The memoirs of an American reporter who worked the crime beat for a major Japanese newspaper, Tokyo Vice is hardly a flattering portrait of the Japanese police. In a country where serious crime is still comparatively rare and attitudes are less than PC, at times it feels as if crime is regarded more as an administrative nuisance than a problem: sexual crimes are regarded as virtual misdemeanours, murders of foreigners (especially non-white foreigners) are often never investigated and yakuza are informed of raids in advance to avoid incident, information is rarely shared with foreign police agencies - or even ones in different Japanese districts - and courts often give minor sentences for major crimes.
Despite its dramatic opening that takes about 300 pages to pay off, it's far from the most comprehensive account of the modern yakuza you'll find, more a decent overview, but then they're not the book's real focus. Instead, it concerns itself with all aspects of newsworthy crime in Japan, resulting in few being addressed in particular detail. Adelstein is particularly good on the insularity, inefficiency and wilful bureaucratic blindness that seems a key part of Japanese officialdom's institutional mindset - there's an overriding sense of an establishment habitually controlling information to avoid taking responsibility for failure and of the media willingly going along with them to avoid being shut out and denied the meagre table scraps they are occasionally thrown. The author freely admits to being a part of this process, and it's something that could have been built on more, yet it still feels like he's being held back by the Shinbun newspaper's official guidelines that have taken root too firmly for him to shake free. But that's perhaps the least of the book's problems.
Tokyo Vice is a typical reporter's first book, written in a top-down newspaper article style that puts the key facts at the front and works through the broad details without ever getting too specific. It's an ideal style for a newspaper where every story has to fight for the reader's attention, but it's not so ideal for a book, which depends on gradual revelation bolstered by detail, character and ambience to keep the reader hooked. Adelstein has the stories, but he doesn't have the grasp of character or atmosphere to make the most of them. Even friends and lovers get the briefest of introductions and flit in and out of the book only when they impact on a story, leaving many of them too undeveloped to come alive beyond near-ciphers. Even the author himself is not immune, making a slightly drawn and curiously indistinct centre for a memoir. Nor is there much sense of place: his descriptions are brief factual introductions necessary for a western audience but do not conjure up the feeling of being there, of being able to see and touch. Too often you feel like you're reading a story he phoned in to the news desk rather than one he's lived.
It's certainly a book that needs to be longer. It's an easy read, but there's less to it than meets the eye. It's easy to see the book seeming mostly mundane to a Japanese readership, and in truth it gets by with a western one more on its exotic location than its literary merits. Take Japan out of the mix and it's just a disjointed series of episodes in the weekly life of a crime reporter. Things start to improve when he makes his first serious yakuza contact and forges a genuine long-lasting friendship with an under-promoted detective, both getting the kind of attention to both personalities, what they have to say and how they say it that the book could do with more of. Sadly both turn out to be virtual setpieces rather than marking a new consistent tone. Thankfully they're not the last, but it's disappointing for him to slip back into his old habits. His movement from department to department and district to district, even his marriage are presented as fait accomplis that happened some time in the past like a one-line bio introducing a new character in a news report.
Even in the book's main set piece major stories where Adelstein's investigations took on real risk, there's no drive or sense of danger, just a catalogue of events and the odd quotable sound bite, with too much of what happened built up only to abruptly come to a dead halt. Whether its taking on the government's attitude to human trafficking of foreign prostitutes or uncovering the trail of failed deals with the US government to allow a notorious yakuza boss into the country for a life-saving operation, instead of immediacy we get a brief summation, as if he'd reached the limit of the column inches his editor would allow the story.
Yet for all its flaws, it's a worthwhile and sporadically engaging read if you're interested in the subject matter, and filled with just enough quirk and unexpected information to keep you interested. Adelstein has a better book in him, but he needs to unlearn all he learned as a reporter to write it. Hopefully next time round he'll be able to do that.