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An American In Japan, Investigating The 'Tokyo Vice'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
My guest Jake Adelstein has written a journalistâs memoir unlike any Iâve ever
read. He writes of covering extortion, murder and human trafficking in Japan
and eventually getting his life threatened by a mob boss. What makes
Adelsteinâs story unique is that he was an American reporting on crime and
writing in Japanese for Japanâs largest daily newspaper.
His book is an inside look at the crime beat in a country where murders are
rare, but each is a huge story, where the police are professional, but need to
be visited at home and plied with gifts and flattery for information, and where
mob syndicates, the yakuza, are so entrenched, they have headquarters in office
buildings and business cards for their members.
After writing for Japanâs Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper for 12 years, Jake
Adelstein was the chief investigator for a U.S. State Department-sponsored
study of human trafficking in Japan. He now lives in the United States. His
book is called âTokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.â
Well, Jake Adelstein, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Letâs talk about organized crime in Japan. It seems, as I read the book, quite
different from organized crime as we know it in the United States. For one
thing, these guys carry business cards?
Mr. JAKE ADELSTEIN (Author, âTokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police
Beat in Japanâ): Yes. I think in Japan, organized crime is very much out in the
open. So since everyone in Japan carries business cards, it makes sense for
organized crime members to carry business cards, as well.
DAVIES: Okay. That means that these have phone numbers and addresses and
headquarters. I mean, what is the ostensible legal facade of these â I assume
that the name is meant to mean a legitimate business. Or is it meant to
understand something different?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Itâs not meant to mean a legitimate business. The yakuza groups
in Japan - and there are 22 that the government officially recognizes. Itâs a
badge of honor, I guess, to be an officially-recognized crime group. Their
legal status is like that of the Rotary Club or the Boy Scouts. In itself,
theyâre not illegal. Their offices are well-known. For example, the Yamaguchi-
gumi - which is the biggest organized crime group with 40,000 members, giving
them about half of the market - their office and headquarters in Kobe is the
size of a city block. You can see it from Google Earth. Itâs huge. Itâs walled
in kind of with high fencing and security cameras.
Another faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi - and there are about 100 factions, you
know, because itâs a huge organization, kind of like a franchise â the Kodokai,
which has their headquarters in Nagoya, which is where Toyota also has their
headquarters. Their building is not only huge, it has a swimming pool and a
gymnasium. You know, itâs like a mini-world into itself.
DAVIES: And why would these organized crime organizations want their members to
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Because it intimidates the hell out of people. When you see that
business card of - letâs say itâs Yamaguchi-gumi or Sumiyoshi-kai or Inagawa-
kai - your reaction is one of fear because you realize that behind that meishi
is, you know, 10,000 to 40,000 very angry gangsters. So the power of that
business card is immense.
DAVIES: And what goes on at this big headquarters? I mean, are there hundreds
if clerical people who are not criminals who are doing regular old white collar
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Well, yeah. The Yamaguchi-gumi - which has been around for six
generations, now - really sort of came to power after the Second World War, but
(unintelligible) before that - consists of 40,000 members and about a hundred
factions. And each faction runs a series of front companies, meaning companies
that appear to be legitimate, but theyâre actually doing â well, are actually
doing business, but using illegal means to facilitate that business, like
construction companies or real estate companies, sometimes investment banks -
well, investment firms rather than investment banks, auditing firms.
So at the headquarters, theyâre basically pooling all the money that comes in
from the lower-ranking factions and businesses and distributing it for various
criminal enterprises and things. They have a boiler room, allegedly, in the
head office, where you have a bunch of people in front of, you know, computers
trading stocks, seeing how the investments are doing.
DAVIES: What do mobsters in Japan look like? Is there a yakuza look?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Now years ago, like when I was starting as a reporter in 1993 -
which is 16 years ago â yes, there was definitely a yakuza look. They tended to
have these kind of strange perms called punch perms, with very tight little
curls. Often wore - on their days off, they often wore, like, white sweat
suits. You know, missing fingers was standard, and almost everyone who was a
yakuza at the time had a whole body tattoo, meaning you could see the tattoos.
You know, if they were wearing short sleeves, you could see the tattoos, or if
they were - even when theyâre wearing suits, you could see the tattoo sort of
poking out from under the shirt sleeves.
