People have a habit of vanishing in Japan—even hundreds of years ago, it happened often enough that myths were created to explain these sudden disappearances. 神隠し (kamikakushi)–to be hidden by the gods. Even now, every year over 80,000 people are reported missing. And that may be the tip of the iceberg–because only family members can make those reports. If your girlfriend, high-school buddy, co-worker just evaporates one day–you can go to the police but unless you can prove foul play, they may not even open a file on the case.
There are so many types of missing people in Japan, that there are different words used to describe them. But unfortunately, defining a vanishing doesn’t make people rematerialize.
Even now, every year over 80,000 people are reported missing in Japan. And that may be the tip of the iceberg
If someone you knew and loved went missing one day – with no warning, no explanation, and no evidence – who would you turn to in order to find the truth?
If you were the one looking for that person, what would you do if you found out an entire infrastructure exists, designed for the express purpose of helping people — like your loved one — vanish into thin air?
Would you try to find someone who doesn’t want to be found? Would you judge the person for disappearing in the first place? Would you enroll in private eye school?
Who else has gone missing … and why?
神隠し/Gone With The Gods will be a multi-faceted deep dive into the phenomenon of Japan’s johatsu, or “evaporated people” — citizens who choose to just vanish from their lives–and those who do so without a choice. Some of the “evaporated” are escaping dire circumstances (debt, abuse, threats of violence), but others are ashamed of how their lives have turned out, or shackled by conformity. They want to start over. And in Japan, there’s a way. It’s a cultural phenomenon.
But it might also be the ultimate cover up. Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice, The Last Yakuza, and I Sold My Soul For Bitcoins joins forces with Shoko Plambeck, model, actress and former journalist lured back into the trade by the promise of solving some great mysteries of her homeland. And of course, sound engineer/journalist and aspiring private detective, Thisanka Siripala. Together they will take you on a midnight escape into the shadows of the rising sun. We consult experts, ex-yakuza, retired police officers, the employers of the missing, and talk to those who decided to vanish and those that helped them do it.
Paul Simon once sang, “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” but in Japan there are more than “50 Ways To Leave This World” and manuals that will show you the way. But they can also teach people how to make someone vanish and never be found. We’ll explain how that works as well.
This podcast will be brought to you Campside Media, “The New Yorker of True-Crime Podcasts” who produced critically praised works like Suspect, Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen
Is there someone in your life, in Japan, who has vanished without a trace or even with a trace, but can no longer be found? Share your story with us at Gone@campsidemedia.com
The book opens on one of the most devastating days in Japan’s history, March 11, 2011, which left thousands dead and missing—and culminated in a triple nuclear meltdown. Our protagonist and narrator Jake Adelstein, seasoned American journalist turned private eye, who has brought back bags of supplies from the US to be taken to the disaster area by yakuza friends–discovers he’s having a meltdown of his own: liver cancer.
Join Jake as he takes us back on a journey and recounts the events leading up to the disaster, the 2009 publication of his memoir TOKYO VICE: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan, and how he became a corporate gumshoe. He picks up where he left off, chronicling his other career, battling the yakuza and criminals as a due diligence investigator while battling his own worst enemy: himself. Previously the only American journalist to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, Jake covered extortion, murder, and human trafficking–fighting to make Japan recognize the problem. No longer a reporter but still trying to be a knight in dingy armor, he realizes that even a paladin has to earn a living. And instead of having 10 million readers now he’s writing reports that will only be read by three corporate executives.
This sequel to TOKYO VICE is written as a stand-alone volume and provides an in-depth history of the inner-workings of crime in Japan, and not just the gangsters. With each job assignment Jake learns more about industries rife with financial fraud, anti-social forces, corruption, and fraudulent bookkeeping–and how to spot a business that no client should engage with.
The book is divided into three parts coinciding with the breakdown of Jake’s personal life in parallel with Japan’s meltdown and an in depth analysis of how the Yakuza operate: UNUSUAL EVENTS, MELTDOWN, and THE FALLOUT.
UNUSUAL EVENTS sets the stage for the state of Japan leading up to the meltdown. The yakuza, like many criminal organizations, were not born out of thin air. Their ranks have come from members of society who do not feel like they have a place. Those marginalized by society such as the Korean-Japanese and burakumin, among others, were not given many opportunities by society, and were drawn into a life of crime.
But it’s a high level of crime now. In fact, one day Japan’s equivalent of Classmates.com is taken over by a Yakuza front company. Information is king.
Jake transitions into a career as a detective introducing a team of characters ranging from fight-til’-the-death former prosecutor Toshiro Igari to brave right-hand researcher and human trafficking victim advocate, Michiel Brandt. He makes new friends and enemies along the way–while dealing with the PTSD from the events that took place in Tokyo Vice by self-medicating with sleeping pills, booze, casual sex and clove cigarettes.
Learn how gangsters were gradually ousted from the financial markets by the due diligence of dedicated investigators, rebel cops, and new laws.
Meanwhile, TOKYO VICE is published but an old foe resurges — the ruthless yakuza Tadamasa Goto. If Tokyo Vice was Jake’s attempt to ruin and get his nemesis ‘erased’– Goto outdoes him with the publication of his autobiography, Habakarinagara, loaded with veiled threats. When Jake asks his mentor, Igari Toshiro, to help him take Goto to court, Igari bravely agrees but…..
