Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Book Review - 'Tokyo Vice', by Jake Adelstein

Of all the ways that you could start what is, essentially, an autobiography, opening with the details of the time in which your life, and the lives of your young family, were threatened by a disturbingly polite yakuza thug would have to be up there among the most unexpected. There are, after all, any number of works of fiction that can't even manage to pull off such a genuinely dramatic opening.

Tokyo Vice is an autobiography, though - a true story, and a fascinating example of the 'True Crime' genre. It's author, Jake Adelstein, is also a man who actually has had his life threatened by the yakuza - on more than one occasion. In Tokyo Vice, he reveals how and why this came about.

At 19 years old, Jake Adelstein travelled to Japan with the vaguely defined intention of finding some form of enlightenment. Finding his way to a Buddhist monastery, he lived there for a couple of years before finally coming to accept that the lifestyle just wasn't for him. Instead of heading home, though, Adelstein enrolled to study at a Japanese university - and, eventually, found himself drawn toward a career in journalism. He was to earn himself a position at the Yomiuri Shimbun, considered to be one of the most prestigious newspapers in Japan, by performing well enough on an entrance exam to attract the paper's attention (which is, apparently, just how this sort of thing works, in Japan) - ultimately becoming the first Western journalist to do so.

From there, Adelstein was almost immediately thrown into the deep end as a crime reporter - and, for much of his 12 years with the paper, he found himself covering everything from extortion and corruption, the activities of a serial killer, and human trafficking - finally leading to his biggest story (and, the one which led to the threats on his life) with the discovery that a high-ranking and well-known yakuza boss, Tadamasa Goto, had somehow managed to gain entry to America, in order to receive a liver transplant.

Overall, Tokyo Vice is a book that has a tendency to drift back and forth between being a first-person autobiographical narrative, and a more pure work of non-fiction on the criminal underworld of Japan. When necessary, Adelstein will break way from the story being told in order to elaborate on particular details, or to provide some much needed background information. It's a transition that occurs quite often throughout Tokyo Vice - with even the tone and style of the writing seeming to change as Adelstein slips from one role to the other. Fortunately, though, both the story that he wished to tell and the information that he wished to share make for equally fascinating subject matter. Sure, the more expositional sections of the book may come across as somewhat dry, when compared to the easy flow that Adelstein is able to maintain throughout the narrative sections, but the importance that these section hold in understanding the book, as a whole, should still be clear.

At time, given the nature of what I was reading, it seemed as though it would be very easy to forget that Tokyo Vice actually isn't a work of fiction (there are, after all, the plots of at least three or four perfectly respectable stories mixed up in this real-life account). When that happens, it can feel increasingly tempting to judge this book as a work of fiction. Elements such as Adelstein's occasional refusal to elaborate on certain points can be very frustrating for a reader who wants to know everything, for example - and, would be entirely unacceptable in a work of fiction.

At various points, for example, Adelstein may refuse to repeat a story that he had been told, or he might deliberately gloss over the details of what he needed to do in order to get some important piece of information. On each point, though, if you remind yourself that you actually aren't reading a work of fiction, then his decisions become much easier to understand. The story that he refused to share, for example, is one that concerns another yakuza boss who was, presumably, still very active at the time of writing - and, his decision not to repeat it was clearly out of concern for his own safety. Also, his occasional refusal to elaborate on his own actions and decision becomes very easy to understand when you consider the possibility that he just might not be very proud of some of them. You may find that you still want to know the details, but you can understand why he might have balked at revealing them.

In what could almost seem like a deliberate attempt to make up for those moments where he backs off on his own narrative, though, there are other points in which he is, quite possibly, more honest than he really needed to be - to such an extent that there are points where he even allows himself to appear almost unlikable, in his own book. Conversely, there are also moments, throughout, where Adelstein seems a little too devoted to the idea of portraying himself as something of a 'pulp hero' - emphasizing his own bravery and bravado, in the face of adversity, in a manner that feels a little self-congratulatory. Although, to be fair, given the situations that he managed to find himself in, and the fact that he managed to come out mostly unscathed, it is difficult to truly fault him for this.

In the end, Tokyo Vice provides both a fascinating story (which happens to be true), and interesting insights into the seedier elements of modern Japanese society. While Adelstein may balk at some points, he also displays an admirable refusal to ignore the costs (sometimes tragically high) of the decisions he made along the way. Tokyo Vice makes for a fascinating enough story that it doesn't surprise me, at all, to learn that there have been plans to turn it into a film floating about for the past few years. It is definitely worth reading if you happen to be a fan of 'True Crime', in general, or in the seedier aspect of modern Japan, in particular.

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