Interview with ‘Tokyo Vice’ author Jake Adelstein on yakuza films, umbrellas

"My next book is called 'The Last Yakuza.' It is the biography of a former yakuza boss who has been my bodyguard and driver for over two years now, and why he quit. Through his life, I’m hoping to tell the last thirty years of yakuza history." Credits: Justin Tedaldi

By Justin Tedaldi (JETAANY) for NY Japanese Culture Examiner

Examiner’s note: The following interview was conducted at New York’s Japan Society on March 10, 2011, hours before the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami would ravage eastern Japan. I was there to chat with guest lecturer Jake Adelstein, whose twelve-year career as a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun was chronicled in his acclaimed 2009 book Tokyo Vice. Adelstein is currently working on his second book, and as the editor of the Japan Subculture Research Center blog he continues to report on all the intriguing and seedy aspects that keep Japan running. In this exclusive interview, I spoke with Adelstein during an ominous cloudburst.

Thanks for meeting in this gloomy weather.

I used to like rainy weather, but my bodyguard, who’s an ex-yakuza, hates rainy weather. And I asked him once—I wish I hadn’t asked him—“What’s your deal with rainy weather? Why do you always not want to go out of the house and discourage me from going out?” And he’s like, “Oh, you know, when a yakuza kills another yakuza, they almost always do it on a rainy day, because first of all: bad visibility. The sound of the rain blurs the sounds of what’s going on, and the rain washes away all the trace evidence.” And ever since then, I haven’t been able to enjoy rainy weather as much as I used to.

I read that your birthday is coming up.

Well, let’s see. I’ll be 42. If all goes well, I will be ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest on my birthday. I’ve got about a week of training left—if I could just remember that damn sutra. I had a talk with the priest and told him that I didn’t believe in the metaphysics of Buddhism, and he was like, “It’s all right. You just have to pretend that they’re true.” So as long as you uphold the precepts, it’s not belief; it’s deeds. I’m comfortable with that, the Episcopal King James version of Buddhism.

In an interview last year, you said you were going to have the opportunity to meet with yakuza boss Goto Tadamasa

I might still have the opportunity, if he’s in good health. He’s been in and out of the hospital.

That’s his current status?

Yeah. He is still a priest. I’ve had some issues with his autobiography that was published last year, which had the equivalent of a yakuza fatwa on me. If you understand how the yakuza order people to be killed, you can read the lines very well. He refers to the attack on the director Itami Juzo in his memoirs and says, “Of course he deserved to be attacked, because he wrote a movie that was unpleasant about the yakuza,” and he refers to my writing as unpleasant. And then he has these two lines about, “I don’t know who this guy is, but even as an ex-yakuza, if I ever met him he would go from someone being targeted for death to someone being dead, ha-ha-ha.”

When a boss wants someone whacked in the yakuza, what he does is, he never gives an order, because then he could be held responsible. He just says, you know, “Johnson-san is a real pain in the ass; I don’t really like Johnson-san very well.” And his cohort immediately knows that he’s been asked to whack the guy. He whacks him and goes to jail, and comes out and gets a cash bonus from the organization. That’s how it’s done.

How did this invite to Japan Society happen?

I know Devin [Stewart], who was at the Carnegie Foundation, and we did a very long interview about not just yakuza, but about spirituality and the Japanese culture. And when he came on [as a senior director] here, I think he proposed having me speak, and [Japan Society president] Mr. [Motoatsu] Sakurai-san okayed it. I’m actually a fan of yakuza films; I was delighted to come. I’ve never seen Onibi, which is the movie playing tonight, and I watched it on the plane coming over, and it’s excellent. Probably one of the more realistic looks of the yakuza that’s ever been done, even though it’s a little outdated since ten years ago.

The night before, you had dinner with Paul Schrader, who co-wrote [the 1974 U.S. film] The Yakuza. Were there any tidbits you shared in the conversation regarding your expertise?

