Book Review: Wide-Eyed Gaijin

After studying at a Japanese university, a Midwestern martial-arts devotee named Jake Adelstein improved his language skills enough to land a lowly reporter’s job at a major national daily. Initially sent out to the provinces (“the New Jersey of Japan”) in 1993, he began apprenticing his craft. This meant endless hours gifting and schmoozing with cops in their homes, buying drinks for sources all night, then sleeping off the hangover the next morning on tatami mats in the back of the press room. Eventually he reached the criminal big time, Tokyo’s notorious Roppongi district. Not bad for a first job out of college. But eventually, as Adelstein recounts in his new book, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan (Pantheon, $26), the glamour wore off, and he grew disenchanted with that fabulously seedy milieu.

Along the way, he explains the hierarchy of who pours drinks in a sake bar, how yakuza are often shunned because of their Korean blood, and why the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is reluctant to crack down on the gangsters who lent it financial support during the early postwar years. All very colorful, all very entertaining, and Adelstein is remarkably nonjudgmental—on a personal level—toward the hookers and hoods he befriends. That is, until the latter threaten his life after he reports how senior yakuza obtained U.S. visas to get liver transplants (unavailable in their own country), with the FBI providing assistance in one case in exchange for information. No Japanese paper would print his story, which ran in The Washington Post last year.

By that time, the author—now married—had re-evaluated Japan’s laissez-faire attitude toward the sex industry. Because the cops largely ignore brothels and hand-job parlors, he writes, there’s an “indifference to and tacit approval of the exploitation of foreign women.” That’s now the subject of his writing and consulting. Meanwhile, the yakuza continue their expansion into banking, real estate, and Internet fraud.