Jake Adelstein was featured on The Media Report on June 5, 2008. The audio download and transcript are available from abc.net.au
This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.
Antony Funnell: An eclectic mix of stories today: Japanese criminals; long-dead politicians; and the Russian judiciary. Not all at once, of course.
So, where to start?
Well let’s begin with the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, and the desire of one mob boss to terminate (with extreme prejudice) the career of an American-born journalist.
Of course that would be bad enough except for the fact that the mobster involved just happens to head up a faction of the yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s biggest crime syndicate.
Now the journalist in question is Jake Adelstein, the first American ever hired as a regular staff writer for a major Japanese newspaper.
For much of his time in Japan, Adelstein worked the police round, reporting on crime and its consequences.
He left that job when he found out his life was under threat. And he’s now living outside of Japan and rather bravely, or perhaps rashly, preparing to publish a book later this year on the Yakuza and the man who wants him dead.
His story not only reads like a crime novel, it’s also a good insight into the way the media operates in Japan.
Jake Adelstein: The person I’ve alienated, Goto Tadamasa, is a psychopath. I don’t know a better way to describe him. His organisation is the most vicious section of the yamaguchi-gumi, he has probably close to 900 people in his organisation, the yamaguchi-gumi has 40,000 the Japanese police recognise. He has a history of doing things like driving dump trucks into pachinko parlours that won’t pay protection money; members of his group attacked a film director in 1992 after he made a film lampooning the Yakuza called Minbo no onna. He’s not very forgiving of people who cross him.
Antony Funnell: And he’s angry with you because of an article you wrote about his connections with the FBI about his involvement with the FBI. Is that correct?
Jake Adelstein: Actually it goes back to 2005 when I first started to research or write about it. Yes he had some interview with the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he would give all the information about the yamaguchi-gumi activities in the United States in exchange that the United States would give him a visa to get into the United States and get a liver transplant.
Antony Funnell: Can I get you to take us back to how you actually became a crime reporter in Japan? Because as I understand it, you were the only Westerner working for a major Japanese newspaper on a regular basis, let alone covering something like crime; is that correct?
Jake Adelstein: Yes, that is correct. I came to Japan in 1988 as an exchange student and then I transferred to Sofia University. When I was about to graduate, or the year before I graduated in ’92 I took the newspaper entrance examination, and that’s how most major newspapers in Japan hire people. You sit down with 3,000 people, you take a standardised exam, fill out multiple choice questions, write an essay, do some translation, and my scores were good enough to get me through the interviews, and they hired me.
I thought I would be doing foreign affairs and they decided that they would first put me on the police beat like all the other newbies. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was actually pretty good at it, so they kept me on the police beat. As a foreigner you see mostly the positive aspects of Japanese life. It’s kind of interesting to see what’s the dark side of Japan, how does organised crime work, what kind of murders and frauds and extortion activities are conducted in Japan by criminal elements. It’s a fascinating sub-culture, and each particular case that you do is new and varied.
I think in 12-1/2 years I was there I covered everything from human trafficking to a husband and wife serial killer that dismembered their victims and probably fed parts of their bodies to the pure-breed dogs they were raising. You know various things involving Yakuza company takeovers, stock manipulation.
Antony Funnell: And was it an advantage to be an outsider covering Japanese crime stories, dealing with the police and also with criminals?
Jake Adelstein: Yes, it is an advantage because you stand out, you’re quite memorable, and you also kind of attract elements within the police force, or police officers who are sort of outside the norm, a little bit of outsiders in an organisation, they feel some kinship to you because you’re obviously off the bell-shaped curve like they are. I got along very well with the police officers.
Antony Funnell: Now tell us about some of the specifics of being a Japanese crime reporter, because I know you wrote recently in an article for the Japanese Foreign Correspondents’ Club you wrote ‘a lot of being a police reporter is like being a male geisha’. What did you mean by that?
Jake Adelstein: You’re basically intruding on the lives of these police officers, you know, going to their houses, going drinking with them. You have to be entertaining. You have to be somebody who’s fun to hang out with, whether you’re bringing them a bottle of sake or some snacks for the kids, you have to get along with these people and you have to entertain them. You have to make them want to spend time with you and get to trust you so that they’ll give you a lead so you can have a scoop. A huge part of being on the police beat is learning about yout your cop, you know, the cop that’s going to be your source. What is he like? What cases has he done in the past? What are his interests besides police work? How many kids does he have? What sports team does he like? Maybe you can get him some baseball tickets to a Giants game or something. In that sense you are very much like a male host, or hostess, you’re kind of courting this police officer. As you get better you can actually bring them information and do an exchange.
Antony Funnell: Is it a corrupt system, the way journalists operate in Japan, the way the police deal with journalists? Has it been corrupted?
Jake Adelstein: It’s not a corrupt system, but it’s a very regimented system. First of all the Japanese laws for civil servants technically say that if a police officer or any civil servant shares information with an outside person, they’re in violation of a civil act and they can be criminally prosecuted. So you can see that they’re very reluctant to be quoted in a newspaper article. Even when you have police sources, you would never say ‘Detective Taro said so-and-so, and so-and-so’, it would always be ‘Police sources’, or ‘According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department…’ Most stories are spoon-fed to the media and the press club systems; the police have an announcement, you get to ask some questions and you write up what they tell you. It’s almost impossible to access the person who’s accused because it doesn’t work that way in Japan. You don’t even know what’s the name of the lawyer representing the individual. So it’s not a corrupt system, but it is very regimented, it’s very centralised.
