I’m not the Jake Adelstein you’re looking for.

SQUEEZING TOKYO WITH A VICE

Jake’s note: I meet a lot of people and BG is a friend of a friend. So I took him to my usual haunts. One thing that you learn in life, is that there is a huge gap between how people see you and you see yourself. 灯台は元暗し. BG is an incredibly bright fellow and I hope he visits Japan again soon. The opinions expressed here as his own although most of them I found pretty true. 

Trying to sum Jake Adelstein up as simply “a character,” as I attempted to do so with my colleagues, doesn’t do him a shred of justice.  The Missouri-born journalist has been opening the kimono to expose everything from the complexities of the Yakuza to the expectedly bizarre Japanese porn industry for nearly 20 years now.   In addition to being print published hundreds of times over, he is also a prolific online publisher for the likes of VICE and the Daily Beast and is one of the most active journalists on social media, clocking more than 50k tweets to his handle. However, despite his apparent digital fluency, he strikes me more of a throwback to a hard boiled, hard drinking detective meets justice above all gumshoe reporter.

jake

I met Jake through a high school pal, a producer on the film adaptation of Jake’s personal memoir, TOKYO VICE.  Apparently, Daniel Radcliffe is in negotiations to play Jake-san.  I was intrigued a year ago when I saw the book on my pal’s shelf,  and borrowed it but never got to reading it until I boarded a plane for Tokyo last week.

I read half, and listened to the rest on mp3.  The stories were gripping and Jake’s commitment to his zig zag path was compelling, there was no question I had to meet dude.

The person that snuck up on me in the cinematic 25th floor Ritz lobby in Tokyo Midtown was not who I had expected.  I’m a pretty good gauge of character when I meet somebody in person, but it just goes to show that a book on tape, a one-way monologue, reveals only a shred of insight.

I expected a soft-spoken ex-pat with a respectful low pro, which would make sense on an island that has a derogative term for foreigners (gaijin.)  Or a writer who had chronicled his experience in TOKYO VICE as a nostalgic memoir, reflecting on the many brushes with death, unimaginable sex-capades, but who had thrown in the towel in exchange for some peace and quiet.

To the contrary, Jake is an anxiety ridden Tasmanian devil, both nervous and cocky. He surprised me as I contemplated my glass of Hibiki, instantly making me feel like a bourgeois pig.

“You Brandon?”

“Uh-huh”

“Here you go”

He presented me with a crumpled shopping bag containing a Foreign Reporter Press Club t-shirt, a gift of sorts and gesture that embodies his menschy Jewish roots with a far Eastern sensibility of hosting.

“You eat dinner?”

“No.  Let’s do it.”

I threw the 40 bucks of whiskey back like I had just joined the Tokyo beat, gumshoes have not time to swirl.  And then we were off, ears popping as the elevator free fell to the pristine Tokyo streets, the cleanliness now only a veneer after having read Jake’s book.

As we sped walked through the underground channels, I couldn’t help but feel like somebody may be following us, or maybe my imagination had grabbed a hold of TOKYO VICE and was running amuck.  Regardless, Jake walks like a shoplifter who knows better than to run and call attention to his lift.  I think this is his natural disposition, a neurotic energy, that if he were to cease moving may induce sempuku. A clumsy shark of sorts.

“I know this great Chinese place – it’s cheap and you can get a whole Peking Duck for next to nothing… you’ll like it and we can walk there.”

image

Cut to me just trying to keep up with his furious pace. He navigated us starting from the Ritz and through the underground walkways to our destination, the entire time, rifling from yakuza, the movie, and the Japanese porn industry. He led me into a magazine shop with no explanation, nearly bulldozing a few locals in the process.  He operates with either reckless abandon only a person with little self awareness can in a country that takes politeness very seriously or with over-confidence, only afforded to those who’ve managed to penetrate the most protected institutions in Japan, never mind as a gaijin… Another dichotomy Jake embodies.

He grabs two magazines that look to may be porn, “these are really rare now.  Here’s one for you and one for Adam [our mutual connection], I’ll explain what they are later.”

He never explains, but I know that they’re Yakuza fanzines from a reference in TOKYO VICE.  Think People magazine for mafia fanboys.

We continue on our way.  I consider jogging, two feet off the ground at once would be less strenuous.  We arrive at a hidden restaurant up a flight in a non-descript building, only to walk in and find a bustling dining hall filled with locals and smoke.

We get a vat of sweet Chinese wine that tastes like shit. Jake insists he can only have  a drink or two as he’s on deadline.  We’re seated next to a gaggle of Japanese girls in their mid twenties.  Our duck finally arrives, I’m drunk, and Jake offers the remaining bits to our neighbors.  He has them cackling, he’s a naturally charming guy – though questionable whether he’d have the same mojo stateside.  At this point, probably so.  His triumphs in Japan, cracking a notoriously isolationist society has earned him stripes of confidence he can take anywhere, that much is obvious.

His phone rings and he takes the call at the table, leaving me to kibitz in broken Japanglish with the girls.

He barks into the phone in a familiar tone that tells me he has a lady at home expecting him not to be home too late.  I can’t make out the conversation, as I’m struggling to not completely embarrass myself with my poor Japanese.

“I’ll do the translation tonight, don’t worry. [pause] Yes!  I’m with a friend of the producer of the film right now.  We’re eating.  I’ll be home in an hour and do it, I promise.”  The call is actually work related, however, all work for Jake is personal.

It seems that Jake’s always on deadline in an obsessive sort of way.

 

Jake shows me his phone, sharing a photo he claims is worth a billion dollars.  It’s a yet to be released shot of a crime family boss with the president of Japan University, who’s also the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee.  The implications for corruption are obvious.  “I’m publishing a story on this.  The reporter who originally had this was beaten severely.” It was my idea that we meet and get dinner in the first place so I naturally offered to treat when we first corresponded. When the waitress brings a to go bag with dishes never intended to be eaten during dinner I can only laugh to myself… journalism never has, and maybe never will pay, but I’m more than happy to subsidize the honest work of a damn good investigative journalist.

Jake clearly feeds off the danger. Sure enough the piece was published days later.  I get a strange feeling, not that I’m a clairvoyant, but just sometime tells me that Jake is pushing his luck.  He insists that he knows what he’s doing.  But that’s what I’m afraid of.

It was my idea that we meet and get dinner in the first place so I naturally offered to treat when we first corresponded. When the waitress brings a to go bag with dishes never intended to be eaten during dinner I can only laugh to myself… journalism never has, and maybe never will pay, but I’m more than happy to subsidize the honest work of a damn good investigative journalist.

TOKYO VICE the movie is scheduled to start production in 2015 – but it’s a small miracle getting a feature film made in today’s market.  I’m a fan of Daniel Radcliffe, so nothing against him, but I’ll be shocked if he can do justice to the real Jake-san.

BG

Half-Devil Vulcan

Origin of the peace-ies: The history of peace sign/V-sign in Japan

By Sandra Barron for JSRC

originally posted on March 9th, 2011

It was one of those nightmare commutes. A crowded train finally pulled up to a rush-hour platform, dense with people who’d already been delayed, who were already running late, and were spending this purgatorial time pushed up against piles of equally inconvenienced fellow commuters. The doors opened and more people crushed in, but the train didn’t move. After a few agonizing minutes, his stoicism no match for the commuters around him, a JSRC writer gave up on riding this train and decided to document it instead. From the platform, he lifted his camera, bracing for glares from the trapped commuters. Indeed, snapping pictures of people in this state would be a good way to get a face full of one-fingered salutes from the poor saps stuck on the train. He got fingers in his shot – but not the ones he expected: Even under such duress, a bunch of strangers saw a camera pointed at them, and they flashed the peace sign.