DAVIES: Is the whole body tattoo kind of an initiation ritual?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: The purpose of the whole body tattoo â the tattoos themselves
are meaningless. There are certain motifs, like a bodhisattva, or a dragon,
that are popular. The meaning of the tattoos is that there â well, there are
three meanings. One is that by getting yourself tattooed fully, you sort of
indicate that you have thrown away the civilian life and youâre devoted to the
organization. That is especially true when you have the organization emblem
tattooed on your chest - not only have you thrown away your life as a civilian,
but you are so committed to the organization now that youâve branded yourself.
The other meaning of the tattoos is that, theyâre incredibly painful the way
they were done traditionally. Literally, they take these hooks with a kind of a
Japanese traditional ink and gouge it into the flesh so deeply that the flesh
is actually raised on the areas where theyâre tattooed and the skin dies. The
sweat cells die so that, you know, the people who have the whole body tattoos
in the summer, if you touch the tattoo, itâs clammy. It doesnât warm up.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: And because itâs so painful, when you see someone whoâs fully
tattooed, the less skin they have showing, the tougher they are, the more they
can endure. But the third thing is that tattoos are very expensive. So when
someone has a beautiful, intensely deep tattoo, theyâre also saying I have lots
of endurance and I have lots of money to spend on this tattoo.
DAVIES; And you said a number of them have missing fingers. Why?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Well, it goes back to samurai tradition, in the sense. When
youâve done something that goes against the organization - well, there are two
kinds of reasons that people cut off their fingers. Thereâs - the act itself is
called is yubitsume, which is literally just sort of like condense the finger.
There are two reasons this happen. One is as that as a yakuza boss, one of your
underlings has made a terrible mistake, and to take responsibility for that,
you cut off a finger and give it to your boss as a sign of atonement. That is
called iki yubi, like a living finger. When you screwed up and your only
choices are by either being killed or being kicked out of the organization and
you want to stay and you give up your finger, that is called shinu yubi, like a
So itâs much more noble to sacrifice your finger for the sake of one of your
underlings than it is to sacrifice your finger for your own mistakes.
DAVIES: Wow. If you make multiple mistakes, can you lose more than one finger?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Oh, yes. I know a couple of yakuza who are missing, like, two
fingers. If you, for example, make the terrible mistake of sleeping with the
oyabun, thatâs the bossâs wife or his mistress, then you have to take off a
thumb. If you commit a crime against a child, letâs say you rape a child or you
molest a child and youâre not killed outright, then theyâll take your entire
DAVIES: Do the yakuza see themselves as connected to the, you know, the samurai
tradition in Japan?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yes. The yakuza portray themselves as a second police force that
protects traditional Japanese values and the interest of the common citizens.
They also sort of see themselves as a cheaper alternative to lawyers and a
group capable of quickly resolving civil disputes.
DAVIES: If I were just an ordinary guy living in a Japanese city and sold
insurance or something would I likely have contact with yakuza? Would I have
access to them if I had a problem?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: You would likely have contact with them and have to debate
whether you wanted to give these guys an insurance policy. And if you were in
some kind of civil dispute and you want it resolved quickly, you might ask a
friend of a friend until you got to the local yakuza office and asked them to
solve it for you, unless you wanted to spend like two years in civil court
trying to resolve it.
MARTIN: Hmm. And so how might I resolve this dispute with my neighbor over a
fence or a fender bender? How might the yakuza help me?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: You might go to the local yakuza and say my neighbor won't take
his fence off my property. It's intruding into my property, you know, it's an
inch over and can you handle this for me? And the yakuza would say - they would
name a price, you would pay the money, and then they would go intimidate your
neighbor until he moved the fence.
Or if your neighbor owed you money and he didnât - and he hadn't paid it back
to you, he would go there. He would talk to someone, a lower level yakuza who
would look over your claim, decide how much you were owed and then tell you: We
can get that money back for you but we'll have to take half as expenses and you
would say fine.
Our guest is Jake Adelstein. He is a writer who worked as a crime reporter in
Japan for many years. His new book is "Tokyo Vice." We'll talk some more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, our guest is Jake Adelstein. He's an
American who spent many, many years as a newspaper reporter in Japan. He was
fluent in Japanese and covered the crime beat. His new book is called "Tokyo
Now weâve talked about how the Japanese mob or its organized crime syndicates
are very different from those in the United States. They can exercise enormous
brutality and yet they have, you know, lavish offices and business cards and
operates in some respects as sort of an open part of Japanese society. Tell us
about how the relationship between the police and organized crime is different
in Japan than we might see in the United States.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Okay. I would definitely like to tell you about that. Before I
do, I think I should add something about the modern yakuza because I think
weâve really discussed sort of the old style yakuza right now. Theyâve moved
into you know, all kinds of legitimate industries, industries you wouldnât
expect the yakuza to be in. That includes: high finance, investments, mergers
Last year, Lehman Brothers Japan, before they went under, lost $350 million in
an incredibly complicated fraud that was initiated by people with yakuza
connections. Citibank in Japan has been punished twice for having accounts with
yakuza, or having accounts that were opened by yakuza in their bank. So they're
definitely not the idiots and thugs that they used to be. Theyâve graduated
beyond gambling and prostitution and drug running. Now...