Antony Funnell: And I presume then it’s very difficult to properly investigate some of the big scandals or some of the big issues like the influence of the Yakuza?
Jake Adelstein: Yes, those are incredibly difficult to investigate. The Japanese are very good about investigative journalism, but the hurdles that you have to clear to get something in the newspaper that’s not an official announcement, are very high. On covering human trafficking issues, when I was doing my own original research, it took three months to get the first article in the newspaper, because the police weren’t doing an investigation; there was nobody about to be arrested. So you had to back up your facts with testimony, recordings with the traffickers, and basically prove your case so that you could write it up. When you want to do something original, that is not an announcement, it is incredibly time-consuming.
Antony Funnell: Now we spoke earlier about the fears that you have about your own safety at the moment, I read though that you said that the Yakuza at one stage, they left journalists pretty much alone, but that that had changed in recent years. What sort of intimidation was going on with journalists overall, not just in your case, say.
Jake Adelstein: The Yakuza have this saying: (JAPANESE LANGUAGE) which is ‘We do not bother ordinary citizens’, and that was the general rule of law until probably in 2000, but as they become more powerful and they’re moving greater amounts of money, they’ve become more sensitive about their public image and they resent having journalists interfere with their affairs.
In 2006 there was a really good Yakuza journalist. He offended a faction of yamaguchi-gumi called the yamaken-gumi, and they sent people to rough him up, but were unable to locate him, so they stabbed his son. The son lived of course, but it was a horrendous act. It clearly demonstrated to other journalists like being a member of the journalistic community does not protect you from these people.
Antony Funnell: What about editors and media executives? I mean are they seriously concerned about this? Are they trying to do something about this, even in your own case?
Jake Adelstein: In my own case, I suppose I could have sought protection from the Yamiuri Shimbun, but I didn’t have enough to write an article. There’s nothing illegal about a Yakuza getting a liver transplant if it’s done legally. So I didn’t really have a story, and I didn’t have a story and with nothing to write, I figured the safest thing to do would be just get the hell out of Dodge.
Antony Funnell: But was the paper behind you? I mean did they also express concern for your safety and did they attempt to help you in any way?
Jake Adelstein: I discussed with the paper only could I get an article out of this? Here’s what I know. And the paper said, there’s no article to be written here. I didn’t tell them about being threatened because I’m sure they would have said ‘Can we go to the police’? But there’s not much the police can do for you in cases like this, and the Yakuza, when they make threats to you, they’re very oblique; it’s hard to prove that they threaten you directly, they would never use a word like ‘kill’, they would use a more neutral word like ‘erase’. You know, there’s a lot of ways to explain those things away.
Antony Funnell: Now I understand that the Yakuza, they not only try to intimidate journalists, but they also run their own media organisations, or they have their own media outlets. Just tell us about those.
Jake Adelstein: The Goto-gumi is very big in the entertainment industry, they own a couple of production companies. So one of the other things they can do to apply pressure on a newspaper not to run a story is that they will contact a different department in the newspaper and say ‘If you run this story, we’re not going to give you access to these Japanese movie stars, or these Japanese actors. We’re not going to put in the advertising in your paper.’ There’s 100 ways to do that kind of stuff. They’re very good at intimidating people and they’re very good at ruining reputations. Since they have people on their payroll, they can always threaten to ruin your reputation, hire a journalist to write trash about you, or dig up something about you that you should be embarrassed about.
Antony Funnell: And they’re effective at that, are they?
Jake Adelstein: Oh, they’re incredibly effective at that. The National Police Agency of Japan wrote up a 50-page analysis of Goto-gumi in 1999, and it says quite specifically ‘This individual is well-connected to political parties, religious groups. He actively seeks conduits within the police force, and may have been successful in achieving them. He relentlessly threatens journalists and is not above hiring or paying journalists to write things favourable to him.’
Antony Funnell: You obviously liked Japan, you obviously liked being a reporter in Japan. Can you ever see a situation where you may well return?
Jake Adelstein: I plan to return, but I’m not planning to return until I have this problem with Goto solved. I would kind of hope that the organisation will take a dim view of him ratting out his fellow colleagues in order to preserve his own life. And even for a Yakuza that’s pretty low. If he was excommunicated or lost power, or kicked out of the organisation, I would feel fairly safe in going back to Japan. Because the Japanese Police Force did an excellent job of taking care of me when I was back there, and when I am back there.
Antony Funnell: And finally, you’ve got a book coming out on your experiences. What do you hope to achieve by that, and will it be available in Japan as well, or only in an English version?
Jake Adelstein: It will be available in – first it will come out in English and then the Japanese version will come out probably next year. What I hope to achieve by writing the book is 1) I hope to be such a public target that there’s a calculation of repercussions of whacking me, are so detrimental that nobody wants to do it. There’s a time where it’s good to be in the shadows, and there’s a time where it’s good to stand out. So you have to make a cost benefit analysis. What are the benefits of shutting this obnoxious foreigner up versus what are the costs of doing it? You know, will we get pressure from the United States? Will there be an outcry from the Japanese public? I’m not Japanese; I am married to a Japanese woman and I do have cute little half-Japanese, half-American children. I don’t know if that will be a deterrent to these people, but then again, attacking journalist is always bad publicity for the Yakuza, and the more bad publicity you get the more people start to talk about things like, ‘Hey maybe these people shouldn’t be legal in the first place; maybe we should have some kind of anti-organised crime law, that will help us close down their offices, their businesses, their fan magazines.’
Antony Funnell: And Jake Adelstein’s book is called ‘Tokyo Vice’, and it’s not due out until November.