We’re back at it again with Jake Adelstein, former reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun and author of Tokyo Vice, the basis for the new hit HBO show. Last time, Jake answered a host of personal questions about his own life – including assuring HBO viewers that he is, in fact, a real person. This time around, Jake is giving us the run-down on the true-to-life facts about his breakout memoir, 2009’s Tokyo Vice. Read on for exclusive background on what is perhaps the most famous book about the Japanese underworld in the English language – plus some more personal reminiscences.
What is the original Tokyo Vice about?
Tokyo Vice is about my twelve years as a police reporter in Japan, covering serial killers, robbery, loan sharks, sex work, and the 20+ organized crime families that are collectively called “the Yakuza”. It’s about friendship, loyalty, Japan, growing up, and learning to care about more than the next scoop. It’s also about my post-reporter life working on a US State Department sponsored study of human trafficking in Japan–and the nightmare that came from doing it. You could also say it’s about a sleazy Harry Potter finding that he can oust yakuza Voldemort from power but only at a great cost. And Voldemort lives.
Is everything in the book true?
Yes, but names and dates have been changed to protect sources and sometimes out of sheer kindness.
There are two pages at the end of the book, pages 331-333 in the first edition, that explain that in great detail. It’s subtly titled: Note On Sources and Source Protection.
This is a pretty common question; I don’t know if some people don’t read that section or don’t care. I’ll sound like a broken record here, but I’ll say it again: In Japan, the civil servant laws make it a crime for public officials, which include police, to leak confidential information. This is why in many articles, especially about in-progress criminal investigations, you almost never see the name of the police officer involved. What you will see is the phrase “sources close to the investigation” or “according to government sources,” which is just another way of saying anonymous sources. Protecting your sources is the alpha and omega of journalism in Japan. Have I failed to do that? In 30 years as a reporter, yes I have. I am certainly not proud of it, but when it happens all you can do is apologize and atone for it. An apology alone isn’t worth much; the act of atonement is what can balance the books.
Now, the book covers a two-decade-long period of time from 1988 to 2009, so there may be places where my memory was faulty. I did refer to boxes and boxes of notes, photos, emails, tape recordings, and diary entries in writing the book, and hopefully, I got most of it right. You can look at the UnseenJapan Tokyo Vice file here and see much of it for yourself.
Rehabilitation and Rewrites
In general, source confidentiality does not extend to the dead. I have named sources that passed from this world. There are some people for whom I don’t know whether they are living or dead. So I have to presume they are all living and treat them like a source. There is one thing that I didn’t make clear, which is due to the fact that this book was originally going to be published in Japanese and English at the same time. We decided to change the names and details of some crimes and criminals, especially those who had served their sentences. You might be wondering: Why?
Japan places a great deal of importance on the rehabilitation of criminals. The justice system is flawed and the prisons are awful, but there is still the idea that once you have served your time, you shouldn’t be chained to your past. This is why arrest records are not public and you cannot easily see if someone has a criminal record. I think this is a good idea.
Everyone who goes to prison – most of them, anyway – will eventually get out. Do you want them to stay criminals and go back to prison, or do you want them to have a fresh start and become good citizens who contribute to society? I believe that most people deserve a second chance, even a third chance. The Japanese criminal justice system utilizes a very interesting type of sentence that is handed down to first-time criminals, or people who have a good chance to straighten themselves out. The court gives them a suspended sentence, and if they can keep their nose out of trouble for the length of that sentence, it’s like nothing ever happened. They are supposed to be treated like the slate has been wiped clean. I also think this is better than putting people in prison.
So if people are upset that small details of a case or the name of a petty criminal were changed in a chapter, I’d say to them: Look into your heart. Ask yourself, if you are arrested for being a pickpocket, would you want the world to know that forever? Criminal records are not public and even newspaper articles about small crimes disappear behind a paywall, but books can stay in print almost in perpetuity.
Individuals in the book like the Emperor of Loan Sharks are probably out of jail by now; if you ask me, “will you change his name in future editions,” I’m not sure what to say. What he did was so bad and harmed so many people that I think the world needs a warning to stay away from this guy. It’s something I still need to consider.
