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Ever since I spent a ten-day vacation in Japan, I've been keeping my eye out for interesting books that might help me better understand the country. I've traveled to a lot of countries in the world, but Japan felt more alien to me than any place I'd been. This book by an American who worked as a crime reporter for a major Japanese newspaper (Yomiuri Shinbun) during the 1990s is a decent window into the Japanese underworld, through which readers can get a sense of how Japanese society differs from that of the U.S.

The popular American image of the crime reporter is one of a kind of investigator/muckraker/sensationalist/lone ranger, always looking for the lurid scoop, eager to make the authorities look foolish. The Japanese version couldn't be much further from that. First of all, the sheer number of reporters assigned to the crime beat is astonishing. Several times in the book, he recounts how when news of a murder would come through, you might see 5-10 reporters from a single paper converging on the crime scene! Even more interesting is the overt dependence of the reporters on the cops. Not only are they based in an office within the police building, but they seem to be almost entirely reliant on police press releases and inside tips for their stories. Moreover, they are exceedingly deferential when it comes to the timing of when they actually file these stories. And yet even more striking is the extent to which reporters visit their cop sources at home, bring gifts, and form strange quasi-friendships/patronages.

In any event, Adelstein's beat inevitably leads him into the not-so-murky world of the yakuza, Japan's organized crime. What's revelatory is the extent to which they operate in the open as corporate entities, complete with publicly listed headquarters, business cards indicating rank, and so forth. Similarly interesting is the extent to which they are deeply embedded in legitimate commerce, such as the residential and commercial real estate market. Adelstein recounts all this more or less as background to the central story of his book, which is his years-long investigation of their involvement in the visible and large semi-legal market for sexual services, and the only slightly less visible illegal market. This takes him all manner of hostess clubs, and eventually into the sordid world of indentured sexual servitude of mainly of non-Japanese women. This marks his transformation into a classic crusading journalist, who starts doing dangerous and unsavory things in pursuit of justice.

Oddly, for a professional writer, his English prose is not a very smooth. Part of the problem is one of style, as he sometimes seems to be striving for a kind of modern noirish streetwise patter, which can often veer off into cliche. But construction is a bigger problem; on a macro level, the book follows a pretty straightforward chronological arc, but within chapters, it can be pretty hazy as to the gaps in time between events, as well as the sequence. He'll often refer to events that take place years apart in a way that's quite confusing and makes it hard to track what's going on. There's also a kind of strange disconnect in regards to his personal life. The book is very much the story of his personal journey into Japan culture, the newspaper biz, and the underworld. Most of the time, he writes about himself in the "lone wolf" style and then, every so often, he'll toss in a paragraph or two about his marriage to a Japanese woman, or their kids. It feels off somehow. Fortunately, his topic is so engrossing that these book's deficiencies can be generally ignored.

The book is definitely worth checking out if you have an interest in Japan beyond the standard tourist trail. If you like it, you should also check out Karl Taro Greenfield's Speed Tribes, which is a slightly earlier look at the underbelly of Japan, covering the mid to late-1980s. One thing Adelstein touches upon, but doesn't get deeply into, is the extent to which yakuza has been intertwined with Japanese political life since World War II. This subject is covered in detail in Robert Whiting's Tokyo Underworld. Those with an interest in the yakuza life of the pre-World War II era should check out Junichi Saga's Confessions of a Yakuza. In any event, if you're interest in how journalism works in other countries, or in the true crime genre of nonfiction, this is worth a look.
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Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
There are a variety of tensions in Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice. Some of which detract from the overall impact of the book despite being a product of the social world which the book is meant to shed light on. The most problematic is the nature of Adelstein's work as a reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun. It is initially presented as a giant coup for a westerner to be allowed into the 'high status' and closed world of Japanese newspaper journalism, yet it quickly becomes apparent that the work is deeply morally compromised and more or less entirely rotten to the core. Whilst that could, and probably should have been presented as an exposé of the sleazy reality of Japanese print journalism it is instead left as ambivalent and unresolved problem. Almost as if Adelstein had achieved a great and flawless victory in being given the honour of living amongst the rats in the sewer.

