Tokyo Vice’s Jake Adelstein: Everything You Wanted To Know (But Were Mildly Afraid To Ask)

Tokyo Vice’s Jake Adelstein: Everything You Wanted To Know (But Were Mildly Afraid To Ask)

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Jake Adelstein in Tokyo, photographed by Jessy Nakamura.
Photography by Jessy Nakamura.
In an Unseen Japan exclusive, Jake Adelstein, reporter and basis of HBO's new series Tokyo Vice, lays down the facts about his life.

I’m extremely happy to see my first book Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter On the Police Beat in Japan made into a fictionalized TV series that has been well-received. It’s not a documentary, but it does reference real events and is hopefully as authentic as a television program can be. And it has a message. 

On the other hand, in the last week, I’ve been besieged with a lot of questions from viewers, readers, other journalists, fans, and trolls, so I decided that I’d try to answer some of them here, if you don’t mind. 

Noah Oskow, your editor here at Unseen Japan, has also known me for many years and has an anecdote himself to add. So let’s start. 

Tokyo Vice | Official Trailer | HBO Max

Based on Jake Adelstein’s non-fiction first-hand account of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police beat, starring Ken Watanabe. The drama captures Adelstein’s daily d…

The official trailer for Tokyo Vice, based on Jake Adelstein’s memoir.

Who are you? Are you a real person?

Jake Adelstein featured in a Japanese-language news article upon becoming the Yomiuri's first foreign reporter.
A 1993 magazine special featuring the strange story of a foreign Yomiuri reporter – Jake Adelstein.

No, I’m a hologram. Actually, I am real, and I’m a workaholic (but not alcoholic) investigative journalist in Japan and have been reporting here since 1993. I spent over 12 years reporting for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper and the largest in the world in terms of readers. It’s an empire. After leaving the paper, from 2006-2008, I worked as a due diligence investigator and also as a researcher on human trafficking in Japan, in a US State Department-sponsored study. Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan was published in 2009. 

How did you become the first gaijin reporter for a major Japanese newspaper? What did you do there?

I had spent a year at the University of Missouri before I studied abroad in Japan, eventually transferring to Sophia University (上智大学) where I majored in Japanese literature. 

The shortest answer to the question is: I passed a written test and made it through a few grueling interviews. I was so nervous I missed a bunch of questions on the back of the test book, but I still scored 79 out of 100, so not terrible. 

They cut me some slack. 

A copy of Jake Adelstein’s written exam for the Yomiuri.

I had to assure them I would work on the sabbath, I could eat shellfish (sushi) and I wasn’t getting a regular paycheck from the International Jewish conspiracy. 

I was hired as a staff reporter in 1993 and immediately put on the police beat in Saitama. It was unprecedented, so I got written up in a weekly magazine. Of course, I was delighted because now I could prove to people that I was writing for the newspaper, not delivering it. 

Before I even started working, I was so unsure that I could hack it, that I asked to be allowed to do an internship and shadow a senior reporter. The newspaper was surprised but they set it up for me. 

The very first scoop I ever had for them was in 1992–before I was fully employed–and it was a piece about how the local yakuza were now shaking down gaijin street merchants. 

Just like one of the yakuza says in the HBO series, “everybody pays.” 

The first article every published in the Yomiuri Shinbun by Jake Adelstein.
Jake’s first story, on how yakuza were forcing illegally operating foreign merchants to pay “protection money.”

In 1999, I was moved to the National News Department (社会部). It was Kiyotake Hidetoshi-san, the number two in the department, who pulled me out of Saitama after my articles on the collapse of a Korean Credit Union (Saitama Shogin) generated some vague death threats. The Credit Union had made many bad loans – and the Inagawa-kai (one of the most powerful yakuza syndicates) had eaten up a large amount of their funds as well in the form of bad loans. 

The first piece I wrote for the department involved a Japanese man who had been duped by a classic 419 scam and kidnapped. I was at the paper until November of 2005, spending a few years at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club. During my time at the paper, I covered all sorts of crime and calamity–violent crime, murder, arson, fraud, extortion, and especially crimes related to the yakuza.

An Aside on the Yakuza

“The yakuza”  is a blanket term for the 22+ major criminal organizations operating in Japan. They get their revenue from construction, racketeering, drugs, fraud, blackmail, real estate, insider trading, and smuggling. Unlike almost any crime group in the world, they are public. They have offices, business cards, and, until 2019, there were monthly fan magazines lauding the top bosses. The big three are: The Yamaguchi-gumi, The Inagawa-kai, and the Sumiyoshi-kai. 

