US-born journalist threatened by Yakuza

Jake Adelstein was the first US citizen to work as a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, but he quit after getting death threats from the Yakuza. He has a book coming out called Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan. This is an article about his experiences reporting on the Yakuza for The Washington Post.
I have spent most of the past 15 years in the dark side of the rising sun. Until three years ago, I was a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper, and covered a roster of characters that included serial killers who doubled as pet breeders, child pornographers who abducted junior high-school girls, and the John Gotti of Japan.

I came to Japan in 1988 at age 19, spent most of college living in a Zen Buddhist temple, and then became the first U.S. citizen hired as a regular staff writer for a Japanese newspaper in Japanese. If you know anything about Japan, you'll realize how bizarre this is -- a gaijin, or foreigner, covering Japanese cops. When I started the beat in the early 1990s, I knew nothing about the yakuza, a.k.a. the Japanese mafia. But following their prostitution rings and extortion rackets became my life.


On May 18, 2001, the FBI arranged for Tadamasa Goto -- a notorious Japanese gang boss, the one that some federal agents call the "John Gotti of Japan" -- to be flown to the United States for a liver transplant.


Three years ago, Goto got word that I was reporting an article about his liver transplant. A few days later, his underlings obliquely threatened me. Then came a formal meeting. The offer was straightforward. "Erase the story or be erased," one of them said. "Your family too."

I knew enough to take the threat seriously. So I took some advice from a senior Japanese detective, abandoned the scoop and resigned from the Yomiuri Shimbun two months later. But I never forgot the story. I planned to write about it in a book, figuring that, with Goto's poor health, he'd be dead by the time it came out. Otherwise, I planned to clip out the business of his operation at the last minute.

I didn't bargain on the contents leaking out before my book was released, which is what happened last November. Now the FBI and local law enforcement are watching over my family in the States, while the Tokyo police and the NPA look out for me in Japan. I would like to go home, but Goto has a reputation for taking out his target and anyone else in the vicinity.



  1. That’s odd. I had understood that violent crime was completely and totally non-existent in Japan. Except when committed by foreigners.

  2. fck the mafia in all its incarnations. organized crime is not cool, not funny, not anything but criminal. fck the godfather and fck the sopranos for glamorizing those fckng nmls.

  3. #5 aluxeterna: “fuck the mafia in all its incarnations. organized crime is not cool, not funny, not anything but criminal. fuck the godfather and fuck the sopranos for glamorizing those fucking animals.”

    Amen, brother.

  4. I really hate organized crime groups, for the lack of better words. I also hate the way that they are glorified to some people, i.e. the little idiots that think it’s cool to impersonate Tony Montana, the Corleones, the Yakuza, or crips and bloods. A life like that brings nothing but pain, for the organized crime member and the family of the organized crime member.

  5. “Organised crime is not cool”

    What about illegal protests? ;) I’ve been to a couple, and they seem fairly cool to me.

    I’m just pissy because the Government over here has started calling such things “Organised Crime”. Don’t mind the random disrailment.

    Getting back on topic, that’s pretty rough, but hardly surprising that such things go on in other parts of the world than the US.

  6. @#1 (ANTINOUS)
    Japan is a strange place. Crime does exist, but somehow it’s explained differently or defined differently.

    For example, a friend was explaining to me how someone he knew got divorced. You see the husband was constantly borrowing money from some guy, but was never paying him. So I say “Oh, the guy was dealing with loan sharks…” And my friend insisted, “No, it wasn’t a loan shark…” It was just a guy who was connected to some gambling thing who happened to loan people money and charge high interest rates.

    But the guy was “not a loanshark.” *rolls eyes*

    Japan is a great place but the obsession with explaining things very specifically makes some Japanese—and Japanophiles—forget the bigger picture.

  7. @1: Duh, can’t you read the title? This is a US-born journalist. He’s either making this up to slander Japan or he’s a criminal himself. Hell, he’s probably the latter and doing the former to cover up! Filthy barbarian. At least he can’t buy butter anymore and stink up the place.

    @5: Preach it. Goes for pirates, too.

  8. “FBI arranged for Tadamasa Goto … to be flown to the United States for a liver transplant.”

    Also known as a professional courtesy.

  9. #12 Because blackmail, murder and torture are on the same level as downloading mp3’s. Way to tack your morality onto someone else’s statement.