Crowded, yay! Sardine-can commuters flash the V-sign.

This was an extreme situation, but not totally surprising. The spontaneous V-sign is as natural to many Japanese people as it is puzzling to visitors. Children seem to start do it as soon as they can control their hands – as evidenced by photos of crying toddlers who find the wherewithal through their tears to raise two little fingers. Kids are the most reliable peace-signers. While many (though certainly not all) adults outgrow the practice, get a bunch of school kids together and you’re guaranteed at least as many peace signs as there are uniforms.

A version of the Asahi Shimbun printed for kids, the Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun, went straight to the source and asked elementary school students why they did it. Three of the girls said they did it without thinking. “It’s like my hand just moves into that position by itself,” one fourth grader said. A sixth-grade girl interviewed said, “If I don’t do something with my hands, it’s like I’m just standing there.”

The legions of kids I used to teach, at least the girls, said they made the sign “kawaiku miseru tame”–to look cute. What about the other gestures the V-sign has morphed into and been accompanied by in snapshots – the double peace sign and the L near the mouth and the twisty sort-of-sideways thumbs up? “To look cute.” Okay, then. One of the kids’ mothers surveyed said “I do it less as I get older.” But people certainly don’t stop completely. Photos from Japanese girls’ nights out give US gangs a run for their money in number of hand signals raised, and, some men agree that it makes them look cuter. Entrepreneur and Japanese pop-culture purveyor Danny Choo wrote on his site, “I especially like it when the cute girls do a horizontal version of the V-sign next to their eye – kawaii [cute]!”

Winston Churchill wasn’t trying to look cute when he made the V for military victory during World War II. In occupied Europe, the V was a symbol of defiance against the occupying forces, and it was chalked on walls flashed as the now-famous hand signal as a show of resistance. It was even played by BBC radio in the form of the letter’s Morse code version, dot-dot-dot-dash, followed and echoed by the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. Two decades later in America, the V-sign became the counter-culture’s well-known anti-war gesture.

How the gesture got so big in Japan remains a bit unclear. It has been variously attributed to post-war GIs in Japan, peaceniks Yoko Ono and John Lennon, an American figure skater, a camera commercial, and 1969 Woodstock festival footage. Jun Inoue, the lead singer in the Beatles-esque group The Spiders is said to have added the V-sign spontaneously during the filming of a Konica TV commercial in 1972. He may have been influenced by seeing American or British youth making the gesture on his previous trips abroad.

Even infamous yakuza hitman, Kunihiro, flashes the peace sign when the cameras flashes. (From Onibi: The Fire WIthin, 1996-Gaga Films)
Even infamous yakuza hitman, Kunihiro, flashes the peace sign when the cameras flashes. (From Onibi: The Fire WIthin, 1996-Gaga Films). ★Jake will be lecturing on this and other Yakuza films March 10th at the Japan Society New York.

Another theory is that it was American figure skater and anti-war activist Janet Lynn who won over the hearts, minds and fingers of the photographed masses. In the 1972 Sapporo Olympics, she became beloved in Japan both for her artistic performance and for staying upbeat even after she fell on the ice. The theory goes that her frequent showing of the peace sign in subsequent print and TV media coverage in Japan won imitators.

It may not be possible to know which of these was the defining moment that set the template for the innumerable photos that would follow. The most likely answer is that there was no single moment when the official V-sign memo went around Japan. Whichever person or combination of images sparked it, the gesture, now far removed from its original meanings, entered the collective unconscious and there it has stayed. It gives people a way to stand out in photos or to increase group identity by all doing the same thing, suggests anthropologist Masaichi Nomura, quoted in the AsaSho.

It could happen like this. Consider an infant, waving its fingers and accidentally finding the V shape. The parents get excited, grab a camera. One says to the other, “He’s making the peace sign!” and they coo and clap and snap away. “Camera plus hand like this equals attention,” goes some series of synaptic connections in the infant brain. And thus, perhaps, a new generation of V-signers is born.

The Ministry Of Sickness And Death: An unpublished chapter of Tokyo Vice

Tokyo Vice: An American On The Police Beat In Japanmy first book, hit the bookstores five years ago today on October 15th, 2009. Today is also the day I’m turning in the second draft of my second book, which will be released next year. The book’s title may have changed, the book will still be a narrative about the last 70 years of Japanese history told through the lives of yakuza and the cops that sometimes befriended them and sometimes brought them to justice.

The first book wasn’t just about yakuza, although it is often remembered primarily for those things. It’s also a book about serial killers, ATM robberies, the police in Japan, learning to be a reporter, the value of investigative journalism, hubris, and a compendium of everything I ever learned worth knowing.  Five years is a long time. I’m older and not much wiser. Some things have changed. Japan’s much better at dealing with human trafficking issues and the grey zone which allowed the underworld to easily prey on foreign women brought to Japan is much narrower. However, the stream of vice, lies and corruption that flows beneath the shadows of the rising sun is still there. Some things never change.

If I seem skeptical of the Japanese government, the nuclear industry or TEPCO in particular, it’s only because I’ve had more than 20 years as a reporter in Japan and have watched these entities mislead the press and the public, twist statistics to suit their ends, and blatantly, unashamedly lie.

“We have Fukushima completely under control.” Can you guess who made that statement and when? Special prize to the person who gets it right.

This chapter never made the final cut of Tokyo Vice because it’s not about crime or the underworld. It is about the battle to tell the truth when it is inconvenient for the powers that be to have it known.  It could probably use some more editing but for those who feel like the Japanese government isn’t telling you the whole truth about the actual environmental damage coming from the Fukushima meltdown–which is still going on–because if they stop pumping in water, nuclear fission will start again, this should help make you even a little more paranoid.  Enjoy.

It has a happy ending of sorts. Sometimes, truth wins out. Rare but it happens.

 

This is what happens to someone poisoned with Dioxin. President Viktor Yushchenko was one victim.  He became very ill but didn't die. Dioxin is not something you want to consume if you can possibly avoid it. http://news.kievukraine.info/2005/12/dioxin-in-yushchenkos-blood-samples.html
This is what happens to someone poisoned with Dioxin. President Viktor Yushchenko was one victim. He became very ill but didn’t die. Dioxin is not something you want to consume if you can possibly avoid it.

******

 Would you like some dioxin with that milk?  ©2009 

*****

In 1997, I was assigned to cover Saitama prefectural politics.

I didn’t know a damn thing about local politics or local government or local anything in Japan. In many ways, this was akin to getting assigned to cover high school baseball. I had no interest in it. I had a one-track mind: crime, cops, yakuza, and arrests. I supposed I was being pushed to broaden my horizons, so I immediately went out and bought a manga on regional government. It was for high school students.

Before long I found angles to make my new beat interesting. I wrote about prefectural employees creating a slush fund; organized crime taking out fake loans from Saitama’s Small Business Support Office; yakuza siphoning off funds from banks right under the nose of the government; government officials accepting bribes from criminals; you get the picture. But to keep my quota of articles up, I realized that I had no choice but to do what I was assigned. That’s when I began to focus on environmental problems. Saitama had a few.