I left the paper amicably in 2005. Before I did, I tried to write a story about Goto Tadamasa, a notorious gangster getting a liver transplant at UCLA, but I didn’t know all the details. I was given a warning by his thugs and the newspaper I was working for had no interest in pursuing the story. But like the stubborn ass that I am, I kept at it. 

The monsho, or crest, of the Yamaguchi-gumi – the largest of the Yakuza organizations. (Souce🙂

When were you born? 

You mean: wow, you’re old! I’m 53. I was born on March 28th, 1969 in Columbia, Missouri. I once checked to see if that was the birthdate of any famous Japanese historical figure. It was. I share my birthday with Taoka Kazuo (March 28th, 1912), the 3rd generation leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi. Taoka is considered the godfather of godfathers and the most powerful yakuza to have ever lived. The irony doesn’t escape me.

It is also the day my Zen master took his Buddhist priest vows at the age of 15. I pointed out that he became a priest on the day I was born, to which he corrected me by saying, “You were born on the day I became a Buddhist priest—that’s your fate. To follow in my footsteps.” Who could argue with that? 

Various pictures of Jake Adelstein's zen master.
(Jake’s Zen master taking his Buddhist priest vows at the age of 15, on the day Jake was born. Or Vice Versa) 
Jake Adelstein's zen master receives one of his books.
Jake’s zen master receives one of his books.

Where did you grow up?

Where I was born. I grew up in Columbia, a lovely college town with a great journalism school. It was in high school that I met JT. Rogers — we both went on speech tournaments and even acted in a high school play together. He grew up to be an immensely talented playwright and is the showrunner for Tokyo Vice. He has an outstanding knack for thought-provoking historical dramas; Blood and Gifts is one of my favorites. 

While you have a lot of readers who love your work, why do you think you’re trolled so often?

I would like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re well-intentioned but just ignorant. Part of the problem is that Japanese is a very difficult language to read.  Also, in contrast to the USA, reporters at the Yomiuri usually didn’t get a byline, unless it was an op-ed or an explainer. I wrote a lot of those– because like everyone in the world, I crave recognition for the good work I have done. 

What complicates things immensely is The Civil Servants Law (公務員法), which makes it a crime for police to leak information –even to reporters– and they can be fired for it, or even go to jail. We don’t usually even name police officers even when it’s on record. The majority of newspaper articles here don’t quote an actual person–when talking about a crime under investigation they’re always along the lines of “the Kitazawa Police said (北沢署によると) ” or “sources close to the investigation allege” (捜査関係者によると). 

Always Protect Your Source

F*ck-ups can have serious consequences. Here’s an example. There was evidence that police officers in Fukuoka were taking bribes from the yakuza in exchange for information. In the summer of 2012, a reporter for the Yomiuri unveiled his source in one careless email. A high-ranking police officer had been feeding the reporter information on suspected corrupt cops in the force; the reporter’s source was a whistleblower. Well, his email revealed the detective’s identity. The reporter was forced to resign, and the police officer (his source) attempted suicide. Probably, the cop was motivated to kill himself because he had technically committed a crime as well. His career was over and I guess he thought so was his life. 

Cops who leak information can and do go to jail. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a journalist to whom they are speaking. When we ask the police for information, on background, we don’t take notes in front of them. It’s also why you get drunk together; the pretext is we never talked about anything secret, and if we did, we were both too drunk to remember. 

Those are the rules. If you don’t know them, crime reporting here seems very strange. So if you don’t read Japanese and aren’t willing to pay money to search for my work in a newspaper and magazine database, like G-search, you’ll find my early career elusive. Everything is pay-walled now. You could try a library, I guess. 

So ignorance can make people doubtful but unfortunately, there are those, including self-professed journalists, who would love to make their career by tearing down someone else’s career and work. 

Vetting for Thee, but Not for Me

The events I report in the book Tokyo Vice have been fact-checked by The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, 60 Minutes, The New Yorker, and Japanese publisher Takarajima. The stories I wrote for The Daily Beast were vetted and sometimes we had to have lawyers weigh in. 

I get it all the time: “Prove to me that you were really writing for the Yomiuri! You don’t know any yakuza! Let me talk to your sources directly! You weren’t a crime reporter, you were writing for the town & society (gossip) pages!”

The “society page” accusation usually comes from someone who Google translated my department, 社会部 by components. 社会 (Shakai) means “society” and 部 “department” but the better translation is National News Department. 

It’s not only time-consuming to try and meet those weird demands, but it’s also dangerous for the people who trusted me. 

A World of Difference

The above Peter Hessler’s piece was fact-checked in 2011 by The New Yorker, who called the detective he’d met not at his home, but at the police station. The cop got in serious trouble for that. Peter was not at fault, and the fact-checkers were doing their jobs, but not prudently. During the call, they told the person on the other end that they were calling the detective about a New Yorker article. It was nearly a career-ender for the detective. We’re still friends, but that was too close for comfort.