DAVIES: So they're now into derivatives?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Now they're in derivatives. Yes. These guys are very very smart.
I mean I've often characterized them as Goldman Sachs with guns but that's
essentially how they work. They work like ordinary businessmen. They hire very
bright people to work for them and they will negotiate very good deals. And if
you won't make the deal with them, then theyâll kill you or blackmail you or
extort you until you do.
DAVIES: You know, I wanted to ask about how - the relationship between the
police and organized crime. I mean youâve described a situation in which you
have these huge syndicates with thousands and thousands of members who make a
fortune in illegal operations and yet have these, you know, huge headquarters
which the police all know about and members who are so easily identified that
they carry business cards. Isn't it easy for the cops to, you know, undertake
surveillance and execute searches and subpoena documents and nail them?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: No. No. No. Absolutely not. The police are so handicapped by the
Japanese laws that as one cop put it: Our job is to trim the branches. We're
never allowed to get to the roots. There was a time when there was a cozy
relationship between the police and the yakuza, in a sense that many police
regard the yakuza as a necessary evil, a kind of second police force that keeps
the entertainment district and the streets free from street crime by violently
enforcing, you know, their own laws which would demand that if someone was like
doing purse snatching or muggings in their area that the yakuza would beat the
crap out of them. I mean that's a very effective way to keep people from doing
purse snatching or mugging or street crime or even panhandling in the areas
that they can control.
Those relationships aren't as cozy as they used to be. But from the police
side, and I have many friends in the police force and they're very sincere in
what they're trying to do, they're at a huge disadvantage compared like to say
the FBI in the United States. First of all, wiretapping is not allowed except
in extreme cases involving murder or a criminal conspiracy where hundreds of
people can be injured. So in general, you can't permission to wiretap a yakuza
office. The second thing is there's no plea bargaining in Japan. Plea
bargaining was a huge tool in the hands of the FBI because they would get
people at the bottom to rat out the people at the top. Well, there's no plea
bargaining and there's no witness protection.
There's no real witness protection program, no witness relocation. So let's say
youâre Joe Yakuza at the very bottom. You get caught. The cops are pressuring
you to finger someone above you so they can take down the organization. If you
cooperate you won't get a lighter sentence. You'll probably be killed once you
get out of jail. There's not a plus side. On the other hand, if you keep your
mouth shut and serve your time on behalf of the organization, when you get out
you will rise up the yakuza ranks and you'll get a bonus payment. That's how
the yakuza make sure that investigations stop at the bottom and donât reach the
DAVIES: You know, in a situation where the police are ineffective at really
taking down, you know, these organizations and in some cases, you know, stop by
and have tea and sweets with them, one would imagine that the opportunities for
corruption are rife. Did you get the sense that any of the police are on the
Mr. ADELSTEIN: There's not a lot of corruption in the Japanese police force,
surprisingly little. You tend to see a little bit more corruption in the vice
areas because the sex laws and the adult entertainment laws in Japan are so
nebulous that essentially it's pretty much on whim who gets prosecuted and who
doesnât. So I can understand why vice cops would tend to be susceptible to
bribes. The organized crime cops are generally very straight up. The white
collar crime cops are generally uncorruptible. There's not as much corruption
as you would think. Actually very little.
DAVIES: And I guess we should note that gun laws are very strict and murder is
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yes. Yes. Murder is very rare. You know, when it comes to yakuza
and murder, I'm not sure how rare that is because when they dispose of a body,
they usually throw it in the concrete foundation of a building that's going up.
And since they own lots of construction companies, that's very easy for them to
do. There are like - something like 10,000 people who disappear in Japan every
year. If there's no body, of course, it's not counted as murder. So I'm not
sure that the murder rates are as low as the Japanese government says they are.
DAVIES: So the sort of, I hate to use this expression, but the garden variety
murder that we see so much of in the United States where, you know, a domestic
argument or an armed robbery leads to gunfire and death. That so much you donât
see. But organized crime...