In early 1997, a group of concerned citizens held a press conference at the Saitama Prefectural Government Press Club where they presented evidence that the incidence of infant deaths and birth defects in and around Tokorozawa (which was home to the Seibu Lions baseball team) was significantly higher than in the rest of the prefecture. Industrial waste-management companies had created a giant waste-processing zone here, and most of the furnaces and incinerators were low-grade, burning at low temperatures and slowly, resulting not only in serious air pollution but also in the release of dangerous levels of dioxin into the ground, plants, and water. Data from soil samples from the entire prefecture seemed to make a connection between pollution and the morbidity and mortality.

Citizen groups often came to the club to publicize one thing or another. Most of the time, if they called in advance, someone from the Yomiuri would go hear them out. I went to this one. But while the material, if true, was scandalous, the response among the senior political reporters was at best tepid. Maybe if the group had prepared prettier pie charts, they would have been taken more seriously. As it was, one senior Saitama Shinbun reporter’s words summed up the general reaction: “another bunch of nuts.”

I wasn’t so sure, however. So I picked up a Ministry of Health and Welfare-approved panel report on dioxin and its effects nationwide. It wasn’t easy reading—not in Japanese and probably wouldn’t have been in English. But basically the report concluded that dioxin was an endocrine disruptor and that it could cause, among other problems, infant mortality and birth defects.

Seemed to me these concerned citizens weren’t so nutty after all. I called my senior editor. “I’ll tell you straight up,” I said, “I don’t think any of the other reporters are going to write this up. But I looked through the ministry report and I think it lends some credibility to their claims.”

The editor feigned shock, then asked, “Why do you have a copy of that report?”

“Because I don’t know anything about environmental pollution, and it seemed like a good place to start.”

“A reporter who studies his subject matter—I’m amazed. Well, fax me the pertinent pages of the report. And write the article.”

I wrote the article and sent it in thinking it would be buried in the local edition. But as I was sneaking out for a bowl of tonkotsu (pig bone) ramen, I was called back to the office: The article had made the national edition.

It was the start of what has been referred to as “dioxin hysteria” in Japan. My article, admittedly sensational, essentially stated that “dioxin equals dead babies,” and that got the public’s attention. Further tests of the air and soil revealed that dioxin levels around Tokorozawa three to seven times the normal levels.

Pressed by a suddenly alarmed citizenry, Saitama Prefecture decided to conduct a study of dioxin in breast milk in order to determine levels of contamination in both mothers and infants. Mothers selected for the study were to have lived in four designated areas of the prefecture for a minimum of five years.

The study was to be carried out partially in collaboration with the Ministry. Tanuki Taro, (Mr. Badger-Dog) who would administer the study, was himself a Ministry bureaucrat on loan to the Saitama prefectural government to serve as the head of the Health Promotion Division. A committee of hand-picked civilians was chosen to oversee the project and investigative methods. Tanuki (Mr. Badger Dog) and I took an instinctive dislike to either. He considered me an annoying barbarian environmental radical and I considered him an insincere, clueless overstuffed bureaucrat with a supercilious smile and an attitude problem.

In late March 1998, the Asahi Shinbun scooped the results of the study: The average amount of dioxin found in breast milk was roughly seven times the safe levels dictated by the Ministry Of Health and Welfare, but no substantial difference was found among the areas and nothing to indicate that Tokorozawa, the land of incinerators, was especially dangerous.

I knew the reporter who’d made the scoop. He was my rival, and so his scoop was a crushing blow. But beyond my thwarted ambition, the results of the survey didn’t make any sense to me. How could it be that the people closest to the waste dumps weren’t getting more exposure to the deadly dioxin? The figures seemed very low any way I looked at it.

At the press conference Badger-Dog handed out a summary of the findings but no raw data. Nor was there any data on a per-city basis—simply median figures for north, south, east, and west Saitama. Badger-Dog seemed rather arrogant making his presentation. It was by no means a pat on the back for Saitama’s environmental standards, but the worst of what he said was this: “The dioxin problem is obviously more complex than we imagined, but it appears there is no direct correlation between living near a industrial waste-disposal site and high levels of dioxin in mother’s milk. More study is called for.”

Something wasn’t computing. Something smelled funny—and I mean that in a metaphorical sense, not in the literal sense of the foul stench that used to permeate waste disposal valley in Tokorozawa. I needed to take a look at the raw data myself. But when I asked, the prefectural government refused. First, they cited, “privacy concerns,” then the fact that the data wasn’t in readable form.

If at first they block your path, as the saying goes, then you just have to trudge through the mud. I got the list of people on the civilian committee, and I started writing them letters, calling them up, visiting their offices. At last I was able to catch one committee member in his office; adopting my finest ass-kissing posture, I begged for five minutes of his time. How could he refuse?

Sensei [oh esteemed great man],” I began, “I’ve been working on this story a long time. I believe that you worked very hard reviewing the materials given to you by Saitama Prefecture, but doesn’t it seem the least bit odd that people with greater exposure to dioxin wouldn’t have higher concentrations of it in their bodies?”

He nodded. “Ah yes, I understand what you are saying. But those were the results we got.”

“Yes, I know, that is what the Ministry of Health has said. My questions may be completely uncalled for, but if I could see the raw data, then I would know for sure and my doubts could be put to rest. I know that you spent a lot of time on this study, and I’m certain that you would like to know it was done right.”

“Of course.”

There were some Buddhist icons displayed in this committee member’s office, and somehow I felt compelled to mention the convenient fact that I had lived in a Zen temple when I attended in college; this seemed to impress him. Our conversation then veered into matters of faith, karma, and the lack of ethical development in today’s youth.

“You and I are both coming from the same place,” I said. “We want to make our world a better place. We want to see truth triumph over falsehood. We want people to be healthy, not sick. We want the air to be clean, not dirty. Let’s do our part.”

That closed the deal. I walked out of his office with a sheaf of papers.

 

I took the data home and I pored over it for hours. I looked at the original plan for the Saitama breast milk survey—the one that they had announced and given to the media. I checked it against my recently obtained copy of the Ministry of Health’s announced plans for a nationwide breast milk study. The Ministry had announced their own study that would be separate from the Saitama study. I wanted to see if the methodology was the same.

And then I began to see a pattern.

I called up the Ministry of Health and Welfare and asked for the person in charge of the nationwide dioxin survey. A very friendly bureaucrat picked up the phone. I explained I was writing an article on steps taken by the Saitama government to assess dioxin risk, but I had a few questions about the nationwide survey that could be helpful in putting things in perspective. She seemed pleased to be of assistance.

“It says in your press release that you require all the women in the survey to have lived in the area for five years. Why five years?”

“Well,” she said, “actually, ideally, they should have lived in the survey area for ten years. Five years is the bare minimum, but the longer the better.”

“Why?”

“Because it takes years for dioxin to accumulate in the body. It’s often stored in fat.”

“So five years would be the bare minimum number of years for it to show up in a survey?”

“In order to have a statistically relevant data sample, yes.”

“Well, what about four years, or two years, or just a few months?”

“No, that would be relatively meaningless. And that might even skew the rest of the data.”

