Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

February 10, 2010

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When did selling people as sex slaves become “human trafficking?”  How awful it’s common enough to get its own euphemism.

Jake Adelstein uncovers the reality behind the euphemism in his memoir and expose, Tokyo Vice. He’s the only American ever to work as a beat reporter in Japanese, covering crime for the Yomiuri. It seems like a boring job if you just look at Japan’s crime rates. Adelstein’s hometown of St. Louis has about ten thousand times as many violent crimes as Tokyo with 1/12th the population. Yet the math might not favor Japan if it accounted for the underworld, sex industry, and corruption that goes up very high.

Tokyo Vice could be a Nikkatsu thriller if it were less human. The story’s a classic arc of lingering by the abyss.  Adelstein left for Japan twenty years ago to find enlightenment at a Buddhist temple, yet wound up reporting on prostitutes and crime in Tokyo.  He soon stumbled on a story about UCLA, a liver transplant and the FBI.  Which did not please the crime boss with a new liver.  The book’s a life insurance policy.  You can get a flavor for that whole world at his Japan Subculture Research Center, the most valuable online resource on Japanese crime.

And Tokyo Vice is remarkable for more than the story its breaks. It holds the arc of Adelstein’s life, one that’s impressive even if I wouldn’t choose it. He goes from a naive, invulnerable kid reporter to a wearied man who never sees his kids and might die on the job. The early moments when he’s impressed himself give way to regrets for the victims. It’s a far cry from the long tourism of travel lit, whether masterpieces like The Roads to Sata or compost like Learning to Bow.

However, compared to the travel lit, memoirs like this usually suffer. Living a life worth a book typically means you can’t write. (Travel writers actually don’t get out much.) Adelstein’s a journalist: problem solved. The book covers so much ground that on the first read you miss the grace notes, like his wearing the wrong suit to his job interview.  Black’s for funerals, silly.

And the travel lit, like much writing on Japan, misses the unraveling. Japan’s society has had a rough time of it lately, yet the official image still projects safety, family and middle-class comforts. Perhaps because most Westerners who’ve been to Japan of late get there by teaching English, a middle-class job if ever there was one, they only rarely glimpse the problems. In my own experience, the two actually brushed against one another.

I taught in Wakayama, where yakuza have been known. Fortunately, I have no story of skipping Taiji Town at 3 a.m. when my girlfriend let me know her dad was a local boss who’d just saved the date.  (Though I’ve heard a version of this, perhaps apocryphal.)

Instead I’ve got my coworkers’ arrest, on TV no less:

One of the "Blackmail Teachers" I sat next to at work

This still from the Fuji affiliate, fretting about the digital voice changer the “Kyoukatsu Kyoushi” used in an attempt at extortion. They repeatedly called their target, a principal across town, telling him to bring 30 million yen (about US$275,000 in ’04 rates) to a certain train station and don’t tell the cops! He told the cops. 100 times over two months they called, usually during smoke breaks at school.

Why? Debts. Who risks jail for debts? Whoever’s borrowed from the wrong people?

For as long as I followed the story, yakuza weren’t mentioned. They didn’t have to be. As Adelstein’s book makes clear, the profits in gambling, high-interest lending and finance have caught the yakuza’s eye. One chapter details a payday loan outfit that, for all intents and purposes, is just like the legit outfits. And these crimes are abstractions, hidden in ledgers and hard drives. So too “human trafficking.” The actual stories surface only on occasion, as they do in Tokyo Vice.  Read it already.

(& I should mention my friend Bo tipped me to the book; she’s thanked in the thanks, no doubt making me appreciate it more.  Actually no; it’s a great book)

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