Mr. ADELSTEIN: No. No. No. You don't see much of that.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: And the organized crime people donât - tend to try not to kill
civilians. It's bad press.
DAVIES: Your story is really unusual. I mean you went to Japan, studied
Japanese well, and managed to get a job working as a reporter for a Japanese-
language newspaper. And, of course, you spent a lot of your time reporting on
crime and a lot of that meant building relationships with police officers. And
I found this just fascinating, having done some police reporting in the United
States and known a lot of police reporters how different these kinds of
relationships seem to be. One of the things you said was that you had learned
early on, you would go to the homes of police officers and wait to chat with
them as they got off work, right?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yeah. That was very common. That was called (foreign language
spoken), the evening rounds. That was something I did every day.
DAVIES: Yeah. You know, in United States, I think if an American - if a police
detective came home and saw an American reporter hanging out at his driveway he
would be very unnerved by it. It just doesnât happen here I donât think.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yeah. I think that definitely would be - you might be shot
actually as youâre sitting in the driveway as an intruder.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ADELSTEIN: In Japan it was understood that that was part of what police
reporters do and itâs part of being a cop - at a certain level is that you had
to put up with it. You didnât have to talk to the reporters but in many senses
police expected you to do that.
DAVIES: And you brought gifts. And you know, one of the most wonderful examples
- maybe you could tell the story of this detective named Sagiguchi(ph). Do I
have the name right?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Oh yeah, Sakiguchi.
DAVIES: Sakiguchi. Yeah. Who ended up being an important source in relationship
with you. Tell us about the first time that you went to see him and the advice
you had about how to make your entree.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Well, Sakiguchi-san actually turned out to be my mentor more
than any other reporter. But the first time I went to see him I was working on
this bizarre case about a dog breeder and his wife who were also serial
killers. That's a very long story. But Sakiguchi-san was an organized crime
control detective assigned to that case and I wanted to ask him some questions.
So I went to his house which was all the way in northern Saitama, you know, in
an area so undeveloped it's like, you know, at night it was pitch black. And I
bought some ice cream on the way there because ice cream was a good way to get
into the house on a summer day.
It works like this: You go to the house. You knock on the door, his wife and
his two kids came outside and greeted me. But they wouldnât - but, you know,
they asked Sakiguchi-san like, we - you know, there's this reporter the Yomiuri
who would like to speak to you. Will you speak to him? And you know, I could
hear from the back saying like no way. Send him away.
And I said well, you know, I brought this ice cream. It's going to melt in the
car so please, take the ice cream because I'd hate to see it go to waste. So I
handed the wife the ice cream and I started walking back towards the car, at
which point, Sakiguchi-san came out and said well, you know, there's more than
the three of us can eat and since youâve come this far you might as well come
in. I won't tell you anything but youâre welcome to sit down.
DAVIES: That's the detective telling you this, right?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yeah. Thatâs the detective - Detective Sakiguchi.
DAVIES: And, of course, that began a long and, I know, important relationship
for you as we read about in the book. But it's also just - it struck me how
common it was for you and other reporters to give police detectives, you know,
cartons of cigarettes, booze, in some cases take them to for a meal or a sex
show. Again, in the United States cops aren't allowed to accept gifts like
this. Is that just routine in Japan?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: This also relates to Japanese society in general. When you visit
someone in Japan, especially the first time, you know, youâre supposed to bring
something. Youâre not supposed to come empty handed. It's considered very rude.
The first time you got to someone's house - actually every time you go to
someone's house youâre suppose to bring something - a snack, a soft drink, some
coffee, something to show that you are sorry, are appreciative of the fact that
they are spending time with you.
So in that sense, you know, I'm just following natural rules of Japanese
behavior. Youâre visiting someone's house. Therefore, the polite thing to do is
to bring to eat or something to drink with you. Admittedly, that gets, you
know, like comping them with tickets to the Yomiuri Giants games and those
things, youâre getting into a very gray area there. I never gave a cop money,
you know, that was a total taboo. Other things that were probably worth money,
yes, I gave them.
DAVIES: Jake Adelstein's book is called "Tokyo Vice." He'll back in the second
half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Back with Jake Adelstein. For 12 years, he was a journalistic curiosity in
Japan - an American covering the crime beat, writing and reporting in Japanese
for the countryâs largest daily paper. His book is an inside look at Japanâs
crime scene, dominated by mobs syndicates so powerful, they have headquarters
and office buildings and business courage for their members. Adlesteinâs memoir
is called, âTokyo Vice.â
Fascinating stuff in this book about the sex industry in Japan, and you took an
early tour through this red light district in Tokyo called Kabukicho, if - do I
have the name right?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yes, thatâs correct. Kabukicho.