“I see. Let me ask this another way: A residential time requirement of five years is necessary to get an accurate picture of dioxin contamination in humans in the survey areas.”

“Yes, that’s an important criterion.”

This was exactly what I needed. I went on, seeking fuller confirmation: “When Saitama did their dioxin study, it seems they included in their Tokorozawa sample several people who had only lived there for two years or less. What would this mean?”

“It would mean . . . it would be problematic. The data of these people is not relevant. They should probably be excluded from the sample.”

“Thank you.”

 

Whether by intention or by sheer laziness, the Saitama government had included a large number of short-time residents in their survey of the Tokorozawa area. This was in contravention to the original terms of the study submitted to the public and to the civilian oversight committee, which was that all participants in the survey were required to have lived in the area for a minimum of five years. If short-timers were removed from the survey, leaving only a sample of long-time residents, the dioxin contamination levels for the Tokorozawa area were shown to be alarmingly high.

That was “the tell.” Now I knew exactly the cards the Saitama government was playing. It had been a good bluff and if I wasn’t such a tenacious player, I would have folded. But now I knew that I had a better hand.

I took the raw data and my notes, and I sat down with the one editor I count on for support. Kurita, literally Acorn-Field, was a former shakaibu writer who’d been exiled to Saitama after working himself to the point of exhaustion (not an uncommon phenomenon) in Tokyo, but he had plenty of life in him. He talked with me for an hour, showing me how to put the story together and what hurdles I needed to clear, and then he convinced the national news editor to publish it.

On March 28, 1998, my 29th birthday it ran in the national edition under the rather blunt headline:

SAITAMA PREFECTURE SKEWS DATA IN MOTHER’S MILK DIOXIN STUDY

While claiming to have examined residents of over five years, 40% fail to meet the standard.

Did Saitama deliberately try to make the contamination levels appear low?

For what was a fairly academic piece, the article had serious impact. All the major newspapers and the television stations followed up on it. I felt pretty vindicated.

And then the Saitama government complained. So did the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare, which called the Yomiuri head office to complain that the “ministry’s researcher was asked leading questions.” The bureau chief told me the Yomiuri would not print a retraction but that it would have to print a letter from Saitama Prefecture in which they denied “deliberately skewing” the data.

I was furious. (Ten years later I still have that letter, and ten years later my face still burns when I read it.)

I was pouting in the depths of my humiliation when Kurita pulled me aside. “I used to cover the Ministry in my shakaibu days. I know what a bunch of lying weasels those guys are. Here’s my question, Adelstein,” he said, hand on my shoulder, “Do you have any more ammunition?”

“Yes,” I answered, suddenly perking up. “The data on a city-by-city basis. If you follow the original criteria, Tokorozawa looks like dioxin central.”

“Write it up. Keep writing until they beg for mercy. I have your back.”

And so I did. I was able to chart how Saitama had deliberately changed the criteria for taking samples after the survey had started. I wrote another article about how they had done this without revealing the fact to the civilian oversight committee. I wrote another article about how the civilian oversight committee was launching a formal protest.

By the end of the month, the lieutenant governor of the prefecture apologized publicly for problems with the study. And then, a few days later, it was Badger-Dog, the self-serving bureaucrat’s turn to apologize for not having informed the committee before changing the protocol of the study.

Kurita was enjoying the whole thing immensely. Maybe even more than I was.

I next heard from Badger-Dog himself, who asked me to come see him in his office. I went, not meekly but expecting the worst. What I got was the opposite: He offered me a seat, and then he bowed before me so low that his forehead touched his desk.

“Jake, are you done yet?”

“Am I done?”

“You were right. The whole thing was poorly handled. We should have released all the data from the beginning. We should have notified the public and the oversight committee that we had altered the rules for taking samples. You are completely correct.”

“Tanuki-san, I’ll back off. [I was out of ammunition anyway.] All I want is to know how you are going to address the problems from this survey.”

“I don’t know, but once we decide, you’ll be the first to know.”

“Really? In a timely fashion?”

“Timely fashion? You mean before other reporters are told?”

“Yes, before you speak to anyone else.”

“I understand.”

And that was how it ended. Since 1998, most prefectures in Japan have introduced high-grade incinerators that put out very little dioxin. I can’t claim any credit for that, although I would like to. Everyone wants to feel like they made a difference. And it’s good to have a scoop while you do.

無縁仏(Muenbotoke): Buddhas Without Connections

On the 8th and 15th of this month, in Japan and in parts of Asia, they celebrate Nirvana Day. It commemorates the death of the Buddha and his liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth; pain and suffering. In Japan, the Buddha or a Buddha is often referred to as hotoke (仏). Over time, the word itself has almost become a synonym for the deceased or the spirits of the dead. Buddha originally meant “one who is awake.” In Japan, to distinguish between the use of hotoke as a reference to the departed and someone who is enlightened (achieved 悟り/satori), the word  ikibotoke (生き仏) or “living buddha” is sometimes used. I’ve should mention I have never ever heard anyone use that in reference to myself. They do say it about the Dalai Lama.

Nirvana Day is celebrated in different ways and on different days both inside and outside of Japan, depending on the Buddhist sect and sometimes even the individual temple. For some, it’s a time to remember the recently departed (仏様・hotokesama) and to reflect on mortality. In some countries and at some temples, it’s a celebration of life and people gather together for small parties. In Buddhist metaphysics, it’s very hard to be born as a human–it’s chance that we don’t often get and simply to be alive as a human being and not a hungry ghost or demon or vermin is considered a cause for rejoicing. (I’m guessing that if you’re born as a rat it’s hard to store up enough good karma points to come back as a human. I’m not sure about monkeys or Henry Kissinger.)

This piece was originally written with TOKYO VICE in mind but I took it out of the final draft. Last year, the Buddhist/Meditation/Culture Magazine Shambhala Sunasked me if I was interested in submitting a piece and I pulled this out, rewrote it, checked my notes and sent it to them. Almost a year went by and before publication, I revised it once more. 2010 was a long hard year for me. I lost two good friends. One killed himself or was killed by his own people. He was a yakuza so that’s part of the trade, I suppose. The other was my lawyer and mentor, Igari Toshiro, who I strongly suspect was murdered and the job set up to look like a suicide. 仏 (hotoke) literally “a buddha” is a word that the police use a lot. Homicide detectives are fond of the word.  「ホシを捕まえないと、仏が浮かばれない/hoshi o tsukamaenai to, hotoke ga ukabarenai」. Loosely translated, “If we don’t catch the killer, the spirt of the dead will never rest.” It comes from a folk belief that those wrongfully killed are reluctant to leave the world until justice is done and roam the earth as hungry ghosts.In the case of Igari-san, I doubt that the people responsible will ever be brought to justice, at least in this life. Well, maybe there is karma in the universe and it’ll catch up with them in the next. I’d like to believe that but I’m not one for blind faith.

Despite writing about death, crime, betrayal, human depravity, and dealing with the aftermath a great deal, I’m not a morbid person; most of the time I’m pretty cheerful. However, I think that remembering our mortality is an important part of enjoying life.