Aside from that problem the rest of the book is really quite informative and a good reminder that there is nothing glamorous or enticing about the reality of Tokyo life. In fact, Adelstein does a very good job of showing that behind the surface differences between Japanese culture and American or British cultures the underlying dynamics are much the same. His explanations of how the Yakuza operate and how the older generation of Yakuza feel that the younger ones have lost all of the true spirit and respectful internal subculture quite closely mirror the kinds of attitudes you can find amongst older criminals from the East End of London should you have an interest in reading other books around that subject. That includes the unacknowledged hypocrisies from the older generation of criminals in both Japan and London.

So overall, the book would have benefited from being written as a more straightforward exposé of the real practices of Tokyo journalists and the murky and corrupt world they live in but despite the tension caused by that the book is satisfying to read and quite informative in stripping away the false glamour around Tokyo in general and the Yakuza in particular.
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on 17 September 2012
Any foreigner who joins a Japanese company in Japan the way that Mr Adelstein did deserves a lot of credit. I can only imagine the struggles with the language, the culture and the not-so-subtle discrimination. The way he lays out his early experiences at the Yomiuri are great - he doesn`t complain or feel sorry for himself, must have been tempting to jack it in at times. He also nailed the Japanese humour in quite a few places in ways that made me laugh out loud.

The descriptons of Roppongi and Kabukicho etc are spot on, and I think capture the quirkiness and excitement of those places, as well as the sordid and the human suffering. Its a brave man who tells this story and I think the author does it very well.
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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.
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on 2 July 2010
Format: Paperback|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book presents in detail a side of Japanese culture that most would not normally associate with a country known for its cleanliness, restraint and humble hospitality.

Tokyo Vice delves into the very real world of Yajuza mob violence, underworld hierarchy, human trafficking and drugs as seen through the eyes of a reporter working for one of Japan's biggest newspapers. All of it is utterly absorbing and at times quite chilling.

Due to how the book is structured, the reader gets an insight into the thoughts and opinions of rookie reporter Jake Adelstein, an American working in Japan. We see him rise through the ranks as he becomes involved with bigger, more dramatic and down right dangerous cases. We get to know the people in his life (both friends and foes), his work habits and also his dilemmas that put his morals to the test in order to get the information he needs for a story. We go on his beat and get explicit details of Japan's sex culture (both legal and otherwise) that most foreigners will rarely catch a glimpse of.

Though there are many examples of cases that we, like Jake, just view from a neutral, every-day point of view, the book gradually shifts towards incidents that strike Jake much closer to home. As certain events make his work more personal we experience his anguish and the heart wrenching aftermath of the decisions he has to make.

As a work of fiction this book would be a very entertaining read; but given that this is all real and happened within the last few years, it is an essential, shocking page-turner.
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on 24 November 2010
Jake Adelstein, American Jew, working in Japan as a journalist for a major Japanese newspaper; sounds like quite the concoction doesn't it?

This book is a collection of some of Jake's most notorious experiences with the Japanese criminal underworld (which is not as hidden as one may expect) and the bizarre Japanese criminal justice system. The book is divided into a series of chapters which focus on the main cases which had a profound affect on the author's career and personal life.

I was absolutely fascinated by the insight that this book gave into Japanese crime, policing, journalism and post-war culture. That for me was the highlight of the book; I always knew that Japan was a unique country, but I was completely unprepared for some of the discoveries I made whilst reading `Tokyo Vice'.

I'm not sure that I could have done some of the things that the author did to obtain his information and results, but I do appreciate that he was living and working in a totally alien culture where working practices and customs were vastly different to those we are familiar with here in the West.

This book is to be recommended to those who are interested in real life crime and all things Japanese.

Completely compelling reading.
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VINE VOICEon 20 January 2011
I first became aware of this book when I heard an extract of it read on Radio 4. It was the opening and it sounded so gripping that I rushed out and bought it straight away. I started to read it and yes, the opening was gripping and tense and had me turning the page desperate to find out what happened next. Then it moved on to the beginning of the author's career as an American journalist in Japan, and that was great too. After that, though, it kind of started to drift a little bit.

