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Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010

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Keyed up: Jake Adelstein at home, surrounded by magazines and books on the criminal underbelly of Japan he has come to know so well. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO


Insider reaching out

Jake Adelstein spent a decade reporting on crime for a major Japanese newspaper, learning a lot along the way about how the country really works, and also about himself — as he relates here and in his best-seller, 'Tokyo Vice'

Special to The Japan Times

Author Joshua "Jake" Adelstein supposes that if he'd stayed home in rural Missouri and had never come to Japan, he'd probably have become a small-town lawyer or a very happy detective on the local police force.

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Looking back: Jake Adelstein, author of the best-selling book "Tokyo Vice," during his recent Japan Times interview. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"I was always attracted to the law, probably because my father was the county coroner for many years — and still is now," he says.

But Adelstein has spent roughly half his life in Japan, first as a student at Sophia University in Tokyo and then as a reporter for the vernacular Yomiuri Shimbun, where he landed a job that put him in touch with what he describes as "the dark side of the rising sun."

Seated on tatami in his sparsely furnished home-cum-office, crammed with books, magazines and manga extolling the exploits of the yakuza (Japan's homegrown organized-crime groups), Adelstein, who will turn 41 in March, projects an aura of nervous energy as he taps a clove-scented cigarette against the rim of an ashtray.

"I always thought about writing a memoir about my years as a reporter in Japan, because I knew I was getting a look at the underbelly of Japanese society that even many Japanese don't get," he relates. "I kept all my notes, photos, articles, tape recordings, memos, rough drafts, related documents and diary entries from the time I started working."

Although he'd completed his first draft by September 2008, Adelstein's Japan-based publisher dropped the project out of concerns over violent retaliation by certain individuals mentioned in the book. So he took his manuscript to New York.

"The editor who first looked at my manuscript, Timothy O'Connell . . . was the perfect person to read it," he says.

"I was very lucky that he liked it, and he worked with me for months to get it into shape and make it all come together."

Realizing it had a potential blockbuster on its hands, the U.S. publisher Pantheon bumped up the print run and, in mid-October, "Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan," was released to wide critical acclaim.

In addition to embarking on a coast-to-coast book-signing tour, Adelstein made appearances on CBS TV's famed "60 Minutes" news program and "The Daily Show" with comedian Jon Stewart.

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Making a point: Jake Adelstein, the only foreigner to have worked the crime beat for a major Japanese newspaper, discusses a story with a colleague in the early '90s. KIYOSHI INOUE PHOTO

"Tokyo Vice" is already into its third printing. Several foreign-language editions are in the pipeline and discussions are also under way about a film.

In Japan, however, the silence over "Tokyo Vice" has been deafening. Perhaps that will change when, and if, Adelstein finds a publisher for the book's Japanese-language version — which he says will not be a straight transcript but a rewrite that will protect the innocent from possible recriminations.

You just came back from a whirlwind U.S. tour of book-signings and TV appearances. Did people ask you a lot of dumb questions?

There are no dumb questions. I approve of people asking what they don't know. Sure, there have been a few times when I wish the interviewer had read the book more thoroughly or prepared for the interview a little better, but it takes some guts to admit you don't know something.

That's what one of my favorite Japanese sayings is about: "Kiku wa isshun no haji, kikanu wa issho no haji." Loosely translated, it means: "To ask may bring momentary shame, but not to ask and remain ignorant brings everlasting shame."

We learn and get smarter by admitting that we don't know.

The reviews have exceeded my wildest expectations. Everyone takes away something different from the book — which is interesting. Journalists are fascinated by the mechanisms of police reporting and reporting in general in Japan; true-crime buffs like the bizarre cases; and some people find that it tells them a lot about the dark side of Japan.

I did read one review complaining that the book was too graphic, and I had to wonder what part of the title was too subtle. It's "Tokyo Vice," not "Tokyo Nice." I don't think you can do a G-rated version of the book.

Do you read a lot of true-crime or crime fiction? Are there any books or writers in English (or Japanese) you enjoy, or who you hope to emulate?

I read tons of books about organized crime in Japan — the yakuza — and crime in general. I've probably got 200 books on the mob and the keizai yakuza (financial mafia). I used to read crime fiction years ago, in elementary school and junior high school. I like Lawrence Block, and the "Shinjuku-zame" series in Japan is great, too.

I don't think there was anyone I was trying to emulate. Among others, you yourself have compared the writing to a "hard-boiled detective novel." I did try to strike a neutral tone. I think years of dealing with crime, cops and criminals has made me a little stoic, and I don't like outward, over-the-top displays of emotion.

There's a saying that goes: "Naite kurasu mo issho, waratte kurasu mo issho." My personal interpretation has always been, "You cry and go on living and it's one life, or you can laugh and go on living and it's one life — either way, you only have one life."

So I prefer to laugh when I can. I have a terribly dark sense of humor, but that's an occupational hazard. Maybe that attitude comes across as hard-boiled.

However, I made a conscious effort to write the book as if I was speaking to a very good friend who I'd been out of touch with for years.

Why do you think so many readers tend to be fixated on the yakuza aspects of the book?

The yakuza make a lot of appearances in the book and they are anthropologically and socially a very interesting phenomenon in Japan. The trappings of the yakuza — the blood oaths, so to speak, the tattoos, and the sheer numbers of them — coupled with that latent kamikaze mentality in the organizations, that's fascinating for people in the West. It's a lot harder to talk about human trafficking, or loan sharking, or the minutiae of being a police reporter.


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