My father is now close to 73. He’s been a county coroner for over two decades and yet he’s one of the happiest people I know. I asked him if the job ever gets him down and he says, “Of course, it does. But at the end of the day, sometimes, it makes me realize how lucky I am not to be the guy on the morgue table. Life is a precious thing and easily lost. When you know that, you treasure every moment and you really live. It gives you a greater perspective on things and what really matters and what doesn’t. Almost very suicide that comes in is a tragedy and so is every homicide. Almost any life lost is a tragedy. Because death is the one mistake you cannot undo. ”

Thanks to the Shambahla Sun for publishing the article and for giving me permission to post it on the blog. The names of the deceased in the article have been slightly changed out of respect for any relatives or friends that they might have had. Click on the picture or the link below to read the full article.

無縁仏. My essay from the March 2011 issue of Shambhala Sun

Muebotoke

And justice after all? Prosecutor Review Board Say “Charge TEPCO Execs with criminal negligence”

The Fifth Tokyo Prosecutorial Board announced a decision yesterday that three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power (東京電力)company, including former Chariman Tsunehisa Katsumata (勝俣恒久元会長)  should be prosecuted for criminal negligence resulting in death and injury for the triple nuclear meltdown in March of 2011.  They also scolded the Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office (TPO)for letting them off the hook. The Prosecutorial Review Board oversees the decisions of the prosecutors to try or not try a case. The TPO now has to consider the decision and decide whether to reopen the investigation or attempt to close the case again.

The accident at Fukushima Nuclear Power plant resulted in over a 100,000 people being displaced and possibly a surge in thyroid cancer in children living in the area. TEPCO workers also drowned to death on site after being sent to check on equipment in the basement despite a looming tidal wave. The manager of the Fukushima plant died of throat cancer this year. TEPCO claims it had no connection to the radiation exposure he received while working at the facilities.

TEPCO executives might possibly be prosecuted for criminal negligence resulting in death and injury over the 3/11 triple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. But will justice prevail? The odds are as good as there never being another nuclear accident in Japan. Ahem.
TEPCO executives might possibly be prosecuted for criminal negligence resulting in death and injury over the 3/11 triple nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. But will justice prevail? The odds are as good as there never being another nuclear accident in Japan. Ahem. TEPCO did admit after censure from a National Diet Investigatory Body that it had lied about it’s understanding of the risk, but it’s hard to believe that after being documented as lying to the public again and again that it will change its corporate. However, with the bad image they have now maybe a more honest name would win them back public confidence. Better the enemy you know than…..

 

However, if the Tokyo Prosecutorial Board again rules that prosecution of the TEPCO executives is warranted then a team of lawyers will be chosen to play the role of the prosecutors and the accused will be charged.  An independent government investigatory board, National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, concluded in 2012 that the nuclear accident could have been prevented and that TEPCO management was criminally negligent.

Last year TEPCO made 4 billion dollars in profits, much of it due to  the Abe administration’s decision to bear huge amounts of the costs of the Fukushima nuclear disaster clean-up.

The Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office is well aware of how unpopular their decisions to let the TEPCO executives go scot free would be. The news that there would be no prosecution was leaked on the day it was also announced that Japan would hold the 2020 Olympics.

Prior to the 2020 Olympics, Abe also assured that the nuclear clean-up at Fukushima was “under control”. The next day media reports about radioactive water seeping ing into the ground soil and contaminating the ocean made him look very foolish and dishonest. Perhaps that was the inspiration for the Special Secrets Act which his administration rammed into law on a night in December last year, which will cripple press freedom and allow almost all nuclear issues to be labelled “top secret”—criminalising reporting on them.  (We can be sure the Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office will leap to do those cases.)

A special prize to whoever figures out the day the TPO are most likely to bury the news that they are going to ignore the Tokyo Prosecutorial Board and do nothing.  We could be wrong. We’d like to hope we are.

Fight For Your Right To (Dance) Party Past Midnight In Japan!

You have to write for your right to (dance party)

夜明けまで踊りたいなら警察庁に意見を伝え、政府を踊らせよう!

Put on those dancing shoes!…in a few months. Maybe.

The National Police Agency of Japan is at long last (and after much public pressure) considering revising Japan’s archaic adult entertainment laws to allow dancing past midnight!  Yes, Japan may finally be going footloose. From today, July 25th, they are accepting public comments. You can mail them at hoan@npa.go.jp or better yet, FAX them at 03-3581-5936. For more details please see the National Police Agency home page. The current draft of the revised bill is here (警察庁の改正案はここです。最低と言わないがよくはない). Frankly, it seems pretty sucky.

The National Police Agency wants to know what you think about these issues:

Should people be allowed to dance all night?  Should dance clubs and discos be allowed to go all night? How should they be regulated? (クラブの深夜営業は許可すべきか。規制すべきか)

Should dance clubs be removed from the province of the adult entertainment laws? (クラブなどのダンス社交の場所は風営法の対象外とすべきなのか)

If we allow dance lessons to be conducted anywhere, will it corrupt the morals of Japan? (ダンス教室の無許可営業は日本の風紀を乱すのか)

What is the danger that dance clubs turn into places singles go to meet other singles and possibly hook up?  (If you don’t even consider that a danger or a problem, let them know) (クラブは出会い系の場所となる危険性(?)はどう思うのか)

What if dance clubs are used to facilitate prostitution? (ダンスクラブは売春の温床となるのでは?)

There are probably more silly questions that the NPA is coming up with but these seem to be the issues they are most concerned about. Because as we all know, late night dancing could lead to sex, which could lead to people having more children, which could be a serious problem in this overpopulated country. Oh. Wait. Actually, Japan is having a population crisis because people aren’t getting married and having children. That also requires sex. So maybe late night dance clubs could be good for Japan?

Well, if men and women meet in clubs and start dating each other or have consensual sex without paying a third party, how will this affect Japan’s legal sex industry? Think of the economic blow this could do to blow-job parlours and sexual massage parlours, not to mention hostess and host clubs!

The National Police Agency plans to submit a revised bill, perhaps the current draft, to the National Diet this Autumn. On the 15th of this month, they will set up a panel of experts (who will probably be virulently opposed to dancing, social conservatives, and mostly men)  and interview dance club operators. They will hold hearing sessions to create a revised law, which hopefully will allow Japan’s nightlife to come back from the dead.

A Brief History Of The War On Dance 

You may be wondering why the Japanese police have been raiding dance clubs and criminalizing “rhythmical movement to music” and other lascivious acts in recent years. Allow me to explain. I’ve covered some of this ground before in other articles, so please forgive me while I repeat myself.

         If you’re thinking about dancing the night away to some great trance music, or even old-fashioned rock, you may have a tough time finding a venue in Japan these days. In fact, you may end up waltzing away hours inside a police station, pissing into a cup after being rounded up in a raid. It’s not just Tokyo, in Kansai as well, “The War on Dance” has been raging on for the last few years.

On September 2nd (2012), at 3:40 am, members of the Kanto Rengo gang burst into the VIP room in Roppongi’s Club Flower and clubbed a man to death in front of 300 people. Since then, the police have been making regular raids on the nightclubs, discos, and live houses that make night life in this city vibrant and fun. The intensity of the raids have gone up, but in fact, they are simply a continuation of what began in Osaka in 2012.

Ostensibly, the clubs are being raided for violating Japan’s archaic Adult Entertainment Laws which forbid dancing after midnight. The police are simply enforcing the laws. That’s the official party line.

But anyone who has lived in Japan for several years knows that wasn’t always the case. The laws existed on the book, gathering dust, but were rarely enforced

So why now is there a “War on Dance?” Is it a part of the “War on Drugs”?