  10. What did The Sopranos glamourise? Nothing glamourous about shooting a waiter in a car park, for example, or whacking your girlfriend because she’s an informant for the FBI, or going out to dinner and expecting to get whacked by every stranger who walks in the door. Or was there another show called The Sopranos that I managed to miss?

  11. So why let the Gotti of Japan get a liver transplant here in the first place? Screw this guy and any other mob person. I say commit a violent crime or be connected (even as these scum are) to one and let the transplants go to decent people.

  12. As for the Sopranos, I’m willing to bet the lifestyle shown in the series wasn’t half as glamorous/vicious as they showed it to be. And no one got the ending. At the end of the day, people like this oyabun don’t get shot in the face in diners, they get flown out for medical treatment so they can provide some shitty info in return, no matter how much we all want him to get a face full of lead even though we all cheered for this fat fuck for more than 6 years.

  13. I don’t think I’ve seen much glorifying modern day pirates. Sure old pirates with the peg leg and the parrots raping and pillaging has seen its share of glorification.

    Modern day pirates are scary. They pull up in their cigarette boats with machine guns and RPGs. They kill people indiscriminately.

    Then again, I guess old pirates were scary too. I guess it was the fact that everyone and their mother was armed that makes them slightly less scary.

    Anyway, you couldn’t pay me to sail a boat in South East Asia without a flotilla or my own machine gun.

    Oh wait, did you mean copyright infringers? No, you couldn’t have meant copyright infringers because calling them pirates is like calling jaywalkers terrorists (because they intimidate and strike fear into motorists).

  14. @12: I think they meant actual Pirates. You know Johnny Debt, smooth-talking, attractive, pirates?

  15. RoseThornn (#14) – I’m betting that Kyle (#12) is talking about actual pirates, i.e. the people with boats and guns who violently attack and loot other sea vessels. They tend to be lacking in the whimsy and comedy accents most people associate with the word these days.

  16. Ah, my fault on the misunderstanding. I was under the impression pirates of the traditional sense were quite rare nowadays, but I know it still goes on.

    My apologies.

  17. Piracy on the high seas is bigger than it’s ever been. They’re very active in tricky waters like the Straits of Molucca in Indonesia and the Horn of Africa off of Somalia.

  18. There have been two major piracy events in the last month, both causing big international incidents. Here’s a good National Geographic article on modern piracy. Ship recovery is a whole niche industry. Sadly, no mention of rum, sodomy or the lash.

  19. Ah, thank you ALUXETERNA (#5) and similar. It’s nice to feel a little less alone in the world.

  20. Any computer scientist knows that Goto is considered harmful. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

  21. perhaps Goto traded North Korean intelligence for his new liver, supernotes and all that.

    I was attending the wedding of a “retired” oyabun’s son around when Mr. Adlestein arrived in Japan. Organized crime is universal.

  22. Heheh, I posted that and jumped in the shower to get ready to work and about the time I was lathering the shampoo I suddenly stopped and though “Oh shit, people are going to think I was talking about MP3s.”

    Come in here on break and found that, yeah, that’s what people thought.

    I was talking about the people who used to disable ships, throw the men overboard, rape all the women and then throw them overboard, then take all the stuff or the whole ship and do this over and over and over and who are now the heroes of light family entertainment. It is especially irksome when, as others have pointed out for me, it’s still a major problem, especially around Africa.

    Not talking about MP3s.

    Although I think people should pay for those.

    But, yeah, not what I was talking about.

  23. You know, I was sympathetic with him until this part:

    I didn’t bargain on the contents leaking out before my book was released, which is what happened last November. Now the FBI and local law enforcement are watching over my family in the States, while the Tokyo police and the NPA look out for me in Japan. I would like to go home, but Goto has a reputation for taking out his target and anyone else in the vicinity.

    Wow, so you have a book coming out about this? Soon? Where can I buy it? Particularly the cheezy “Goto has a reputation for taking out his target and anyone else in the vicinity.” Come on, it’s like a line out of a Mario Puzo book.

  24. At #11, that’s it exactly, well, at least in the news. Ask anyone on the street in Osaka if there are Yakuza in Osaka and they will tell you they are everywhere. It’s only the national faces of Japan, like the news and the NHK, that tip-toe around using words like Yakuza and such.

