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Slightly Disjointed But Fascinating Inside Look at Japanese Journalism and Crime
on 5 May 2010
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.