Don't get me wrong, each chapter of the book is interesting and very well written. It's just that the synopsis and the opening set you up for a very tight and linear tale where everything that happens to Adelstein leads up to this ultimate confrontation with the Yakuza. And the problem is, the structure of the book doesn't live up to that. The case that he opens with doesn't really reappear until towards the end, and inbetween are a series of individual crime cases that the author covered during his time in Tokyo, but which are not really related beyond the fact they involved him and, sometimes, different members of the Yakuza. It feels a bit like the book started out as a more general memoir and then, either as a framing device or under publisher pressure, this beginning was tagged on to make it seem more focused.

I'm not saying it's a bad book - it isn't. But I feel a bit disappointed as I was led to expect one thing and ended up with another. I think it would have been better had it just been presented as a series of memoirs, then the disjointed nature of some of it wouldn't have mattered.
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on 13 September 2012
I hadn't read a book for a long time before I came across this, and the premise really interested me. Needless to say it's reinvigorated my passion for reading, Tokyo Vice is an incredible story, and a real page turner. I found that I read it incredibly quickly and didn't want it to end. I'm now wishing I had something more by this author to read, something similar, but then again this is his life story in Japan so I don't think we'll be getting a sequel!

Without giving too much away, what the author achieved in his time in Japan is truly incredible, to think that he really did change the country for the better. I've lived there and know what the people are like and how adverse to change they can be, and as a foreign journalist in a large national newspaper he must have found it incredibly tough. What he's achieved will really help a lot of people. He was involved in some amazing stories, and you can tell from reading this book that there were some difficult times and decisions he had to make that will stick with him forever. Buy this book, I've recommended it to a lot of my friends who've read it and said the same things as I have, they couldn't put it down and really enjoyed it.
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on 26 August 2010
There's a quote on the back of Tokyo Vice by George Pelecanos, producer of the Wire; coincidental, as there's something David Simon once said that immediately came to my mind when reading this book. It's something to the effect that: "Whatever you decide to dedicate yourself to, whatever you decide to become involved in and care about - that's the thing that will eventually destroy you."

As a gaijin crime reporter, Adelstein's story is pretty unique but underscoring the memorable tales he has to tell, there's a subtext almost hidden by his hard-bitten, reporterly tone. Tokyo Vice is as much about Adelstein's own near destruction as conflicting duties, powerful enemies and a burgeoning personal quest to combat Japan's people trafficking sub-culture inflict their psychological tolls.

You can read this book as a day-in-the-life of a crime reporter or a gritty introduction to Japan's gang culture and its hidden sex industries, which Adelstein does a great job of depicting; but what really struck me about Tokyo Vice were the moments of suffering and profound sadness that seem to come out of nowhere, the stories of the people that live and work within and around this dangerous, grubby world.

I think it says something that the writing, in its quiet manner, left me thinking after I'd finished reading: "Jesus, I hope Jake's ok." Recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 22 October 2010
This book is worth reading, but is no masterpiece. The memoirs of an American reporter covering crime stories in Japan in the nineties and noughties is badly written for the most part. The prose is humdrum and sometimes lazy: "about 57", "I didn't know anything about him except that I had met him once". There is a whole chapter that doesn't seem to be about anything at all. He speaks of a woman who has been drugged and raped as being "furious" afterwards - really? For a journalist I expected something much better written and thought through. It seems rushed.

And yet - and yet....persevere to the end and the story turns into something different. Something worthy. And something tragic. To write this book was a brave thing to do. And the author's heart is in the right place.

Not for the faint-hearted. Japanese society - especially men - do not come out of this well. But then again which country would in this day and age? And I can't forgive the author for showing off in the acknowledgments by referring to what was presumably a brief discussion with a very famous figure.

Massively flawed, but ultimately with enough good characteristics to be worthwhile. Or is that Japan?
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