"Write the Truth by Any Means Possible"
Jake Adelstein on Pissing Off the Japanese Mafia and What's Wrong with American Journalism
"The fucking Jew American reporter, I'd like to kill him," is one of Jake Adelstein's favorite accolades, courtesy of yakuza boss Tadamasa Goto. Adelstein's career in Japan has literally almost killed him. He calls his first book, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan—about his career as a journalist for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper based in Tokyo—an "insurance policy." He knows if anyone tries to kill him after this, it'll be bad press for the yakuza, which could result in stricter laws in a country where organized-crime syndicates are technically legal entities.
Japan is a comparatively strange place when it comes to both the yakuza and the media—newspapers still publish morning and afternoon editions, with tens of millions of subscribers and more credibility than television news, and while the yakuza are still criminals, large mobs have office compounds and official membership (the largest in the range of 40,000 members). Adelstein's work at infiltrating both of these realms took finesse, a couple of beatings, and playing the dumb American from time to time.
Adelstein isn't dumb, maybe only foolhardy. In a foreign country, speaking a second language, he uncovered international human-trafficking rings and revealed a conspiracy between the Japanese and United States governments and yakuza bosses. He made friends with mobsters, prostitutes, and cops. He even ended up with an ex-yakuza as his bodyguard. He's fought mobsters in back alleys, taken their deathbed confessions, and seen his friends disappear when they got too close to sensitive information.
Tokyo Vice isn't just another true-crime book or wide-eyed account of the exoticism of Japan written by an unaware American. The criminal accounts are exciting and bizarre; mobsters, cops, and reporters work together toward different ends (smoking out a mole, finding a serial killer, saving women's lives). The sharing of information and use of leads as bargaining chips makes a delicate balance of alliances and favors. As a journalist, Adelstein comes off as the detective from a film noir—a part of the underbelly doing the right thing, while drinking, smoking, and sleazing along the way.
For this reason, Adelstein's book should make most American journalists feel like assholes. In Japan, they have just as much internet, television, celebrity gossip (even fan mags for yakuza), and other temptations to sway the populace away from being informed, but they haven't seen the decline of news media that we have here in the United States.
"People going into journalism who don't have [a] sense of social justice—feeling what they are doing is [helping] to create a better world—they shouldn't be doing it. If you want glory, go into sports," Adelstein said in an interview over pancakes at Portage Bay Cafe. "I'm getting paid not just to follow what's on my beat, but to do something more."
During the Iraq war buildup (and continuously on major news networks in general), journalists did what Adelstein calls "announcement journalism"—turning press releases into articles. Adelstein cites low pay and the death of local media through media consolidation leading to the reduction of competition for scoops as the major factors in the decline of the American press.
Announcement journalism isn't considered news in Japan. Scoops are the core of Japanese news—and if you miss a big one, your career could be finished. The government regularly feeds scoops to reporters, but those stories are perfunctory compared to what Adelstein and his fellow reporters are looking for. "There's a scoop where you announce something before it's announced by the government," he explains. "And then there's the scoop where you write something about the government that they never wanted out but the people should know about."
Adelstein explained in roughly a minute how he would set up his same degree of networks and scoops here in Seattle: learn to read real-estate records and court documents, network with police, get training manuals, and read relentlessly about his beat. Reporting like Adelstein is tough. It's not blogging or opining. It's expensive and it's not about writing per se (though he's a good writer).
As Tokyo Vice shows, investigative reporting can destroy your liver, wreak havoc on your personal life, and get you killed. "It was very satisfying to get a front-page story," he reminisces. "Not just because you got the page, but because you would write something that would make a difference. It's like, Ah, I did my job well."
As for the job of an American journalist, Adelstein says the primary goal is "surviving." But he believes the ideal is "to write the truth by any means possible."