MELTDOWN lands us in a disrupted Japanese society. Jake learns he has liver cancer while Japan is in the midst of a nuclear meltdown. His “best friend forever” Michiel is diagnosed with leukemia for the fourth time while the corruption of the Japanese nuclear industry comes to light.
Jake, hired to find out whether Tokyo Electric Power Company is responsible for the accident and what that would mean for investors, returns to his investigator roots with a renewed attitude to not give up and seeks out a new enemy to vanquish.
In chapters from the FALLOUT like The Nine Digit Economy: How The Yakuza Turned Japan’s Stock Market Into Their Casino, he shows how and why the authorities felt that anti-social forces threatened the very foundations of Japan’s economy.
Jake gets ahold of the most dangerous photo in Japan, showing the Vice President of Japan’s Olympic Committee with the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group, but can he break the story before his own knees get broken? And in the process of reporting on the Olympics discovers that the biggest gang of all in Japan may be a political party, founded by war criminals including former Prime Minister Abe’s grandfather, yakuza, ultra-nationalists and funded by the CIA.
What’s the difference between the Liberal Democratic Party politicians and the much-feared Yamaguchi-gumi thugs? It may only really be the badges they wear on their lapel.
While the book can be an enriching companion and sequel to TOKYO VICE: An American Reporter On The Police Beat in Japan, TOKYO PRIVATE EYE: Investigation, Damnation, and Salvation In The Land Of The Setting Sun is a memoir that can stand alone recounting the years 2007 to 2014 through the eyes of an intrepid reporter and gumshoe with three decades spent covering the dark side of the sun.
Not only is it a riveting memoir about the life junctions we all face, including grief and career changes, but it also provides a working knowledge of Japanese organized crime, political corruption, the process of corporate investigations and shows the collusion between mafia, state, and business that led to a nuclear disaster. It also shows that Japan’s biggest problems are not necessarily the fading yakuza.
TOKYO VICE has been adapted for television into an eight episode straight-to-series on HBO Max starring Ansel Elgort playing Jake Adelstein. The series also stars Ken Watanabe and is written and executive produced by Tony Award-winning playwright J. T. Rogers (Jake’s high school senpai) with Endeavor Content serving as the studio. Michael Mann directed the pilot episode and served as executive producer.
Jake Adelstein is one of few experts on Japanese organized crime and the underworld. A former special correspondent for the LA Times, he has written for the Times, the Washington Post, the Japan Times and Vice. His other two books, Le Dernier Des Yakuzas (2017) J’ai Vendu Mon âme En Bitcoins (2019) with Nathalie Stucky, have both been published by Marchialy in France, his “third home.” He currently writes for the Daily Beast, the Asia Times, Tempura in France, and ZAITEN.
My first encounter with the ‘yakuza’ or the crooks and gangsters of Japan’s underworld, happened when I was 14 years old, on my way home from cram school. It was around 10 PM and having no friends who lived my way, I found myself walking alone through a deserted back street when a man in a loud red shirt and loose trousers seemingly materialized out of nowhere and stood blocking my way. In vain I tried to pass, and then brought my book bag up to my chest, probably to protect myself. “You’re out late,” he sniggered, edging closer. “Do you want to make some money? It will be so easy. Let’s go somewhere and we’ll talk about it.”
Could this really be happening? I felt the blood pounding behind my ears and my vision go black around the edges as I stood there paralyzed. After what felt like an hour but couldn’t have been more than a second or two, another voice came out of the dark. “What are you doing? Don’t waste time, we got things to do.” An older man drawing on a cigarette joined us. “What the hell are you playing at? Let’s go,” he said to the shirt and then to me, “sorry. Were you scared? You must have been. Be safe going home, your parents will be worried about you.”
Without a word, I fled and didn’t look over my shoulder until I was safely in front of my apartment building.
I learned later that this was an old yakuza tactic. There was always the younger guy who came on strong, and the older man who stepped in, seemingly to admonish him and then rescue you. But if you showed signs of hesitation at leaving, or showed up at the same spot the next evening, they would snatch you up. Later, they would blackmail the victim’s father into making cash payments in return for silence and the assurance that the incident will not crab his daughter’s chances of making a good marriage.
As anachronistic as this sounds, similar scenarios still play out all over Japan. Having any connection to the yakuza, even if it’s innocuous or remote, can spell disaster for the average, law-abiding Japanese. It could sabotage their chances of getting into private schools. Jeopardize their job applications to good corporations. And will likely botch up marriage prospects between respectable families. The yakuza are well aware of the fear and suspicion they trigger, and will milk it for all it’s worth. Blackmail and extortion continue to comprise a huge chunk of yakuza revenue. In 2020 alone, they made over 28.5 billion yen from just such practices, according to Asahi Shimbun.
That first encounter left a mark of some kind, subtly swerving my life in a certain direction. I longed to quit school and hang out in smokey coffee shops. I pined to get away from the boring, oppressive place called ‘home.’ My parents complained that I had ‘loose morals’ and would come to a ‘bad end’ unless I buckled down to my studies and became more serious about my future. “You’re not ‘katagi,” my mother would say, which means ‘solid citizen.’ In Japan, once you stepped off the rails of ‘katagi’ you were out of the game, and no one gave you a second chance. The opposite of ‘katagi’ of course, was ‘yakuza.’
