Today on April 15th marks 30 years since I started as a journalist in Japan. Many of those years were spent reporting on Japan’s anti-social forces and crime, but I hope I’ve evolved. 😉 I wrote Tokyo Vice and had it published in 2009. I’ve written three other books since, all published in France.
I still love my job. I’m happy to have moved on from primarily covering yakuza to Japanese politics, although the transition wasn’t hard. Japan is a one-party democracy and the ruling party, the Liberal Democrat Party (a misleading name) was founded with yakuza money by war criminals Kodama Yoshio and Kishi Nobusuke. The latter of the war criminals deserves an honorable mention for being Shinzo Abe’s grandpa.
I’ve spent more time than I wished covering the yakuza. These days I cover politics, crimes, social issues, culture, religion, whisky, Zen Buddhism, pole-dancing, books, missing people and travel. I’m trying to be well-rounded. Because I’ve been doing this 30 years now, please permit me to talk about what that meant.
Someone told me derisively once , “You must think you’re the biggest fucking yakuza expert in the world.” Nope. First of all, I don’t think I ever said I was the world or even Tokyo’s leading expert on anti-social forces aka yakuza aka boryokudan. And if I did, I must have been really drunk. But show me where I did say that. I’ll repent.
In a live interview, I think I once said I was a police reporter for 12 years instead of saying I was a crime reporter for most of my 12.5 years at the Yomiuri. I get tongue-tied now and then. Sue me, man.
If you actually read Tokyo Vice, The Last Of The Yakuza, or Tokyo Detective, my career trajectory isn’t too hard to follow.
I believe that knowledge is best shared so I’ve posted on-line a huge amount of materials I’ve used in my writing.
I’ve been very careful to redact some things in there to protect sources as I have done in my books. In writing books, I make it very clear that names and dates may be altered to protect sources. Japanese newspapers are also full of unnamed sources. For good reason.
In Japan, the civil servants laws make sharing confidential information by a public official a crime. That’s why newspapers like the Mainichi, routinely use euphemisms like “捜査関係者によると“(according to police sources). Cops say something on the record when they shouldn’t, they can get fired or go to jail. A yakuza? He may lose more than his finger.
I spent from 1993 to 1999 in Saitama covering a variety of subjects but to the best of my recollection and documentation from 1994 to 1996, I covered The Saitama Prefectural Police Department Organized Crime Countermeasures Division 1 & 2. (埼玉県警暴力団対策1・2課). I continued to cover that beat while at the Omiya bureau which was unusual but I liked covering OC. Even when covering prefectural politics, yakuza stuff came up.
I should say that there’s a downside in working for a Japanese newspaper. As a general rule, you don’t get a byline. The Yomiuri in particular rarely had a name attached to article on the National News page or regional newspaper. I think that’s also to protect the reporter and the newspaper from being sued, but also so you can’t make a name for yourself and defect to another paper.
From 1999 to 2000, I covered the 4th district of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police ward. That includes Kabukicho which is Japan’s largest red light district. During my time in the National News Department I spent a year covering IT, which quickly turned into covering IT and crime. I worked on two Yomiuri long-running feature series on organized crime and emerging crimes called Safety Meltdown and the slightly repetitious Restoring Law and Order series. Safety Meltdown was turned into a book called Organized Crime in which I am credited.
From 2003 to 2004, I was assigned to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters. I was one of the reporters in charge of the relatively newly formed Organized Crime Control Bureau (組織犯罪対策部). I covered everything, including crimes by foreigners, but that job was principally the work of OCCB Division 2 reporters.
Me on the other hand, I spent most of my time in charge of OCCB Division 5, which dealt with guns and drugs, classic yakuza revenue generating crimes. I assisted the year long reportage on the Emperor of Loan Sharks, a yakuza boss from the Yamaguchi-gumi, and his billion dollar cross border operations. I also was in charge of the neglected OCCB Special Squad which dealt with credit card fraud. I had one scoop about yakuza operating credit card fraud internationally that I was quite proud of.