Who do we blame? Do we blame the police? Do we blame the Kanto Rengo for killing a man after dancing hours, thus reminding everyone that the Adult Entertainment Laws (AEL) were being ignored?

The answer is complicated.

Let’s start with the obvious answer: it really is against the law to dance after midnight in most venues in Japan. This is well explained in the book Odotte wa Ikenai Kuni, Nihon (Japan: The Land Where You Can’t Dance) .

The Adult Entertainment Laws originally were revised after WWII to clamp down on the infamous “Dance Halls” which were thinly disguised venues of prostitution. Several decades later “Dance Halls” have been replaced by clubs, discos, and bars with dance floors; they are not proxy brothels. The places people dance have changed, as have the customers; the laws have not.

I don’t think there is anyone who would argue that dancing itself is dangerous or unhealthy. Dance is part of the educational curriculum in Japan. Some forms of dance are considered cultural treasures. So why would dancing at a club after midnight miraculously transform what is a healthy form of entertainment into a threat to the public welfare? Do dancers transform into rampaging werewolves as the clock strikes midnight?

There is no logical answer.

One unofficial answer from the police is this: “It’s much easier to raid a dance club on violations of the AEL than it is to get a warrant for a drug search. Dance clubs are hotbeds of drug activity.”

Maybe, that’s partially true. At some dance parties, there will be people using ecstasy (MDMA). There will also be people getting so drunk that they get alcohol poisoning. There will also be people just dancing. Should the rest of us be banned from the dance floor because of a few reckless people?

The hardline enforcement of forgotten laws may make the police look good. It is a nuisance for everyone else. It hurts the business of legitimate clubs. It discourages people from staying out late, making nightlife boring. If there’s no place to dance after midnight, than many people will go home. It’s bad for tourism as well. “Tokyo: The City That Always Sleeps Before Midnight”—try attracting people to Japan with that slogan. Ultimately, it hurts the economy and encourages corruption.Clubs relying on late-night traffic will go out of business. Clubs that want to stay in business will pay bribes and protection money to avoid the raids.

That brings us to another reason for the “War On Dance”. It stems a bit from the Organized Crime Exclusionary Ordinances that went nationwide on October 1st, 2011. In the old days, the clubs paid off the local yakuza. In return, they often got advance notice when a token raid was coming. The yaks provided muscle when customers got out of line and kept local street crime down. No muggings, purse snatching, or theft allowed. The smart clubs avoided getting shut down, kept pushers off the premises, and people felt safe going to them.

The police knew the clubs were operating way past legal hours, but looked the other way. The enforcement was so sparse that late-night dancing existed in a comfortable grey zone.

But when doing business with the yakuza became a crime in itself, the clubs stopped paying them. The non-designated organized crime groups, like Kanto Rengo, cut in on the dance. They became the unofficial security guards. They soon found the clubs lucrative venues to peddle drugs and in some of the high end clubs, prostitutes as well.

Dance Hall days were here again.

The Flower killing made it clear that the “new yakuza” were now running the nightlife. The investigative journalist Atsushi Mizoguchi coined a term for these outlaws: hangure. It comes from the Japanese word for “half” and Gurentai. After the war, Gurentai were the undisciplined youth gangs who preyed on the general population, engaging in theft, robbery, and violent crimes. The “half” in the term is also an acknowledgement that these new groups are “half” yakuza as well. Many of them are backed by yakuza or ex-yakuza that can no longer operate in the open, and have no code of honor to burden them.

A few weeks after the Club Flower murder, the National Police Agency reportedly issued a directive to all police departments to strictly enforce the Adult Entertainment Laws. The directive was meant hurt the hangure and deflect criticism of lax enforcement. And the cops have been doing their jobs.

The Japanese police are no longer comfortable with grey zones; everything has to be black and white. Grey is the enemy. The dance clubs closings are the casualties of a badly run war. Coincidentally, Hangure, can also be read as “half-grey.” It’s the color of “illegal.”

Not everyone is taking this haphazard enforcement lying down. The Let’s Dance Committee, headed by a lawyer and run by a group of volunteers is lobbying for changes in the law that will protect Japan’s “dance culture.” They have already collected over 150,000 signatures for a petition to the government.  A recent court decision in Osaka may have also made the police here reverse course in the unpopular dance club crackdown.

 On April 25 2014, the Osaka District Court acquitted Masatoshi Kanemitsu, the owner of a nightclub called NOON, of charges of “corrupting sexual morals” and violating adult entertainment laws in what Kanemitsu’s lawyer, Kenichi Nishikawa, called Japan’s first trial challenging its archaic “no dance” laws. “It was a victory for common sense and freedom to dance,” Nishikawa said.  “It is historic and significant, and while not finding the current laws unconstitutional, the courts ruled both that the police were too broadly interpreting the laws and that dance in and of itself is not a corruptor of public morals. Nor does it make people throw off their clothes.” For the rest of that story see The Japanese All Go Footloose To Protest The Nightlife Crackdown in The Daily Beast.

         If you want to join the tango, check out www.letsdance.jp.  And of course, write the National Police Agency.  In the meantime, until someone brings the laws up to date, the War on Dance will keep on moving to the music of the National Police Agency marching band. For a limited time, you may have a say in the tune that we hear in the future. So speak now or learn to love “Dancing By Myself.” 

Ninkyodo, dude! Even The Yakuza Are Speaking English Now

You may remember this this year, Japan’s largest organized crime group, the Yamaguchi-gumi, launched its own website in Japan. But as I wrote in the article on April 1st for VICE News, if you were hoping to see guys covered in tattoos, epic gun battles, bloody sword fights, and fingers being chopped off — as one might— it wasn’t so exciting. And it was in Japanese only. There were other minor problems with the initial effort.

Learn the way of the Yakuza. In English! !
Learn the way of the Yakuza. In English! !

For starters, the site looks like it was created in the late 1990s. Still, the criminal syndicate is hoping it’ll serve as a recruitment tool as the membership of yakuza organizations shrink and public support for them falls. And the branding reflects this; the site at first appears to be for an organization known as the Banish Drugs and Purify The Nation League — or Drug Expulsion of Land Purification Alliance, as Google translates it. The “purify the nation” thing is potentially unsettling, but it still doesn’t sound like a criminal organization.

But it was founded by one. The then-leader of the Yamaguchi-gumi founded it in 1963 as a group “dedicated to the eradication of amphetamine abuse.” Sources familiar with the syndicate told VICE News that the site was launched under the Banish Drugs… monicker to, one, remind Yamaguchi-gumi members to behave themselves, and two, to convince people that the Yamaguchi-gumi is not “an anti-social force,” as they’re called by police, and are instead a “humanitarian organization.”

However, veteran police detective told us that they suspect the site may be a signal that the Yamaguchi-gumi plans to expand their operations. (for the rest of the article click here: Japan’s Biggest Organized Crime Syndicate Now Has Its Own Web Site and Theme Song

Maybe the detective was right, because while the Yamaguchi-gumi may not have substantially expanded their operations, they are certainly trying to expand their appeal internationally. Recently, they debuted their own English version of the website, NINKYOUDOU (任侠道). Ninkyodo is the supposed to be the philosophy of the yakuza, an ethical code and way of life which places importance on helping the weak and self-sacrifice. The old-school yakuza, while still being essentially criminals, but mostly professional gamblers or street merchants–also maintained a code of honor which forbid theft, robbery, sexual assault, fraud and dealing in drugs. (Of course, racketeering, extortion, and other money-making ventures were not off-limits. Even a noble semi-samurai has to earn a living, right.)

