Jake Adelstein – Interview

Courtesy of Jake Adelstein

An interview with Jake Adelstein, reporter and writer. Author of Tokyo Vice. An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (US, 2009 – Italy, Einaudi 2011), a memoir but also a breathtaking story of yakuza, crime, politics and reporting. Now a movie with Daniel Radcliffe.

Friendly, extrovert. One would never imagine that Jake Adelstein, the guy we're web interviewing today, is one of today's bravest reporters, and the name behind a memoir narrating the relationship between yakuza, crime, politics, and reporting. Through his investigations, Adelstein managed to better Tadamasa Goto, one of yakuza (Japanese mafia)'s most dangerous linchpins. We have to -virtually- chase him across the world in order to snag an interview with him. His bestselling book, Tokyo Vice, is set to become a movie with Daniel Radcliffe playing the main role, and filming is scheduled to begin soon. “It's a project I've been working on for years. I refused many offers and finally decided to rewrite the script with J.T. Rogers, a former schoolmate and talented playwright”, he explains. Adelstein's life story is truly stranger than fiction.

Fascinated by Japan's culture, Adelstein moved to the Eastern country at an early age, attending Sophia University and living in a Buddhist monastery. He becomes the first foreigner to be hired by a Japanese newspaper, the famous Yomuri Shinbun, where he works on crime reporting from 1992 to 2005, covering yakuza and human trafficking. He is also the first foreign reporter to be admitted into the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club. “I didn't think they would hire me as a reporter. I just wanted to try out my language skills. I had a job ready with Sony”, he explains. His beat had him explore Japan's criminal underbelly and the complex events that allowed yakuza boss, Tadamasa Goto, to enter the US for a liver transplant. He received death threats by the boss' underlings, yet he managed to land the story on the Washington Post. The news stirred up a storm, was picked up by initially reluctant Japanese newspaper, and it sealed Goto's fate. Forced to return to the US under FBI protection, Adelstein covered for the agency human trafficking from 2006 to 2009. Today he travels between the US and Japan, writing under pseudonym for The Japan Times, The Daily Beast and other publications. He is also working on a new book, The Last Yakuza.

Why did you write Tokyo Vice?

I wanted to share what I learnt about Japan. I wanted people to learn from my errors, to get to know the world of crime and the policemen, criminals and reporters who inhabit it. I also wanted people to understand how horrible human trafficking truly is. The book is dedicated to the many people I loved and lost through the years. Finally, I wanted the book to be the final nail in the coffin for Tadamasa Goto, a despicable man who is unrepentant of having caused the death and misery of many. I really hope my book might drive others to fight for justice, and maybe inspire them,

What's the difference between yakuza and other criminal organizations like mafia?

Japanese mafia is a legal entity, with fan magazines, business cards, offices and well known leaders. They have a public image to preserve, that of a honorable and 'humane' organization. Almost all yakuza groups prohibit crimes like stealing, rape, drug dealing and so on. They do not dabble in small time, street crimes; it's with extortion and racketing that they make their money.

Your life is entangled with that of yakuza boss Tadamasa Goto. How did you meet him? What can you tell us about the liver transplant scandal? You mentioned in an interview that it's the second leading cause of death for yakuza members.

Yes, yakuza men drink a lot and often have tattoos done with infected needles and so contract hepatitis. Traditional Japanese tattoo techniques wabori (和彫り) are dangerous and very damaging to one's health. I met Goto once, in a Ginza club – but I only found out years later – and the second time at his trial, while he was leaving the room. We just exchanged glances, but it was enough to get our mutual aversion across.

Did you ever meet Goto after he retired from yakuza and became a Buddhist monk?

No. Goto is a fake monk. He never apologized for the death and suffering he caused, not in his biography. Only once, he apologized to a family that took him to court for the death of a member. Still, he was never formally condemned.

What has been your most difficult moment while covering yakuza?

It was that time I wrote a piece on yakuza and what happened after 3/11 (Fukushima nuclear plant incident), and almost got one of my sources into trouble. I thought he was going to lose his job. At the last minute I was able to contain damage and wait for things to calm down. There was another difficult moment, but it didn't have to do with yakuza and I'd rather not talk about it. The past can't be changed.

What's next?

I am writing my second book, The Last Yakuza. It's a history of yakuza from the postwar era until today, told through the story of a boss and his underlings. I am also working on two different news stories: one, covering the link between yakuza and Japan's Olympic Committee; the second one is about Japanese businesses paying yakuza by using political parties as middlemen.

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