My college senpai who had ended up in the Sumiyoshi-Kai was irate that he had to speak with a fact-checker.  Hadn’t he met Peter in person? Did I doubt him? He grew up in the states and he has a very raspy and scary voice. And he was, like, “What’s this bullshit? Do not have them call me at the HQ, man.” 

60 Minutes interviewed a yakuza boss for their piece, and although they disguised his voice, his tattoos gave him away. I asked for the tats to be blurred, but I didn’t get to see the final cut of the program to check. Again, no malice was intended – it was just that no one thought that tattoos would act like fingerprints in the underworld. He was criticized and nearly banished from his group by his superiors. Though he didn’t have to chop off a finger or anything like that, it was touch and go. Making it up to him took years. Eventually, we patched up and even went jet-skiing together, though he kicked me off the jet-skis a few times. I guess I deserved the dunking. It’s to his credit that he laughed when I returned the favor.  

The Wheel Turns

It becomes increasingly difficult to verify events from a decade ago as time passes. My memory fades, I’ve moved three times. I have shipped boxes and boxes of files back to the US to my apartment–which my mother then sold during the pandemic. I have no idea where they are now. 

And sadly people die. The ex-yakuza whom I hired as a bodyguard and driver died during the pandemic, and my beloved editor at The Daily Beast, Christopher Dickey, also passed away on July 16, 2020. I wish they were still here, and not just because I want them to verify the particulars of my life. I do have some recordings of my bodyguard. But as morbid as it is, dead men have no mouths, as they say in Japanese. 

I may have some talents, but necromancy is not one of them. 

Fact Check Upon Fact Check

I bent over backwards to put one journalist in touch with the fact-checker at the New Yorker, Reeves Wiedman. But the journo with an ax to grind didn’t want to speak to him until I demanded he do it. Reeves, by the way, went from being a fact-checker to a fantastic journalist. You should check out Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork, which also has a great Japan angle to the story. 

I put one hack in touch with a former US diplomat and Japanese organized crime expert who knows the police officers who looked after me. I asked him how their talk went. The ex-diplomat was blunt, “It seemed like he had his story already written, and to have it in for you, and he wasn’t listening to what I was saying. His interpretation of our conversation makes me think he’s either a liar or stupid. I would not be making any effort to prove anything to him.” 

And like a mini-satori, it hit me. He was right. Nobody likes to be trolled or have their reputation be besmirched, but is it worth throwing people under the bus to avoid that? 

I’m tired of reinventing the wheel. So, I’ve put a ton of reference materials in an open file, many in Japanese, much of it slightly redacted so that it won’t burn my confidential sources—for people to read for themselves. Download the materials while you can and make up your own mind. Some of the material is completely spurious, but still, I think, amusing. 

I can’t keep accommodating every guy with a chip on his shoulder, and a smattering of Japanese literacy, who thinks he’s a better fact checker than the WaPo and The New Yorker combined. Because it not only puts good sources and friends at risk, they also become kind of annoyed. 

If the question really is: “Save face or save your sources”–which one do you think I’m going to choose? What would you do? 

Did you come back to Japan to finish the Goto story?

No. I should have gone to law school as planned, but I was offered a job doing an in-depth report on human trafficking in Japan, funded by the US State Department. The Japanese government had a terrible don’t-give-a-f*ck attitude about the problem, and the Bush administration wanted to shame their ally into doing something. And since I had been writing about the problem for years, I felt like it was a worthy cause. I went back in 2006. In addition, I had a huge budget and none of the restraints I would have had as a reporter. If you buy intel from the bad guys, you’d be surprised at how fast you can learn so much. I think what most people don’t get is that even the bad guys see themselves against the gestalt of a hierarchy of evil. “Well, I’m a racketeer but he’s a fucking human trafficker. What a piece of scum.” Like that. 

While working on that project, I made some terrible errors in judgment. I also figured out how Goto had gotten into the US for his liver transplant. That resulted in him deciding to kill me before I could publish what I knew, and I was put under police protection in March of 2008. I was technically under police protection until late 2015, but after Goto was forced to pay a million dollars to the relatives of a real estate agent that his men killed in 2006 (which he probably ordered)—he fled to Cambodia. When he fled, I made a deal with the right people that made me feel like I could live in relative peace and I thanked the police and returned to normal life. 

The US Treasury still considers Goto to be an organized crime boss, but the Japanese police look the other way. Generally speaking, there’s a five-year rule for yakuza. They’re considered active until five years after they leave the gang. After that, they’re no longer officially a yakuza, and transform into cuddly human teddy bears.

What’s it like to be under police protection, and are you still under police protection?

