Meet Jake Adelstein, a Jewish reporter who thinks like a Japanese gangster

6580.jpg Jake Adelstein is the author of Tokyo Vice, a new book that chronicles the author's crazy adventures as a crime reporter for Japan's largest newspaper. During his 12 years at Yomiuri Shimbun, Adelstein made deadly enemies — and some lifelong friends — in the yakuza, the organized crime underworld that quietly controls a large part of Japan's political economy. The book (which I reviewed in January) chronicles his journey from naive young foreigner to one of the ballsiest reporters on the yakuza beat. Along the way, he discovered that one of the mob bosses, a guy named Goto Tadamasa, had made a deal with the FBI to go to the US and get a liver transplant at UCLA — an embarrassing scandal that Goto didn't want anyone to know about. When Goto found out that Adelstein was investigating, he figured he should just kill him. "It was really terrifying," he says. "I couldn't even walk outside without my lovable ex-yakuza bodyguard next to me."

Fortunately for Adelstein, he found himself still breathing when Goto lost power in October of 2008. Today, he walks the streets of Tokyo with a titanium core umbrella ("a baseball bat would probably make people uneasy") and that keeps him safe... at least for now.

Over the next two months, we'll be collaborating with Jake Adelstein to bring you a series of Boing Boing exclusive yakuza stories. We'll kick it off with a two-part Q&A that gives us an inside look at his life and brings us up-to-date on yakuza influence on present-day Japan. After that, we'll go behind-the-scenes with Adelstein and his yakuza buddies to watch how they do ordinary things like play video games, use the computer, and chop off body parts.

For part one of the Q&A series, I sat down with Adelstein over bacon waffles and coffee one morning in San Francisco to get some personal stories of Adelstein's connections with the yakuza. Read on to learn about how a Jewish-American from Missouri beat up a mobster with a golf club; the indelible link between gangsters and Buddhist priests; and how Adelstein came to incorporate the highest yakuza values into his daily life.

How did you know that Goto Tadamasa wanted to kill you?

On the day he got kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi*, one of the last things he said as he was getting into his car was: "That fucking American Jew reporter. I'd like to kill him." When I heard that, I thought, well it's nice to be recognized for your hard work.

Goto has been connected to 17 unsolved murders. His people are responsible for the attack on film director Itami Jyuzo in 1992. Itami made a movie parodying the yakuza. It showed them as what most of them are, as a bunch of obnoxious sneaky lying thugs, and they didn't really like that. They didn't kill him at first — they just grabbed him as he left his house and slashed open his face in the parking lot. A few years later, he allegedly committed suicide. But what I heard from people who would know is that they dragged him to a rooftop, stuck a gun in his face, and said you can jump or we'll blow your face off.

So nobody out there wants to put a gun to your head and make you jump?

Well, I'm sure Goto would like to do it. The question is, what's the cost benefit of doing it? Right now [with the publication of Tokyo Vice] I'm such a public nuisance that whacking me would only bring more heat and might bring political pressure on Japan to close down the yakuza buildings and put them out of business. When you consider the risk of doing that, the analysis is, well, easier to let him live and be a pest rather than make a martyr out of some annoying Jewish-American.

Are you scared of the yakuza?

Of course I'm scared of them. Even the guys I'm close to I'm scared of. They're like wild animals. These are guys who make a living through violence, and they're very very tough. They just have incredible endurance and tolerance for pain. They're like the Energizer bunny; you can beat them and hit them with a hammer and they'd still come at you like the Terminator. I'm saying this from personal experience.

You mean you've actually fought with one?

In April 2008, I was trying to figure out how Goto knew that I was writing a book about his liver transplant. There was a yakuza real estate broker; he was a good source, and I had paid him. I remembered having a conversation with him a few months back, and he was asking how my book was coming along — I suspected he might have been sounding me out for information. So I went to his office and said, "Listen, did you sell me out on Goto? Did you tell him I'm writing a book"? And he said, "Yeah of course. He pays much more than you do. Why wouldn't I? It's not like we're friends. It's nothing personal." He didn't even try to deny it. So I said to him, "Remember a couple years ago when Sugiura got hit? I'm gonna tell my friends in the Sumiyoshi-kai that you gave away his location. They may not believe me, but they might come ask you some questions, and when they do I don't think they'll be very nice to you. Nothing personal." And as I turned my back to leave, he jumped on me. He started hitting me really hard and kicking me. So I ran to the corner of his room and got a golf club, and kept hitting his knee until his knee broke. I was just running around in circles aiming at his knee. Even after his knee broke, he was still crawling at me. I was like, god! Why don't you just give up?

What does it say about you? Don't you have to be a bit crazy to throw snarky comments at yakuza and break their knees with golf clubs?

It would say that I have a bad temper. I was angry! I didn't make the first attack, though. That was totally in self-defense. What would you do if someone whom you thought was a friend was like, I planted heroin in your car and called the cops?

I would probably be like, I'm in the wrong business. On the wrong beat. I'd probably get out.

It was too late, you know? I was committed. Committed to the left lane. I was taking my driving test a few years ago and my instructor said, go to the right lane. And I told him, I can't. I'm committed to the left lane.

But isn't there a point in a reporter's life where they realize, if I go any further than this, I'm going to be putting myself and the people close to me at great risk, and you either decide to go ahead or you don't? How did you make that decision?

