Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
See the latest RNC updates from NPR

An American reporter offers a first-hand account of Japan's toughest crime bosses

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. The streaming service Max is currently showing Season 2 of the series "Tokyo Vice," the story of a young American who moves to Japan and learns the language so well that he lands a job as a crime reporter, writing in Japanese for the country's largest daily newspaper. He investigates the activities of the yakuza - organized crime syndicates in the country - and gets personally involved with many colorful figures, at times putting himself in danger.

Here's a scene from the first episode of Season 2. The reporter Jake Adelstein, played by Ansel Elgort, is working on a big story involving a mobster and a high-ranking government official. He arrives at his newsroom, where his editor, played by Rinko Kikuchi, explains that a critical piece of evidence in the story - a videotape - has been destroyed in a mysterious fire at the paper.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOKYO VICE")

RINKO KIKUCHI: (As Eimi) Jake.

ANSEL ELGORT: (As Jake Adelstein) What the hell happened?

KIKUCHI: (As Eimi, speaking Japanese).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Japanese).

KIKUCHI: (As Eimi) They think someone left a cigarette burning in an ashtray. It all went up in flames.

ELGORT: (As Jake Adelstein) But they made copies of the videotape, right?

KIKUCHI: (As Eimi) They were all in that safe. Everything inside melted from the heat.

ELGORT: (As Jake Adelstein) We can still run the article, right?

KIKUCHI: (As Eimi) Without that tape, anything written about him is libel. We would be sued, and we would lose.

ELGORT: (As Jake Adelstein) No article. But the vice minister just gets off scot-free? You know this wasn't an accident, right? What? This all just happened to be destroyed today? (Yelling).

(SOUNDBITE OF HITTING OBJECT)

DAVIES: The series is based on a memoir by the real Jake Adelstein. And today, we're going to listen to my interview with him, recorded when his book - titled "Tokyo Vice" - was released. Much has changed about the yakuza since then, which I'll explain later. Adelstein is an executive producer on the Max series. He's also author of the book "The Last Yakuza," based on the life of his former bodyguard. And he co-reported and co-hosted the true crime podcast series "The Evaporated," which focuses on the thousands of people in Japan who disappear every year, including Adelstein's accountant who vanished in 2017. Adelstein's working on a sequel to "Tokyo Vice," to be published this fall. We spoke in 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Well, Jake Adelstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about organized crime in Japan. It seems, as I read the book, quite different from organized crime as we know it in the United States. For one thing, these guys carry business cards.

JAKE ADELSTEIN: Yes. I think in Japan, organized crime is very much out in the open. So since everyone in Japan carries business cards, it makes sense for organized crime members to carry business cards as well.

DAVIES: OK. That means that these have phone numbers and addresses and headquarters. I mean, what is the ostensible legal facade of these? I assume that the name is meant to mean a legitimate business, or is it meant to understand something different?

ADELSTEIN: Well, no. It's not meant to mean a legitimate business. The yakuza groups in Japan - and there are 22 that the government officially recognizes - it's a badge of honor, I guess, to be an officially recognized organized crime group - their legal status is like that of the Rotary Club or the Boy Scouts. In itself, they're not illegal. Their offices are well known.

For example, the Yamaguchi-gumi, which is the biggest organized crime group, with 40,000 members, giving them about half of the market - their office and headquarters in Kobe is the size of a city block. You can see it from Google Earth. It's huge. It's walled in kind of with high fencing and security cameras.

Another faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi, and there are about 100 factions because, you know, it's a huge organization, kind of like a franchise - the Kodo-kai, which has their headquarters in Nagoya, which is where Toyota also has their headquarters - they're building is not only huge. It has a swimming pool and a gymnasium. You know, it's like a mini world into itself.

DAVIES: And why would these organized crime organizations want their members to identify themselves?

ADELSTEIN: Because it intimidates the hell out of people. When you see that business card of - that says Yamaguchi-gumi or Sumiyoshi-kai or Inagawa-kai, your reaction is one of fear because you realize that behind that meishi is, you know, 10,000 to 40,000 very angry gangsters. So the power of that business card is immense.

DAVIES: What do mobsters in Japan look like? Is there a yakuza look?