    At #1, I understand Japan is still quite mysterious to many in the world, but, seriously? You’ve never heard of Japanese Yakuza before? I thought everyone knew those guys. They’ve always been around, in different forms, over the centuries. Finger cutting ceremonies, sunglasses, the out of date slicked hair and pompadors..

    Of COURSE Japan has crime! If anything, it has a lot more than we know of, simply because the clean, safe facade everyone loves to throw around when talking about Japan is used ad nauseum. Drugs are everywhere in major cities if you go to the right clubs, or make friends with the right people. Discrete hookers are so common even middle school girls are pimping out their peers, in some recent extreme cases. Corporate theft above 100,000$ dollars somewhere is a DAILY news staple. For christ sake, my BICYCLE was even stolen. Crime is everywhere here, mostly regarding embezzlement and other easily hidden crimes.

    As long as you are content to read the FOREIGN news (who often take the view Japan is so much safer, thus equated crime free), you will never get most of the stories here. The mainichi newspaper waiwai section online is a good start though.

    The only thing “safer” about Japan is that as a man, you are much less likely to be involved in direct violent crime/robbery. That’s it. There’s plenty of folk dissapearing behind the scenes thanks to these VERY REAL Yakuza. You just need to piss them off ENOUGH. This guy is probably not bullshitting his story.

  25. They bring a tanto, you bring a wakizashi, they hurt one of your ronin you kill five of theirs.

    It’s the Tokyo way.

  26. Redmonkey-san,
    Yes, you’re right. I was careless. My publisher Kodansha International put out a giant blurb for the book on their Kodansha International Europe website. I don’t know how long it was up before it got taken down in late November. I didn’t approve the blurb but I had it pulled when I found out.

    You wrote: Wow, so you have a book coming out about this? Soon? Where can I buy it? Particularly the cheezy “Goto has a reputation for taking out his target and anyone else in the vicinity.” Come on, it’s like a line out of a Mario Puzo book.

    You’re right, it’s a cheezy line. Space considerations reduced it to that. The longer version was taken from a National Police Agency report January 11th, 1999. It’s an old report but I doubt much has changed. It’s from a section on the strengths and weaknesses of his organization. The original is in Japanese but my translation would be:

    “They (Goto-gumi) do not hesitate to take extreme measures or take into account the other people involved when it comes to planning an attack/reprisal. They will act in the presence of women and/or children, forcing them to watch gruesome, violent acts so that afterwards they will not file criminal complaints etc.”

    In the time since it’s inception, Goto-gumi has firebombed people’s houses, driven dump trucks into pachinko parlors that wouldn’t pay protection money, and in 1992, Goto’s thugs attacked the film director, Itami Juzo, after he made a film called MINBO NO ONNA, which lampooned the yakuza.

    If you think I would piss off this guy, just to sell a book, that’s your call. I don’t know if you have a family, but imagine only being able to see your kids over Skype for weeks on end because you don’t want to put them in the target zone. I’m a workaholic and not a great father, but I care about my family enough not to risk putting them in any more trouble because I’m a stubborn, nosy idiot. If I had any brains, I would have walked out on the story but I don’t. And frankly, since he’s already decided to have me taken out anyway, I’d rather be taken out on my feet than crawling away on my knees. I’d prefer to outlive him–all things being equal.

  27. ANTINOUS: as said by other posters, Japan is normally incredibly safe, it has the only cities in the world where I’ve known people to leave their doors unlocked, if you dropped your wallet you would have a pretty good chance of getting it back, and there is almost no chance of anyone reacting violently towards you under any circumstances (well, within reason right?).
    However, the Yakusa are a different kettle of fish (they are proper gangsters after all). A friend of a friend got shot by a Yakusa while he was there.
    BASTARDNAMBAN: drugs are everywhere? wow, i must have been looking in the wrong places =) But seriously, you can find drugs, but the point is you really have to look (and go to the clubs run by the Yakusa). Certainly not a drugs culture and no drugs on anything like the scale you’d find in any large town or city in Europe. The amount of hookers is rather unsettling though.

  28. Jake @39: Props for having the guts to stand up and tell the story. Hopefully Goto is too busy hiding from the colleagues he betrayed to pay too much attention to you and your family.