I’m not under police protection now and, with the exception of a few cyber trolls, I don’t think I have many deadly enemies. Police protection (警察の保護対象): it’s not quite what you see in the movies. For a few months, from March to October of 2008, it was very intense. First I was asked to come to the National Police Agency. Then I met with the 警視庁組織犯罪対策部組織犯罪対策第三課保護対策係長 (Chief of Protection Measures Section, Organized Crime Control Division 3, Organized Crime Control Department, Metropolitan Police Department)  and his team. I also met with detectives assigned to the Yamaguchi-gumi squad (第三課山口組担当) and was briefed. Amongst that flurry of meetings, there was one detective who told me, more or less, “Publish or perish, kid. Once you’ve published what Goto doesn’t want written, the incentive to have you erased diminishes greatly. He’s a businessman, after all.” 

At first, I had to tell them when I was leaving the house and when I’d be back. Not just the local police, but detectives from the police headquarters, 警視庁組織犯罪対策3課 (Organized Crime Control Division Three) were in charge and they gathered information on possible reprisals. I was asked never to leave the house alone. 

It’s one reason I hired an ex-yakuza to be my bodyguard and driver. I was going stir-crazy. I was earning money doing corporate investigations on the side, so I could sort of afford it. Better than being dead. After the Washington Post article, things changed immensely. And once Goto was expelled from the Yamaguchi-gumi circa October 14th, 2008,  things got easier. The Kitazawa Police, Organized Crime Control Department, was put in charge of my security. They were really nice guys but turnover was rapid. 

An Unexpected Contribution

There was a delicious irony in being under police protection from the Kitazawa Police Department. In 2007, one of the detectives there accidentally uploaded about 4 gigabytes of materials related to the Yamaguchi-gumi crime group, and especially the Goto-gumi, onto a file-sharing site called Winny. He had been trying to download porn; most of it was really awful porn, too. Tentacle stuff. 

It was that data leak that led me to figure out when and how Goto got into the US and managed to steal a liver from some poor American who deserved to live. Full-circle. What starts at Kitazawa Police Department ends at Kitazawa Police Department. The wife of Itami Juzo, the film director who was attacked by Goto-gumi in 1992, was also under their protection at the time. 

After that it was sort of like having a police scarecrow in front of your house, and surprisingly effective. Police protection in Japanese is 警察の保護対象. The National Police Agency makes the rules and issues guidance

What this means in reality is that the police drop by your home and put a yellow note in your mailbox or door with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police mascot, Pipo-kun, on it, informing you of anything unusual. Police officers patrol the area around your home often. Sometimes, the police would even take in my mail or kindly tell me to sort my trash better. 

Pipo-kun (ピーポくん), mascot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police.
One of the the “we surveilled the area” messages from the Tokyo Metro Police, complete with Pipo-kun.

What made you interested in Japan and in trying to become a Japanese-language journalist?

In high school, I got bullied and eventually got into a fight with the bully (which I sort of won because, well, I didn’t play fair). At the suggestion of my teacher, who saw what happened, I took up Karate and became interested in Japan and Zen Buddhism through that. In 1988, I went from the University of Missouri to Sophia University as an exchange student, and ended up living above a Soto Zen temple near Ikebukuro. Anyway, I studied Japanese like crazy — although I switched martial arts to Wing Chun when my knees gave out. I started writing in Japanese for the university newspaper, the Jochi Shimbun, and the editor, Inukai-kun, corrected my terrible prose. I had a job lined up at Sony and a gig doing Swedish massage that paid the bills so plenty of time on my hands. 

I decided I’d try to pass a mass media entrance examination and see how good my Japanese was. People told me I was insane and that it would never happen but if there’s an exam, you can study for it, and if you can study for it, you can pass it. They’re like standardized exams and there are manuals on how to pass them. Each major publication held the exams twice a year. 

I almost got into Kyodo Tsushin (Japan’s version of the Associated Press) but didn’t. With the Yomiuri, partly due to an ability to remember things visually and largely due to great efforts, I did well enough on the examination to get hired. And I was like, “Sony? Screw that. This sounds much more interesting.”

And it was. I was sent to the New Jersey of Japan, the Saitama Office, and put on the police beat. The first year I was there the dog breeder serial murder case was under investigation, and we all knew it would be a big story. While working on that story, I came to know Detective Sekiguchi Chiaki, who was in charge of investigating the disappearance of an Inagawa-Kai yakuza boss — whom the dog breeder was suspected of killing. Sekiguchi-san became my mentor and a second father. He taught me a lot. 

Jake Adelstein with police detective Sekiguchi.
Jake Adelstein with police detective Sekiguchi.