What didn’t make it into the book?
There are a few chapters that didn’t quite fit or got passed over in the rush to get the book out a little early. As a special treat for Unseen Japan readers, you can read one of them. The password is: Unseen
“The Ministry of Death and Destruction” was about my first real piece of investigative journalism. It involves dioxin pollution in Saitama. I also exposed a deliberate attempt to cover up related health issues. But it wasn’t quite Vice enough.
I did put it in the Japanese edition. There’s a chapter about finding the witness to a murder by sheer dumb luck — he was my favorite bartender at Propaganda. I gave that chapter to Marchialy, who used it as part of a kickstarter to publish Tokyo Vice in France in 2016. It was the first book they ever published. That story about luck and crime reporting helped create what is now a major publishing house in France. It’s a lucky thing. The eyewitness/bartender now works at Union Square in Roppongi. Great bar and restaurant. Go for happy hour. Yasu makes an excellent espresso martini. Try not to ask him about the case — it’ll probably stresses him out. Tip well if you do.
There almost wasn’t a book at all. After the Washington Post article came out, the original Japanese publisher wisely hired a bilingual consultant with a great knowledge of the yakuza, a rare breed, to do an evaluation of the contents and risk assessment of publishing the book as it was. The Readers Report as it was called (see the UnseenJapanTokyoViceBox for the original) said, “Any publisher handling this book should have experience dealing with the yakuza. Goto-gumi will use harsh measures against anyone who defies the group using violent means such as kidnapping. Serious security measures should be taken.” I was told the top dog of the company turned white as a sheet after reading it and then they canceled the book. The editor of the manuscript fought hard to get it published but that was that. I don’t name the Japanese publisher–or I try not to–because honestly, I think that was a reasonable decision at the time. I was just glad there was a US publisher.
And there was one more thing. A few weeks before the book was going to be in print, about 10pm one night, without notice, one of my old bosses from the police beat (during my Yomiuri Days) showed up at my doorstep in Shimokitazawa. He had been moved into the legal affairs sections. That happens at the paper–we wear many odd hats. And what he said very sheepishly was that there were concerns about the book and if it was slanderous, legal action might be taken. I could tell he didn’t want to be the heavy. So I had him wait downstairs and I brought down “The Y file” from my study. I explained to him that I was grateful for my time at the Yomiuri Shimbun and I had company loyalty. I wasn’t going to write a tell-all about the newspaper. In fact, there were many things that I had not put in the book. And I showed him file by file, what was not going into the book and he laughed. He said, “Thank you very much. I’ll be sure to tell them. I think everything will be fine.” And that was that. It was true. I thought there were some great people working for the Yomiuri Shimbun and there still are.
Are you a one-hit-wonder?
Sacre bleu! I have written three other books—one more of a mini-book. In France, all three books have done very well, something I’m quite happy about. I love France; I can’t speak a word of French. Tokyo Vice and The Last Yakuza were packaged as a set and sold there at Christmas time a few years ago. I saw my book placed next to a set of John Le Carre novels about George Smiley and was delighted. John Le Carre writes fiction, but he was the real deal, a real spy. And I love his work.
My second book published in France, LE DERNIER DES YAKUZAS Splendeur et décadence d’un hors-la-loi au pays du Soleil-Levant (THE LAST OF THE YAKUZAS Splendor and decadence of an outlaw in the land of the Rising Sun) is a post-war history of the yakuza told through the lives of several yakuza bosses, almost none of them left alive.
J’AI VENDU MON ÂME EN BITCOINS (I Sold My Soul In Bitcoins)
This book, written with Nathalie Kyoko Stucky, gets to the bottom of what really happened when what was at the time Japan’s largest bitcoin exchange, Mt Gox, had nearly $500 million worth of bitcoin stolen in 2014. It takes a hard look at the mean-spirited police investigation into CEO Mark Karpeles. We also take the readers on a journey to meet the pioneers of Bitcoin: idealists, geeks, libertarians, profiteers, or speculators, and try to answer these two questions about The Big Bitcoin Heist: Who did it? And where did the Bitcoins go?