In spite of my parents’ dire predictions, I somehow made it to adulthood, marriage and a baby. After about three years, my family and I moved into an apartment building in a town called Akasaka, famous for its criminally expensive real estate, high-end restaurants, exclusive bars, a lucrative sex trade and a sizable yakuza population. This was in the tail end of the 90s, when the Tokyo yakuza had the staunch support of right wing governor Shintaro Ishihara and were seemingly invincible. In Akasaka, they were the best-dressed people on the streets, with impeccably tailored suits and Italian silk ties. They were driven around in sleek German sedans and slurped their soba noodles in the same restaurant as the Cabinet Ministers who came down from the nearby Diet Building. Consequently the streets were perpetually crawling with security people, cops in uniform and police detectives. The combination of law enforcement, politicians and gangsters made it impossible for anyone to get out of line.
Akasaka was the safest place in Tokyo.
My neighbor, who lived on the same floor and whose daughter went to the same day-care as my own, was the son and heir to Tokyo’s most powerful yakuza clan. He drove a sparkling white Mercedes and would often give me a lift as I walked down the slope to the subway station. He was always elaborately polite with me and his wife and daughter often came over for dinner when he was “late at work.” By an unspoken agreement, we never talked about this “work” or even referred to him in conversation. One day when I suggested that we take a photo together with our girls, the wife looked uncomfortable and then refused outright. That night, realizing that I had committed an unforgivable faux pas, I couldn’t sleep. After that, she didn’t come around as much and a year later, announced that they were moving out of the building to a condo on the other side of Akasaka.
This thawed the ice between us and we laughed together like the old days. “We’re not abandoning Akasaka,” she said. “This whole town is just right for us.”
I too, found it hard to tear myself away from Akasaka even as I watched the oldest and richest properties being sold off to overseas investors, mainly from Hong Kong and China. From the early aughts to about 2012, the Japanese economy sank into the marshlands of a twenty year recession, and chipped away at the glamorous, old-money prestige of Akasaka. Companies went bankrupt. A famed record company downsized, and then moved away. Small businesses folded, and the premises were bought out by discount shop franchises.
I started working at a neighborhood cafe to supplement the dwindling income I made from journalism, for 900 yen an hour. It was a charming place, a real Tokyo coffee shop with Richard Ginori crockery and a little booth for roasting the beans, Fifteen minutes into my first shift, the owner/proprietor took a call on his cell phone and after a few words, hung up and told me to cordon off the best table in the place, because ‘an important customer’ was arriving in exactly 45 minutes.
At the appointed time, a black BMW drove up to the cafe entrance. Two burly men were already waiting, and opened the heavy glass door of the cafe for an elderly man who had been helped out of the vehicle by his driver. The man came in, wielding a walking stick, and sat down at the table. No one said a word. My employer quietly poured out a cup of ‘blue mountain’ coffee which at 1200 yen a cup, was the most expensive item on the menu. The man picked up his coffee and sipped slowly. The tension was so thick you had to hack it with an ice pick, and I could feel the blood pounding behind my ears all over again. After he finished, the man spoke a few words to the two burly men, and one of them got up and paid the bill as the other got on his phone. In a matter of a seconds, the BMW was parked at the entrance and the elderly man got up. The three men left, and after making sure that they were truly gone, the owner gave me a sickly smile and said: “this happens at least once a week. You’d better get used to it.” It turned out that the elderly man was a yakuza boss and the cafe was his favorite haunt.
After that, I discovered that while the boss might show up once a week, his underlings and his personal driver was there most days. They monopolized the terrace seating area, smoking incessantly and ordering innumerable cups of coffee, talking in undertones or laughing raucously. When they were there, the regular customers – salarimen from neighboring web design companies and editors from a jazz magazine, avoided the place like the plague.
There was no denying that the yakuza were the cafe’s best customers and when they were there I rushed around with trays of coffee and cheese cake, replacing full ashtrays with clean ones and refilling glasses with iced water poured from a stainless steel pitcher. The yakuza are very particular about the establishments where they take their coffee which is why you won’t see any of them at a Starbucks. I became a little chummy with the boss’s driver who lived in the neighborhood. He told me to ignore him if we met in the street. “Pretend you don’t know me. Believe me, it’s for your own good. But in here, we’re friends, okay?”
In the mornings, the Korean hostesses working in the cabaret club owned by the clan, would come in to nurse their hangovers and air their complaints. Though they spoke Japanese well enough, they couldn’t read the text messages sent by their clients and often asked me to do so. Some of the messages were disgustingly racy, others were declarations of love or modest invitations to go out.
“So what does this guy want with me?,” asked Jun, a pretty 24-year old girl from Inchon who had the unfortunate habit of grinding out her cigarette in her piece of half-eaten marmalade toast. “Says he wants to play golf with you before taking this relationship to the next level,” I read out loud. “Ohhh. Is he going to pay me to play golf?” “I don’t know and you probably shouldn’t ask that over a text message.” “Japanese men are such wimps.” “No kidding!”
I worked at the cafe for two and a half years before the owner went bust and sold the place to a Korean businessman who happened to be a distant relation of Jun. In the end, my employer disappeared, owing me two weeks wages. I heard that he returned to Akasaka six months later, and was working in a rotisserie chicken shop. By that time, the cafe had changed completely, its air of old world charm completely quashed by the new owners. The clan stopped frequenting the place, and moved on to somewhere else. The driver was gone too, and I never saw him again.
