Review: Tokyo Noir, Jake Adelstein’s Satisfying Follow-Up to Tokyo Vice

Review: Tokyo Noir, Jake Adelstein’s Satisfying Follow-Up to Tokyo Vice

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The cover of Tokyo Noir by Jake Adelstein in front of a background depicting Tokyo from above.
With the HBO adaptation of Tokyo Vice now popular the world over, journalist Jake Adelstein returns with a long-awaited sequel: Tokyo Noir.

Last year, I received a request from a client that gave me some pause. The client, a YouTube channel focused on organized crime, wanted me to conduct a filmed discussion with a former yakuza, serving as both interpreter and interviewer. While this wouldn’t be my first time encountering someone from Japan’s underworld, I was a little worried about the lines of questioning involved – and of the idea of meeting face-to-face with someone with a background in organized crime whom I knew little about. So, I messaged Jake Adelstein, author/journalist of Tokyo Vice fame, and a longtime friend. He gave me some important advice: “Peace of mind is worth more than a fistful of yen.” It’s this intersection of journalistic intrigue and self-preservation that serves as a major theme for his upcoming new book, Tokyo Noir.

(In the end, Jake was able to help confirm the identity of the interview subject and the relative safety involved in meeting him. It resulted in a very enjoyable, wide-ranging interview, which you can find on YouTube if you look hard enough.)

There’s a thin line between fascination with the inner workings of a dangerous, extant underworld and becoming overly involved yourself. Read a book? That’s a safe distance. Start covering the underworld from afar? You’re getting a tiny bit closer. Meet with yakuza, interview them, know them in person – as even I have – and you’re starting to tread on thin ice that only gets thinner. Tokyo Noir does a great job of showing the murkiness that comes with a life dedicated to reporting on society’s underbelly. 

Mafioso, dirty dealings, true crime – it’s all inherently interesting. And Tokyo Noir is exactly the sort of sequel you’d want to the now-seminal Tokyo Vice, Jake’s 2009 memoir of his 16 years on the police/yakuza beat in Japan that was as informative as it was a compulsive page-turner. Once again, the message to take away is: steer clear. Learn from afar. Just don’t make the mistake of becoming too involved yourself. 

With Tokyo Noir, Return to the streets of Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice has long been the premier English-language book on Japanese true crime. Now a decade and a half old, the book is still an exciting, accessible, and often darkly funny look at the seamier side of Japan in the ’90s and 2000s.

Given the book’s seminal status, it was long wondered when a sequel might appear. The popularity of HBO’s television adaptation, which just released its second season, has led to a Vice renaissance of sorts. Jake has now been able to release his prequel and sequel books, formerly published only in French. The Last Yakuza, released in English last year, tells the history of the yakuza as a social phenomenon through the life story of Jake’s late bodyguard, Saigo. While that book offers great insight into the yakuza as a whole, Tokyo Noir will provide satisfaction for those looking for a more direct sequel to Tokyo Vice.

Noir starts pretty much exactly where Vice left off. Jake, via some dangerous investigative reportage, has helped bring down the violent yakuza boss Goto Tadamasa. Having left journalism behind, he’s now a due diligence investigator. A sort of private eye for Japan’s murky corporate world, he helps companies determine whether potential targets for business dealings are all they seem. Given the yakuza’s former infiltration into all levels of the Japanese economy, Jake’s understanding of underworld dealings comes in handy.

The initial chapters focused on due diligence investigations are fascinating. There really is a “noir” aspect here, with shady characters and backroom dealings in dingy Kabukicho offices. If anything, I would’ve happily read more stories about due diligence than the book contains. Just like Tokyo Vice, however, Tokyo Noir is more of an intertwined anthology than the straightforward narrative you might expect. And amidst investigative adventurism and journalistic exposes of Japanese political scandals is a story surprisingly focused on personal tragedy.

Due Diligence, the old fashioned way. Jake at an old payphone.

The Fading Japanese Underworld

There’s a way in which this book feels like a worthwhile epilogue or addendum to the original. In a sense, that’s fitting. We’re now in the twilight years of the yakuza as a social phenomenon. Surprisingly effective laws have kneecapped their organizations’ ability to provide their traditional “services,” and for their members to live the high life that so appealed to the average gangster. Yakuza membership is down by nearly 90%. Criminal activities are instead being performed by so-called hangure, “half-gangsters.”

We exist in a sort of post-history for the yakuza. Tokyo Noir reflects that fading, as Jake transitions away from the high-octane lifestyle of an investigative reporter with a price on his head to a Buddhist priest. (The fact that his arch-nemesis, Goto Tadamasa, also left the Yamaguchi-Gumi to ostensibly take the tonsure is an irony that isn’t left unremarked upon.) 

The yakuza aren’t fully gone, though, and Jake isn’t fully hanging up his press pass. The book does a great job of portraying the mirrored twilight stage of both yakuza and the journalists who cover them. It makes for captivating if surprisingly melancholy reading. 

Panache and Insight

But the book isn’t only about end-of-life crises. It’s full of great information, with chapters alternating between the topical (due diligence investigations, North Korean money laundering, Olympic scandals, just to name a few) and autobiographical narratives and musings. The melancholy is mixed with insight, both personal and societal.

One chapter focuses on a due diligence investigation regarding a pachinko company. Pachinko parlors are ubiquitous across Japan. Semi-addicted customers play at pinball-like slots for hours at a time amidst a cacophony of sound and color, hoping for the chance to win big. What many don’t know of is the close relationship between the pachinko industry and Japan’s significant Korean minority. Tokyo Noir does a great job of exploring the troubled history of Koreans in Japan, so often the subject of prejudice and even violence, while taking a sober look at the connection between pachinko and the funneling of money to North Korea. It’s an engrossing section, granting both a sympathetic view to one of Japan’s most important minority populations without shying away from seedier realities.

(It’s also the second time that Adelstein has tackled the history of Koreans in Japan in recent reportage; his award-winning podcast, Evaporated: Gone with the Gods, has a great episode focused on the Korean population and North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and early ’80s.)

Jake’s reporting on yakuza connections to the Olympics being followed up by Japanese press.

A Welcome Return

These sorts of insights carry on the admirable legacy of Tokyo Vice, which managed to be both informative and exciting. Tokyo Noir has all these qualities in spades. What fans of the original will also likely appreciate is the presence of Jake’s unique voice. Part of the appeal of Vice is Jake’s wry sense of humor; his ability to be self-deprecating despite some self-aware bravado. The Last Yakuza, being a story about a (highly interesting) third party, didn’t have as much of that unique voice.

Noir, however, finds Jake again writing a highly personal story. And just like with Vice, much of the narrative is full of self-critique. Things get dark. They sometimes even get a little uncomfortable. (Both personally and in terms of grisly true-crime details.) But a bit of gallows humor goes a long way. So too does the quality of the writing, which is crisp and highly readable.

With the publication of The Last Yakuza and Tokyo Noir, Jake has brought his Vice trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. The three books work as a great set, each adding context and levels of understanding to the previous entry. If you enjoyed what came before, or are interested in the darker side of Japan in general, you’ll enjoy this return to the clubs and back alleys of Kabukicho. Even if those streets are a bit less seedy, and a bit more tourist-friendly than they used to be.

Tokyo Noir goes on sale May 14 in Australia and much of the world. Sales begin from July 8th in the UK and October 1st in the US.

Kabukicho, circa 2011, the same year the anti-organized crime laws that spelled the end for the yakuza went into effect. Photo by Jake Adelstein.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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