Even after leaving my post at the Police Press Club, I continued to assist coverage of drug related crimes by my colleagues on the beat. During my period covering the drug problems in Tokyo, I had a good working relationship with the NCIS as well.
From 2006 to 2008, I did a study of human trafficking in Japan commissioned by the US State Department. It was a cash cow for organized crime and I was asked to dig deeply into the relation between the slavers, the politicians, immigration and the yakuza. The redacted report is still available on-line. If there are some typos—-apologies. I wasn’t given the final draft for review. Click the link to download the report: DEMAND: A comparative examination of sex trafficking and tourism in Jamaica, Japan, The Netherlands and The United States
Warning: the report contains violence, sexual assault and other disturbing materials.
In 2009, Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter On The Police Beat was published, with surprising success for a hard to classify book. I did a lot of book tours and was still doing due diligence. My Dad says that after the book was published I briefly turned into “an arrogant dick”. Well, I had a wake-up call.
In 2011, an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear disaster that could have been avoided woke me up. Come to think of it, I could have also avoided liver cancer but I loved those clove cigarettes and heavy drinking too much. But with the aftershocks, I returned to journalism.
I knew now that there were worse things than the yakuza. And that was Tokyo Electric Power Company and the Liberal Democratic Party, my least favorite yakuza-like group. The two of them paved the way for the terrible crime of criminal negligence resulting in injury and death that the Fukushima disaster.
I started write for The Daily Beast and from 2015 to 2016, I was a special correspondent for the LA Times— until they run out of money. I’m still writing for The Daily Beast but been on hiatus to do a podcast.
I spent all of 2022 working with some amazing people to do a nine-part podcast series on missing people in Japan—and the story behind them.
The Evaporated: 神隠し(かみかくし）Gone with the Gods –On Air now is something I’m proud to have been part of and helped make happen.
The Lonely Yakuza Reporter Life
It’s kind of tough when your area of expertise becomes increasingly unimportant. But like an anthropologist studying a vanishing tribe, I still stick with it.
There are many journalists who are well-versed in organized crime in Japan more than myself. A few outstanding individuals come to mind. Isano Masakatsu (磯野正勝) who was first a police reporter than a yakuza reporter. Noboru Hirosue aka “Professor Yakuza.” Atsushi Mizoguchi. Tomohiko Suzuki. Masami Kimura (Farewell Yamaguchi-gumi: The Half-Life of Tadamasa Goto). And of course, the legendary and perhaps first reporter on the yakuza yakuza reporter (reporter on the yakuza) Reikichi Sumiya (RIP).
However, becoming an expert on the yakuza (a misleading term for the 23+ organized crime groups in Japan with different emblems, revenue streams, bosses, and history) actually also involves a certain amount of academic study and collecting materials as well. Over the years, I’ve obtained about 40 videos of succession ceremonies and funerals which kindly often name the yakuza on the screen. I’ve read over 200 books. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with organized crime cops, yakuza (who were yakuza at the time) and retired yakuza. I’ve made databases of their front companies and organizations. I’ve kept 14 years worth of yakuza fanzines– all of which I’ve read.
In fact, I was once weirdly written up and praised for my fair coverage in a yakuza fanzine, the best of the monthlies, Jitsuwa Document. I love that magazine. Great photos, lovely haiku, and always a section of tattooed men and women showing off their colors.
So, in short, yes I know a lot about the yakuza and have covered them, written about them, made friends with some, dealt with them, been threatened by some, and avoided going head to head with them whenever possible for decades. And they were a huge part of what I covered while I was at the Yomiuri, from my Saitama days and even after.
Sometimes, I meet a wise ass who wants to dispute my entire career and I feel like saying: do I need to chop off a pinkie for you to recognize that I might know my subject matter?
I have taken breaks from journalism. I spent 2006 to 2008 working on a study of human trafficking commissioned by the US State Department, which of course, involved looking into how organized crime profited from it and who they paid off and chummed around with to get away with it. Not surprisingly Shinzo Abe was one name that certainly came up. But that’s another story. You can read the report.