He asked me if the finger-cutting ritual was still around, and I explained to him that it had died out…it still happens—usually as an insurance fraud—but it is such an obvious mark that’s someone’s a yakuza, and the police are very good about punishing both parties involved. Now, when someone screws up badly, they settle it with huge wads of cash. And I explained to him that there were two kinds of cutting off your finger: There was iki yubi, which means a living finger— that is when you cut off your finger on behalf of someone else who screwed up, so that they’re not banished from the group or killed. And then there’s shinu yubi, which is when you screwed up, and you do it to save your own ass. Obviously, the iki yubi is a more prestigious thing.

You wrote in Tokyo Vice that there’s a very high statistic of yakuza that are of Korean descent.

Thirty to forty percent are Korean Japanese. Another thirty percent are burakumin, the outcast class, and the rest are purely Japanese. There are some naturalized Chinese yakuza members—there’s even an Iranian yakuza boss—it’s a meritocracy. And the yakuza have served as a sort of alternative employment center for people who are on the outskirts of Japanese society.

Yakuza principles seem like a traditionally Japanese concept. Why are there so many minorities affiliated with it?

After the Second World War, when Japan was in chaos, the Koreans who had been brought over as slave workers and the Taiwanese were declared as third party nationals, and were essentially above the Japanese law—Japanese police couldn’t arrest them; they were treated differently. And a number of them got together to form criminal gangs and began running the black markets and became very powerful very quickly.

At the same time, the Japanese gangs’ various factions reemerged. And they realized that they could work together, and they absorbed the Korean groups into their organization. The Yamaguchi-gumi took in the Yanagawa-gumi, which was mostly Korean. There was the Toa-kai, which was a huge organization; it used to be called the Tosei-kai. And through mergers and acquisitions, many of the Korean organized crime groups became part of the Japanese crime groups.

Throughout the book, you discuss your own late nights, low pay, lots of smoking and drinking—

Actually, the pay is crappy if you divide it by the hour; the monthly pay was good.

Noted. Death threats, all this seamy business. Was there ever a point during your time as a reporter when you wanted to say, “Screw it, I’ll just open my own English school”?

Yeah, there were a couple of times, and eventually, in 2005, I realized my kids don’t speak English; I’m never home; my marriage is falling apart; I’m out of shape and in ill health; I’m burned out on this job; and my mother was in out of the hospital and my parents were asking me to come home; and I thought, “I’ve gotten everything out of this job I can get. Time to go.” But I wanted one last big scoop, you know?

I wanted to end with my graduation piece, which was going to be about Goto Tadamasa, the head of the Goto-gumi, getting a liver transplant at UCLA, and all I’d know was that he had gotten a liver transplant there [in 2001], and the approximate dates. My original thinking was that he must have bribed someone to get into the United States, or he must have [used] a fake passport, and therefore, there was a crime and a story.

I was reading about this titanium core umbrella you carry around with you on the streets of Tokyo for defense along with your bodyguard. Where does one get something like that?

Oh, they sell a reasonably commercial version of it now called “The Unbreakable Umbrella” at real-self-defense.com. It is hard to break (laughs).

There’s a new book out now called People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman by The Times Asia editor Richard Lloyd Parry. Did you get to contribute at all to that?

Yeah. Richard and I were working on that story at the same time [Lucie was a 21-year-old Briton who worked at a Tokyo hostess bar and was murdered in July 2000—Ed.], and we shared information. I liked the book a lot; I thought it was extremely well-researched and well-written. However, there’s a [Japanese] book that came out last year called The Last Supper of the Detectives—that’s how I would translate it—which is told form the viewpoint of the Japanese police working the case, and I think that Richard’s book is a little unfair to the Tokyo Police Department, because once they realized that she had been kidnapped, they were very diligent and worked extremely hard.

You know, the Japanese police come off badly because they do not share information on ongoing investigations. The reason that is is because Japan is locked into a confession system, and for a confession to be ironclad, there has to be the secret that only the criminal can know—in Japanese, it’s called bakuro no himitsu. So of course they’re not going to tell family members more than they need to know about the case, because as one cop who worked the case said, “The best thing we can do for the families is apprehend the criminal. Everything else is secondary.” But that can make them come off as cold and covering up, when in fact, they’re just trying to make sure that they have an ironclad case.

There’s talk that a film version of Tokyo Vice is in the works.

