Author gets too close for comfort with Tokyo's yakuza gangs

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - When American Jake Adelstein arrived in Tokyo to study Japanese, martial arts and Buddhism two decades ago, he had no idea he would one day be fleeing, fearing for his life, after threats from yakuza gangsters.

American writer Jake Adelstein poses with his book "Tokyo Vice" at a red-light district in Tokyo October 9, 2009. A 12-year stint covering crime for Japan's biggest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, brought Adelstein into contact with the seamy side of Tokyo that most Westerners never see, from loan sharking to murders to trafficking in sex workers. Picture taken October 9, 2009. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

A 12-year stint covering crime for Japan’s biggest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, brought Adelstein into contact with the seamy side of Tokyo that most Westerners never see, from loan sharking to murders to trafficking in sex workers.

His mission to pull off a scoop about the yakuza turned personal after the disappearance of a prostitute friend who had been trying to help him find out about what he suspected was a human trafficking ring.

Adelstein, who wrote in Japanese, left the newspaper in 2005. In his English-language memoir, “Tokyo Vice,” which will be published in the United States this week, he tells the story of how he got to grips with the unique Japanese way of journalism, becoming such a serious irritant to the yakuza that he faced death threats and was placed under police protection in 2008.

Adelstein, who belonged to a rare breed of foreign journalists writing for the Japanese-language press, spoke to Reuters recently about his career and crime in Japan.

Q: What made you come to Japan in the first place?

A: “I became very interested in Japan when I was taking karate in high school. My teacher grew up in Okinawa and taught us about the spiritual aspects of the martial art and a little bit about Zen Buddhism and it intrigued me. I was hoping that in Japan that I could master karate, master myself, and master the language and achieve a mini enlightenment along the way. I hate to say I have managed to do none of those things.”

Q: Why did you decide to join the Japanese media, rather than work for a Western outlet as most foreign journalists do?

A: “I never thought that I would actually succeed in becoming a part of the Japanese media. I prepared for the examinations that all new recruits fresh out of college must take if they want to be hired, but I never imagined that I would pass. However, after making it to the first round of interviews, I really wanted the job. I thought it would be an unparalleled opportunity to see and understand Japan from the inside out. And I have always been drawn to doing things that seem impossible or unlikely.”

Q: Were you always fascinated by crime?

A: “Yes, I’ve always been interested in crime, mystery, the dark side of the human condition. My father has been the county coroner where I grew up for as long as I can remember and his tales of murder, mayhem and mystery always made dinner and breakfast more interesting. The process of tracing back the circumstances that ended in death to their starting point was something and is something that bewitches me. I have a terribly strong morbid curiosity and to be honest I like the investigation process much more than the writing process. At one point in time, I really thought I’d like to be a cop but ended up as an investigative journalist instead.”

Q: Some people say the yakuza play something of a positive role. What do you think?

A: “I hate to admit it but there might be some positive roles for the yakuza in Japanese society, especially in keeping down petty street crime. Organized crime in Japan tends to be, pardon the pun, very organized and they do a good job of policing the entertainment districts so that people are not afraid to go there. There are times when the street justice the yakuza deal out seems like poetic justice and there are a few yakuza who I consider honorable men, in their own way. At the same time, certain factions of the yakuza engage in human trafficking, the production of child pornography, extortion, stock manipulation, pushing drugs, assault, loan sharking and occasionally murder. They can and often do create a lot of human misery and these days I think they’re out of control.”

Q: You left Japan once, fearing for your life. Do you feel safe coming here now?

A: “I don’t feel safe anywhere. I think what people don’t understand about the yakuza in Japan is that they are amazingly well-connected politically and socially and if you get on their bad side, they will find other ways of destroying your life without physically assaulting you or killing you. They’re very good at finding embarrassing information to blackmail people into submission. The yakuza are also very good at staging suicides and the police are very bad at proving they were homicides. Most deaths in Japan do not end with autopsies or a thorough forensic investigation. The numbers of autopsies performed by trained professionals are ridiculously low. In recent years, even the Japanese recognize this is a problem. I have hired an ex-yakuza boss as a bodyguard and I keep in touch with the police when I come here as a precaution.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy