Jake Adelstein interviewed by Andrew Stevens.
3:AM: You entered one of the most hermitically-sealed and jealously guarded professions in Japan, but in Tokyo Vice you seem to put this down to luck and a little guile. Was this really so and did you come across any other ‘lucky’ gaijin reporters while you were working?
JA: It wasn’t all luck but luck had a lot to do with it. The newspaper entrance exams, while slightly varying from company to company, are standardized tests and it is possible to study for them. I studied for almost a year, while finishing up college and that definitely helped. The Yomiuri topic for that year (1992) was “Gaikokujin” or “Foreigners” and it was a topic I’d written about before and could discuss from a first-hand perspective. It also didn’t hurt that one of the HR guys was a graduate from my university, Sophia, and that created a kind of bond. Allison Backham, from Canada, was hired by NTV (Nihon Television) after taking the regular test and worked as a reporter for the Metro Beat (社会部）for a while. Blond haired, pale, thin, and always smiling–she seemed very much like Alice in Japanland.
I’m guessing it was around 1999 but my memory is shaky. She was very good on camera, and spoke Japanese very well. They kept sending her on wild-goose chases, or in Japan’s case, wild-monkey chases–stories about wild animals lost in the city, including a monkey in the fancy Azabu neighborhood, and we’d run into each other now and then on offbeat stories like that. I wrote about her in the Monkey Business chapter which never made it into the book. I think she’s handling intellectual rights for the company now. A brilliant woman and her spoken Japanese is much better than mine. I never have quite gotten rid of my monotone accent.
3:AM: Equally, the yakuza don’t like having the lid blown on their cosy exploits. What reaction has the book elicited from those quarters?
JA: You know, a lot of people didn’t like Tadamasa Goto. He brought a lot of heat on the yakuza by allowing or condoning his organization’s attack on civilians including the film director Itami Juzo. His ostentatiousness, arrogance, and his willingness to rat out his pals to save his own neck didn’t win him a lot of popularity. He also colluded with a religious group, Soka Gakkai, which has its own political party, New Komeito, to do their dirty-work. It was well-known but not really publicly discussed. He made the yakuza look like sociopathic thugs with no honor who were willing to do anything for money. Some even blame the creation of the harsher anti-organized crime laws on the violent methods of him and his organization. For certain people, I guess, in my own bumbling way, I provided them with a chance to knock him off the ladder and seize his territory, his assets and his power. So their reaction has been favorable. However, I’m not about to go blow the lid off other yakuza exploits without a very good reason for doing so–at least not under my own name. I write in Japanese under a pen name. Why? Because I don’t want to have a bunch of violence criminals after my head or hurting my friends to get to me. I’m not very brave but I’m not very stupid either.
3:AM: Tokyo Vice employs a fairly fast-paced hardboiled style, with the trademark reflective comments (“Maybe I should have become a Buddhist monk. It was a little late now.”) Is there any direct influence(s) afoot here or are you a frustrated novelist? Do you have any ambitions in that direction?
JA: Truth is almost always better than fiction. Often, the truth is a much stranger beast than any in our imagination. I believe that there is such a thing as objective truth in the world. The only thing we can’t really know was what was in someone’s heart when they did a terrible thing or a good thing. Only they can know and sometimes, maybe our motives are mysteries to ourselves as well. I’m much more interested in the “what” than the “why.” Faith without works is dead; yes, I agree.
I like telling a story in a way that makes it worth reading, that draws in the reader, that teaches them something. The best stories have a moral, some kernel of knowledge. Sometimes that “moral” gets artificially imposed on a life or incident when no such lesson is really there at all but not always. I’m a journalist first, maybe a writer second. But that being said, I’ve always believed that if the greatest book in the world is dropped in the forest and nobody reads it, it’s not a great book. I want to be read, otherwise, why would I write? (And believe me, it’s not for the money.) If I wrote a novel, it would probably only be to thinly disguise a true-story that had too much potential blowback to write as non-fiction. I tried to write the book as if I was talking to an old friend at a bar, and we were catching up. If you sit around with me long enough, you’ll probably notice that I talk like I write. Or vice-versa. I suppose I’m influenced a lot by the company I keep. Yakuza and cops aren’t exactly the most eloquent, flowery speakers. They also tend to have a dark sense of humor. When I was fourteen and until I was about seventeen, I read a lot of Ross McDonald, Lawrence Block, Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, and Dashiell Hammet years ago. I used to read J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Clive Barker, and Stephen King, decades ago. There has to be some influence there. These days most of the reading I do is about organized crime, financial crime, psychology, or biographies of famous criminals. And I’ll sneak in some manga, now and then.
3:AM: You have a good feel for not only the internal politics of the media but also the police itself. Can you say a little about the relationships between the media and the state (police and government) and how this hinders any positive change in the lives of those involved in the sex trade?
JA: I actually think the move by Governor Ishihara to close down the store-front sex operations in Kabukicho, the red-light district, has been bad for many women and bad for the area. The crazy fetish sex parlors made Kabukicho, and Tokyo, a huge draw for tourists from all-over Asia. I’m not talking about human trafficking. I’m talking about the everything but intercourse sexual services that are legally offered in Japan.
When the stores operated in the open, legally, at least law-enforcement could keep tabs on the women working there and the people running the places. A certain amount of public scrutiny makes people behave themselves. What happens behind completely closed doors is hard to monitor and a hotel room can be a very deadly place for some of the women working there.
Japan has a very legal sex-industry. It would be great to see it regulated and the women working in it protected from sexually transmitted diseases and harm by the authorities, rather than these bizarre token busts of a club, now and then. The weekly magazines write articles about what pleasures can be found at Sex Shop A or Sex Shop B. There are weekly “woman’s magazines” distributed for free which advertise jobs in the sex service for all women, even moms and elderly women. Some places now offer child care services for the sex worker and a fake telephone number to give her boyfriend or husband so when he calls it sounds like she’s working in a department store.
3:AM: It’s also mentioned that like the Italian governing party, there’s a substantial overlap between the once hegemonic LDP and the yakuza. Can you say some more on this in terms of how it thwarts progress in dealing with the more nefarious edges of the sex trade?
JA: The yakuza always have had a few politicians in their pocket. For a time, the Zengeiren, the national association of promoters of foreign entertainers, functioned as a human trafficking lobby, as did Kokusai Kogyo 21, an NPO, pressuring the LDP not to criminalize human trafficking. The Zengeiren used to hold meetings at LDP headquarters, up until 2006 or so. However, international pressure made Japan clean up its act, the LDP cut ties, and the number of foreigners trafficking into Japan as sex slaves has really dropped. However, there still remains in place a very dubious intern system which seems to allow for unchecked exploitation and virtual enslavement of foreign workers. Obviously, there are a few politicians getting kickbacks from it, and labor exploitation is a yakuza field of expertise.
3:AM: How has Kabukicho fared since the city’s Giuliani-style crackdown? Was this just cosmetic, do you think?
JA: It has fared horribly. A senior member of the Kabukicho Merchant’s Association put it this way: “Take the sex out of Kabukicho and you have nothing really to attract customers to the area except host clubs. The shuttering of the sex shops has had a chain reaction–the stores and restaurants that were once filled with the sex workers and their customers are closing down as well. The police have done a lot to clear the yakuza out of the area, but that’s also because closing down the shops means there’s not as much money to be made here anymore.”
3:AM: There’s a lot of exasperation with the ridiculously formal and arcane Japanese ways of doing things in the book, was there not a stage when you just thought life back in the US would be easier for you?
JA: There was a stage when I thought life would be easier for me in the US. But after moving back in 2005, I quickly changed my mind. I had to take my daughter to the emergency room in the United States in 2006. The bills, the paperwork, the insurance company–dealing with all that and being suddenly in debt for doing the responsible thing as a parent–well, it made me think, “I wish I was back in Japan. At least I can take my kids to the doctor when they need to go.”
3:AM: Can you say a little on the various strata of yakuza you detail in the book, the tekiya, the bakuto and the dowa?
JA: The tekiya are the street merchants, the colorful characters you see with the flamboyant tattoos selling things at local Japanese festivals. The bakuto, were originally clans of gamblers. Now they’re more like armed stock brokers. Most yakuza these days would probably be classified as bakuto. The yakuza are primarily composed of three groups: Japanese national misfits, North-Korea or South-Korea rooted Korean Japanese, and Dowa or burakumin. They were the outcaste, lowest cast of Japanese society a hundred years ago. Prejudice against them still remains.
3:AM: You describe yourself in one part as a “chain-smoking burned-out ex-reporter with chronic insomnia”. What are you up to these days and what is your role with the Japan Subculture Research Centre and Polaris?
JA: I’m writing a second book called The Last Yakuza, which tells the last thirty years of yakuza history through the story of one gang boss. I write for and contribute to various publications usually about Japan’s underworld but I’m trying to expand my horizons. A little tiny bit. I’m running a blog with Sarah Noorbakhsh that covers the darker side of Japanese society.
I’m also hoping it has some reference value for those interested in the sociology and anthropology of criminal society in Japan. Sometimes, it’s just a good, fun read.
