Firstly let’s not mess about. This is the most compelling and interesting book I’ve read in a long time. Anyone that’s been to Japan will know the culture is a perfect symbiosis of beauty and brutality. Tokyo Vice is all about this, showing the side that no foreigner would ever see.
Author Jake Adelstein was a English teacher of undetermined ambition looking for a better paying gig. He decides to sit the exam to become a cadet journalist at one of the country’s biggest newspapers. Arguably he’s the first and only gaijin (foreigner) to do so. Not only does the newspaper grant him the cadetship (a job for life in Japan), but he wastes no time starting work with various crime squads in the Tokyo PD.
He quickly finds himself in a world of chain smoking, heavy drinking cops and gangsters. Often the only difference between the cops and the crooks is the quality of their suits or their uniform. For the cops, it’s the hat and badge. For the Yakuza it’s their tattoos. Adelstein finds himself doing favors for either side and finding out all kinds of dirty secrets.
Adelstein finds that to get a scoop, he has to become literally like family to senior cops. He becomes very close to a cop Sekiuchi who was his real mentor and father figure, far beyond any editor. While he goes Gonzo journalist with other seedier cops to find the seedy and very bizarre world of strip clubs of Kabukicho that foreigners never see. In doing so he becomes not just a journalist but a Japanese, learning the necessary quid pro quo necessary to survive. He gives, he exploits and is exploited. The only distinction, he doesn’t threaten and for the most part neither do the Yakuza. They just act.
If you’re a Japanophile, this book will confirm your fears. Adelstein goes through the motions first hand: working ungodly hours; getting absolutely shit faced with their work mates and even hit other, yet not a word is spoken of it the next day. All while the wife just gets on with it and raises the kids more or less a single parent. It’s a culture where there’s literally a manual for everything and gangsters don’t just dress the part they have legitimate offices with signage. This is a lonely and brutalistic society. Yes it parties hard but it has consequences and unscrupulous players. He uncovers psychopaths, money launderers, murderers and people smuggling, dedicating a large chunk of his life to exposing the later.
Adelstein touches a raw nerve in this book that goes straight into the psyche of Japanese life. Of relationships that sour and people confined to the choices they’ve made. It’s an utterly compelling and fascinating read. One that won’t sour your love of Japan, but make you want to know even more.
This book is non fiction but clearly but it’s 20-30 years ago and a few names are changed to protect the innocent. Adelstein is still a foreign correspondent, reporting on Yakuza and Japanese issues.