DAVIES: What are some of the differences between whatâs open - that is to say,
out in the open, as opposed to secret and whatâs legal and whatâs illegal in
Japan - in the Japan sexual, as opposed to what Americans are familiar with?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: In Japan, basically, any sexual act besides actual intercourse
can be offered as a service for money, excluding minors. Basically, any sexual
act that you can possibly think of that does not involve actual intercourse is
legal and can be offered and advertised as a service in Japan. Thatâs how it
works. In Kabukicho, in the old days, before government - the current governor
decided that he was going to close down as many of those places as possible, it
was very, very open. Even prostitution itself, while being illegal, has this
stipulation that the - that except in rare cases, the prostitute and the
customer canât be punished, that only the pimp can be punished or the brothel
owner, if itâs a kind of brothel setup. So, it exists in this grey zone where
everything is pretty much legal.
DAVIES: And there were some fascinating specialties, like a place for people
with trained fetishes.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Oh, yeah, yeah. There are two kinds of places with trained
fetishes. They actually have a subway car that they rebuilt inside a building.
Thereâs one way where you can be a man going on the train and molest a woman,
you know, while sheâs hanging from the straps, and be sexually serviced. And
thereâs another kind, where the woman actually molests the man as heâs hanging
from the straps. Depending on how much youâre willing to pay, you could have
several women and actually men in there to make it more convincing. And, you
know, of course, train sounds and all those things.
DAVIES: Wow. And in there are host and hostesses clubs, which you say are one
of the most misunderstood aspects of Japanâs adult entertainment industry. Tell
us about that.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yeah, the - a host club â first of all â first, there were
hostess clubs. A hostess club is essentially, you go into the club and you pay
either by the hour or usually an hourly fee or a set fee, for a woman to sit
next to you and pour your drinks and light your cigarettes and flirt with you
as if you â and sometimes sing karaoke with you, as if she was your girlfriend.
Thatâs what happens at a hostess club. Itâs not about buying sex. Itâs about
buying affection, the feeling, the girlfriend experience, if you will.
And host clubs, which have become thing in Japan in recent years, are the same
things as hostess clubs, except women pay men to pretend that theyâre attracted
to them, to dance with them, to pour their drinks, to light their cigarettes
and to flirt with them. Sexual favors are not exchanged and, as matter of fact,
if a host or hostess has sexual relations with a customer outside of the
working hours, theyâre usually fired.
DAVIES: On a more serious note, I mean, you became aware of some women who are
working in the sex industry who appeared not to be there of their own free
will. There was human trafficking going on. How did it work in the cases that
Mr. ADELSTEIN: You know, Japan is much better than it was at the time I
starting writing about this, but essentially works like this: You bring foreign
women into the country, often under false pretences that they would be working
as hostesses or working as waitresses in a restaurant. You take away their
passports, you put them in a room, you monitor their activities so that they
canât leave, and then you take them to the clubs, where they have sexual
relations with customers and arenât paid.
The women have no freedom of movement. Theyâre told after theyâve slept with a
customer or have been forced to sleep with a customer - sometimes theyâre raped
first so that they would get used to the job - that if they go to police, since
theyâre in Japan illegally, that they will simply be deported and that they
will stay owe money for their travel expenses to Japan.
And very often, these traffickers would have agents within the countries where
they were recruiting these women, which are often Eastern Europe, and contact
the families of the woman, you know, under various pretexts to let the woman
know that, yes, if they disobeyed or did something in Japan or ran away, that
their families back home would be menaced or killed.
DAVIES: You worked really hard to develop sources and get enough on the record
to write a story about this going on and identify some - a couple of the people
that were operating these human trafficking sex joints. What was the reaction
among the police and other authorities when you exposed this?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: The reaction was that they asked me to introduce some of the
women who were victims to them so that they could arrest them and have a
pretext to raid these clubs. An officer there I really liked a lot named Edda-
san(ph) said Iâd love to put these places out of business, but you have to
understand that these women, while they are victims, that we canât protect
them. We have to prosecute them under Japanese law. There is no provision in
the law that allows us to keep these women in the country while we do the
So, I could do the investigation, I could put these people out of business. But
in order to do that, Iâm going to have to have you put me in contact with some
of the women, and Iâm not going to be able to take a statement without them -
from them without arresting them. And which - I couldnât do that. I went to
another division of the police department and asked them, you know, like, can
you do anything about that? And they said, we could do something about it, but
first of all, we donât have enough people who speak foreign languages to a do a
very competent investigation right now. And weâve got a lot of other things on
our plate. While your article is good, itâs not something thatâs immediately
actionable for us.
