Review: Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a bit of an odd one. Non-fiction, written by an American newspaper reporter called Jake Adelstein.

No, me neither.

When I say ‘American newspaper reporter’, I mean, he’s American and he was a newspaper reporter, but in Japan. To be honest, it isn’t at all clear just how he came to be in Japan, or why he was previously there long enough to have learned enough of the language, to want to consider trying to get a job on one of Tokyo’s leading newspapers. He does rather just jump into the ‘story’ and almost seems to assume you already know why he was in Japan and what his background is. What does come over well is his love of all things Japanese and inner workings of their society. But I could have done with a bit more background there, to try and explain his motivation, I felt.

Anyway, the ‘story’, what it is, is basically a collection of linked, roughly chronological recollections of his life as a reporter on the ‘Yomiuri Shinbun’ Newspaper in Tokyo. They lead to (and are book-ended by), the story of his exposure of human trafficking, money laundering, corruption in general and the downfall of Japan’s leading organised crime bosses. But note, he had to leave his job as a reported on this newspaper (Japan’s leading paper as far as I could grasp), to complete and publish his exposé. The paper and Japanese publishers in general wouldn’t touch it. Fearing the ‘Yakuza’ crime syndicates too much.

The un-written rules on how you greet someone, how you find your place in what is a very animal-kingdom-like pecking order system, and even down to how you present someone with your business card, are fine and interesting and probably something we could learn from. But when they basically don’t want to prosecute people for crimes which we take for granted are crimes which demand prosecution – and successful prosecution…I kind of lose interest.

For instance, in the acknowledgements at the end, he thanks an FBI agent friend (not a Japanese law enforcement official, note) “…for his hard work in getting Japan to partially ban child pornography.” Note also ‘partially.’ And the book is published in 2009. Way to go, Japan!

The interesting part(s) are the insights into Japanese culture and morals. The frenetic working methods of Japanese newspapers, the lengths they are expected to go to, the sacrifices to their health, their lives and their bank balances they are expected to make, are quite extraordinary. Whilst I’ve no real experience of how Western newspaper journalists work (apart from the recent phone-tapping scandals and a general cynicism), I can appreciate that Japanese journalists are expected to work in a way that is very, very different. The interesting thought proces for me, was to wonder how their society is, if this is considered unremarkably normal. Just the way it is. But that was me thinking, not the book telling me anything. These ‘behind the scenes’ sections do work really well. Unfortunately, and it could just be me, but what seems to have been his motivation for writing this book, the human trafficking angle and exposing the dirty secrets of Japanese organised crime bosses, while of course perfectly reasonable, isn’t really that interesting. It’s fine that that was reason for writing the book of course, but without any idea of who the people are or any kind if pre-knowledge of the crime-traditions and culture they represent, it’s hard to build up enough righteous indignation to care all that much. I remained too detached and not as involved as I’m sure he would have hoped his reader would be.

The book is all very fine. Perfectly readable, with many interesting insights that will hold your attention. But if you’re looking at it from the angle of questioning if it delivers on the premis he presumably had for writing it, then I would have to say, it fails.

(In case you’re wondering how I got hold of the book and why I read it, when it’s clearly nothing I’m particularly interested in: I got it as an e-book file from a friend’s visit earlier on this year and looking at the cover, I clearly expected it to be more of an Elmore Leonard crime noir exposé than it turned out to be).

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