In 1994, I was assigned to cover the Saitama police headquarters, specifically the Saitama Organized Crime Control Division 1 and 2 (暴力団対策1課・2課). When covering the organized crime control division, I realized that the yakuza had their hands in every pie in the bakery. Almost no matter where I went in paper, that expertise or experience ended up being useful. I got placed in the Multi-Media Section around 2000, when the internet was becoming “a thing.” I thought I’d be writing about technology, but Liquid Audio, an IT darling at the time, turned out to have been infiltrated by a yakuza group — and there you go, it was like the same old thing all over again. 

Why do you still work as an investigative journalist in Japan?

I’m an idealist, but I believe that when people know the truth they can make better decisions. Sometimes, exposing wrongdoing can change things – not always, but sometimes. When you see your work change society for the better, there’s nothing like it. Even if it’s a very minor change. 

There are risks of course. And it can be unsettling, but if everyone runs away from the assholes of the world, soon the assholes will be running the world. 

Also, I like Japan. This is where I’m a permanent resident. As a member of this society, I would like to see one created that is kinder, more egalitarian, and where people are not worked to death. Isn’t that good for everyone? 

We all know the drill, fight hatred with compassion, fight anger with equanimity, fight greed with generosity and fight lies with truth. It’s one way to bring balance into the world. 

How did you manage to dive so deeply into the world of the yakuza?

Well, I really stayed out of their world, covering only the cops until a phone call from a Sumiyoshi-kai underboss dragged me into a strange dilemma. He had a problem with cops not drinking tea when they came to visit and he wanted to know why — because he felt if he didn’t solve that mystery, his own underlings were going to kill him and bury him in a shallow grave. I helped him solve that mystery.

We became quasi-friends. I respected him for at least refusing to deal drugs on his turf. 

It’s hard to say that you’re ever ‘friends’ with a yakuza — except when they leave their organization for good. 

When I was a kid, my dad rescued a coyote that had been hit by a car. We nursed it back to health and I spent a lot of time with him. The coyote became friendly, but I always felt that when we met, the animal had been sizing me up to see if he could take me down. He was grateful, but he was also a predator. He was never going to be domesticated and I was never going to be a coyote. 

The Story of Mochizuki-san

In 2008, I hired a former Inagawa-kai boss (Yokosuka-Ikka), Sugawara Tatsuya, to be my bodyguard and driver. His son, Jin-kun, had just been born and he wanted to go straight. 

Sugawara Tatsuya, known publically as Mochizuki-san.

He was invaluable in introducing me to other yakuza, those retired and those still in the business. In Japan, crime groups are relatively friendly, at times. It’s not uncommon for an Inagawa-kai member to have a kyodai 兄弟 (blood brother) in say, the Yamaguchi-gumi (Kobe) or Aizukotetsu-kai (Kyoto). 

He knew it was a dangerous job, and I agreed to call him not by his real name but by his mother’s maiden name, Mochizuki. So all of my friends, the cops, and others who met him referred to him as Mochizuki-san. I rarely called him by his real name. 

I encouraged him to learn new skills, but even though he could type like crazy on a cell phone, learning to type on a keyboard with only nine fingers was beyond him. And society didn’t make it easy for him to rejoin. I helped him get slightly tech-savvy. His self-chosen email was inudesu (I am a dog) which is a pun on how informants are referred to in the underworld — as dogs. You can’t say he didn’t have a great sense of humor. 

He was arrested once on bogus charges — like not changing the address of his car registration — and I had to go talk to the police to straighten the situation out. The reality was that people saw this yakuza (who still looked like one) driving around what appeared to be an Iranian (me), and assumed that he was a chauffeur or accomplice to a high-rolling drug dealer. I kid you not. The Kitazawa Police sent over a detective and cleared up the mess. He was let off with a warning to register his car properly. 

I kept him on as a driver until the summer of 2015, when he decided to go back to the Inagawa-Kai. I did give him the Mercedes-Benz I had purchased as a farewell present.

Yakuza used to love those cars. They guzzle gas like crazy, but he argued furiously that no one would take him seriously if we were driving around in a Subaru. I couldn’t really argue with that. 

We had a bitter dispute about that decision to rejoin, but we made our peace in October of 2015. 

From: Tatsuya Mochizuki <>

Date: October 17, 2015 0:27:13 JST

To: Joshua Adelstein <〇〇>

Subject: お元気でお過ごしください。





An e-mail sent by Mochizuki-san to Jake.

However, while he stayed a source, with him back in the organization, the protocols for contact changed quite a bit. It was safer to let the world believe we were now bitter enemies or not communicating at all. He died in his home, alone, of a heart attack, early in the pandemic. He rose to the rank of Director General (本部長) before passing away, and that seemed to mean a lot to him. 