In 2018, my husband said that he had had enough of Akasaka and wanted to move. I was inclined to agree. The entire neighborhood was a shadow of what it had once been. Small, green plots of land and shrine-owned gardens were paved over and turned into parking lots or hideous houses. The once flourishing love hotels were torn down and Internet cafes went up in their places, with cheap private rooms catering to salarimen and prostitutes. Little dark bars went bankrupt and were replaced by glaringly lit convenience stores. Korean restaurants with plastic storefronts muscled their way into quiet alleyways. In the midst of it all, many of the yakuza moved out. The streets filled up with Chinese tourists and digital nomads toting backpacks.
The boss with a penchant for ‘blue mountain’ coffee was in a posh nursing home, or so I was told by the gossipy grandma working the counter at a tobacco shop, which soon closed down.
After we moved, memories of working at the cafe and my brushes with the Akasaka underworld went sepia toned like a sequence in a cheesy Hollywood movie. And then it all came back this August, as I followed the trial of Satoru Nomura, head of the notorious Kudo-kai. This is Japan’s most powerful yakuza clan that had terrorized Kokura City in Fukuoka prefecture where they had their headquarters, for the last 3 decades. On August 24 Nomura was sentenced to death by the District Court in Fukuoka – marking the first time in the history of Japanese law that a gangster boss received such a verdict. Usually the bosses are immune to societal rules and their crimes go unpunished since the clans always have a set number of young thugs in the ranks to shoulder the blame. They go to prison with promises of being welcomed back into the organization once they get out, with hefty salaries and underlings of their own to kick around. And in the meantime, their families will be well taken care of, nothing to worry about there.
This time however, the District Court made it clear that they were trying Nomura as an individual criminal and not as a clan head, thus severing the chain of command that would have placed all the blame on an underling.
I had met just such an underling in the cafe, during my second August of working there and the memory has a special poignance because this man had seemed so pitiful, He came in at around 5PM, dressed in a suit that was too big for him, with a tie frayed on the ends. He looked around with something akin to sheer, delighted giddiness, saw there was a female on the premises and immediately started talking to me. He had just gotten out of prison. He hadn’t seen a woman in five years. He was longing to touch a woman’s skin, and the desire was enough to make him scream. Can he touch me please? (The cafe owner intervened at this point, and asked him not to harass the staff.)
He complained that his legs were aching from sitting in a chair, since he had gotten used to sitting on a prison floor with his calves tucked under his knees, like a Buddhist monk or a tea master. He had an upset stomach too, from eating restaurant food after years of prison fare. “My god, but this all feels so good! It’s so great to be out!”
I brought his coffee, which he spiked with many spoonfuls of sugar and a dollop of cream. “You don’t know how I’ve been waiting for this moment,” he said, before taking a big swallow and coughing most of it up, all over his shirt. He laughed it off and started to sip slowly. “I’m only 30, I feel like an old man. Five years of my life down the drain. But I’m determined to have a woman, every single night for a whole year! Just watch me!” By this time, the only remaining customer in the cafe was the yakuza who had come in with him, obviously the caretaker, who looked none too happy with his charge.
After that, the ex-con came to the cafe several times. He never tried to talk to me again, though he always had a smile plastered to his face and wore a new suit that fit. I heard him say to my employer that prison caused him to shed 15 kilos and he always felt tired. “But I can still have sex! That’s great, right? That’s what counts, right?”
The last time I saw him, he had taken off his shoes and was sitting with his calves tucked under his knees, atop the hard backed chair of the cafe. He was smiling beatifically, humming out of tune to a Coldplay song coming over the speakers. A short while later, two men who I’d never seen before came in and said a few words to him. He nodded, still smiling and put on his shoes. After paying for his coffee, he bowed deeply to my employer and then to me, before turning his back and walking out.
(First posted 23:59 August 18th, revised and updated 00:40 am August 19)
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are over but they may leave a lasting legacy in Japan: the deadly COVID19 Lambda variant; it first arrived on July 20th, when a woman in her thirties from Peru, accredited with the Tokyo 2020 games arrived at Haneda Airport. The government only admitted to the arrival of the variant after our reports on August 6. Tonight at 10:39 pm NHK reported that the Ministry of Health failed to conduct an investigation into those in close contact with her, or notify the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. The Lambda variant, originally found in Peru, has killed thousands there and in July of this year accounted for 90% of new COVID19 cases. It has been associated with a high-mortality rate, around 9%, and a recent study suggested, “it could pose a threat to the human race.”
Whether the Lambda variant is as deadly as the Delta variant remains to be seen, but it’s definitely not a variant you want to welcome into your home.
The Story So Far
The lambda variant travelled to Japan with a woman who had resided in Peru. She tested positive for COVID19 upon arriving at Haneda Airport, on April 20, and was quarantined. On July 23, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) determined that she was infected with the Lambda variant and reported this to the Ministry of Health. On July 26, the Ministry reported their findings to an international infectious diseases database, GISAID. Despite, concerns at the NIID, the government decided to postpone an announcement of the findings until after the Olympics had concluded.
On August 6, after our first report, the Ministry released details to the Japanese press and gave comments to The Daily Beast. The Ministry has denied that they were covering up the entry of the variant, due to the Olympics, saying that it did not meet their criteria for public disclosure. However, today on August 19, the cabinet spokesman, at a press conference announced that the Ministry was rethinking it’s policy on handling of variants and would be more forthcoming with information in the future.
Lambda On The Loose?
Then at 10:39 pm, NHK News, reported the following. The Ministry of Health had failed to send critical information to the local government where the Lambda carrier was being quarantined. The Ministry of Health normally sends a list of people who may have been in close contact with a carrier to the local government responsible for carrying out an investigation into the source of the virus, and preventing the spread of it into the public. This list usually includes the seating chart of the aircraft, when the infection is confirmed by a quarantine station at the airport.
NHK reported that after the woman was confirmed to be infected with the Lambda virus, the Ministry failed to notify the local government where she was staying and neither her name nor the list was not sent to the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. This raises the possibility that Lambda variant is already on the lam in Japan, spreading into the local population.
The World Health Organization considers Lambda a “variant of interest” (VOI) but has not yet labeled it a variant of concern (VOC), a term reserved for variant that are either highly infectious, resistant to vaccines, and/or result in higher mortality. Japan has not classified the variant yet and is only testing for it at airports. This means that if the virus has made it into the general population, it’s unlikely to be found until it has taken root—because there is no screening or sampling for the virus being conducted. Japan has consistently failed to conduct the basis of COVID19 prevention and containment: widely test, trace, isolate, medicate and vaccinate.
The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) told NHK that “the person in charge was so busy with work that he forgot to send the list,” and that they will set up a system to double-check that the list was sent. They have also downplayed the risk of Lambda, saying that it is on the wane in many countries and less virulent than the Delta variant. However…..
Know Your Lambda
On July 28, Japanese scientists posted a report on the Lambda variant eight days after its domestic detection. The document is yet to be peer-reviewed.
In the document, the authors state that the Lambda variant is highly infectious, less susceptible to current vaccinations, and shows resistance to antiviral immunity elicited by vaccination. The report continues that because the “Lambda variant is relatively resistant to the vaccine-induced antisera” (blood serum containing antibodies produced in response to vaccination), “it might be possible that this variant is feasible to cause breakthrough infection” in already vaccinated populations. The scientists worry the variant’s categorization as a VOI instead of a VOC downplay the virus’s potential threat to public health.
Early on July 23, hours before the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremonies, a Senegal musician posted on Facebook that he had been dismissed from performing at the event because a member the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee questioned, “Why is an African is here to perform?” He was dismissed unilaterally in May, he asserts, even though he had been scheduled to perform.
The ceremony, that surprised the world by having Naomi Osaka, a biracial Japanese tennis champion, light the Olympic flames, may have an underbelly that yet places great emphasis on looking “Japanese enough” to succeed in this country. There are already many who question if the theme of “diversity” is really understand by the organizers who have employed for the opening ceremonies an abuser of the disabled, a comedian who joked about the holocaust, and despite all warnings, used the music of an notorious homophobe who also denies Japan’s war crimes.
Latyr Sy is an accomplished percussionist that has appeared alongside Japan’s top artists in concerts and television programs, including the December 2020 FNS song festival. He has also performed at events attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was “the face of the Tokyo Olympics” and instrumental in making sure Japan won the bid in 2013. (Of course, the several million dollars worth of bribes helped).
“So ashamed. I feel good that I’m no longer performing at the Tokyo Olympic Opening Ceremony…Though I’ve been contributing to the Japanese music industry since 1995…They completely violate the Olympic principles of human rights and diversity.” Sy wrote in English in his social media post. He also wrote eloquently of his plight in Japanese. (See below)
The Japan Subculture Research Center is scheduled to speak with Sy later today. We are also reaching out to the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympics as well as the International Olympic Organization for comment,
The article below is reprinted from Unseen Japan. Please note: Kentaro Kobayashi, a comedian turned director of the Olympics opening ceremony was fired from his post, on July 22, after footage of him making holocaust jokes resurfaced. Kobayashi, made fun of the murder over 6 million Jews by the Nazis in a comedy skit in 1998. “Let’s play Holocaust (ホロコーストごっこしよう)” was one of the lines.
“Any person, no matter how creative, does not have the right to mock the victims of the Nazi genocide. The Nazi regime also gassed Germans with disabilities. Any association of this person to the Tokyo Olympics would insult the memory of 6 million Jews and make a cruel mockery of the Paralympics,” stated SWC Associate Dean and Global Social Action Director, Rabbi Abraham Cooper.
Holocaust Joke Lands Olympics Opening Director in Hot Water
by Noah Oskow
This piece originally appeared on Unseen Japanand a section has been printed here with their permission
Recently, I’ve gotten used to waking up, opening Twitter, and immediately seeing some new controversy erupting from the oncoming Tokyo Olympics. These daily scandals are often enumerated on the trending ticker to the right of the screen; most recent was the story of the Olympic Village being like “Medieval Japan,” with tiny rooms without internet, TV, or enough toilets. Much more serious was the furor over opening and closing ceremonies composer Oyamada Keigo (famed internationally by his stage name, Cornelious); a twenty-something Oyamada had bragged, back in the ’90s, of physically, sexually, and emotionally torturing disabled classmates during his school years.
Still, when I woke up this morning and groggily glanced at Twitter, I never quite expected to see the Holocaust come into play. There, in the trending section, the word 「ユダヤ人」(yudaya-jin, Jewish person) shone out like a worrisome beacon. I was immediately concerned, even before I even had time to read and comprehend the whole phrase. Seeing “Jewish” trend rarely seems to mean anything good. And why would it be trending in Japan, a country with such limited awareness of anything Jewish? I refocused on the topic tag, and apprehensively read it out: 「ユダヤ人大量惨殺ごっこ」. “Playing at the Holocaust,” or, to literally read out the academic term used, “playing at the great massacre of Jewish people.” And above the phrase, portentously indicating the trending subject, was the word “Olympics.”
A Laughing Matter?
Kobayashi Kentaro is half of the popular gag comedy duo “Rahmens.” Outside of Japan, his most famous work is most likley his legendary series of comedy shorts entitled “The Japanese Tradition.” The videos, which humorously lampoon aspects of Japanese culture, building from the believable to the outright surreal, were a staple in my high school Japanese class. (Their “Sushi” video is especially beloved; I can’t count the number of times I’ve shared it with friends.) Kobayashi is also the director of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony, entitled “United by Emotion,” which will air Friday night, Tokyo time (early morning PST).
The issue causing the hubbub over on Twitter doesn’t have anything, in particular, to do with the Olympics, other than perhaps causing some to be “United in Anger.” Much like the (substantially worse) Oyamada scandal, it involves something the principal said more than two decades ago. Nonetheless, it’s the sort of thing that demonstrates a lack of awareness towards the realities of other human beings; something which seems antithetical to the stated ideals of the Olympics.
“Playing at the Holocaust”
The controversy in question stems from a skit Rahmens put on in the years directly before gaining national fame. In the sketch, released on VHS collection by Colombia in 1998, the duo parody the children’s educational show 「できるかな」(Do You Think You Can Do It?) The Japanese show, which was also popular in Latin America, taught children how to make paper crafts using scissors and tape.
In the skit, Kobayashi is portraying protagonist Noppo-san, while his partner is the show’s anthropomorphic gopher, Gonta. They’re discussing ways to play with paper; Kobayashi talks about how they could wrap up a newspaper into a cone and pretend it’s a baseball bat; a rolled-up newspaper sphere could be their baseball. As for the crowds, all they would need are a bunch of cut-outs of people to place on paper bleachers.
Katagiri Jin, playing Gonta, says he has just the right sort of collection of human paper cut-outs. He rushes off to grab the imagined paper figures. Kobayashi replies, “ah, from that time you said ‘let’s play the Holocaust.’” The audience laughs uproariously at this out-of-left-field joke. Kobayashi follows up with “Koda-san was really angry about this one. Said, ‘do you think we could air that?!’” Then, looking at the imagined paper cut-outs, he says, “wow, you made this many?”The skit in question.
The Brewing Storm
The sudden retrieval of this mostly-forgotten joke from decades ago and attendant media coverage resulted in a myriad of responses. Chief among these were those who expressed shocked disbelief.
“Ah, I didn’t know about this skit. This is no good. It’s like if you did a sketch where the joke was the atomic bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or about the Battle of Okinawa, or the Kobe or Great East Japan Earthquakes. The Genocide of the Jews isn’t a subject to be used in such a carefree manner. Much less to be made the subject of a gag.”
“In the latter half of the 1990s, the same decade where the Goldhagen controversy burned through Europe, the Holocaust could still be used as a “funny gag,” and even be packaged and put into circulation on a VHS without a single issue. As a Japanese researcher of modern German history, this is really something I need to come to grips with…”
A Real Controversy, or No?
Of course, there were also those for whom the joke, unearthed from decades past, was old news. Both topically, as a single joke, and as something for whom statutes of limitations may have passed, it seemed like an empty controversy…..
For the rest of the article, please click here at Unseen Japan
Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has previously contributed to Japan Subculture Research Center.
Yesterday, June 23rd, marked one month before the opening of the “cursed” Tokyo 2020 Olympics and hundreds of residents marked the occasion by holding a protest in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Headquarters. As the delta variant of the novel-coronavirus spreads rapidly and public health concerns are rising, the clamor to call-off the Olympics is increasing. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike was not there to hear the voices of protest yesterday; she is in the hospital due to “fatigue.” The government swears it’s not due to COVID-19 and of course, we believe them.
(Update) The protest will begin at 18:00 by the front entrance on the second floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building No.1, and will migrate to the Shinjyuku ALTA building at 19:00. Further guidelines for the protest can be found at the hangorin group’s (anti-Olympics) tumbler page. The organization will also livestream the protest on YouTube from 18:00.
In collaboration with this domestic demonstration, international anti-Olympic organizations in Los Angeles, U.S., Pyeongchang, South Korea, and ironically Paris, France, where the IOC was born, are scheduled to hold simultaneous protests.
Suicides in Japan are like wildfires in California: tragic, inevitable and seemingly unsolvable. According to the National Police Agency, 1805 people killed themselves in September and suicides amongst women were disproportionately rising.
Still, cases of people offing themselves had gone down in the past 10 years, and 2019 closed out the year with 20,169 cases – the lowest number of deaths since 1978 when the government first started keeping records, and minus 10,000-plus cases during the early naughts. Strangely enough, though the Japanese government is secretive and reticent about almost every other glitch found in the archipelago, they’ve always been upfront about the nation’s suicide rate. Few countries in the world are so ready to reveal the numbers but not in Japan.