DAVIES: Which was enormously frustrating to you.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: It was enormously frustrating. And what I realized, of course,
was that, you know, while the cops had problems with this and would like to do
the investigations and put these people out of business, that essentially the
law didnât let them do it.
DAVIES: So, what did youâ¦
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Thatâs why I began writing about the flaws in the law and the
whole legal system. And I also began taking, you know, studies and information
in cases that I had written up as reporter and taking them to the U.S. State
Department representative at the embassy in Tokyo.
DAVIES: Yeah, and in effect, by embarrassing the government, you were able to
get some reform?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yes. Iâm not going to take - I canât take total credit. I would
like to take some credit for supplying the U.S. government with enough
information that they could embarrass Japan enough that Japan felt compelled,
to actually put some laws on the books that made trafficking harder to do. One
of the things I was most proud of was the International Labor Organization did
a very scathing study of human trafficking problems in Japan, pointing out the
victims werenât protected. The traffickers were lightly punished, fined and
rarely did jail time, which the Japanese government - who sponsored the study -
told them, never release.
I was able to get a copy of that report and put it on the front page of our
newspaper as a scoop while the Japanese government was still getting ready to
announce their plan of action. And I think that had a very positive affect on
making them put together a plan that was actually effective.
DAVIES: Our guest is Jake Adelstein. His new book is called, âTokyo Vice: An
American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.â Weâll talk more after a short
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, our guest is writer Jake Adelstein. He
worked for many years in Japan, where he was fluid in Japanese and actually
worked as a crime reporter for the Japanese newspapers there. His new book is
called, âTokyo Vice.â You know, time is limited, so I wanted to get to the
circumstance that allowed - that prompted you to leave Japan in the first place
and for you to get, well, threatened with murder by the yakuza. What did you do
that got them to the point where you seemed a mortal threat to them?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Well, I had problems and issues with one particular yakuza boss
named Goto Tadamasa, head of the Goto-gumi. Goto-gumi has about - had at its
peak about 950 members. And Goto is famous as the yakuza boss who was parodied
in a film by Itami Juzo in 1992 called âMinbo no onna.â And he was so offended
by that film, which made the yakuza look like the extorting, money grubbing
thugs that they are, that five of his people went to the directorâs house and
slashed him up in broad daylight several times and put him in the hospital for
three weeks. Thatâs Goto Tadamasa.
I stumbled upon this story about how he had gone to UCLA in the year 2000 and
gotten a liver transplant. And he had gotten into the United States by making a
deal with the FBI in which he had proffered information about yakuza activities
in the United States, including their financial institutions and the names of
their major front companies in the U.S. and their bosses, you know, and their
dates of birth.
DAVIES: And when you got this information, you had an extraordinary visit from
somebody from his organization. Tell us about that.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yes. I was - started to make enquiries in the United States as
to how this had happened. This was in 2005. I didnât know about the FBI
involvement. And I didnât know - you know, I didnât know how Goto Tadamasa had
gotten into the United States. I knew that heâd gotten in. I knew that heâd
gotten a liver transplant in UCLA, and I knew the name of the surgeon. But I
still couldnât figure out how he could have done it because the guy is black
listed, right? You know, everyone knows that this is a yakuza gangster. Really,
I couldnât visualize any way for him getting into the country other than
bribing someone on the U.S. government side or on the Japanese government side.
I made a couple of enquiries, then I got a phone call one day from someone
connected to the Goto-gumi. And the phone call was essentially, youâve made the
old man very angry. You have three hours to show up at this meeting at the
Shinjuku Keio Plaza Hotel. And I said, well what if I donât show up? And the
answer was, well, youâll be dead by the weekend. So, I decided I would take
that meeting. And I called up Sekiguchi-san in Saitama, and he came up. And the
two of usâ¦
DAVIES: Thatâs your friend, the detective, right?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Thatâs my friend, the detective.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Like, you know, my surrogate dad. And we sat down at this, you
know, table in the Keio Plaza Hotel, and basically the representatives of the
Goto-gumi made me an offer that I didnât think about refusing, which was to
back down on this story. And they made the offer in the wonderful way that you
can do things in Japanese where itâs very hard to say youâve been threatened.