Jake Adelstein's former yakuza bodyguard, Mochizuki-san, alongside the Benz they called the Vice Mobile.
Mochizuki-san alongside the Vice Mobile.

What is your obsession with yakuza and McDonald’s?

It is not an obsession — it’s just a meme that I find incredibly amusing. Let me tell you about the costliest cheeseburger in the world. 

Yakuza bosses in Japan may get away with murder, but they have to pay civil damages.

In August of 2008, three months after the revisions to the Organized Crime Countermeasures Act went into effect, the top dog in the Yamaguchi-gumi had to foot the bill for a low-ranking yakuza who didn’t pay for his cheeseburger* at McDonald’s.  When a 38-year-old Yamaguchi-gumi member picked up his cheeseburger and fries at a drive-through window in Kyoto, he claimed they had gotten wet in the rain, so he didn’t owe any money, and fled.

The angry McDonald’s manager sent a bill addressed to Mr. Tsukasa Shinobu to the Yamaguchi-gumi headquarters in Kobe. The organization paid the bill. 

*Actually, it’s unclear if it was a cheeseburger or just a hamburger, but it was definitely not a Happy Meal.

Ronald Comes for the Yakuza

It was the hamburger compensation that started a series of legal headaches for the Yamaguchi-gumi and other yakuza groups. It was a tacit recognition that yakuza thugs were essentially employees of a criminal organization, but nevertheless a corporate entity. Yakuza bosses are now finding that ’employer liability is becoming increasingly burdensome as laws are revised and judicial interpretations expand. The boss is liable for any damage his cohorts cause during the course of their business activities, including extortion and especially murder. 

The McDonald’s incident became legendary. A Sumiyoshi-kai boss explained to me that being a modern-day yakuza was increasingly difficult — it was a franchise with diminishing returns. “It’s like owning a McDonald’s, except you can’t use the golden arches and you can’t offer Big Macs or Happy Meals.” His organization forbids members from carrying business cards that bear the Sumiyoshi-kai logo. What good is it to be a gangster if you can’t even use the organization’s name or symbol to strike fear into the hearts of your victims? Particularly since association dues can amount to $60,000 a month. In one case, a Yamaguchi-gumi boss hired a night-mover (夜逃げ屋) to help him escape the organization before dues were due. Membership in a yakuza group has diminishing benefits over time. 

Like every journalist, I tend to have a few people I go to for a hot-take on the subject I’m writing about. Maybe that’s lazy? But for politics, I often ask Nakano Koichi, a professor at Sophia University, to share his opinion, or Jeff Kingston at Temple. For yakuza issues, I had my regulars. It’s possible that it’s because I’m an American that they try to explain things to me in terms of US fast-food chains. Or it might be that asking a bilingual yakuza to explain the mob in English results in him giving me McDonald’s metaphors. Come to think of it, he looked like he spent a lot of time in McDonald’s.

I have probably asked one or two tattooed gangsters, “tell me the similarity between McDonald’s and the yakuza.” That’s certainly a leading question. I should ask instead, “Tell me the similarity between the yakuza and 7-11.” They’re not as far apart as you think. 

Have you learned anything from three decades of reporting on yakuza and the cops that bust their heads?

Why yes, as a matter of fact, I have – and rather than repeat those lessons in this venue, here’s a link to a Ted X Talk, “Hard Lessons Learned From Tough People” at TED X Kyoto. 

One of the aphorisms I learned made its way into the TV show and the trailer: a man without enemies is no man at all. Detective Sekiguchi said that to me once when I was lamenting angry reactions to an exposé that I had written. The point is that if you stand up for something, if you call out a social evil, or expose corruption, you will make enemies. That’s fine. A man’s enemies say as much about him as his friends. 

There’s one additional lesson I’ve learned in the last few years. If you want to win a fight, it’s best to not look like a fighter; it gives you an advantage. In my limited experiences, fights are short and brutal. The person who hits first and has the most intensity is usually the last man standing. Nobody ever really wins a fight, but if you can walk away in one piece without someone chasing you, that’s a sort of victory. 

I’ve finished the book! What happened after that—there are so many unanswered questions?

I’d love to tell you. Just wait until Tokyo Private Eye, coming in 2023 on Marchialy. 

What have you done since Tokyo Vice was published?

