The real Tokyo Vice: the Westerner who took on the yakuza and lived

Journalist Jake Adelstein in Tokyo, 2009 - Reuters
Journalist Jake Adelstein in Tokyo, 2009 - Reuters

Some books carry cautions lest they offend sensitive readers. Jake Adelstein’s came with an actual trigger warning. “Any publisher handling this book should have experience dealing with the yakuza,” ran one publisher's internal report on his memoir Tokyo Vice. “Serious security measures should be taken.”

It wasn’t an idle threat. A few years before, Adelstein – a crime reporter for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s national newspaper – had gotten wind of a racket involving Goto Tadamasa, the head of Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest and most violent of Tokyo’s mafia families. Goto discovered Adelstein was on his case and dispatched his henchman to rattle the reporter: kill the story, or we’ll kill you.

Adelstein didn’t drop it. But he heeded the warning enough to employ an ex-yakuza boss as his bodyguard and driver for five years. “I always took it seriously,” he tells me over Zoom from his home in Japan. “His [the driver’s] salary always got paid on time, even if it meant I was eating ramen at the end of the month!”

The first Japanese publisher he approached declined to take on Tokyo Vice. But it eventually appeared in 2009. An account of the 12 years Adelstein spent on the crime beat for the Yomiuri, it’s hard-boiled gem, taking in murder, suicide, self-immolation and – this being Japan – oodles of freaky, snap-on-your-rubber-gauntlets sex.

But it’s also a moving coming-of-age tale. Adelstein arrived in Tokyo in the late 1980s as a gawky Midwestern college student, but through dedication – and a dash of self-mythologising – reinvented himself as a hard-charging investigative journalist, the first Westerner to pass Yomiuri’s ferocious entrance exams. His reporting, too, is a glimpse into a vanished era of journalism: pavements are pounded, sources strong-armed and contacts cultivated amidst the smoke-and-sake funk of late night dive bars. It looked a lot more fun before Twitter.

Now the HBO adaptation of his memoir is being shown on BBC One. Scripted by the Tony-award-winning playwright JT Rogers, with Ansel Elgort playing Adelstein, it is masterfully done. The cinematography renders Tokyo a neon-drenched maze, while the Elgort captures Adelstein’s charismatic cockiness and vulnerability in this strange, seedy world. In tone, it feels like a lost Michael Mann flick. (Mann, in fact, directed the first episode.)

But it’s hard to overstate the unlikeliness of the real-life Adelstein. In conversation, he has an ebullient, Adam Sandlerish energy, spilling stories with the ease of a seasoned bar-propper. He grew up in McBaine, a tiny town outside Columbia, Missouri – “they used to say: ‘You never lose your girlfriend, you just lose your turn’” – and a fight in high school put him on to karate and, from there, an interest in Zen Buddhism.

At college, he went on an exchange programme to study literature at Tokyo’s Sofia University – and never came back. In Tokyo, he taught English to a Zen Buddhist priest, living in a garret above the temple. And he helped pay the rent by translating kung-fu films into English and – another hazy vista in his extensive hinterland – giving Swedish massages to bored housewives. Most of all though, Tokyo whispered reinvention.

“I thought, ‘Nobody knows me here, no-one knows my history of f___-ups’,” he remembers. “In my first year of college, I fell down a staircase and I was in a coma for a day. After that, my childhood memories were pretty scattered – so I couldn’t remember my childhood, and I was speaking a language which was completely alien. It was a very refreshing experience.”

After college, he applied to join the Yomiuri, Japan’s most prestigious newspaper with a circulation of 12 million – at the time, the world’s largest title. To get in, he had to pass their gruelling four-hour Japanese language exams and a steeplechase of interview panels. The questions were unusual; at his final interview, one of the editors asked Adelstein, who is Jewish, whether he could work on the Sabbath and eat sushi. Oh, and whether Jews controlled the world economy. “I don’t think it was anti-Semitism, so much as ignorance,” he explains. “The Japanese love conspiracy theories. But I made a joke of it, and it worked out okay.”

Adelstein with Satoru Takegaki, the retired boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi - Jake Adelstein
Adelstein with Satoru Takegaki, the retired boss of the Yamaguchi-gumi - Jake Adelstein

Still, the Yomiuri was a culture shock. As a rookie reporter, Adelstein had to adapt to the paper’s feudal corporate hierarchy, churning out busywork – typing up birth announcements, sports reports and scrap-booking – to keep up with its 12 daily editions. “We were tired all the time,” he remembers. “We didn’t feel like journalists, we felt like slaves. We weren’t even treated like real people. If someone wanted to get your attention they would just shout ‘first year’ and gesture at you.”

Salaryman life had more outlandish rituals too. Berserker drinking sessions were the norm, and junior staff were expected to wait on their seniors. Adelstein even tells me how he knocked his boss flat at his first Bōnenkai, a no-holds-barred end of year party. “He had a good kick,” he chuckles. “But, you know, Japan is a very masculine culture and people get drunk and do stupid things.”

It was around this time that Adelstein first met a yakuza. He remembers: “We went to his office in the red light district. It looked like a real estate agency in this very nondescript block. I was struck by how eloquent he was. He looked like a business man, wearing a very nice suit with these tattoos just poking out from his sleeves. I got to ask lots of questions about the yakuza, and he continued to be a good source for years.”

Adelstein’s interactions with the yakuza and the cops were governed by giri, an honour-bound system of back-scratching that kept favours – and information – circulating around Tokyo’s underworld. A yakuza might inform on a rival gang to gain advantage over them; a cop might let slip about a potential raid to keep a friendly reporter on side. But burning sources, and exposing the delicate choreography of criminality, law enforcement and the media, was an excommunicable offence.

