Jake Adelstein,
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
(Pantheon, 2009)

The Far East has an exotic appeal for many Americans. There are many reasons for this -- the effect of studies in Buddhism, Asian films, Asian pop, martial arts; the romance of a "traditional" society; or the myth of the supposedly submissive Asian woman. Jake Adelstein, the author of Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, doesn't explain why he ventures to Japan's Sophia University to study. But there he is, nevertheless, a Jewish gaijin "foreigner" in a country so xenophobic they call Japanese-born children of naturalized citizens "foreigners" ... and he needs a job.

He gets one -- as a reporter for the Yomiuri network of newspapers -- and soon he is learning the written and unwritten rules of journalism, adapting to a culture that does everything by the book or by strict rules of hierarchy and etiquette, and growing inexorably in his knowledge of crime in Japan. Jake Adelstein's Tokyo Vice is journalism, a business novel, outsider memoir, cultural analysis and true crime. It's a page-turner, too. I read it in three days.

When the typical North American reader of police procedurals picks up a true crime book written by some intrepid journalist, we're pretty aware of the basics of the American law and culture. We assume things. The same with books on travel to Japan. Again, we assume. All those assumptions have to go out the window when one picks up Adelstein's book. Luckily, we're in good hands: Adelstein not only has to explain Japanese culture, but Japanese newspaper culture, Japanese cop culture, Japanese sex crime laws and the workings and upiquitousness of the yakuza. He does a great job. And never once does he sound arrogant or teacherly. The guy has spunk, chutzpah and balls while at the same time a humility and a kind of morbid introspection that makes him quite likable.

Adelstein starts out relatively safe, but any true crime reader worth her salt knows that a reporter who ends up working on "vice" is going to end up being burned out. Adelstein's fated appointment with burn-out comes when he ends up in Tokyo vice. He'd seen his share of suicides, murders and the seedy underside of the sex industry. He could handle all that. (As could this reader, although there were moments when I thought the Japanese sex industry and the law enforcement were just plain bizarre) But Adelstein grows to understand the extent of human trafficking, sexual enslavement and the despair of women who were being treated as cattle, his despair grows and his life falls apart. One can be a reporter on vice just so long.

The book is full of many honorable and not-so-honorable characters. With the exception of the scary prologue, the story develops chronologically. The writing is conversational without being gossipy, informative without being academic. It's memoir that is both subjective and highly objective and it is timely, because it connects to contemporary issues such as human trafficking. It's certainly not a fun read but it is not relentlessly grim. It has moments of sweetness, sentimentality and quirkiness. It left me feeling annoyed at Japanese xenophobia and lack of respect for its non-Japanese citizens, and the sections on the yakuza and sexual slaves angered me.

The cover states that Adelstein now works with Polaris Project Japan, a group that "combats human trafficking and the exploitation of women and children in the sex trade." One hopes that this book will not only help in this cause but perhaps do a little bit to make the Japanese see some of the wrongness of their culture as we non-Japanese see them. It's obvious that Adelstein loves the Japanese people, but it is also obvious that he has serious questions toward their xenophobia and certain other aspects of culture. Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan certainly disabused me of all notions I might have had of visiting an exotic Asian city.

review by
Carole McDonnell

21 November 2009

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