The stories Jake Adelstein wrote as a crime reporter for a Japanese newspaper have earned him and his family a death threat from one of the country’s most notorious and influential yakuza. Writing a book about crime and criminal culture in Japan is likely to have further enraged the Tokyo uderworld. Adelstein never planned it this way.
Adelstein, 39, from Missouri, became the first foreigner to be taken on as a staff writer for a Japanese-language newspaper when he joined the Yomiuri Shimbun in April 1993. He had experienced Japan as an exchange student – albeit one with interests in karate and Buddhism – and studied Japanese before passing a newspaper entrance exam and joining the Yomiuri. As with all cub reporters he landed on the police and organised-crime beat, which meant close contact with policemen and gangsters and eventually the material for the forthcoming Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan.
“It’s not all about the yakuza,” says Adelstein. “It’s about crime and criminal culture, including human trafficking, murder and serial rape in Japan and how the media here covers it. Consider it a primer of the dark side of Japan as seen through the eyes of a police reporter. It tells you a lot about the Japanese police as well.”
The impression he initially built up was of Japan’s yakuza groups being similar to the officers charged with bringing them to book. But that has changed, he believes.
“My impression was that both had their stringent codes of honour and duty and a grudging respect for each other,” he says. “Now, I think, with most yakuza, money trumps everything and the cops don’t have respect for them any more. I have a lot more respect for the cops since I now understand how difficult their job is. How the hell are they going to bust these organisations if they can’t wire-tap, can’t do undercover operations, can’t plea bargain and can’t offer witnesses any real protection? They are handicapped while the yakuza have a tactical advantage, politically and financially.
“There was a time when the two sides had an uneasy truce,” he continues. “When there was a gang war and shooting was involved, the yakuza quickly offered up someone to the police. Not necessarily the real criminal, but someone. In the good old days the organised crime cops would drop by the yakuza offices, have a cup of tea and get updates on who was rising and falling in the organisation.”
When Japan’s largest underworld group, the Osaka-based Yamaguchi-gumi, was smaller the police were able to play off various yakuza groups against each other. But that too has changed.
“The Yamaguchi-gumi is the Wal-Mart of the Japanese mafia and they are driving all the little mom and pop yakuza out of business, efficiently and ruthlessly,” Adelstein says. “They don’t feel a need to get along with the police any more. Last year, allegedly, when a group of Aichi prefectural cops raided a Yamaguchi-gumi office, they found photos of themselves and their families tacked on the walls. The former taboos about attacking journalists are gone as well. Anyone is fair game.”
Adelstein’s book took about 2½ years to write and was completed after he left the Yomiuri in 2005. Adelstein says he loved his job, built up good working relationships with police officers and was fascinated by Japan’s underworld. That fascination means his life – and those of his family – are now on the line.
According to police statistics, there are 80,000 gang members in Japan and the Yamaguchi-gumi is without question the largest and most powerful. In Tokyo alone it has more than 800 front companies ranging from construction businesses to auditing firms to cake shops. It’s all a far cry from the traditional businesses of drugs, protection and prostitution on which underworld empires were previously built.
His trawls though the underbelly of Japanese society also revealed links between organised crime and the political world, with lawmakers appearing in police organisational charts of the Yamaguchi-gumi and others accepting political donations from gang bosses.
But the story that changed Adelstein’s life most came about on May 18, 2001, when the FBI arranged for Tadamasa Goto – the “John Gotti of Japan” – to travel to the US for a liver transplant. Goto is the head of the Goto-gumi, an offshoot of the Yamaguchi-gumi that was used by the Yamaguchigumi to expand its business interests into Tokyo. In return, Goto provided the US with information on yakuza moneylaundering operations and front businesses in the US, although it fell far short of what he had promised before the operation.
The information led to a series of busts, as well as friction between law-enforcement authorities on the two sides of the Pacific Ocean about the sharing of information.
In 2005 Goto discovered Adelstein had learned of the transplant and was planning to write a scoop. One of his associates unleashed an oblique threat, which was followed by a formal meeting with Goto’s representatives. The offer was clear, Adelstein recalls. He was told to “erase the story or be erased”. The same went for his wife and children.
Adelstein took advice from a senior Japanese police officer, dropped the story and resigned from the newspaper. But instead of killing the story he planned to incorporate it into a book that, given Goto’s poor health, would be published after his death. Goto defied the odds, however, and is still alive. Unfortunately for Adelstein, the contents of the book were leaked and became common knowledge among Japan’s criminal fraternity.
“I am very concerned,” he says. “Goto’s group does things like smash dump trucks into stores that won’t pay protection money, uses bombs, invades homes, beats people in front of their families … I’m certainly an enemy.”
The FBI are keeping a close watch on Adelstein’s family in the US while local police are monitoring his well-being in Japan.
“My wife is very angry with me; my kids are confused,” Adelstein says. “I’ve had to learn to shoot a rifle and I’m in constant touch with the police on both sides of the ocean. I’ve blown thousands of dollars to install security systems and to make sure I got my best source out of Japan and safe.
“If the psycho would only have the decency to leave my family and friends out of it, that would be great. But he has no honour and no morals. He’s capable of doublecrossing the Yamaguchi-gumi and the FBI and he has lots of money.”
Adelstein’s only glimmer of hope, he says, is if the Yamaguchigumi excommunicate Goto for betraying their business interests in the US. Even so, Goto has hundreds of loyal henchmen. “I have no idea what the hell to do,” Adelstein says. “I miss my family, but until things are settled every time I’m with them I put them in firing range.
“I’m hoping that Shinobu Tsukasa, the honourable head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, sends me a thank you letter: ‘Mr Adelstein, we appreciate you pointing out this traitor in our midst. Go live in peace and continue to write. We will not kill you for the time being.’ That would be nice. You see, I still have a sense of humour.”
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
(to be published by Kodansha International in November)