Not all yakuza are bad people but in general they’re bad for society. The average age of a yakuza is now about 51. Their numbers have been declining steadily since October 1st 2011. On this date, the organized crime exclusionary ordinances—which forbid doing business with the yakuza– went into effect nationwide.
We’re fading out together. I write about them less and less. In my fourth book, Tokyo Detective, published in France the day after my 54th birthday, In the book, I try to explain why the Japanese mob is doomed and how it happened.
I’m thinking of opening a Yakuza Museum someday. Gotta do something with 14 years of yakuza fanzines and several hundred books. Yikes.
When I was just starting as a reporter in 1992, a veteran reporter at the Yomiuri Shimbun gave me some valuable advice on being a good journalist, specifically being a good investigative journalist. I’ve never forgotten it but in the 30 years since then, times have changed. This is the first revision I’ve ever done of the rules. Think of this as the 2023 edition, a three decade late update.
One thing that hasn’t changed in Japan are the laws related to civil servants.
The laws here in Japan basically state that if a public official (police officer, bureaucrat etc) shares confidential information with a third party, they are committing a crime. They can be fired or prosecuted. This happens. If it’s a state secret they may be sentenced to five years or more in jail. This is why newspaper articles in Japan abound with anonymous sources dressed up with phrases like, “according to someone close to the investigation” or “government sources”. Japan’s press freedom ranking in 2010 was 11th in the world, now 66th out of 180 countries. Protecting sources gets harder all the time.
So keeping that in mind, here’s the list again with three new rules and here’s a little background.
I interned at the Yomiuri Newspaper briefly in 1992 before starting as a regular staff reporter in 1993. When I was visiting legendary crime reporter, Inoue Ansei at the police press club, took me up to the coffee shop, ordered us some green tea, and asked what I wanted to do at the Yomiuri.
“Well,” I said, “I’m interested in investigative journalism and the side of Japan I don’t know much about. The seamy side. The underworld.” I told him that my father was a country coroner and that crime and the police beat had always interested me.
He recommended I shoot for Shakaibu (社会部), the national news section, which was responsible for covering crime, social problems, and national news.
Inoue put it this way: “It’s the soul of the newspaper. Everything else is just flesh on the bones. Real journalism, journalism that can change the world, that’s what we do.”
I asked him for some advice as a reporter.
“Newspaper reporting isn’t rocket science,” he said. “The pattern is set. You remember the patterns and build from there. It’s like martial arts. You have kata [the form] that you memorize and repeat, and that’s how you learn the basic moves. It’s the same here. There are about three or four basic ways to write up a violent crime, so you have to be able to remember the style, fill in the blanks, and get the facts straight. The rest will come.
“There are eight rules of being a good reporter, Jake.
One. Don’t ever burn your sources. If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you. All scoops are based on the understanding that you will protect the person who gave you the information. That’s the alpha and omega of reporting. Your source is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.
Two. Finish a story as soon as possible. The life of news is short. Miss the chance and the story is dead or the scoop is gone.
Three. Never believe anyone. People lie, police lie, even your fellow reporters lie. Assume that you are being lied to and proceed with caution.
Four. Take any information you can get. People are good and bad. Information is not. Information is what it is, and it doesn’t matter who gives it to you or where you steal it. The quality, the truth of the information, is what’s important.
Five. Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. Keep paying attention to an unfolding investigation and see where it goes. Don’t let the constant flow of breaking news make you forget about the unfinished news.
Six. Triangulate your stories, especially if they aren’t an official announcement from the authorities. If you can verify information from three different sources, odds are good that the information is good.
Seven. Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Editors cut from the bottom up. The important stuff goes on top, the trivial details go to the bottom. If you want your story to make it to the final edition, make it easy to cut.
Eight. Never put your personal opinions into a story; let someone else do it. That’s why experts and commentators exist. Objectivity is a subjective thing.
And that was it. I haven’t grown much wiser over the years but as the media landscape and technology have changed, I think it’s time to add three more rules.