  29. Jake @39,

    What you said, and your comment, chilled me.

    I’m sorry, and I’m wishing for you the best of luck and safety. I know you must have considered all the options, and that you’ve got FBI and such protecting- but why can’t you get absorbed into the Witness Protection Agency? Is this bastard so powerful? I suppose he is, since he has ties into the US to threaten your family…

    I guess I’m having trouble understanding how this sort of thing is really, really possible. I know it as an abstraction, but really seeing it? A whole new kettle of fish.

    I echo Nelson’s props. You, to quote some tripe I wrote recently, “employ journalism for its highest calling; to inform the public.”

  30. Nelson-Csan and Tenn-san,
    Thanks for the encouraging words. I appreciate them. In Japanese, a lot of reporters talk about journalism as a force for bringing about 社会正義 (social justice). It’s said so often that it’s almost kind of a joke. Like you’ll be going out to get a cup of coffee, another reporter will ask you, “hey why are you going out for coffee now” and you might smart back, “社会正義のためだ”(for the sake of social justice). Well, it gets laughs in Japanese.
    But just because something is trite doesn’t mean it’s not true. Journalism can be an enormous force for good and if anything good comes out of this thing, it might be that the NPA actually starts really cooperating with US Federal Law Enforcement, and the US becomes a place the yakuza don’t want to visit. We don’t need them; Japan doesn’t need them.
    After Goto’s trial on March 7th, his lawyer, an ex-prosecutor named Maki, gave a little talk to the assembled press core about “how much suffering ” his client had endured. (Goto was found not guilty). I wanted to puke on those words and pointed out to him that how could he expect anyone to sympathize with the suffering of a man who’d spent his entire life making other people suffer.
    He then turned the subject to the police forces underhanded investigative methods. And once again, I couldn’ shut up and asked, “When you’re dealing with a man who is ruthless, who breaks the laws, intimidates witnesses, and runs one of the most violent criminal organizations in japan–well, isn’t it okay to play on his level? Maybe it’s justified if “shakai seigi” is acheived.
    At the words “social justice”–Maki flinched, or so it appeared. As an ex-proscutor, I’m sure he completely comprehends who he is dealing with.
    I read his book. He seemed like a very idealistic criminal defense attorney. I wonder what happened to make him go work for Goto. But Goto is very perusasuive when he wants to be, and if he can’t destroy his enemies physically, he destroys them socially. His police file notes that “hires journalists at magazines, offer information to the media, and pays rewards to journalists.”
    The Yamaguchi-gumi, among it’s many front companies, owns its own detective agency. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before my personal privacy is blown to shreds. I can pretty much guess which writer and which weekly magazine will do the dirty work.
    No one has ever won in a fight with this guy. I’d like to be the first.

  31. Of COURSE Japan has crime!

    I read Mainichi online every day. The Japanese government regularly chants this line about no violent crime, but the daily news is filled with it. Although, mostly it seems to be people murdering their small children and elderly relatives. It’s rather reminiscent of the Western obsession with online pedophiles when the vast majority of sex crimes against children are committed by close relatives.

  32. Wow, they already have 75% of the evidence for the murder trial. Do people still wonder why we can’t put people in jail?

  33. 10/10 to JA for a kind of pig headed bravery over this lenghthy & dangerous project(Tokyo Vice).
    I would not like to be his wife or kids or even a close associate/friend.
    When you act like the Lone Ranger, it’s very likely Tonto and his relatives will get hurt firs as the calvary may not extend that far when it comes to assistance.

    Historically, you just cannot topple the entire Empire, by just being a Ronin with a cause. It only makes the overlords smarter as well as more brutal. It takes a Gang to topple THE GANG.
    I really think Jake’s next project ought to be tackling the brutality of the Isreali Secret Police and Hit squads. That should ensure really good reading. (All two pages of it!)
    After that,(should he recover) maybe make the link between the CIA and the radical elements of Pre-Alcaieda before the rise of Saddam. He’ll need quite a lot more than 10,000 Lucky Strike ciggies there!
    Despite declaring he’s no Buddhist, the last quote on page 328 seem to point otherwise. Perhaps also, like the Mistress said, Jake and the Boss Goto are very much alike. Both are primarily interested in their own main Objective no expenses spared.

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