John Lesher, who produced No Country for Old Men, is signed on as the producer. There have been two or three actors who have expressed interest in playing the role. J.T. Rogers, who is a very good playwright—he’s got a play opening at Lincoln Center this year called Blood and Gifts—he is the principal screenwriter, and I am the co-writer. J.T. and I went to the same high school together. Actually, it’s interesting: he’s a very successful playwright, writes about Afghanistan and foreign countries. Peter Hessler, who is a China expert, he and I also hung out in high school at the same time.

A lot of Hollywood films that take place in Japan or deal with Japanese people—and The Yakuza is a notable exception—tend not to cast many Japanese actors. If you had total control over this project, what things would you do differently from the other crime dramas you’ve seen in the past?

I would have all Japanese actors play it; I would have most of the dialogue in Japanese with subtitles; I don’t think it’s necessary to film in Tokyo, and it’s difficult to do; and I would have a realistic depiction of the yakuza as they are now, not as they were twenty years ago.

What do you think about the future of Japan regarding its xenophobic practices and assumptions in light of the other leapfrogging economies in Asia today?

Japan has a strain of xenophobia, no one can deny that. But you also see an incredible number of international marriages, and Japanese companies are beginning to adopt English as the company language. I think Japan will get over its xenophobia. It doesn’t help to have a governor like [Tokyo’s] Ishihara Shintaro, who says that foreigners have criminal DNA.

I ran into Ishihara at a press conference the other day at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. He was coming out of the bathroom with his security guard, and I said to him—it’s not very often you get to run into the governor—“You must be very uneasy here, surrounded by all of us with our criminal DNA.” His security guard laughed, and Ishihara just looked horrified. Then the security guard sort of physically moved me out of the way. That was the end of my conversation with Ishihara.

At least you got it in there.

It was a nice moment.

What are your thoughts on the JET Program?

I think the JET Program is a wonderful thing. Many people who have become scholars of Japan and have settled down in Japan begin on the JET Program. It is a wonderful way for the Japanese to get to understand Americans, and Americans to get to understand Japan. Like any program, it has problems. I think it’s a great thing, and I hope it continues to be supported by both sides.

What can you tell us about your next book?

The next book is called The Last Yakuza. It is the biography of Mochizuki-san, a former yakuza boss who has been my bodyguard and driver for over two years now, and why he quit. Through his life, I’m hoping to tell the last thirty years of yakuza history.So it’s a history of the yakuza told through the life of one person. And he’s had a very interesting life.

Is there a planned publication date?

I’m hoping that it will be ready to go by Christmas next year.

On your website, I was reading about the Yakuzavideo game series. When I was living in Japan, people would tell me never to even say that word. What’s giving Sega so much latitude?

Ryu ga Gotoku (Like a Dragon) is the Japanese name of the series. There was incredible resistance within Sega to make that game series…actually, the Nara police did a survey, which is on the Japan Subculture.com blog, which said that basically, among people under forty, one in ten feels that the yakuza are a necessary evil. The game has popularized them, and it’s been a good recruiting device. It depicts them as evil, and part of it depicts them as noble yakuza. I have to say that while ninety-five percent of them are tribal sociopaths, there’s about five percent of the yakuza that actually follow the code that they profess, and are honorable, trustworthy people. If they were completely evil, it would be much easier to write about them.

What are your plans after the next book comes out?

The third book, The Nine Fingered Economy, is a very academic book that looks at how the yakuza moved into the financial markets. After that, I’m going to work on a play that has to do with events during World War II, but nothing to do with the yakuza.

What have been the biggest changes for you and the cause of Japan Subculture Research Center following your media appearances after the success of Tokyo Vice?

I think that the most beneficial thing is, I work as a board director for Polaris Project Japan, which combats human trafficking and helps victims, and also tries to get Japan to ban the possession of child pornography. The book has given me enough status that I’m more effective as a board member and raising money, and that has been good…that’s been the most effective thing.

The blog is something I do for fun. If we put up advertising, which we may do, then it might actually finance itself. But right now it’s mostly intended to be for people who like the book, and for people who are researching Japan’s underground economy.

Tokyo Vice is in stores now. Visit Jake online at www.japansubculture.com.