ADELSTEIN: Now, years ago, like when I was starting as a reporter in 1993 - which is 16 years ago - yes, there was definitely a yakuza look. They tended to have these kind of strange perms called punch perms, with very tight little curls. Often wore - on their days off, they often wore, like, white sweat suits. You know, missing fingers was standard, and almost everyone who was a yakuza at the time had a whole-body tattoo, meaning you could see the tattoos. You know, if they were wearing short sleeves, you could see the tattoos. Or if they were - even when they're wearing suits, you could see the tattoo sort of poking out from under the shirt sleeves.

DAVIES: Is the whole-body tattoo a kind of an initiation ritual?

ADELSTEIN: The purpose of the whole-body tattoo - the tattoos themselves are meaningless. There are certain motifs, like a bodhisattva, or a dragon, that are popular. The meaning of the tattoos is that there - well, there are three meanings. One is that by getting yourself tattooed fully, you sort of indicate that you have thrown away the civilian life and you're devoted to the organization. That is especially true when you have the organization emblem tattooed on your chest. Not only have you thrown away your life as a civilian, but you are so committed to the organization now that you've branded yourself.

The other meaning of the tattoos is that they're incredibly painful the way they were done traditionally. Literally, they take these hooks with a kind of a Japanese traditional ink and gouge it into the flesh so deeply that the flesh is actually raised on the areas where they're tattooed, and the skin dies. The sweat cells die so that, you know, the people who have the whole-body tattoos - in the summer, if you touch the tattoo, it's clammy. It doesn't warm up.

DAVIES: Wow.

ADELSTEIN: And because it's so painful, when you see someone who's fully tattooed, the less skin they have showing, the tougher they are, the more they can endure. But the third thing is that tattoos are very expensive. So when someone has a beautiful, intensely deep tattoo, they're also saying, I have lots of endurance, and I have lots of money to spend on this tattoo.

DAVIES: And you said a number of them have missing fingers. Why?

ADELSTEIN: Well, it goes back to samurai tradition in a sense. When you've done something that goes against the organization - well, there are two kinds of reasons that people cut off their fingers. There's - well, the act itself is called yubitsume, which is literally to sort of like condense the finger. There are two reasons this has happened. One is that as a yakuza boss, one of your underlings has made a terrible mistake. And to take responsibility for that, you cut off a finger and give it to your boss as a sign of atonement. That is called a iki yubi, like a living finger. When you've screwed up and your only choices are by either being killed or being kicked out of the organization and you want to stay and you give up your finger, that is called a shinu yubi, like a dead finger. So it's much more noble to sacrifice your finger for the sake of one of your underlings than it is to sacrifice your finger for your own mistakes.

DAVIES: Wow. If you make multiple mistakes, can you lose more than one finger?

ADELSTEIN: Oh, yes. I know a couple of yakuza are missing, like, two fingers. If you, for example, make the terrible mistake of sleeping with the with the oyabun - that's the boss's wife or his mistress - then you have to take off a thumb. If you commit a crime against a child - let's say you rape a child or you molest a child - and you're not killed outright, then they'll take your entire arm.

DAVIES: Do the yakuza see themselves as connected to the - you know, the samurai tradition in Japan?

ADELSTEIN: Yes. The yakuza portray themselves as a second police force that protects traditional Japanese values and the interest of the common citizens. They also sort of see themselves as a cheaper alternative to lawyers and a group capable of quickly resolving civil disputes.

DAVIES: If I were just an ordinary guy living in a Japanese city and sold insurance or something, would I likely have contact with yakuza? Would I have access to them if I had a problem?

ADELSTEIN: You would likely have contact with them and have to debate whether you wanted to give these guys an insurance policy. And if you were in some kind of civil dispute and you want it resolved quickly, you might ask a friend of a friend until you got to the local yakuza office and ask them to solve it for you, unless you wanted to spend, like, two years in civil court trying to resolve it.

DAVIES: And so how might I resolve this dispute with my neighbor over a fence or a fender bender? How might the yakuza help me?

ADELSTEIN: You might go to the local yakuza and say, my neighbor won't take his fence off my property. It's intruding into my property. You know, it's an inch over. And can you handle this for me? And the yakuza would say - they would name a price, you would pay the money, and then they would go intimidate your neighbor until he moved the fence. Or if your neighbor owed you money and he didn't - and he hadn't paid it back to you, you would go there. You would talk to someone, a lower-level yakuza who would look over your claim, decide how much you were owed and then tell you, we can get that money back for you but we'll have to take half as expenses. And you would say, fine.