I spent about a year doing book tours for the many editions that came out and also still doing due diligence. In March of 2011, I was in New York at the Japan Society-sponsored Yakuza Film Festival, “The Hardest Men In Town” when something happened that shook all of Japan and woke me up. On the 11th at 2:46 p.m., a huge earthquake struck eastern and northeastern Japan, triggering a tsunami and the world’s worst nuclear crisis since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. It took me a week to get back to Japan. When I did, I brought with me several bags of diapers, instant foods, aspirin, toilet paper, and other essentials to take to the people stricken by the disaster. And I gave them to yakuza, whom I knew would take them to those who needed them most. I wrote about their efforts in “Yakuza To The Rescue” for The Daily Beast. It was my first article for the publication and Lucas Wittman was the editor. I had to ask yakuza on the scene to take videos and photos so I could show Lucas that it was really happening. Of course, many yakuza groups help out after natural disasters, sometimes as a PR gig, sometimes sincerely. If you claim to be a humanitarian organization (任侠団体), you better do something humane now and then. 

There was a surprising bonus for being the first to write about post-disaster yakuza rescue efforts; it made people in the underworld evaluate me as a fair and reasonable journalist. It didn’t earn me fans, but there were some who were like, “Adelstein, he’s objective.” And that also made life easier. The monthly yakuza fanzine did a long article that translated and used a lot of what I’d written for The Daily Beast. Maybe the only time I’ve ever been positively written up in a mafia monthly.

Ills of Society

For me, the meltdown was a wake-up call. I realized that there were things much worse in Japan than the yakuza. One of them was Tokyo Electric Power Company, the greedy incompetent assholes who destroyed much of Fukushima and ignored warning after warning of a preventable disaster. And the other thing worse than the yakuza–in some senses–was the Liberal Democratic Party. 

They had fed off the nuclear industrial complex for so long they wouldn’t let anyone cast doubts on the nuclear safety myth. 

That began my transition into reporting on Japanese politics. The LDP was founded with yakuza money from Kodama Yoshio and led by Nobusuke Kishi, a ruthless war criminal who was released on conditions that he’d promote the US conservative agenda. He’s also former Prime Minister Abe‘s grandfather; it’s a shame the US didn’t execute Kishi when they had a chance. It was a decision equivalent to bailing out Josef Mengele and putting him in charge of the Ministry of Health and Welfare. 

The transition from covering yakuza to covering Japanese politics was surprisingly easy. The only difference between most LDP politicians and yakuza bosses is the shape of the badge they wear on their lapels. When former Prime Minister Abe once said that after retirement he’d like to direct yakuza movies, I get that. He knows the mentality, for sure. 

Branching Out

I’ve reported for The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Times of London, The Japan Times,  NPR, Vice News and The Atlantic. I did a rewarding stint with the Center For Public Integrity investigating Japan’s nuclear problem. I was the special correspondent for The Los Angeles Times from 2015-2016. I have written two other books, published in France–I love my publisher Marchialy. The second book I published with them, Le Dernier des Yakuzas, was a 363 page post-war history of the yakuza, told through the lives of several yakuza bosses, past and present. From 2014 to 2019, I covered Bitcoin and the collapse of Mt. Gox with Swiss journalist Nathalie Kyoko Stucky. It was the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, located in Tokyo, and it was hacked out of half a billion dollars worth of cryptocurrency. 

The cover of Jake Adelsetin’s French-language Le Dernier Des Yakuzas (The Last of the Yakuza).

The Japanese police arrested French CEO, Mark Karpeles, again and again, hoping to pin the crime on him by making him confess. He was Carlos Ghosn before Carlos Ghosn. (The two of them did meet before Carlos escaped from Japan. He also apparently loved Mark’s home-baked apple pie). 

The whole story of that crime, the history of bitcoin, and the small role I played in helping a police investigation outside of Japan, is in my third book, J’ai Vendu Mon Ame En Bitcoins (I Sold My Soul For Bitcoins). 

Jake’s second book published in French, J’ai Vendu Mon Ame En Bitcoins.

The nicest thing about writing that book, which came out a week before the verdict on Mark Karpeles in the Japanese courts, was the immensely positive reception it had in France. 

People would come up to me on the book tour and say, “It’s so nice to see you write something that has no yakuza in it! What a fascinating story. You’ve really grown as a writer.” That’s kinda nice right? Sort of paternal advice. 

I’ve been writing for The Daily Beast since 2011. I am also a regular contributor to Asia Times. This year, I’m focussing on a podcast about missing people in Japan — those who vanish intentionally and those who don’t — for Campside Media. They (Campside Media) consistently do some of the most amazing true-crime narrative podcasts on-air — check out Suspect. I’ve never done a podcast before, so it’s a challenge. Stay tuned! 

Meanwhile, if you’re still curious, you can come back to Unseen Japan later this month and read, “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Tokyo Vice (the book) but Didn’t Ask Because You Were Too Busy Watching The Show.” 

We’ll answer questions like:

Are you a one-hit-wonder? (Nope!)

Whatever happened to Tadamasa Goto?

Why do you hate Japan? (I don’t.) 