By the way, Mark is one of the few people to actually correspond with the mystical creator of Bitcoin, Nakamoto Satoshi. I feel like I know Satoshi by association now — lol.
The fourth book, Operation Tropical Storm, is more of a mini-book. It is the story of how Special Agent Jim Stern went undercover with a yakuza group (the Kyokutokai, 極東会) and managed to arrest a gang boss in Hawaii. It’s a crazy story, but it’s all true — and after you read it, you’ll never feel at ease at a Benihana again.
What scoops are you the proudest of?
Thanks for asking. I’ve had more than one.
First published with VICE News on November 20 2014 (the photos no longer load), this one was a hard-won victory.
It’s a legitimate scoop, but “scoop” is not always easy to define. Writing about the relationship between the vice-chairman of Japan’s Olympic Committee and the head of Japan’s largest crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, and publishing photos — that’s a great scoop, and the Japanese press timidly followed up on it. They didn’t really report on it until it was brought up in Parliament, at which point they could hardly continue ignoring it.
But was I really the first to break the story? In reality, other reporters did try to do the story, but were beaten up and gave up. So maybe I just managed to actually get it out first.
When I wrote this piece, I gave a heads up to a high-ranking official in the Yamaguchi-gumi –because that’s decorum. I didn’t ask for permission, but I did tell him in advance.
Prime Minister Abe and the Cover-Up
This is moving a bit away from the Tokyo Vice era, but it’s all important stuff.
The story of how Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Suga Yoshihide, and the current leader of Japan’s National Police Agency obstructed the rape investigation of journalist Ito Shiori is a horrifying story. The rapist was a close friend of Abe and Suga, and he was also Abe’s unofficial biographer; his Boswell, his cheerleader. Weekly magazine Shukan Shincho (週刊新潮) broke the story. They deserve full credit. The Daily Beast and I were the first English publication to do a deep dive into the story. Christopher Dickey (1951-2020), the editor on that story, was great, and we made sure we had it solid. I shared my sources with him, he gave me advice, and we got it done. Later, I helped the BBC make a documentary. It makes me very angry that Nakamura, the high-ranking cop who stopped the rapist from being arrested, got rewarded for his dirty deeds — by being made the most powerful police official in Japan. 腐っている – it’s rotten to the core.
On Fukushima Daiichi
In 2011, David Mcneill and I wrote an explosive piece that postulated that the earthquake alone could have caused a nuclear meltdown in one of the reactors at Fukushima. We obtained testimony from people there at the time and wrote it up after a great deal of research. Later, other independent investigative committees obtained similar eyewitness testimony. This is what we heard and so did others. At the oldest reactor, as soon as the earthquake hit, pipes burst, coolant was lost and the meltdown started even before the tsunami arrived. Japan’s new nuclear safety regulations are all based on the idea that the earthquake alone didn’t cause a meltdown. That assumption is very dangerous.
I have kept up on that story. There was a book published around 2020 that backs up everything we wrote. Kimura Toshio, a former TEPCO engineer who predicted the Fukushima nuclear disaster, concedes that there is a strong possibility that the tsunami caused the meltdown in two of the reactors. However, he asserts that the meltdown very likely began in reactor one, long before the tidal wave hit. In other words, the possibility the earthquake alone caused a meltdown is high.
I interviewed him after reading his book.
After the 3/11 disaster TEPCO did an in-house investigation of the accident and released an 800-page report, along with 2000 pages of data. When Kimura examined the report, he found that some of the most important data had been omitted. “There is a device that measures the flow of water in the reactor core, and none of that data was included. If we were talking about an airplane, that device would be the equivalent of a flight recorder or a voice recorder and its data is critical.” TEPCO claimed it had released all the data about the accident, but they were lying.
It was only after Hirose Naomi became President of TEPCO in the summer of 2012 that Kimura was able to access the information. After analyzing the data, Kimura realized that within one minute and 20 seconds after the earthquake, coolant stopped flowing into the reactor, and it was impossible to cool the nuclear fuel. “It’s what is called ‘a dry-out.’ The logical conclusion is that in the over 40-year-old Reactor One, the cause of the meltdown was not the tidal wave but the shaking of the earthquake itself.”
