Thursday, January 7, 2010
Vice or Virtue
Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan
Tokyo Vice is a memoir of American Jake Adelstein's 12 years in Japan working as a crime reporter for the country's largest Japanese-language daily newspaper, the prestigious Yomiura Shinbun. Adelstein went to college in Japan, and ended up scoring traditional Japanese lifetime employment as a newspaperman. This in itself warrants at least a short book. Japan is a proud, protective culture that looks with some disdain on foreigners, especially Westerners, and Adelstein had difficulty throughout his career getting people to take him seriously. This was offset somewhat by the sheer novelty of his situation; in addition to being a capable reporter, he contributed a certain élan to the Yomiura organization. (I'm tempted to say an analogous situation would be for a Chinese national to be hired for the crime beat by the New York Times, except I suspect the NYT is already--like New York itself--completely multinational. Japan is comparatively much more insular. Maybe a better analog, if a more watered-down one, would be a Chinese national writing for the "Around Town" section of the Des Moines Register.) Through his work, Adelstein came to know many of the city's police and detectives, politicians and civic leaders. And many of the members, high and low, of its criminal classes.
After the novelty of Adelstein's situation wears off (mostly), a couple things stand out with this story. One is his exposé of the Yakuza, Japan's legendary multi-headed organized crime entity. The Yakuza's relationship to Japanese society and to the police forces and the press is unique and baffling to American sensibilities. Gang members make no attempt to hide their Yakuza association, even having the affiliation noted on their business cards. Many Yakuza members sport full-body tattoos and special "punch perm" hairdos, making them conspicuous in society, and many sport missing fingers--an act of atonement to higher-ups for personal or underlings' failings. The police and Yakuza all know each other, and there is a kind of tacit agreement about which issues constitute a territory belonging to one group or the other. And the organization's strange combination of extreme brutality combined with courtesy and protocol is surprising and puts one off balance (I guess there's a kind of code of honor or behavior behind the Italian Mafia as well, but Adelstein shows that the Yakuza have a unique flavor).
The other thing that struck me is the glimpse into the (to me) odd sexual behaviors of at least a segment of Japanese men. I'm not a strip club or brothel kind of guy, so I don't know that what goes on in Japan is really so odd. But Adelstein talks about the apparently widespread fetish among Japanese men for the used underwear of teen aged girls--there seem to be clubs devoted to this delicacy and a booming market for them as items of trade and sale (there are even vending machines for them). And while prostitution is not legal insofar as actual intercourse is involved, everything up to intercourse proper is legal and marketable; so there seem to be a lot of places advertising masturbation and oral sex and fetish fulfillment. (It's not that I find any of this shocking; but I'm inclined to think of sexuality as being a fairly universal, mostly hard-wired kind of thing, and it's odd to see a widespread fetish like the panty thing--an obviously learned behavior / emphasis--mimicking something that IS hard-wired.)
An offshoot of this open sale of sexuality is the widespread existence of so-called "hostess clubs," bars where men pay beautiful women to effectively act as their girlfriends. There is clearly a romantic and sexual undertone to these clubs, but they are not sex clubs per se and it sounds as though sex rarely results from a visit to one of them. But the clubs can be expensive, and quasi-personal relationships may develop between a man and his for-hire "girlfriend," to include presents and gratuities and even occasional nights on the town outside the confines of the club. Adelstein likens these clubs to the Japanese version of what we in America attempt to accomplish (at great expense) by way of therapists and mental health professionals: we pay someone to listen to us and pretend to be our friend. Well, I think this description rather tosses the entire mental health profession out on its ass, to be replaced with near-prostitutes who pretend to like you for a fee. This hardly seems equivalent, but OK, I catch a whiff of legitimacy in what he says--surely there are a lot of people in therapy who have little serious need for it. Still, it seems a sad and lonely and desperate part of society, at least to me. "Host clubs," where women pay for male attention, have become more popular of late, it seems, so this seems to be a culture-wide thing.
Adelstein writes with a no-nonsense reporter's style, and he gives us little character sketches of the people with whom he works and deals. This is helpful, as the names do not flow off the tongue easily nor slot regularly into the mind with an identity attached. The book reads a bit like a diary that has been adapted for book form. And the writer himself remains a bit of a mystery. The big things in his life apart from the specific cases that advanced, and then ended, his career are left in the shadows, with little hints coming now and then that suggest a rather different person than the one he constructs for us on the page.
Still, an enjoyable read. I took Tokyo Vice as a nice introduction to the shadowier aspects of Japanese society, a jumping off point into a world about which I know next to nothing.