Tokyo Vice Book Review

Tokyo Vice is a courageous book written by a very brave man*. It’s the autobiography of Jake Adelstein, an American who worked on the police beat at the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper, and tells the story of how he fearlessly exposed Japan’s human trafficking problem and went head to head with one of Japan’s most notorious yakuza, exposing the details of a liver transplant that he got in the United States. As a result of articles that he wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun and this book, he’s now living under police protection.
It’s a real page turner, filled with drama, pathos, and even a bit of action. It starts out with a meeting between Adelstein, a cop friend of his, and two members of the infamous Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest crime syndicate. The two yakuza threaten Adelstein’s life, telling him that if he publishes an article detailing their boss’s liver transplant in America, they’ll kill him. The rest of the book is what led up to this event, starting with the odd story of how he got hired at the Yomiuri Shimbun, his days as a reporter on the crime beat in Omiya and later Kabuki-cho, and later his involvement in the Lucy Blackman case and investigations of human trafficking in Japan.
Maybe you’ve read stories in the English dailies about a yakuza, Tadamasa Goto, who became a Buddhist priest a few years ago. Goto is the man whose liver transplant Adelstein exposed, and I was just riveted as I read about Adelstein’s confrontations with one of the country’s most vicious criminals. It seems extremely likely that the reason Goto has become a priest is due to Adelstein’s reporting.
The book is also an excellent source for people who are interested in Japan’s media and police. Some of the reporters and cops are nearly as immoral as the yakuza. You’ll probably be shocked to read about the details of their incompetence and insensitivity in their handling of human trafficking cases, how both groups resisted efforts to expose the human trafficking problem in Japan, and the horror stories about the way newspapers treat their reporters.
My only complaint about the book is a minor one. I find it hard to believe that a reporter who worked on the crime beat would not know words like “gokudo” (yakuza), “honban” (the euphemism for sex used in soaplands), or what a host club is. There are quite a few places where there are conversations in which police officers or other journalists explain things that Adelstein, as a journalist, would clearly have known. These seem to be there for the reader’s benefit rather than because they actually happened. In the end of the book he explains that he changed names and details to protect people, but the possibility that he has made up conversations leaves me with a vague suspicion that there are other things that have been invented, rather than just having their details changed. (Jake Adestein has written a response to this criticism in the comments. I’m now a bit conflicted about whether my criticism is valid, so I hope you’ll read his response).
Anyway, this is a great book, one of the best I’ve ever read about Japan. It’s not written by one of those people who jet-setted into Japan for a month or a year and thought that made them a Japan expert. There’s fascinating stuff on nearly every page and this book will give you a whole new perspective on the way the yakuza, media and police operate in Japan.

Adelstein’s excellent Japan Subculture Research Institute blog is also a great read.

*Possibly not as brave (and seemly delusional), though, as Benjamin Fulford, Japan’s foremost conspiracy nut, who protested outside the Yamaguchi gumi’s headquarters trying to convince them to shut down.

0 replies
  1. Jake Adelstein
    Jake Adelstein says:

    Thanks for the kind review. I hope the book is an accurate portrayal of how I learned things as I went down the road. I think the book has me learning the word “Gokudo” very early in my career–but perhaps that got jumbled in the editing process, I’ll take a look.
    Your minor complaint deserves a response, so perhaps this will make sense to you. I think I’ve touched upon this before but the cops always tended to over explain things to me, assuming that as a foreigner–that I didn’t know anything. Yes, sometimes there was a temptation to say, “Oh, I know that” but it would also be rude in Japanese society to do so. So I listened to people talk about things I already knew. That was actually kind of nice. Sometimes they would say more than they normally would because of that.
    From the time I entered the Yomiuri, I always thought I might write a book about it someday, so I kept a diary, and all the notes, drafts, photos, press releases, tapes, and other things that I used while writing at the paper.
    The first year spent writing the book was basically organizing it into a semi-chronological order. In no way do I have a photographic memory.
    Good gosh, I don’t know if I could say this a great book about Japan–it’s a good back about some aspects of Japanese society but I would never claim to be an expert on Japan as whole. However, I think I got across some of the things I find admirable in Japanese society as well as those elements that I find apalling.
    All in all, I’m very fond of my second home.

    Ben’s books these days in Japanese, tend to be a little conspiracy theory heavy, but I don’t know about such things and I’m no position to comment on them. His early writings about “the yakuza recession” and other things were very good at points. I like your blog quite a bit, and thank you for the book review and plugging my blog as well.


  2. Jake Adelstein
    Jake Adelstein says:

    I should also add that Goto Tadamasa seems fairly serious about his new life as a Buddhist priest and is doing some good charity work in Cambodia. Maybe it’s a ruse; I don’t know. These days I feel relatively safe. I still have a bodyguard and driver with me when I’m in Japan and I keep the TMPD posted on my comings and goings.
    I’ve taken the approach that Mizoguchi, the yakuza writer who’s son was stabbed by Yamaguchi-gumi Yamaken members a few years ago, has taken to dealing with these things and I think it’s working. He’s a very good writer about yakuza in Japan, if you can read Japanese.

  3. Mike
    Mike says:

    Great review! Also nice to hear the author’s comments afterwards. I’ll definitely look to pick this up when I see it in store (or if you offer discounts? :p)

    Both the Qjh ad japansubculture are interesting blogs that I’ll keep track on! I’m very interested in the lesser-known and quirkier side of Japan myself, recently exploring abandoned buildings and searching for unknown locations. Not quite the courage required of an undercover reporter though! – Much respect.

  4. bartman905
    bartman905 says:

    Thanks for the review. I first saw Tokyo Vice in a recent article (maybe a few months ago) in Tokyo Metropolis Magazine and the short excerpt was interesting. I am way behind in my reading, but will try to get this book from a local bookstore or Amazon.

  5. Hallon in Japan
    Hallon in Japan says:

    I have just finished the book, wanted to read it for a long time.
    I must say that I loved it, I wanted to get to the end fast but at the same time I did not want to end the book.
    Also made me see Kabukicho in a different way (still like it), I live in Tokyo so I see that place often since I like the Shinjuku area.
    Hope that you Jake and your family are doing good.

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  1. […] at Kinokinuya (?!) Bookstore, I found a copy of Tokyo Vice, which I first became aware of through QuirkyJapan. I read the first few pages and it proved to be very engaging! Except it was more than half my […]

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