The website contains footage of the yakuza distributing supplies to victims of natural disasters and a history of the yakuza written in slightly awkward English. The main point of the website seems to be to hammer in this simple point–all yakuza are not bad. And in perhaps one of the most surprising pieces of rhetoric I’ve ever seen put out by the yakuza—they also suggest that the yakuza may be one of the last things to prevent Japan from descending into a fascist police state, where no one is free.

“”Yakuza is bad” “Everyone else who is associated with this practice is wrong” This thought is not only oppressive but also dangerous. If people presumably believe this type of discrimination is allowed under the name of equality and human rights, it is possible that pre-World War II way of thinking can get out of control in today’s society. Prime Minister Abe’s recent comments suggest that Japan is leaning towards nationalism. Therefore, we are facing the reality that our citizens’ equality is on jeopardy. Moreover, we need to realize that this nation is heading towards to fascism.”

If you’ve been tracking how the Abe administration has passed one of the most oppressive state secret laws in the Western world, which makes it a crime to ask the wrong question, and threatens press freedomor how it has reinterpreted the constitution to allow Japan to remilitarize itself–suddenly the yakuza don’t seem quite as bad. Of course, it’s mostly a pose but who’d expect gangsters to make complaints like this:

“The number of vicious crimes has increased in this country; people generally are devastated. No one notices if an elderly from his or her neighborhood has passed because there is no communication, not even greetings exchanged any more. No one is interested or cares enough about what is going on around them except about his or herself. Unfortunately, this sensation has become normal in today’s generation.”

These are strange times indeed when the voice of reason, press freedom, humanitarianism and anti-discrimination are being spoken by tattooed gangsters. Well, sometimes even the bad guys say good things. And in English as well. Maybe they’re taking a hint from Rakuten? In any event, if you’re interested in Japan’s tattooed outlaws, it’s worth a read.

 

Happy New Year Of The Horse 2014 (馬年) Come ride with us!

January 31st, 2014–The Year Of The Horse 

Japan Subculture Research Center has taken a long sabbatical since December of 2013. We meant to get things off with a bang this January but our editor in chief and assistant editor were both out of commission. So we’re taking the opportunity today to relaunch the website and wish you all a happy Chinese new year. The Chinese new year and once upon a time, the Japanese new year as well, followed the lunar calendar, so today’s new moon (Friday) means we can all say goodbye to the (water) snake year and say hello to the (wooden) horse year!

Happy Year Of The Horse! Just get on and let the horse go where it goes.
Happy Year Of The Horse!
Just get on and let the horse go where it goes.

 

It’s going to be a busy year for all of us at JSRC but we’re looking forward to it. Thank you to everyone who submitted articles last year and we encourage you to submit more this year. BTW, if there are any young bilingual aspiring journalists out there interested in a poorly paid internship at JSRC–just let us know.  And if you have an interesting story on Japan that you’d like to submit, send it our way.  We have a limited budget but we’ll see what we can do.

 

 

In the meantime,  look up at the moon today and wish everyone a Happy New Year!

Today's new moon on Friday January 31st marks the end of the Snake Year and the start of the Horse Year, according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. Happy Horse Year 2014! We couldn't find any horses in Tokyo that weren't being served as sashimi (raw meat/馬刺し)so our acting editor in chief just inserted himself in this photo instead. We're riding into the year of the horse at full gallop!
Today’s new moon on Friday January 31st marks the end of the Snake Year and the start of the Horse Year, according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. Happy Horse Year 2014! We couldn’t find any horses in Tokyo that weren’t being served as sashimi (raw meat/馬刺し)so our acting editor in chief just inserted himself in this photo instead. We’re riding into the year of the horse at full gallop!

Book Review: Tokyo Underworld–a classic on the dark side of Japan

There are very few gaijin (foreigners) who know what happens on the dark side of the rising sun like Robert Whiting. Whiting is an American author and journalist living in Japan, one of the rare ones who has written great books published in both English and Japanese language after he first set foot in Japan in 1962, when he was 20.

His most popular book, Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan, published by Pantheon, N.Y. 1999, and Vintage Departures, 2000, has been optioned for being made into a major motion picture several times but still hasn’t made it to the silver screen. It’s not surprising that the book would appeal to Hollywood. The main protagonist in the book seems to pop out of a movie! But he isn’t, Nicola Zappetti, aka “The Mafia Boss of Tokyo,” an Italian American GI whose pizza restaurant in Roppongi became the informal headquarters of the Tokyo underworld, really existed and lived in the country where you would think modesty and order reign.

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 23.14.23

Whiting’s book while revolving around Zappetti, openly draws out the influence of the yakuza on Japanese society and politics. He illustrates historical facts by including Nick Zappetti’s encounters with some of the most intriguing Japanese figures, who brought Japan to become the world’s second largest economic power after the United States. He creates a great visual and fascinating world no one would imagine that modern-day Japan would emanate from.

Tokyo Underworld was translated into Japanese by Midori Matsui, at Kadokawa Bunko.[1]

Screen Shot 2013-06-20 at 23.15.47

The book illustrates the genesis of the so-called keizai yakuza, or “Economic Yakuza,” the ones who intelligently mutated into financial wizards spurring the creation of new anti-mob laws in Japan—which also spurred more of the white-collar yakuza to go into finance. In Tokyo Underworld, Whiting explains how Japanese criminals, even suspected class A war criminals such as Yoshio Kodama, could escape execution, unlike the other war criminals, such as Hideki Tojo, the general of the Japanese Imperial Army who was directly responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Because the U.S. Occupation authorities needed to trade information about wartime government figures wanted by the GHQ (General Headquarters) to counter the growing leftist movements in Japan, the most vicious mob members were able to deeply root their organization in the structure of Japanese society. The Americans declared that all foreigners in Japan, whose native country was a Japanese colony before the end of the Pacific War would not be punished under the law, which was one of the reasons why the Korean community couldn’t be controlled by the Japanese police. The police thus made an unofficial agreement with the Japanese gangsters to keep the order. Whiting tells the story of how the most vicious of all Japanese worked hand in hand with their occupants.

The book retraces the life of Nicola Zappetti, an Italian-American who moved to Japan after the war as a U.S. Marine and later became the bridge that connected the American mafia and the Japanese yakuza. The story line follows the life of Nicola Zappetti, but incorporates the lives of various Japanese shady characters, such as Yoshio Kodama, who Whiting describes as “ A powerful wealthy ultranationalist and behind-the-scenes fixer (who was also the point of entry for America’s participation in this sphere.) Described by one historian as a master of channeling “unregistered” funds from big business and the underworld to politicians, […]

 

In 1958, Kodama went to work for the CIA, maintaining a professional relationship of considerable intensity that included helping to funnel agency money clandestinely to associates in the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party of Japan) and anti-communist groups. One of Kodama’s assignments was to cozy up to Indonesian President Sukarno and assess associates in a firm called Tonichi Trading Company were laying plans for business ventures in Djakarta, in part by supplying female companionship to the Indonesian president, a known womanizer, […]”

 

He expounds on how another historical figure, Hisayuki Machii, the boss of the Tosei-kai (now Toa-kai), which had 1500 mostly Korean members after the war, won a gang war against the pure-blooded Sumiyoshi-kai, a prewar gambling gang. “[…] Machii. The son of a Korean factory owner from Seoul and a Japanese mother, Machii had first made his name in the postwar black market running a band of young thugs. Nicknamed “Fanso” (Violent Bull) as a youth, he had won several barroom brawls versus larger American GIs, including one encounter with a U.S. Marine colonel, a karate black belt, whom Machii knocked out cold with one punch. He was famous for once having snapped a set of handcuffs in a fury over being arrested. […]”

Robert Whiting writes, “The Tosei-kai was symbolic of what had happened to the Tokyo organized crime scene. The old tekiya had fallen by the wayside as the street stalls gradually disappeared, and a new type of gangster had assumed control, drawn from the vast pool of jobless and homeless young men who filled the streets in the aftermath of the war.”

