Book Review – Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

What are the odds that you’d find an American-Jew, working as a crime reporter on the police beat, in one of the biggest newspapers in Japan? Second to none, maybe, but this is what Jake Adelstein did for 12 years. And boy, does he have a story to tell in his memoir, Tokyo Vice.


Many of my friends have a very rosy view of Japan. I don’t deny that the country has an amazing culture (both traditional and modern), advanced technology, a rich history and beautiful nature. But, just like anywhere else, it has a seedy underbelly that many are ignorant about (or choose to ignore). I’m talking, of course, about the Yakuza – the main subjects of Adelstein’s book.

Fresh out of college at 19 with a major in Japanese literature, Adelstein applies for a job as a reporter at the Yomiuri Shinbun, one of Japan’s largest dailies. To his surprise, he gets hired.

Japanese society is monoethnic (>98%), and is notorious for being xenophobic – so Adelstein faces many challenges in the initial stages. But thanks to his resourcefulness and a never-give-up attitude, he slowly makes his way up on the ladder. He sums up the way the media world works pretty well: wining and dining sources, giving small gifts, exchanging favours for scoops… basically dedicating your life to the job (As a former journalist, I concur. It’s quite a thankless job lol).

The book highlights several interesting cases Adelstein has covered in the course of his career – from pickpockets to host clubs, and serious cases such as murders, prostitution and human trafficking; all controlled by the entity called the Yakuza, or the Japanese Mafia. It’s a fascinating insight into a community that permeates every aspect of Japanese community and their way of life, like an undercurrent just out of sight. 

Adelstein also shares what is on the mind of a reporter: the ups and downs of working as an investigative journalist. There are funny moments, like when he gets into a drunken brawl with colleagues over celebrations, or how he accidentally sneezes into the face of a senior at work.

It takes on a more sombre tone when he describes how journalists sometimes become jaded and cynical, detached from covering too many tragedies and seeing too much of the evil human beings can do to each other. He loses friends to illness, suicide and murder. He almost gives up when the Yakuza threatens him to ‘drop’ a story, on pain of death. But then he fights back. 

Adelstein’s writing is fresh, charming and witty, and serious when it needs to be. If words are telling about someone’s personality, then he comes across as the nice-guy, the funny friend who is likeable in a goofy way – but also fiercely dedicated to his job and causes he is passionate about. Although Tokyo Vice is a memoir, it reads like a pulp fiction novel; full of intrigue, suspense and action.

Sometimes truth is really stranger than fiction.

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