DAVIES: What was said between you?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Literally, they said, you know, (foreign language spoken). And,
literally, that could mean, you know, erase the article or something will be
erased. And there is a family that exists. Now my interpretation of that was,
you either erase the article or Iâll erase you and your family. But if you
follow the Japanese as itâs said, it could be translated 10 different ways. And
thereâs in no way to say that, you know, does erase means kill? Who will do the
erasing? Is it a threat? And, probably, it wouldnât stand up as a threat. I
mean, if thereâs anyone who is skilled at extorting and threatening people
without violating the law, itâs the yakuza. I mean, thatâs their bread and
DAVIES: And, of course, this was said in the presence of a police detective,
who was there as your friend and advisor.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yes, yes. They didnât have any qualms about doing that. The one
thing they did that was smart is they didnât put down their business cards. We
put down ours. They didnât put down theirs. They pointed to this little, you
know, this label on their lapel, which indicated they were members of the
Yamaguchi-gumi. Even then, itâs, you know, if I had filed the criminal
complaint, it probably wouldnât have been accepted because I couldnât prove
that Iâd been threatened.
DAVIES: And it was a big decision for you. What course did you take?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Well, Sekiguchi-sanâs advice was that I didnât know what I was
doing, that I should be grateful that they didnât know how much I didnât know,
and that for the time being, I should back down and wait until I had more
information before I wrote it up or even probe deeper. So his advice was, you
know, if youâre going to fight these guys, you need to pull back until youâre
ready-at-arms to do it right. And so I took his advice and I said all right, I
wonât write up this article. Itâs a done deal.
DAVIES: And it wasnât just that you killed one story, I mean, at this point,
youâd been working as a reporter for more than a decade in Japan, you were
married to Japanese wife and had two kids, right?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Right.
DAVIES: And you quit and moved back to United States, right?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, I was - in many ways and probably, I think Iâve
tried to explain this in the book, but it doesnât come across right - is, Iâd
already decided that I wanted to leave the newspaper. The eighty hour work
weeks, the fact that neither my kids could speak any English, coupled with the
fact that my mother back in United States was in and out of the hospital, what
we thought there might be something seriously wrong with her, you know, I was
ready to leave the newspaper. And I had been discussing leaving the newspaper.
What I wanted was one last big scoop and I thought this is my big scoop, you
know, Yakuzaâs boss goes to the United States, seemingly jumps ahead of
everybody else to get a liver and comes back. I didnât know about the FBI
involvement. If I knew about the FBI involvement in 2005, I probably would have
been a little more prudent in approaching people related to the story.
DAVIES: And again, without going into all the details - people can read it in
the book - you, after a period of time when you did some, you know, other
investigative work on the State Department study of trafficking, you eventually
did come back to the story of the crime boss and his trip to the United States
for a liver transplant and got it all published. Andâ¦
Mr. ADELSTEIN: And it wasnât just him, it was three other Yakuza. I mean, three
other Yakuza. Like a total of four Yakuza at UCLA getting liver transplants,
which is just mind boggling.
DAVIES: And it - but it also got you back into the danger zone in Japan. I
mean, you were, again, threatened numerous times - to the point where you were
advised better to get it in the paper because then they have less to gain from
killing you. Where do you stand today with these foes(ph)? Do you sleep
comfortably at night?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: I sleep relatively comfortably. You know, Goto Tadamasa was
kicked out of the Yamaguchi Gumi on October 14th, 2008, a very happy day for
me. His organization has now been split into two different groups. He allegedly
has become a Buddhist priest and is living a life of peace and harmony. Iâm
very dubious about that claims, but Iâll give him the benefit of the doubt. He
still has a hundred people working for him and he still apparently is involved
in loan sharking and other things, but probably with a nice Buddhist tolerance
in the background of that.
There is one other organized crime boss that Iâve alienated by writing his name
in a Japanese book and naming as one of the four Yakuza who got a liver
transplant, which seems to have implied that he also made a deal with the FBI.
Once I can get that corrected, somewhere in print, in Japan, he probably wonât
want to kill me and maybe life will go back to normal.
DAVIES: Do you feel you have to take steps, now, for the safety of you and your
Mr. ADELSTEIN: I feel that my family, in the United States, is probably safe. I
think weâve all reached agreement that itâs not proper or honorable to attack
family members. That doesnât mean Iâm off limits, but at least that means
theyâre off limits. Iâve certainly had talks with people high up in the
Yamaguchi Gumi and in the Matsuba-kai, and weâve sort of reached an agreement
that thatâs unacceptable and would be very bad press for everyone involved.