By the time I got to that point, I didn't have a choice. When the FBI and the National Police Agency were putting me under police protection in March 2008, one guy at the NPA whom I had known from my days of covering the police beat said to me, "Let me explain to you how this works. You're probably thinking, alright, I'll just go home. I wouldn't advise that. You've pissed off a guy who has very good connections in the United States. If you go home to your family he'll send someone to where you live and kill you; and if your family's around they will all be killed as collateral damage. If you ask, he'll just say, hey, it was just some crazy foreigner. Never meant for the family to be wiped too. So if you love your family, you're not going home until you resolved this."

His advice to me was, "You're a writer. Time to write. He's angry with you now because you have information, but once it's out he'll have problems bigger than you to worry about."

Do you worry about your family?

I have a guarantee from someone up high in the Yamaguchi-gumi that they won't touch my family. Their word is pretty solid. It's a gentleman's agreement that they'll only kill me, which makes me feel better.

Really?

Sure, because there's less to worry about.

What do you do to keep yourself centered?

I meditate. I'm going to get my Buddhist priest certification this year — that's what I originally went to Japan for. I've been offered a meeting with Goto when I get that certification. He's also a Buddhist priest now. Another boss promised that once they can be sure we're not going to punch each other's lights out, we should meet. "He's a changed man," he said. I'm like, yeah, tell me another one.

Is it a trend for ex-yakuza to become Buddhist priests?

It's not uncommon. There are two reason for doing this. Once you set yourself up as a religious organization, you don't get taxed on your income. It's a great way to launder money. The other reason is that people love the bad guy becomes a good guy story. As soon as he left the Yamaguchi-gumi, there was an order out to hit him; but as soon as he becomes a Buddhist priest you can't kill him. Here's this guy trying to lead a good life and you killed him. You guys are evil. He's good. Goto leaked the Buddhist priest story all over the place. The priest robe is his bullet-proof vest.

Is it your bullet-proof vest too?

No, it's just something to do. I've got a lot of yakuza friends and cop friends and reporter friends. They all die early. It would be nice to be able to do their funerals for them.

Is there anything about the yakuza that you admire?

Unlike in America, where someone's word is as light as a feather, some of the yakuza guys have demonstrated incredible loyalty. If they promise something — if they give their word — they honor it, even if that promise is no longer convenient or even detrimental to keep. Bushi ni nigon wa nai. ("A warrior does not have a forked tongue.") Once you've said it, then you'll do it. A promise is a promise. It's so rare to meet anybody in this world who has any sense of honor, who puts actual importance in keeping their word. That's one of the nicer things about them.

I was a very typical American when I started on this beat. I'd say I'd be somewhere and I wouldn't, I was late for appointments... To me those are typical American traits — sloppy, forgetful, doesn't honor their word, and doesn't remember the favors that have been done to them. Over time, I've learned that if you say to one of these people, yeah I'll call you, then you better call them. Every time you say you'll do something, you do it, and you build credibility with these people. I'm willing to accept their codes of behavior and live by them.

There's a lot of wisdom in the things that they've taught me. What's bad about that is that I'm probably a very hard person to be with. I'm a very hard person to date and to have as a friend because my expectations are high. As a result, I don't have that many close friends. I don't know if I'll ever date anyone again. Most of my closest friends are either cops or criminals.

You've also said in the past that it's not safe for someone to be too close to you.

I wonder if I should hand people a list that says: "Hi, here are the risks of being close with me" — like a warning on a cigarette pack — "I have a dangerous job and I anger people and it might put you at risk if you're perceived as someone very close to me."

I'm horribly overly paternal. I'm not a misogynist or a chauvinist, but I keep seeing women victimized. So with my friends who are female, I am overgenerous and overprotective to the point of being annoying. And there's guilt involved there. I probably care too much because I'm compensating for a time when I didn't care enough.

I believe investigative journalists serve a function in society by correcting wrongs that the government or police won't address. It keeps society healthy. I believe in my cause, and am willing to risk personal injury to do that. I'd be setting a bad example for my children if I said, "When the bad guys yell in your face and threaten you, you run away." I like my job. I think I do some good in the world.

Has this affected your health at all?

You can toss around terms like PTSD, but that's not what it is. There's still a legitimate risk, however small, so I have to be careful. Sometimes I see someone who's walking behind me for too long or someone who just has that look and my fight or flight turns on. I think the psychological term is hypervigilance. When I walk into a restaurant I scope out the place. I almost always sit facing the door. I sleep in two to three hour shifts.

I'm in lousy shape after smoking and drinking too much and being under constant stress. The other day, I had a migraine or a mini-stroke. It was ten in the morning, and I was Tweeting on my computer something funny that a yakuza boss had said recently when I noticed I couldn't see out of my left eye. I had a splitting headache and felt really nauseous. I tried dialing emergency but no words would come out of my mouth. So I walked to the clinic down the street, and they ran some tests. I had to cancel my flight to the US and book a new ticket.

One of the things I love most about Japan is the public health care system. When I feel bad, I can go to the doctor without going bankrupt or worrying that my insurance company's going to drop me.

If you had the choice, would you get out of this lifestyle?

Yes, I would love to get out but I can't. I am trapped. How do I earn my living? I write. What's my next book about? It's about yakuza. Until I finish that book, I'm locked in.

*The Yamaguchi-gumi is the largest yakuza group in Japan. The other two major ones are the Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai.