto-gumi front companies

Since the end of World War II, construction companies have been known to be connected to criminal organizations. In “Tokyo Vice” you linked entertainment agencies to such organizations. Why is the Japanese media reluctant to report on these kinds of connections?

Because reporting on that would cost them advertising dollars and access to Japanese tarento. In 2007, secret files on organized crime and the Yamaguchi-gumi were leaked onto the Internet by a Tokyo Metropolitan Police detective who had been using the file-sharing software Winny to download porn. Amongst those documents was a list of Goto-gumi front companies and on that list was the name of Japan’s biggest talent agency and their boss. (Ed.: Click thumbnail of screen shot at left.) No one reported this. They did report that Goto had a famous actress-mistress who was also listed. Apparently, corporate privacy trumps individual privacy. Or it could just be that they were too scared to write about it. I’d say they were just too scared.

For foreign readers not familiar with the Japanese press and police, what kind of insight do you think “Tokyo Vice” can provide?

The book is not about Japanese society in general; it’s about the dark side of Japan. I think people will get a better understanding of criminal investigation procedure in Japan and how the press works there. I also think that in some ways, the book tells the reader about traditional values in Japan and what kind of behavior is respected in this country.

Can you describe what security measures you are taking to protect yourself now? Are the Goto-gumi and their affiliates your only concern?

I contact the police when I come to Japan and when I leave. I hired an ex-yakuza boss as a bodyguard. He follows me around like a shadow when I’m in Japan. I don’t take trains because yakuza know that pushing people in front of one from the platform is a crime often hard to prove — especially in a crowded station. I watch my back on rainy days. I think my family is relatively safe. I won’t explain how I have achieved it, but I think there is an understanding among all parties that family members on both sides are off limits.

Unfortunately, the old Goto-gumi is not my only concern. In a Japanese book that was printed last year, I named Yoshiro Ogino, the current head of the Matsuba-kai, with a membership of 2,400, as one of the four yakuza who got liver transplants at UCLA. Some people took that to mean that I was also implying that Ogino made a deal with the FBI — which he did not do, in fact. He got into the U.S. by being “adopted” into another family and coming in under their name.

Jitsuwa Jiho (October, 2009)

The police officer indicated that it was a matter of “publish or perish” but he didn’t say anything about “promote.” You must realize that people view you as a publicity hound. What is your reaction?

They are correct. I have become a publicity hound. But I didn’t start that way. As I said, I gave everything I had to several newspapers I knew so they could write the story about Goto.

I feel now that it’s in my best interests to be a second-rate Juzo Itami, the director I mentioned earlier; it’s also in the best interests of the people who stuck their necks out for me. The yakuza don’t want a martyr, a symbol or an excuse for the U.S. government to pressure Japan into doing something about their yakuza problem. The investigative journalist Atsushi Mizoguchi, who is much more versed in the underworld than me, took the same approach after his son was attacked and that’s let him operate with some degree of impunity. Though I believe he’s very cautious even now.

I like Japan, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a journalist. I may not be a great person, but I think I can do some good things. It feels like my second home. Publicity is my bullet-proof vest and I’d rather have it than not have it. I’m not anxious to be one of the vanished or the departed. I just hope that I’m calculating all of this correctly and that I’m playing yakuza politics the right way instead of the wrong way. There is a time to work in the shadows and there is a time to work in plain sight.

I think it’ll be difficult to continue working as a journalist in Japan but not impossible, and I hope that as long as I continue reporting on organized crime with some degree of fairness, acknowledging that not all yakuza are bad people and that they may serve some kind of useful function in Japan, though probably not substantially, that my existence will be tolerated.

What project will you be working on next?

I’m working a book about a former crime boss, a traditional yakuza, who has a very interesting story to tell, and calling it “The Last Yakuza.” I also plan to do a “McMafia” style book about the economic yakuza to be called “The Nine-Fingered Economy — Yakuza in Japan’s Business Sector and the World.” And I’m trying to turn my blog, Japan Subculture Research Center, into both a fun site on Japan’s darker subculture and a valuable reference source for those who are interested in Japan’s underground economy.

Note: “Tokyo Vice” (Pantheon) was released on October 13. Update: Metropolis magazine includes an excerpt from “Tokyo Vice” in this week’s issue (October 29).