And here they are:
Nine: Share your data. The internet is a vast and endless storage hub. If you’ve written something the world should know–put up supporting data and documents on the web, maybe in a dropbox file that anyone can access. Use hyperlinks. Knowledge empowers everyone. Be sure not to reveal sources but share the intel you have; some of your readers may even return the favor.
Ten: Seek information. Learn every means possible of ferreting information from the web and from public sources. Social media can be a cesspool but it can also be a wonderful way to find information, collaborators and whistleblowers. Ask questions. Post your query and post a way to contact you, and welcome what comes.
Eleven: Protect Your Sources–And Protect Yourself. In the modern world, when people don’t like the message, they attack the messenger. This wasn’t the case back in 1992 when Yomiuri reporters didn’t get bylines. Individual reporters were rarely attacked because no one knew who wrote the stories. Now they do. You will make enemies because of this. To paraphrase a detective I admired, “An investigative journalist without enemies, isn’t investigating hard enough”.
You’ll find that enemies (people who wish you harm) include people who don’t like what you’ve written, or what you are going to write, and sadly, other journalists who are professionally jealous or hold a grudge. Protect your reputation. It’s not just a matter of your big fat ego: if people don’t feel you’re credible, the good work you do won’t be read or won’t be taken seriously.
When you know someone is gunning for you, be proactive. The person on the defensive always looks guilty. Anticipate attacks, undercut them, and prepare your rebuttal.
Twelve: Never Write Your Headline First and Try To Make The Facts Fit
If you’re a freelancer, you have to pitch your articles and hope your editors will bite. So sometimes, you may start with an assumption, sell the article on that premise and when you really look—-discover you were wrong. And at that point, it’s hard to bail out. Because if you do, you don’t get paid.
But when you know you’re wrong, time to fold up the tent and move on.
But if you’re an asshole, you’ll just ignore everything that doesn’t support your headline (thesis) and cherry pick the facts. This is very easy to do if you’re smearing a celebrity or a public figure who talks too much. Make material omissions. Bombard them with questions and give them very little time to answer, only report the questions they can’t answer and talk to people you know have a grudge against them. Don’t question the motives of the people you’re talking to but let them say the nasty shit, and then you can avoid liability, by just saying, “I’m only reporting what they said.”
It’s a shitty thing to do. And there’s always a karmic bite back. So don’t do that.
Keep an open mind before you make a conclusion and verify the information you have and question the motives of the people speaking to you. You’re supposed to be an agent of the truth, not a servant of sociopathic liars with a grudge. Be the good guy.
A few footnotes and some final advice.
There are many interesting ways to share data and also learn to collect information more efficiently. Please have a look at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) website. “IRE is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of journalism”–they say and they’re worth joining. The AAJA (Asian American Journalists Association) also offers valuable training and advice. Another great source for learning how to get your message out and get read by many people is The Journalists’ Resource, which has a self-explanatory name.
And some final advice. There are many types of journalism in the world: sports journalism, entertainment journalism, gaming journalism and they’re all valid forms of the art and wonderful vocations. Investigative journalism, by its very nature, involves writing things that the powers that be don’t want written. This will make people angry. You can’t avoid it. You should always try and weigh the public’s right to know something versus the damage that it will do to the life of an individual. If you’re not a full-time staffer, who’s assigned to cover this or that story, then you have the ability to decide what is and what is not worth writing. So choose wisely but if it’s important, write it.
Hidetoshi Kiyotake, my former supervisor at the Yomiuri, gave me some good advice which I will share with you.
If you’re going to be an investigative journalist here, you have to make up your mind and be ready [for what comes]. You must endure unreasonable criticism, and continue to fight.
In Japan, reporters who reveal their sources are scorned and cannot continue to do proper and decent reporting. That’s why you must keep your important sources anonymous. This often leads to investigative journalists having to go it alone, feeling isolated. You just have to believe in yourself and your friends and hang in there.
Thank you to everyone who’s been my source, my friend, my editor and my reader these last 30 years. 感謝しております。