Eyewitness testimony from those working on the site at the time mentions pipes bursting and steam coming from the ground before the first tidal wave hit at 3:27 pm. Reactor One was forty years old and should have been decommissioned; corrosion of the pipes was a well-known problem. A radiation alarm went off at a monitoring post on the perimeter of the plant about 1 mile from the No. 1 reactor minutes before the station was overwhelmed by the tsunami. The monitor was set to activate when detecting high levels of radiation.
Nuclear physicist, Okamoto Ryoji, in an article published in the March 2013 edition of The Journal of Japanese Scientists, cites multiple sources indicating the earthquake alone played a substantial role in the nuclear disaster. He asserts, “If the influence of the earthquake [on the meltdown] is important, then we need a fundamental re-evaluation of the guidelines for seismic resistant nuclear plants–and thus creating new safety guidelines is unavoidable.”
Let me rephrase that:
“If the earthquake caused the meltdown, then we need to re-evaluate the guidelines for seismic-resistant nuclear power plants–and thus we have to create new safety guidelines.”
Sorry, you came to read about Tokyo Vice and I’m telling you that none of Japan’s nuclear power plants are probably safe enough.
I was going to give a detailed explanation here of the other stories, but I decided that people who are interested can just read for themselves. “Write it first, or write it better, but always write it right.” That’s pretty good criteria for “a scoop”. The “write it first” thing, unfortunately, is still a big litmus test.
So, here’s some other articles I’m particularly proud of.
Is there anyone who really believes Prime Minister Abe quit because of his illness? There was an investigation taking place, just as it is written here, and Abe’s flunky ended up taking the fall. This article was more or less correct. People who fell for that tummy trouble explanation were bamboozled, in my humble opinion. It’s not 100% right, but it was better than the bullshit the Japanese media wrote.
The Never-Ending Olympic Scandals
Recently, at The Daily Beast, we pounded the government over a cover-up of a deadly COVID-19 variant entering the country during the Olympics. They also failed to monitor the patient correctly or warn/trace people in close contact with the vectors. Lambda entered Japan via the so-called “safe” Olympics.
On the Beat with Takeshi
And finally, while not really a scoop, I managed to convince Beat Takeshi — known as a comedian in Japan but known in France and the US as Takeshi Kitano, the great film director–to tell me what he thought about holding the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic. He was caustic, funny, and honest. The most enjoyable interview I have ever done.
“The fact that Tokyo is asking local municipalities to secure beds means they are anticipating they will have sick patients to put in them. They might as well be saying: ‘Hey, we have plenty of morgues in Tokyo! In fact, we’ve got American-sized coffins, European-sized coffins… we’ve got all the coffins you need. A great selection! Come to Tokyo for the Olympics!’ Of course, then no one would come.”
He added wrily: “Let’s give [the Olympics] back to Greece… giving the Olympics back to the founders of the Games is the best thing to do.”
I have never agreed with anyone more.
Whatever happened to Goto Tadamasa, the notorious crime boss who you’ve called your personal Voldermort?
Alright, back to Tokyo Vice.
Well, Goto does have a mustache so, they’re obviously not quite the same. Goto allegedly became a Buddhist priest after being kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi, but even after that one of his subordinates — a guy who could have fingered Goto for ordering the assassination of a real estate agent — was murdered in Thailand. Probably not a coincidence. He also wrote his own tell-all book, Habakarinagara (Pardon Me But…) which was published in 2010, with a subtle fatwa directed at me. I asked my lawyer and mentor, former prosecutor Igari Toshiro, to ask for a retraction of that passage, and he met me in August and took the case. I was his last client. He was found dead in the Philippines before the month had ended. His book Gekitotsu was published posthumously and he left a foreword that indicated he knew he might not live to see the book come out.
I never knew if there was a connection between him taking my case and his strange death. He was a great guy. And when you read his book, there’s an amazing chapter in which he describes how Goto created problems at the Westin Hotel, and how that ultimately resulted in the laws that have decimated the yakuza.