DAVIES: You know, we've talked about how the Japanese mob or its organized crime syndicates are very different from those in the United States. They can exercise enormous brutality and yet they have, you know, lavish offices and business cards and operates in some respects as sort of an open part of Japanese society. Tell us about how the relationship between the police and organized crime is different in Japan than we might see in the United States.

ADELSTEIN: OK, I would definitely like to tell you about that. Before I do, I think I should add something about the modern yakuza, because I think we really discuss sort of the old-style yakuza right now. They've moved into, you know, all kinds of legitimate industries, industries you wouldn't expect the yakuza to be in. That includes high finance, investments, mergers and acquisitions. Last year, Lehman Brothers Japan, before they went under, lost $350 million in an incredibly complicated fraud that was initiated by people with yakuza connections. Citibank in Japan has been punished twice for having accounts with yakuza or having accounts that were opened by yakuza in their bank. So they're definitely not the idiots and thugs that they used to be. They've graduated beyond gambling and prostitution and drug running.

DAVIES: So they're now into derivatives?

ADELSTEIN: Now they're into derivatives, yes. These guys are very, very smart. I mean, I've often characterized them as Goldman Sachs with guns, but that's essentially how they work. They work like ordinary businessmen, they hire very bright people to work for them, and they will negotiate very good deals. And if you won't make the deal with them, then they'll kill you or blackmail you or extort you until you do.

DAVIES: You know, I wanted to ask about how - the relationship between the police and organized crime. I mean, you've described a situation in which you have these huge syndicates with thousands and thousands of members who make a fortune in illegal operations. And yet have these, you know, huge headquarters which the police all know about, and members who are so easily identified that they carry business cards. Isn't it easy for the cops to, you know, undertake surveillance and execute searches and subpoena documents and nail them?

ADELSTEIN: No, no, no, no. Absolutely not. The police are so handicapped by the Japanese laws that, as one cop put it, our job is to trim the branches - we're never allowed to get to the roots. There was a time when there was a cozy relationship between the police and the yakuza, in a sense that many police regard the yakuza as a necessary evil, a kind of second police force that keeps the entertainment district and the streets free from street crime by violently enforcing, you know, their own laws - which would demand that if someone was, like, doing purse snatching or muggings in their area, that the yakuza would beat the crap out of them. I mean, that's a very effective way to keep people from doing purse snatching or mugging or street crime or even panhandling in the areas that they control.

Those relationships aren't as cozy as they used to be. But from the police side - and I have many friends in the police force, and they're very sincere in what they're trying to do - they're at a huge disadvantage compared to, say, like, the FBI in the United States. First of all, wiretapping is not allowed except in extreme cases involving murder or a criminal conspiracy where hundreds of people can be injured. So in general, you can't get permission to wiretap a yakuza office. The second thing is there's no plea bargaining in Japan. Plea bargaining was a huge tool in the hands of the FBI because they would get people at the bottom to rat out the people at the top. Well, there's no plea bargaining and there's no witness protection. There's no real witness protection program, no witness relocation.

So let's say you're Joe Yakuza at the very bottom. You get caught. The cops are pressuring you to finger someone above you so they can take down the organization. If you cooperate, you won't get a lighter sentence, you'll probably be killed once you get out of jail. There's not a plus side. On the other hand, if you keep your mouth shut and serve your time on behalf of the organization, when you get out, you will rise up the yakuza ranks and you'll get a bonus payment. That's how the yakuza make sure that an investigation stop at the bottom and don't reach the top.

DAVIES: You know, in a situation where the police are ineffective at really taking down, you know, these organizations, and in some cases, you know, stop by and have tea and sweets with them, one would imagine that the opportunities for corruption are rife. Did you get the sense that any of the police are on the yakuza's payroll?

ADELSTEIN: There's not a lot of corruption in the Japanese police force. Surprisingly little. You tend to see a little bit more corruption in the vice areas because the sex laws and the adult entertainment laws of Japan are so nebulous that, essentially, it's pretty much on whim who gets prosecuted and who doesn't. So I can understand why vice cops would tend to be susceptible to bribes. The organized crime cops are generally very straight up. The white-collar crime cops are generally incorruptible. There's not as much corruption as you would think, actually very little.