What’s the relationship between the police and the yakuza back then….and now? 

What are some of your favorite yakuza stories or crime stories that you’ve written? 

You have a big mouth. What won’t you discuss? 

Why do you publish books in France but not in the US?

How long did it take you to write the book and how did you do it? 

See you back here soon!

Editor’s Note:

Jake’s late driver/bodyguard, Sugawara Tatsuya – known to almost everyone as Mochizuki-san – was a memorable figure. Here are two brief recollections from those who encountered him.

Startling the Host Family – Paige Ferrari

Paige Ferrari–(yes, that’s her real name)  documentarian and journalist remembers Mochizuki-san. 

I was very sad to learn Jake’s longtime Yakuza bodyguard passed away. I met him once and he gave me the thrill of a lifetime.

The first time we met was when I was coming in from New York to work with Jake on a profile of Shimiken (Japan’s most overworked porn star, but you already know that) and Mochizuki-san picked me up from the airport.

As we drove through Tokyo he gave me his personal “vice tour” pointing out scenes of crimes from his heyday. He even showed me former sites of criminal underworld dealings.

He drove me all the way to a small suburb where I was staying with my Japanese host family from high school (who were fully expecting me to arrive in a cab). 

I’ll forever cherish the look on their faces when this besuited, nine-fingered, tattooed gentleman walked me to the front door and assured them (then reassured them) that I didn’t owe him any money. He was a great guy.

Jake and Paige in the Vice Mobile, with Mochizuki-san driving.

A First Encounter – Noah Oskow

I first met Jake – and the former yakuza boss known as Mochizuki-san – back in 2010. I, too, was a Jewish-American exchange student at Sophia University, temporally removed from Jake’s time at the school by about two decades. How I met Jake is its own funny story – but for the time being, I want to focus on my encounter with the late Mochizuki-san.

I’d been invited over to Jake’s house, then still under police protection. I’d recently finished reading Tokyo Vice under recommendation of a friend, and had the story fresh in my mind. But it’s an interesting thing, the difference between knowledge in your head and coming face to face with it in reality. See, I’d been a fan of yakuza films since before coming to Tokyo for school, and was highly intrigued by that side of Japanese society. I even had my own Japanese-language “yakuza accent,” iconic lip flair included, which I pulled out at student nomikai drinking parties to riotous responses. So, there was a part of me that hoped that I might get a chance to actually encounter the Mochizuki I’d read about in Jake’s book.

And then, there he was, standing in Jake’s living room. In a way, I felt star-struck – how often do you encounter such intriguing figures from popular nonfiction that you’ve recently read about? I remember Mochizuki-san as burly, somewhat short, and dressed in a silky black shirt with sleeves down past his wrists. He was friendly, and interested in talking to me about Sophia. His lingo was just as difficult to understand as I might have expected from yakuza portrayals in film, but I managed to comprehend most of what he said. 

“Sophia, huh? That’s something, eh?! Good for you. I’m a f*cking idiot, so never could have gone to university. Ah, truth of it is, I was skipping school all the time. Dad caught me playing hooky in junior high and beat the hell out of me, so I quit and ran off to be a yakuza.”

I laughed, flustered, insisting that as an exchange student I hadn’t even had to take a test to go to Sophia, and was no great intellect. It was then that I caught a glimpse of green on one of his wrists, poking ever so slightly beyond the ends of his shirt sleeves. It was his irezumi tattoos, the mark of a yakuza, hidden almost perfectly by his long sleeves. And on the same hand, it seemed to me, was something missing – a joint on his pinky. 

Suddenly reality hit me; the reality of who I was talking to, and his real history. As I said, it’s one thing to think about the yakuza in abstractions like prose and film; it’s another to be having a jovial conversation face-to-face with a former boss. I knew who Mochizuki-san was before, of course, but suddenly I understood. It was sobering.

So, I want to thank Mochizuki-san. He was my first real encounter with what was even then still a major part of the make-up of Japanese society. I’m lucky that it was under such pleasant circumstances. Even such a small encounter was enough to help create an awareness in immature 20-year-old me about the difference between enjoying real-life stories as narratives, and actually existing in the same space as those elements. The yakuza are interesting to learn about (hopefully from afar) – but they’re also very real.

  • Noah Oskow, Unseen Japan EiC

Part 2:

Tokyo Vice (The Book): Everything You Wanted To Know but Didn’t Ask Because You Were Too Busy Watching The Show

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Jake Adelstein

Jake Adelstein is an investigative journalist, Zen Buddhist priest, and author who has been covering Japan since 1993. His first book, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan was made into a TV series that will debut on HBO Max and WOWOW on April 7th. His next book, Yakuza Wonderland, will be released this year.

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