If you’re a yakuza who’s lost his job, can’t rent an apartment, or get a cell phone contract, and you want to know who to blame, blame Goto Tadamasa. If you read Igari’s book, you’ll understand.
The Flight of Goto
In 2012, Goto was sued for the murder of the real estate agent Nozaki. He eventually settled for $1.2 million, apologized, and fled the country. The US still lists him as a mob boss with a fiefdom in Cambodia. He briefly tried to revive dog-fighting as a sport in Shizuoka prefecture. That’s him to the tee: finding enjoyment in pitting sentient animals against each other, watching the loser suffer, and betting money on misery. In 2015, when the Yamaguchi-gumi split apart, he bankrolled the losing side, the Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi. The Kobe Yamaguchi-gumi welcomed back a number of crime lords that were kicked out of the gang after Goto was expelled on October 14, 2008. The expulsion of Goto and the mass banishment of high-ranking yakuza members who were connected to him in 2008 is referred to as “The Goto Shock” in the underworld, much like the phrase “The Lehman Shock” refers to the financial collapse in 2008.
I heard he got a new liver in Singapore and is fairly healthy, but we don’t exchange New Year’s cards. He has an apartment somewhere in Roppongi. I was told he has one million dollars in cash in a safe in that apartment. That’s USD, by the way, but having that much in and of itself isn’t illegal. Goto also funded a movie about his early life, spending about 6 million dollars of his own money, called Burai (無頼). It hasn’t been released in movie theaters yet. I convinced someone to show it to me. It’s not a bad yakuza film for entertainment. . However, if you want to talk about the truthfulness of the movie–well, it makes Tokyo Vice (the TV show) look like a BBC documentary. Goto also was working on an English version of his biography, Habakarinagara, with a British journalist for about five years, but that collaboration seems to have fallen apart. Or maybe it hasn’t. The scary thing about Goto, as noted in the National Police Agency report, is that he was very adept at using the media to take out his enemies. The police knew this. If he couldn’t destroy you physically, he’d destroy your reputation. Read the report for yourself, it’s fascinating.
Why hasn’t The Last Yakuza, already published in France as Le Dernier Des Yakuzas (Marchialy/2017), been published in English?
I get asked this question often. On Thursday, Steven Black sent me a DM on Twitter asking where he could get a copy. I told him to hold on. Some have asserted that one of the main subjects demanded the book be scrapped, but that was not the case. Perhaps they are misinformed. The book has been published in France, Poland, and soon will be published in China.
One problem with the book has been that many of the interviews were conducted before 2010, when Japan retroactively repealed the statute of limitations on some serious crimes, including murder. The statute of limitations on additional crimes was lengthened. People who had spoken on the record believing they were beyond the law, suddenly realized they could be prosecuted for those crimes. So did I. The book had to be massively rewritten. One potential publisher wanted me to get every single person interviewed to sign a release form. I refused. It’s a terrible precedent. Unless someone says “off the record,” it’s on the record. Another publisher wanted the book rewritten to be more like Tokyo Vice, which I don’t want to do that either.
Are there things you didn’t put in the book?
Of course there are. There are small details that I would have loved to include, like the full name of Lieutenant K, who was not really on Goto’s payroll but had become so addicted to the steady stream of good intel from Goto that he became a sort of double agent. It’s really disturbing to know your phone records might be in the hands of a person who doesn’t mean you well; phone records can tell gangsters more than you want them to know.
But even if there isn’t a corrupt cop giving a yakuza group your phone records, seriously determined yakuza will use private detectives and bribes to obtain that information on their enemies. In the summer of 2012, three years after Tokyo Vice was published, the Aichi Prefectural Police arrested several people, including a SoftBank employee and a private eye for Galu Detective agency, for leaking the phone records of a good cop to the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai. The yakuza (from the Kodo-kai) then used that information to threaten a cop, photograph his family, and terrorize him. It was such a low-down dirty deal that even a yakuza fanzine put the story on the cover, pulling no punches in their criticism.
