Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Unprofessional Book Review: Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

Tokyo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, yet—or maybe because of it—there are so many people who have no one to confide in, no one to trust or burden with their secrets, worries, or disappointments....What the clubs are really fueled by is alienation, boredom, and loneliness. The rates are not unreasonable, but the costs in human terms are incredibly high.
In Tokyo Vice, Jake Adelstein tells the story of how he began as a reporter for the biggest news paper in Japan and worked his way through the ranks. 75% of the book is anecdotal stories about life, crime, and family within the Japanese culture. The other 25% of the book charts Adelstein's fight to expose a Yakuza crime boss named Tadamasa Goto who had ratted on his fellow Yakuza to the FBI. While this is ultimately the defining story of Adelstein's career, most of the book jumps from year to year, story to story as we see what Adelstein's life was like, attempting (and failing) to balance married life with his existence withing Tokyo's super-seedy sex-trade subculture.

Much of the book takes place as Adelstein goes from strip-clubs to massage parlors in search of his latest scoop (for some reason, Japanese strippers seemed to always have the information Jake needed). Adelstein's extended persistence in this dark side of Japanese society seems to have taken its toll on him. Jake mentions at one point that virtually living in this world destroyed his sex-drive and caused him to see sex as a dirty and unpleasant thing. He charts numerous moral compromises and frequently crossing the line in to unfaithfulness to his wife as he pursued his stories. Curiously, his wife never seemed to mind his constant bar-hopping. All of this did have a purpose, as Jake was able to expose the Japanese government's indifference to human trafficking. Even though I believe in total depravity, it is frankly shocking to see in Jake's firsthand accounts of the things human beings will do to each other. It is good to know that Jake was able to use his experiences in this part of Tokyo to help fight human trafficking (and he still is due to his involvement with the Polaris Project).

Ultimately, Adelstein was able to successfully expose Goto's misdeeds, and the man was eventually removed from the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate. Adelstein seems very proud of this achievement, and I don't blame him - after all, it was accomplished in the face of tremendous opposition. I was shocked at the candidness with which he evaluated his own life, and the way he lived during his time in Japan. Adelstein struck me throughout the book as a man so badly in need of redemption, of forgiveness, of atonement. When his story ends up getting a dear friend brutally raped and murdered, we see Adelstein at his lowest point. He says that her ghost still haunts his dreams, and rightly so.

But Jake Adelstein is a pragmatist through and through, and this book shows him to be someone who is not particularly principled. For example, I think that his ability to expose the sex-slave trafficking was one of the few admirable things that he was involved with during his time in Japan. And yet even then, his actions are constantly tinged with a self-aware righteousness, as though his few good stories could make up for all the inattention to his family, riotous living, heavy drinking, and frequent fornication.

During his few moments of deep personal insight, we see a sense of loneliness, nihilism, guilt, and obsession. I appreciated these moments, but I saw so much regrettable behavior from Jake that I kept expecting to see more remorse, but it is rarely forthcoming.

I have three very positive things to say about the book:

First, the book is extremely well written. Simply from a literary perspective, Adelstein is quite adept at moving along the narrative at a fair clip without seeming overly rushed.

Second, the book was just plain interesting. Whether it was learning what the Yakuza are and how their network actually operates or whether it was simply seeing all the crazy stuff that citizens of Tokyo do to relieve their boredom, there is honestly, not a dull moment of reading.

Finally, the book was gripping. Even though I rarely agreed with the way Adelstein was living or pursuing his scoops, he always seemed to get into very interesting situations. As such, I finished the book in a little under a week. Also, there was so much ribald language that in a way I just wanted to find out what happened to Jake so I could get through with the book and put it away. I can handle a little Pulp Fiction every now and then, but some of the fellows in this book could put Andrew Dice Clay to shame. But in compliment to the book, it was an easy book to finish quickly, primarily because of the gripping narrative. I say, kudos to Jake Adelstein; you may be a reprobate, but at least you found an interesting way to retell it for the rest of us.

Here is video of Adelstein when he visited The Daily Show with John Stewart. He nicely summarizes the case he built against Goto.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jake Adelstein
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Incidentally, in case you are interested, the article which almost got Adelstein killed is at the Washington Post. You can purchase Tokyo Vice from Amazon here.

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