Suicide has never been taboo here. Back when Tokyo was called Edo and the nation was closed off to foreigners, the suicide rate in this city was said to be twice what it is now, among a population of a mere one million, which is one-fourteenth of what it is today.
There was a collective mentality that dying by one’s own hand is the best and most effective way to make a statement or erase problems, and the legacy still holds. Popular belief has it that every Japanese person goes through life knowing at least one person who committed suicide. (I myself have known six, but that’s fairly common.)
This year, suicides were low until June, but from July to August, the figures kept climbing. This was more or less in the cards – some experts had predicted as early as March that under the Covid-19 pandemic, more people will kill themselves than be killed by the virus. In August alone, 1854 people took their own lives of which 119 were women under 30 years old. This figure is alarming, but mainstream media seems too distracted to shed much light on why this is happening. Those who bothered however, tracked down Dr. Toshihiko Matsumoto, a psychiatrist who works almost exclusively with suicidal patients. According to Matsumoto, there had been an increase in young women with suicidal tendencies since Golden Week (early May), and those who couldn’t make it through the spring drove themselves over the edge during the summer.
Matsumoto said that in Japan, women commit suicides for different reasons from men. “Men’s problems almost always stem from work or the workplace, whereas women are much more social and are apt to encounter snags in their personal relationships. In pre-pandemic days girls could meet their friends for coffee, and just vent. But they were deprived of this pastime during the stay-home period. When the only people you see are family, there’s a lot of material for depression.” He has a point. Most Japanese daughters are diligent and dutiful, but they’re not ready to discuss life problems with mom and dad. “They don’t want to let their parents down,” explained Matsumoto, a logic that in itself is a breeding ground for suicidal thoughts.
Another factor triggering the suicides of young women could be the recent wave of self-inflicted deaths among actors/performers. These were celebrities who seemingly had everything to live for, and still chose death as a way out. In late May, professional wrestler Hana Kimura (22) was found dead in her home after being plagued by social media bullying. In July, the body of Haruma Miura (30) – one of the most popular actors in the industry, was found in his kitchen. After Miura came the death of actress and model Sei Ashina (36). The most recent shocker is the death of Yuko Takeuchi (40), an A-list actress whose career spans 25 years, and who had just remarried a co-star in February. There are five deaths so far, and only one of them left a note – actor Takashi Fujiki (80), whose body was found in a cheap, tiny apartment in Nakano ward.
Media analysts have mostly steered clear of the topic, fearful of stepping on the landmines strewn about on social media. Even a polite statement may be construed as offensive, hurtful or most damning of all – inspire others to die by their own hand.
Misako Noguchi, who has worked as a casting director for the past 30 years, says that she has never seen anything like it. “No matter how bad things got in the real world, it was very rare for performers to die of their own accord. The repercussions of something like that on the larger society would be enormous, and most stars were aware of that.” Noguchi says she blames Covid-19 – “when a performer is forced to stay home for weeks and months on end, it takes a huge toll on their mental health. I myself was going crazy, trapped inside the four walls of my apartment, broke and depressed. Imagine how a big star like Yuko Takeuchi would feel. She was used to being under the spotlight 12 hours a day, surrounded by cameras and people. Then suddenly, bang! Work dried up. She couldn’t even go outside.”
At this point, most Japanese have struck a deal with Covid-19. We’ll wear masks, disinfect vigorously and try to avoid crowds. Just please let us return to a semblance of normalcy. But for some Japanese, it may be too little, too late. Now mental health professionals fear that suicide rate will soar again in December – traditionally a month when many Japanese seek escape from year-end financial troubles by taking their own lives. Unemployment and failed businesses could push more people over the edge, and unlike the summer months, the deaths are expected to occur among people in their 40s to 60s.
It seems mind-numbingly strange that in a country famed for longevity and its super-aged society, suicides should be a leading cause of death. As Dr. Matsumoto says, “maybe what this society needs now isn’t protection measures but far less social distancing and more non-essential excursions.”
If you’re considering suicide or know someone who is, this site in Japanese offers a number of ways to get counseling.
In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available in English for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit them at telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html
Is there really no discrimination or racism in Japan?
This is a question that the creators of Japan’s beloved feminist podcast, SuperSmashHoes Podcast, and writer Yukari Peerless decided it was high time to ask. In a time when racism and police brutality in the United States have drawn global interest in the Black Lives Matter movement and the problems of intolerance all over the world, it’s certainly a question worth asking. Join Reflection on Racism, Diversity & Inclusion in Japan to find out more. Much of the discussion will be in Japanese but hopefully accessible.
Super Smash Hoes Podcast, hosted by Erika X and Fahreen Budhwani, and Yukari Peerless working with other NGOs have invited a group of experts and Japan hands to discuss issues of discrimination and racism in the shadows of the rising sun. Panelists include award-winning documentary film maker Miki Dezaki, Japan’s first black idol and sex worker rights advocate Amina du Jean, and Aerica Shimizu Banks,an engaging public speaker on the topic of diversity and an advocate for women of color who has accomplished much in her career. The speakers will talk about their own personal experiences with racism, ignorance, and prejudice and how to combat it.