After that incident, I bought another phone from another carrier. Very few people know that number, and for obvious reasons.
The Danger of Leaked Information
A skeptical journalist once demanded to know “Why would the yakuza steal your phonebook?” And yes, he wrote “phonebook”. For the kids reading this, ‘a phonebook’ is “a printed book that lists the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the people and businesses in a certain area”.
I wanted to reply, “You’re either stupid or lazy. If you have someone’s phone book and you can’t terrorize them directly, you can terrorize their friends, and also gather information on them that you can use to blackmail them. Of course, yakuza would love to have that. The second reason it’s a stupid question is that I never was told my “phonebook” had been stolen; it was my “phone records.” That’s data. “Read the fucking book and do a little research.” As it was, I just never replied.
And also, I wasn’t surprised to hear the name of the detective agency working for the mob, for reasons you can guess. One of the reasons Tokyo Vice contains more personal information than I wanted to divulge is I had a private dick looking into my life for weeks. You can guess who hired him.
When you’re dealing with scumbags that would like to blackmail you, sometimes the best thing to do is just put all your cards on the table. “Yeah, so what. That’s me. I’m not hiding anything. But if you’ve violated the law gathering that information, I’ll see to it you pay the price.”
Why do you hate Japan? (I don’t)
I can’t state this more eloquently than I have before. Here’s what I think.
If you don’t address social problems or even recognize they exist, nothing changes. I love Japan, and many Japanese people are hard-working, honest, and polite. That doesn’t mean the society doesn’t have problems, such as child poverty, gender inequality, discrimination against the handicapped, women, foreigners, especially Korean Japanese — powerful organized crime, nuclear dangers, staggering injustice in the legal system, repression of the free press, sexual assault on women with impunity for many assailants, rampant labor exploitation, death by overwork, and political corruption. Ignoring the problems doesn’t make them better. If you are offended by that, rethink your love of Japan.
The Japanese government has stated:
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and have the right to live with dignity. Many people in the world, however, are not able to enjoy their rights. The United Nations has thus engaged itself in activities to improve human rights situations. Japan strongly supports UN activities in the human rights field, believing that all human rights are universal.”
Is it unfair to expect Japan to live up to its promises? I live here. We live here. Don’t we all want a juster, more egalitarian, and healthier society?
How long did it take you to write the book and how did you do it?
I could say it took me 16 years. As soon as I got the job as a reporter for the Yomiuri, I started keeping notes. I knew it could all make for an interesting book. I thought it would probably be a very academic thing about journalism in Japan, maybe some stuff on crime and the police. I didn’t know I’d end up spending years dealing with organized crime, murder, and disaster. And I didn’t think that I’d become part of the story. I should have known that reporting on something changes it.
When I really started putting it together, I hired a college kid to PDF as much of my materials as they could–using a ScanSnap from Fujitsu. Then I spent weeks organizing it into some chronology. I still have a lot of the material in scrapbooks and notebooks stored in boxes somewhere in the United States. While I haven’t been home in two years, my Mom sold the apartment where I kept everything during the pandemic, and there was so much crap there that I heard moving it all was a heroic undertaking involving many helpers. Especially thanks to Mom, Dad, and little sister Jacky. I’ll put it all in order someday.
You have a big mouth -are there things you won’t talk about?
I won’t talk about my sources. If I do get pushed on by someone I don’t trust, I honestly prefer lies to endangerment. You don’t want to give anything away. On the police beat, occasionally a senior bureaucrat would say something like, “I hear you’re pretty chummy with Detective K” very nonchalantly, and I would suspect it was a fishing expedition. So I’d say, “Who’s that? Introduce me!” I will discuss my sources with my editors–because you have to do that and if I didn’t trust them, I wouldn’t work for them.
I don’t like to talk about my kids too much, although I am very proud of both Beni and Ray. Their life is their own and I don’t want to share theirs with an interviewer. I don’t want to talk about Helena, who went missing while writing the book. It rips me up. Almost always, the questions are trying to ferret out her identity, and everyone has the right to privacy if they’re still alive. People should be free to escape their past, especially when they’ve done nothing wrong. I also am not going to talk about breaking the law – assuming that I had, hypothetically. The statute of limitations keeps changing, and I don’t want to retroactively end up in jail.