DAVIES: Right, as opposed to killing youâ¦
Mr. ADELSTEIN: As opposed to killing me. I mean, you know, if I get killed, of
course, I deserve it because, you know, Iâm such a troublemaker. But, you know,
family members arenât involved and that would be a bad thing in the Yakuza
DAVIES: I donât know if youâre comfortable of talking about this, but what do
you do to ensure your own safety?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: In Japan, I have hired a ex-Yakuza crime boss to be my
bodyguard. We go back about 16 years. I always check in with the police when I
go there. I donât take public transportation anymore. I always move by car. I
try and be fair in my reporting on organized crime in Japan, so that I donât
alienate more people than Iâve already alienated. And thatâs about the best
that I can do.
DAVIES: And in the States, are you comfortable?
Mr. ADELSTEIN: In the States, Iâm fairly comfortable. I think that - you know,
you have to understand, from the Yakuza right now - they fear the United States
putting pressure on Japan to get rid of their Yakuza problem, because the
Japanese are very susceptible to pressure from the United States. And if
anything were happened to me, I think that would be a good excuse for the
United States to lean on Japan, to - you know, to outlaw, outright, organized
crime groups in Japan. And no one in Japan wants that to happen. So, in many
ways, I probably seem like a publicity hound, but in my case, the more public I
am, the better chances I have of not being snuffed out.
DAVIES: Well, Jake Adelstein, I wish you safety and continued success.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Mr. ADELSTEIN: Well, thank you very much.
DAVIES: Jake Adelsteinâs memoir is called, âTokyo Vice: An American Reporter on
the Police Beat in Japan.â
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Losing Jazzâs Preconceptions With âHistoricityâ
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Only a few years ago, jazz piano trios that covered rock or hip-hop tunes were
considered a novelty. These days itâs common place. One example of the trend is
the music of pianist Vijay Iyerâs Trio.
But Jazz Critic Kevin Whitehead says thatâs just part of what they do.
(Soundbite of music, âGowangâ)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: âGowangâ by MIA. Itâs one of several create of interpretations
of other folks music on Vijay Iyerâs new trio album, âHistoricity.â In the last
few years, some enterprising younger players have reinvented the piano, bass
and drums jazz combo. Itâs not just that these trios play contemporary pop,
itâs a shift in attitude. Iyerâs trio doesnât worry about swinging all the
time, although the buoyancy of swing inflects their rhythms as much as hip-hop
does. Some great pianists treat the instrument as a whispering Sylvan harp. But
Iyer treats piano, or the piano trio, like a boombox - a rhythm machine.
On Stevie Wonderâs âBig Brother,â Iyer reminds us jazz versions of radio pop
are nothing new, sneaking in a quote from Ramsey Lewisâ â60s hit âThe In
(Soundbite of music, âThe In Crowdâ)
WHITEHEAD: âHistoricityâ includes some good Vijay Iyer tunes, including a
couple of his own oldies. But theyâre trumped by his readings of fellow
composerâs stuff. One more way Iyer breaks with tradition or rather, reconnects
to an older jazz tradition is by improvising from the melody more than a songâs
underlying chords. On Leonard Bernsteinâs âSomewhere,â Iyer uses limber touch
and timing to surprise you just playing the melody. If that werenât enough,
bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore ride two separate swing
(Soundbite of music, âSomewhereâ)
WHITEHEAD: Vijay Iyer also covers a too-obscure jazz classic, the title track
from one of the great un-reissued albums of the â70s, saxophonist Julius
Hemphillâs âDogon A.D.â The trio reorchestrate the arid melody, but catch every
rhythmic twist and hiccup in the original. Bassist Crump gets the bluesy groan
of Hemphill cellist, Abdul Wadud.
(Soundbite of music, âDogon A.D.â)
WHITEHEAD: Whatâs so impressive about Vijay Iyerâs trio isnât that they play
venerable standards, forgotten jazz classics, or hip-hop inflected pop. Itâs
that they hear all that as part of a single continuum, material equally
adaptable to their methods. Thatâs another way to say Historicity treats jazz
like living music. Itâs still breathing.
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches at the University of Kansas, and he is a jazz
columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed âHistoricity,â from the Vijay Iyer Trio.
You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. And
you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.
For Terry Gross, Iâm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.