If you wish to join the livestream, you are requested to contribute ¥1,000 yen which will be donated to two anti-racism charities. One is the Anti-Racism Information Center. The Center is an NGO that combats hate speech and raises awareness of the problems with xenophobia and misconceptions about race in a civil society.The other group is Save Immigrants Osaka which supports foreign immigrants detained in Osaka immigration center. https://www.facebook.com/saveimmigrantsOsaka/
Date: Wednesday, June 24 Time: 10am – 12pm Japan time (6pm – 8pm PST Tuesday June 23)
The Format: Round table discussion. It will be a “Webinar” on Zoom. The audience can watch but will be muted during the webinar. After the panel discussion, they will open up the floor and the audience can ask questions.
Admission: 1000 yen to a Paypal account. 100% to be donated to a charity.
They say it takes more than a death to change the world but perhaps that’s not true in the case of 22-year old Hana Kimura (木村花). She was a professional wrestler and one of the cast members of Terrace House, the now defunct reality TV franchise that first launched in 2012 and went on for eight seasons. For the uninitiated, Terrace House follows the relationship dynamics of three boys and three girls as they live as housemates in a posh seaside house with a terrace. Hana-chan as she was called, starred as herself – an up and coming wrestling star with pink hair who was eager to get ahead in the entertainment industry. In an episode aired on March 31st, Hana-chan unleashed her anger over a laundry mishap committed by a fellow (male) housemate. The two made up, but the whole thing exploded right in Hana-chan’s face.
Hordes of Terrace House fans posted Hana-chan hating comments – upwards of 300 a day – and many demanded that she either leave the show or die, immediately. It’s said that the Covid-19 induced isolation further drove Kimura over the edge. Alone in her home, she couldn’t help but read and obsess over the hellish comments on social media, directed straight at her.
On May 23rd, Hana Kimura was rushed to the hospital after friends found her lying on the floor in her apartment, but it was too late. The details of her death have not been disclosed, but she left a note, apologizing to her friends and thanking her mom for “bringing me into this world.” Astonishingly, the anonymous cyber bullies who were at least partly responsible for her death resumed their bashing, accusing her of being ‘weak and needy’ and ‘not cut out to endure the hardships of working in the entertainment industry.”
All that hate though, faded away after Fuji Television Network, the creator of the Terrace House franchise pulled the plug on the show five days after Hana-chan’s suicide. Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi is now pushing for a law to hunt down those who post hate comments, and slap them with fines or worse. Even Prime Minister Abe has moved on the issue, remarking that “hateful comments on the Internet have the power to do irreparable damage, and they should be stopped, if possible.” Since then, things have been pretty quiet. Hana Kimura’s critics have seemingly disappeared off the face of the Net at least for now, and news commentators are continuing to express their ‘profound regret’ over her death.
That said, a certain apprehension hangs in the air; it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, PM Abe’s popularity has hit an all-time low and the belated delivery of two “Abenomasks” per household that he promised back in March, has become a running joke. It seems that most things he does these days is being ridiculed. The death of Hana Kimura may have been a welcome respite from having to deal with the social ills spawned by the lingering coronavirus, and the pile of political embarrassments racked up during the nation’s 49-day shut-down. Moritomo scandal, anyone?
it seems that the Abe Administration is milking the Terrace House tragedy to its own advantage.
In the meantime, media pundits are pointing out that both the Abe Administration and the Japanese populace should have their minds on other, more relevant issues, like the racial protests tearing the US apart, and now raging in Europe as well.
Political columnist Takashi Odajima observed in Nikkei Shimbun that the pandemic has afforded the US an opportunity to take a hard look at social injustice, while in Japan that same pandemic has given the government an excuse to cover things up. “In Japan, the government hides its scandals and inconvenient truths under the masks they insist on wearing,” he wrote.
You don’t have to be a pundit like Odajima, to get that sinking feeling: once again, Japan lags way behind the west when it comes to grappling with stuff that truly matters, in spite of, or maybe because of, an ongoing pandemic. While we’re still wrapping our faces and panicking about the number of new infections cropping up in Tokyo (more than 10! How horrifying!), protesters across the Pacific are risking their lives for racial justice. The comparison is scathingly humbling. Gosh, we’re small. And scared shitless of direct conflict.
Odajima pointed out that the Japanese are hopelessly bad at arguing a point, or any form of adverse social interaction unless it’s done among family members. He’s right. The bad stuff happens mostly at home and behind closed doors. In some cases they continue for years before anyone finds out. There’s anonymous groping on trains, and faceless bullying on the net but public protests in broad daylight rarely occur unless the protesters are hiding their faces behind masks. This explains why Hana-chan got so much flack – she dared to express rage over public airwaves, in her own name. And though it’s been pointed out that the show’s producers obliquely coerced her to do so, many Terrace House viewers were too naive to see the difference between the ‘reality’ of reality shows, and real life.
Maybe that’s just the way the Abe Administration wants it. Passive silence behind masks is vastly preferable to outright self-expression, in whatever situation. Imagine if the Japanese took to the streets to protest income inequality, the plight of temp workers, foreign laborers, and single mothers, domestic violence and rampant child abuse–just a few items off the top of an endless list?
The truth is that at this point, the nation needs many more Hana Kimuras–brave enough to express anger and negative feelings without fear of being punished for it. Hopefully, we can do that better, once the masks come off.
A guide to the Japanese underworld, Japanese pop-culture, yakuza and everything dark under the sun.