Do you ever reread your own book? What’s that like?
Well, I had to reread it recently to check the Japanese version. I started just glancing at it but then decided to read from beginning to end.
It was kind of heartbreaking and made me feel really old. You think about all the people that were there when you were writing the book, and now they’re gone. My second Dad, Detective Sekiguchi Chiaki, died from cancer in 2007. Naoya Kaneko, the first yakuza boss I met–vanished. Igari Toshiro, my lawyer and mentor, died (or was murdered) in 2010. Shibata, gone. Hamaya-san–she really was a wonderful reporter and person, she’s gone. I’m still in touch with Kiyotake Hidetoshi, my boss at the Yomiuri, and he fondly remembers her. Speaking of Kiyotake-san:
WOWOW, which has the rights to the Tokyo Vice television series in Japan, has turned two of his books into original dramas as well. Small world.
Sugawara-san, aka Mochizuki-san, ex-yakuza turned driver and bodyguard, died of a heart attack during the pandemic. And the one that hits the hardest is the death of Michiel Brandt, who was my BFF and helped translate docs and check manuscripts for Tokyo Vice. She’s actually on the cover of the book (US Edition). She died of leukemia in 2012; she was 30.
I came across an email she sent to me around the time my article about Goto and his liver transplant was published in the Washington Post in 2008. I read it now and I hear her voice.
Michiel Brandt <email@example.com>
Subject: Re: The article
Date: 2008年5月14日 2:57:33 GMT-05:00
To: Joshua Adelstein <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I’m glad to hear you’re okay. I am so sorry I broke down like that. I think I’ve been on pins and needles recently, and that last moment before the article came out was just too much for me. It’s just that, I’m quite fond of you, ya know. You really are like a big brother to me, and when I think about anything happening to you–はぁ～。心が締め付けられるよ
I just want you to know how much respect I have for you. One of the cops’ wives at the party told me that her husband (the cop with the glasses) is embarrassed for you having to do what he and the others don’t have the courage to. And you’re a gaijin! He feels that you’re more Japanese in spirit than they are. なんと言うか、それを聞いて貴方をとても誇りに思いました。
Thank you for such kind words. Coming from you, they mean a lot. もう、また泣いちゃったじゃない. I can’t wait for all this to be over so we can gather at the Shimo House and laugh around the coffee table again!
I love you, Jake.
I guess that’s the hardest part of reading the book. Yeah, the worst part is over, but we’re not going to gather at my old house and laugh around the coffee table again. I wish we could.
Softball question: how did you end up doing the audiobook version of Tokyo Vice and are you surprised that there are some very good reviews?
I started my journalism career helping out in the newsroom at KOPN 89.5 FM community radio station in my hometown. I was 14. I did a few radio shows over the years. I can modulate my voice and sound okay when I need to. At one point Random House put me on the phone with the voice actor who was going to be me–to help him pronounce Japanese correctly–and it was hopeless. Not only was it hopeless–I hated his voice. And I thought, “No way. I can’t let this be my voice”.
So I said to the powers that be, “Let me do the reading myself. You don’t even have to pay me. Just give me food and a microphone.” And so I was flown to the studio and did it over a few days. I was chain-smoking clove cigarettes in those days, so my voice was husky and deep. I actually miss my old voice.
Towards the end of reading the book, my voice kept breaking because I started getting teary-eyed. It’s not very manly, but sometimes saying the words makes it all come back. I am very proud of Tokyo Vice, but to me, that book is also like printed PTSD. When I open those pages, I feel like the good I’ve done–or tried to do comes out—but also I release my own ghosts. There were so many people I knew back then who are already gone. Well, I am 53, so there’s that. I don’t mind being haunted, but somedays I think the ghosts need to be left to rest.
I might do the audio for I Sold My Soul For Bitcoins, but definitely not for The Last Yakuza. I do not have a yakuza quality voice. It would be like having Pee Wee Herman do the reading. They’ll find someone better.