What strikes you reading Tokyo Vice is the poised theatricality of the yakuza. In the 1990s, when Adelstein was entangled with them, they were in their full pomp, with more than 90,000 members, split between 22 officially recognised groups. They had glitzy headquarters and branded business cards. Their wealth underpinned Japan’s booming financial and real estate sectors; films, fanzines and tabloids glamorised their lifestyles and charitable largesse. And, at least on the face of it, they were bound by a strict code of conduct – no harassment of civilians, no dealing drugs – which was published on the walls of their headquarters. For the yakuza foot soldiers, discipline was brutal: a severed pinkie finger as punishment for insubordination.

Ansel Elgort (left) as Adelstein in Tokyo Vice - HBO
Ansel Elgort (left) as Adelstein in Tokyo Vice - HBO

Evolving from trade unions in the post-war chaos of the 1940s, the yakuza held a precarious position in Japanese society. The public feared and looked down on these tattooed mobsters, whilst avidly following their exploits. And the authorities tolerated their presence – yakuza killings of rival gang members were rarely investigated, and the police would inform them of upcoming raids so “evidence” could be neatly boxed up and ready for the press call.

“The Japanese have a schizophrenic attitude to them,” Adelstein notes. “They would like to believe there’s these people outside the system who are working for the greater good. But essentially most of them are sociopaths.”

This sense of outsiderdom helped Adelstein gain their trust. “Nearly half of them are Korean-Japanese – they’re like the Jews of Japan!” he says with a laugh.

That is, until he dug too deep on one investigation. In 2004, following evidence that a high-profile loan shark had laundered millions of dollars in Las Vegas casinos, he uncovered an odd trial: yakuza bosses had been travelling to the US, under the radar of the FBI, to have liver transplants. (In the hard-boozing world of the yakuza, a knackered liver is a badge of honour.)

One of these bosses was Goto Tadamasa. After Adelstein published his story on this connection, Goto was kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi. Linked to the murder of a real-estate agent, he fled to Cambodia and became a Buddhist priest – a surprisingly common second career for ex-yakuza in a country where the statute of limitations for crimes is only five years.

As well as threatening Adelstein, Goto published his own account of the affair. Adelstein asked him to retract passages about him, but stopped when Adelstein's lawyer – the famed prosecutor Igari Toshiro – was found dead in the Philippines. Toshiro and Adelstein’s work, though, helped galvanise Japan’s parliament to pass rigorous anti-yakuza laws. Goto is now back in Japan, and is trying to produce an English-language account of his biography.

Yet Adelstein no longer believes he is a threat. His ex-yakuza bodyguard died of a heart attack during the pandemic. And he hasn’t hired another one. “Most yakuza are in their fifties now,” says Adelstein. “It’s a dead-end job, and it’s very hard to leave. There is no future for them. They’ll never again have the same power.”

In fact, the unique atmosphere of Tokyo Vice has largely been scrubbed clean. Tokyo’s red-light districts have been gentrified, and the yakuza’s hold on the city has been cracked. Tokyo Vice feels valedictory – there’s an undertow of melancholy, mourning even, to Adelstein’s prose. He burned his youth, health and, eventually his marriage, for the job. And in 2011, he himself was diagnosed with liver cancer. (He made a full recovery.)

He quit the Yomiuri in 2006. The last straw was a particularly nasty human trafficking case. Afterwards, he worked for the US State Department trying to combat the trade and published three other books alongside Tokyo Vice. Reading his own words now, feels like “printed PTSD,” he reflects. “There’s a lot of youthful idealism in there. But also a huge amount of pain and loss. It’s a terrifying thing to know someone wants you dead. People I’ve known have gone missing, colleagues have been beaten so badly they could barely walk.”

Perhaps most painfully, though, Tokyo Vice recounts how Adelstein’s close friend and mentor, Hamaya, died by suicide. One of the paper’s few female senior reporters, she was demoted after she annoyed editors for championing the rights of the mentally-ill. It was a blow she couldn’t weather. Her loss still weighs on Adelstein. Living now, he writes in the book, involves always “thinking about the friends that you suspect you might be able to save”.

There have been more recent difficulties. Since the adaptation was released in the US, some articles have questioned Tokyo Vice’s credibility. One interviewee quoted in The Hollywood Reporter said: “I don’t think half the stuff in the book happened.” In response, Adelstein dumped a series of documents purportedly verifying its claims on Twitter. And he’s bullish about the criticism when I speak to him.

Adelstein was the first non-Japanese reporter to work for Yomiuri Shinbun - Jake Adelstein
Adelstein was the first non-Japanese reporter to work for Yomiuri Shinbun - Jake Adelstein

“I really wish they had taken the time to do the research,” he says. “It wouldn’t be hard to verify it – it’s all here. I’ve got a whole folder here [hefting a weighty black ring-binder into shot] which proves it. Most of it is in Japanese, but the lack of really basic research baffles me.”

Come what may, he hasn’t slowed down. As a freelance reporter, he has published exposes into Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the links between former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and organised crime. He wrote about the LDP's cover-ups of Japan’s ageing nuclear infrastructure, and its contribution to the 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster, as well as how yakuza money was integral to Japan’s bid for the Olympics. “You have to remember Abe’s grandpappy was a yakuza,” he explains. “I seriously think the LDP has done more damage to this country than the yakuza.”

A follow-up to Tokyo Vice is due out next year. And he is working on a podcast series about missing people. Would he ever consider retiring? “Sometimes, I think I might give it up and lead a life as a humble Zen Buddhist priest,” he laughs. “But I believe in life, we only encounter the injustices we’re meant to correct. You can only fight lies with truth.”

He pauses, then grins. “It doesn’t feel like work – it feels like a calling.”

Tokyo Vice is on Lionsgate+ and BBC iPlayer