I’m a board member at Polaris Project Japan, a non-profit organization, which combats human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children. We provide consulting and counseling, and help find victims shelter. I handle public affair and police liaison work. Sometimes we get very good tips on trafficking operations or child pornographers/pedophile rings. I try to make sure we get the information to the police in a way that they can turn it into a case and do some damage to the bad guys. We were successful this year. The police would like to do more to help victims of trafficking, both domestic cases and foreign cases. We do some training with them and they are receptive. Japan is changing for the better in many ways. The local police even asked me to help them organized a crime prevention lecture for the local foreigner population. I was kind of shocked because usually the police seem to think of foreigners as potential criminals rather than potential victims or frightened victims who need help. On a personal level, I sleep a little better. I’m not smoking. I probably have PTSD and I get these periods of hyper vigilance when I can’t relax and am easily provoked. I’m working on obtaining some peace of mind, being a better father. Its not easy. And I guess you could say I have days when I feel like I’m haunted by the mistakes I’ve made or the spirits of people long gone.
3:AM: Most recently you seem to have turned your attention to Japan’s refusal to accept the international community stance against child pornography. What’s the latest developments there?
JA: The artist community strongly rails against attempts to make simple possession of child pornography a criminal offense. But because owning it is okay, it really hampers any police investigation into the selling and production of child porn. Why? Because it’s very hard for the officers to get a warrant. I’m afraid Japan does really have a forgiving attitude towards pedophilia.
3:AM: Goto is the ghost at the feast throughout the book and I don’t really want to dwell on him. You talk at length about the people viewed simply as ‘expendable’ by the various actors, gangster or state, including those very close to you. Where are you at personally with that right now?
JA: Goto wrote a book, his memoirs. It came out in May. It ruined my summer. It reopened old wounds. It’s a best-seller in Japan although the mainstream media is essentially ignoring it. In many ways it’s a great book. He names the politicians he worked for such as former LDP Senator Itoyama Eitaro. He expresses admiration for ex-Prime Minister Kishi. Not surprising since Kishi’s former secretary helped Goto arrange the shady deal which got him into the US for his liver transplant in 2001. He admits having connections to Soka Gakkai, the religious group and its political party, Komeito. He talks about his role in the new economy. He expresses no remorse for the attacks on film director Itami Juzo. It’s very much like sitting down and having a long discussion with an arrogant yakuza boss. He refers to me in the book, but not by name but calls my Washington Post article “unpleasant.” There’s a nicely veiled threat in there which crawls under my skin and aroused the interest of the police. However, at the end of the sentence, which basically implies if he had had a chance he’d put me in the past tense, it notes that he made the comment while laughing so it can all be passed off as a joke. Thus, it’s not really a threat. Very similar to how his boys handled things in 2005.
In the book, he refuses to discuss the logistics of how he got into the United States, claiming that he doesn’t want to cause trouble to anyone and sort of gloats about getting a liver at UCLA before other Americans who were waiting their turn in line. He is donating all his profits from the book to charity, so I guess some good comes out of it. I wrote the very first review of it on Amazon Japan because I got an advance copy and what I said there is pretty much how I feel about it now. He gets points for confessing to his shady connections but his failure to disclose the whole truth of what he’s done in his life and a lack of remorse–it gives it all a bitter aftertaste. I believe that there are, as the Japanese would say, some hungry spirits who will not rest until Goto has really atoned for what he’s done in his life. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is still investigating him as a suspect in the murder of a real estate broker. He’s reinvented himself and he’s hoping to wipe away bad memories that people have of him and what he’s done–casting himself as sage and wise-man who can cure Japan’s political ails. I won’t forget what he has done and what was done under his orders. Maybe, I should. I think Goto bought himself out of his troubles. There’s a saying in Japan, Jigoku No Sata Mo Kane Shidai, basically, even whether you go to hell or not depends on how much money you have. I think it holds true for Japanese society. I don’t know if it holds truth in the after-life. If there is really such a thing as karma in the world, that I don’t think all the money or all the chanting in the universe is going to equal a get out of jail free card.
I feel less expendable than I did in 2008 but if I keep doing what I’m doing, I’ll cross the line sooner or later. That may seem like a morbid thought, but what else would I do? I owe the man who became my bodyguard a lot and many of the people who put themselves on the line to save my sorry ass. Until I pay those debts, I can’t really leave Japan. I’m stuck between Tokyo and the US, don’t feel its safe to bring my family back there, caught in a web of obligations and duties. When I finish the second book, and I’m going to split the proceeds with Mochizuki-san, my bodyguard, and I feel his family is well-taken care of, then I’ll think about what to do next. These days, I still I can’t read the final chapter of the book without falling into a monumental depression. The past is never gone, it lingers around like the smell of cigarettes in an old hotel room, always faintly there. Someday, I’ll move out of that room and breathe some fresh air but not yet. Not lighting another cigarette is a small step towards that.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 29th, 2010.