Clutching a cup of takeout coffee, Jake Adelstein reclines in the passenger seat of his car before introducing his nine-fingered friend behind the wheel. “This is Mochizuki-san,” he says, “my driver and bodyguard.” But the chauffeur is far from an occupational perk for the first and only foreigner to be hired as a staff writer for Japan’s biggest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun.
Adelstein was forced to employ his protector, a former gangster, after landing a scoop that made him the scourge of a notorious Japanese gang boss. The Missouri native learned that Tadamasa Goto, leader of the Goto-gumi, an affiliate of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the country’s largest yakuza organization, had received a liver transplant in the United States in 2001.
When Goto found out that Adelstein intended to print the story, he sent a firm message to the reporter via some of his goons, advising the American against such a move. Fearing for his life and the lives of his family, Adelstein heeded the warning and decided not to write the article for the Yomiuri. Instead, he started to dig a little deeper.
The additional snooping paid off. After he quit his job as a crime beat reporter with the Yomiuri in 2005, Adelstein found out from one of Goto’s foot soldiers that the crime boss had actually received the life-saving surgery in California in exchange for providing the FBI with information on Yamaguchi-gumi activities in the US. Simply, Goto had turned informant.
Despite the risks, Adelstein took the revelation to The Washington Post, which printed the story in May 2008. He later wrote a detailed article for a Japanese publication. That piece contributed to Goto’s expulsion from the Goto-gumi. Adelstein has since written a book (released last month), Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, about his time covering the darker side of Japanese society.
Those years as a newspaperman immersed in a seamy world of organized crime, prostitution and racketeering were far removed from Adelstein’s Jewish upbringing in a Midwest college town. Yet even as a boy, he hankered for a life beyond the slice of Americana in which he lived.
“Every night, at midnight, you could hear the trains go by,” the 40-year-old recalls. “I remember thinking as a kid, ‘I’d love to get on that train and go somewhere else.’ It’s not that I hated my hometown; I liked it. But there had to be something more to the world than that town.”
During his teenage years, Adelstein began to study karate and Zen Buddhism. His interest in Japan and its history and culture grew. After studying Japanese for a year at the University of Missouri, he transferred to Sofia University in Tokyo in 1988, and managed to find a Buddhist priest with a spare room at his temple.
“No one wanted to be priests during the bubble, you’d have to be crazy. When the whole town is swimming with money, who would choose an austere life?” he says. “The deal was that I had to go to zazen [meditation] at least once week [and] I had to keep my hair cut short. No matter how many years go by it’s got so ingrained that I can’t let my hair get to the point where I can comb it.”
Having written for the school newspaper, Adelstein decided to sit for the entrance exams for the Yomiuri after graduation. He was accepted, but was afforded little time to ease himself into the job. “My first story was on yakuza who were shaking down the local gaijin in Chiba for protection money,” Adelstein says. “Straight off the bat, I’m meeting yakuza and talking to victims.”
The paper became his life. He put in 80-hour weeks with few vacation days and often camped down at the office. He became buddies with a police informant, drank with thugs, unearthed a cover-up of dioxin in mothers’ milk, witnessed a man set fire to himself and even went undercover in Roppongi to expose the illegal trade of sex workers.
The exploitation of migrant women in the capital got deep under Adelstein’s skin, and he is now the public relations director for the Japan office of Polaris Project, a Washington, DC-based group that fights human trafficking.
Dividing his time between Tokyo and the States, where his wife and two young children live, Adelstein remains vigilant on trips back to Japan, despite reports that Goto has forsaken his former life of “violence, intimidation, exploitation and extortion” for one of Buddhism and repentance.
“If I wasn’t scared, I wouldn’t have Mochizuki-san watching my back and I wouldn’t check in with the police every time I come here,” he says. “After this book comes out, I may stay out of Tokyo for a while.”
While Adelstein loathes his adversary, he doesn’t feel the same about the entire Japanese underworld. “Not all yakuza are tribal sociopaths with no conscience—just most of them,” he says with a laugh. “But among them are some great guys preserving traditional Japanese values and probably preserving the natural order of Japan.”
iNTOUCH - November 2009