I’ve written previously about how it’s often the surprise finds of writers’ festivals who turn out to be the best. I don’t want to write like a broken record…but that’s again been proved true with Jake Adelstein, who I inadvertently heard speak while I was sussing out China’s literary wild child Mian Mian, with whom I was to appear on a panel later in the Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF) program.
I’d heard rumours Adelstein was entertaining from eavesdropping on general queue discussions. He’d been interviewed in a prior session by ABC Radio’s (and my personal hero) Richard Fidler, and I kicked myself for not making it along (I blame a timetabling clash, although I now can’t recall what I went to instead—clearly it wasn’t much chop). What I didn’t expect was Adelstein’s intensity and passion. This is a guy who’s suffered for his art.
I understand his obsession with Japan—I studied it for six years and have been fortunate enough to go there three times, although I can’t even begin to pretend that I’m either proficient in the language or across the country’s social and culture nuances—but I was blown away by Adelstein’s immersion and subsequent story.
He headed to Japan to study as a 19-year-old and wound up working for—I’m tempted to say ‘infiltrating’, for it’s no mean feat—one of Japan’s largest, best-known, Japanese-language newspapers. Over the subsequent 12 years of 80-hour working weeks, he learned the subtle and distinctly Japanese nuances of what can and can’t be discussed, cultivated sources inside the police and the yakuza (the Japanese mafia), became the only American (and perhaps foreign) journalist ever to have been admitted to the Tokyo Metro Police Press Club, and blew open some fairly incredible and fairly harrowing stories.
I expected Tokyo Vice: A Western Reporter on the Police Beat to be a kind of Japanese-themed version of Brian Thacker’s Rule No. Five: No Sex on the Bus, which documents Thacker’s hedonistic time as a Contiki tour guide. That is, a quirky but largely light and funny look at the complex, often contradictory, Japanese culture and customs. And it is that in parts. I chuckled at a ‘coming’ and ‘going’ sexual reference that I’ll leave the book to disclose properly, as well as the comedic moments Adelstein’s being an interloping foreigner (and a foreigner whose particular features meant that he could be mistaken for being from a variety of different countries at that) prompted.
But I was horrified (in a good way) at the seedy underbelly of Japan that Adelstein not only uncovered, but blew open. Long story short, Adelstein discovered and exposed two key and overlapping stories. First, that one of the top yakuza bosses had effectively ratted out competing yakuza in order to obtain a visa and a liver transplant under dubious circumstances courtesy of the USA. Second, that Japan has long been turning a blind eye to human (sex) trafficking. Through articles written about both (and that he had lots of trouble getting published initially for publishers’ fear of yakuza retaliation), Adelstein nearly lost his marriage and his life, but helped shine the spotlight on Japan’s dirty secrets. It seems that the Japanese don’t like to be embarrassed on the world stage by being named as one of the worst human trafficking-offender countries and are now trying to clean up their act.
Adelstein was incredibly emotional when he recounted the stories during the BWF panel—his wife and children had been threatened, he had to move them back to America for their safety, he was placed under police protection, and he now has the dubious honour of having an ex-yakuza bodyguard—and Tokyo Vice is not quite the riotous foreigner faux pas rampage through polite Japanese culture I was expecting.
But that’s a plus, because as someone fascinated by Japan, yet always on the outer of understanding the country’s cultural nuances both because I’m Australian and because I’ll never speak or understand Japanese the way one would need to to pick up on such little-known aspects as this book covers, Tokyo Vice gives me a window into the good and bad of Japan.
It also gives me a window into the life of someone whose love for the country drove him to uncover and attempt to address its darker aspects, in spite of the grave personal repercussions. Thumbs up to Tokyo Vice and double thumbs up to Adelstein, who’s continuing the work on an international scale.