 

The book aims to trace the history of organized crime in Japan, and document the transition from the postwar Japanese gangsters to the “new breed” generation of gangsters, which inevitably mixed with the American culture, military, and politics, during the Occupation.

 

The book recollects many shady incidents and thus explains the moment when two or more cultures clash in an occupied territory. That’s when most improbable things happen. But they did happen, and that’s why the nonfiction genre fascinates us at time. Truth is often more interesting than fiction. True stories may not always be stranger than fiction but it sometimes they are much more fascinating than what never happened.

“Japan has the most honest used car salesmen in the world along with the most crooked politicians, and Zappetti’s story explores that conundrum,” The New York Times wrote in its review of Tokyo Underworld. Indeed, the Japanese are proud that their country appears to have one of the lowest crime rates in the world. At the same time, Japan has history of entertaining tacit interactions between some segments of its society and the underworld.

“When the first American-style “hit,” or shooting for hire, took place in Japan – the attack in 1958 on an infamous greenmailer (financial corporate takeover artist) named Hideki Yokoi as he sat in his downtown office – they, [The retired bosses of postwar outdoors markets] and the public at large, were overwhelmingly critical of the method employed. “Wearing American gangster clothes is one thing,” fumed one aging mobster in the Shukan Tokyo (Weekly Tokyo) magazine, in an article entitled “The Fire-Spitting Colt,” “but adopting the American custom of using professional hit men? How low can the Japanese gangster fall?” (The honorable way to settle a dispute, as everyone knew, was to grab a sword, purify it by spitting sake on it, and face the enemy man to man, not sneak up on him with a gun from the dingy back stairwell.)”

 

Whiting wrote, “The New Breed was there to stay and arcane distinctions such as tekiya and bakuto were fading away; the word ‘yakuza’ was being applied to all gangsters, and the term boryokudan, which literary means ‘violent group,’ was used for the gangs themselves.

Japan’s organized crime is still evolving. The gangs used to cooperate with the police in containing street crime and informing on each other. Some experts saw the new 1992 anti-gang laws as the beginning of a “mutually beneficial relationship” between the police and the yakuza, although their increasing involvement in legitimate businesses clearly became a serious concern for many Japanese. However, the law never officially made yakuza gangs illegal, and the smart mobsters, like mutating cockroaches, recycled their activities using dummy front companies to operate their vicious attempts to countermeasure the newly passed laws.

Currently, crime experts believe that the yakuza will continue to conduct their affairs in an even more covert manner. Japan’s economic growth was largely attributed to the power of the United States. “America will always be Japan’s oyabun, (father figure or godfather),” a retired yakuza boss recently commented to this reviewer.

Tokyo Underworld also recollects how the occupants helped the Japanese economy to become the world’s second largest in only a few decades. The rules and the laws, dictated by the Americans, made sure that the Japanese businesses would always win, as Zappetti learns towards the end of his years.

“According to the National Police Agency, […] the number of badge-carrying gangsters in the nation as a whole had swollen alarmingly. From a prewar total of several thousands, the total had risen to 56,000 by 1951 and then from there nearly quadrupled by the end of the decade. It was the largest concentration of organized crime members in history, several times the members of the Mafiosi in the United States, and was attributed in part to Japan’s precipitous economic growth, which had spawned thousands of new bars and nightclubs ripe for shaking down – as well as to the maturation of Japan’s baby boomers, which created new legions of juvenile delinquents. […]

Extortion, assault, and theft rates skyrocketed. Although Tokyo would later develop a reputation as one of the world’s safest cities, in that era, the burgeoning entertainment hubs were being described in the press as “hotbed of crime” and surrounding streets unsafe for anyone after midnight.”

Robert Whiting is one of the top American nonfiction writers on Japanese subcultures and history. Tokyo Underworld documents historical facts. Robert Whiting translated himself most of the Japanese news articles and he conducted nearly 200 interviews with various sources and began meeting Nicola Zappetti in the fall of 1989 until his death in 1992, including his friends, family, business associates and enemies. The book is great work of investigative non-fiction. While the book tends to be stuck in the true crime section, it is a wonderful sociological study of Japan, and may even be useful for the foreign businessmen. Tokyo Underworld explains deftly just how hard it was for a foreigner to start a business in Japan and keep it running.

While Tokyo Underworld rests in development limbo, Linson Entertainment and Silver Pictures are producing “The Outsider,” directed by Takashi Miike, starring actor Tom Hardy, who will play the role of an American expat in Japan who becomes a yakuza after WWII. The project is based on an original idea by John Linson, who will produce along with Art Linson through their Linson Entertainment banner according to Deadline. The story for the movie, although it is a fiction, seems similar to Nick Zapetti’s biography, as reported in Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld. Zappetti was never a yakuza but perhaps his heart became tattooed over the year.

Robert Whiting, in his early career wrote about the Japanese society seen through baseball, the American sport adopted by the Japanese, sometimes called 野球 (yakyu). Many still say that the best way to understand Japan is to read his classic about Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa. It’s clear that Mr. Whiting knows a lot about Japan and about baseball. Tokyo Underworld, as a work of non-fiction narrative is a home run with all bases loaded. Highly recommended.


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Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, by author Jake Adelstein was never published in Japan because it names a promiment Japanese entertainment firm as a yakuza front company and touches upon other taboos, like the murder of Juzo Itami, the movie director who directed Minbo no Onna (The Gentle Japanese Art of Extortion) .

After the release of the film in 1992, members of the Yamaguchi affiliated Goto-gumi, unhappy with the portrayal of the yakuza in the film, conducted an attack against Itami, slashing his face and beating him up in front of his house, six days after the movie release. In 1997, Itami was found dead after falling from a high building in Tokyo. The Japanese police officially reported that he committed suicide, however his death is alleged to have been murder under the guise of suicide, purposed to prevent him from making another yakuza movie illustrating the links between organized crime, Sokka Gakkai, and political parties in Japan.

Tokyo Vice: Interview with Jake Adelstein

Read an exciting (sort of) interview with the author and chief editor of the web-site,  Jake Adelstein.

I’ve been working on this thing now for almost three years and its nice to finally see it in print. If you’re curious about the sex industry in Japan, about yakuza, cops, journalists and all that can go terribly wrong in the little island country of the rising sun, please read the book.   The following interview was done for Random House, who have been kind enough to publish the book.

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Continue reading Tokyo Vice: Interview with Jake Adelstein