Review: Tokyo Vice

I made the mistake of heading up north two weeks ago with only one novel. I am not a kindle owner (I know, I know) and I should have known that within a few days, that sole tome would be consumed and I would be looking for more reading material. Luckily, my traveling companion loaned me a copy of Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein.

I generally gravitate towards crime novels and mystery stories, but not generally to true crime stories, which is what Tokyo Vice is. Adelstein basically recounts his professional life story, from his early years as a cub reporter for the Japanese-language Yomiuri Shimbun (one of Japan’s leading newspapers) to his entanglements with the yakuza (the Japanese mob) and his later efforts with the US government to monitor and curtail the human trafficking problem in Japan. His is a story of on-the-job training, mentors and life lessons, publishing highs and burnout and – later – dark underworld dealings and death threats.

tokyo viceFor me, the book was very easy to read and I raced through it, incredibly curious to see what happened in the next chapter. Adelstein’s writing style is both funny and engaging, a bit self-deprecating at times, and with flashes of truly great prose. He knows how to build suspense and weave anecdotes together. This is important as occasionally, the book feels like one anecdote after another, until you start to realize where some of them overlap and how things will all tie in at the end.

While I feel fortunate to have a very small foot in the door as a freelance writer for one of Japan’s major English language newspapers, I have little to no experience with the world of traditional Japanese journalism and the behind the scenes glimpse of the Yomiuri Shimbun and the entire print media in Japan was rather fascinating to me. Adelstein did write this book before the real technology boom of the last decade, so some of the customs seem “old school” even from just a few years ago, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that things run very similarly in the present.

Even more intriguing (and suspense inducing) was the author’s focus on the yakuza. The Japanese mob remains some what of a mystery to many foreigners (and possibly to a number of Japanese as well). While I had a general knowledge of its structure and role in modern-day Japan, Adelstein’s background far surpasses anything I could ever dig up on my own (or want to, for that matter). His writing was able to both educate me on the subject while simultaneously making me flip through pages as fast as possible to see how he gets out of the precarious situation he finds himself in with a faction of the yakuza.

This is not the book to read if you want your images of Japan to remain all cherry blossoms and chiming temple bells. Japan’s gritty side may often be hidden from the casual traveler but it’s there and it has its very very serious and disturbing aspects. But if you want to see a more balanced picture of Japan – warts and all – pick up this book. I doubt you’ll be able to put it down once you start.

**On a side note, as I searched the web for an image of the book cover, I noticed that Tokyo Vice is being made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe in the next year or so. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on that.

*** This is definitely a book for mature readers. As some of Adelstein’s subjects deal with prostitution and human sex trafficking, certain scenes may seem quite graphic to some readers.

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