DAVIES: And I guess we should note that gun laws are very strict and murder is rare.

ADELSTEIN: Yes, yes, murder is very rare. You know, when it comes to yakuza and murder, I'm not sure how rare that is, because when they dispose of a body, they usually throw it in the concrete foundation of a building that's going up. And since they own lots of construction companies, that's very easy for them to do. There're, like, something like 10,000 people who disappear in Japan every year. If there's no body, of course, it's not counted as murder. So I'm not sure that the murder rates are as low as the Japanese government says they are.

DAVIES: So the sort of, I hate to use this expression, but garden-variety murder that we see so much of in the United States where, you know, a domestic argument or an armed robbery leads to gunfire and death, that so much you don't see, but organized crime.

ADELSTEIN: No, no, no, you don't see much of that.

DAVIES: Yeah.

ADELSTEIN: And the organized crime people don't tend to - tend to try not to kill civilians. It's bad press.

DAVIES: Jake Adelstein, recorded in 2009, when his memoir, "Tokyo Vice," was released. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF YING QUARTET'S "LARGHETTO NOSTALGICO")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2009 interview with Jake Adelstein, whose memoir about covering organized crime for a daily paper in Japan is the basis for the Max streaming series "Tokyo Vice," now in its second season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Your story is really unusual. I mean, you went to Japan, studied Japanese well and managed to get a job working as a reporter for a Japanese-language newspaper. And, of course, you spend a lot of your time reporting on crime. And a lot of that meant building relationships with police officers. And I found this just fascinating, having done some police reporting in the United States and known a lot of police reporters, how different these kinds of relationships seem to be. One of the things you said was that you had learned early on - you would go to the homes of police officers and wait to chat with them as they got off work, right?

ADELSTEIN: Yeah. That was very common. That was called yomawari, the evening rounds. That was something I did every day.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, you know, in the United States, I think if an American - if a police detective came home and saw an American reporter hanging out on his driveway, he would be very unnerved by it. It just doesn't happen here, I don't think.

ADELSTEIN: Yeah. I think that that definitely would be - you might be shot, actually, as you're sitting in the driveway as an intruder. In Japan, it was understood that that was part of what police reporters do. And it's part of being a cop at a certain level - is that you had to put up with it. You didn't have to talk to the reporters. But in many senses, police expected you to do that.

DAVIES: And you brought gifts. And, you know, one of the most wonderful examples - maybe you could tell the story of this detective named Sagiguchi (ph). Do I have the name right?

ADELSTEIN: Oh, yeah, Sekiguchi.

DAVIES: Sekiguchi, yeah, who ended up being an important source and relationship with you. Tell us about the first time that you went to see him and the advice you had about how to make your entree.

ADELSTEIN: Well, Sekiguchi-san actually turned out to be my mentor more than any other reporter. But the first time I went to see him, I was working on this bizarre case about a dog breeder and his wife, who were also serial killers. That's a very long story. But Sekiguchi-san was an organized crime control detective assigned to that case, and I wanted to ask him some questions. So I went to his house, which was all the way in northern Saitama, you know, in an area so undeveloped that, like, you know, at night, it was pitch black.

And I bought some ice cream on the way there because ice cream was a good way to get into the house on a summer day. And it works like this. You go to the house. You knock on the door. His wife and his two kids came outside and greeted me. But they wouldn't - but, you know, they ask Sekiguchi-san, you you know, there's this reporter from the Yomiuri who would like to speak to you. Would you speak to him? And, you know, I could hear him from the back saying, like, no way. Send him away. And I said, well, you know, I brought this ice cream. It's going to melt in the car. So please take the ice cream 'cause I'd hate to see it go to waste. So I handed the wife the ice cream, and I started walking back towards the car, at which point Sekiguchi-san came out and said, well, you know, there's more than three of us can eat. And since you've come this far, you might as well come in. I won't tell you anything, but you're welcome to sit down.

DAVIES: That's a detective telling you this, right?

ADELSTEIN: Yeah. That's the detective, Detective Sekiguchi.

DAVIES: And, of course, that began a long and, I know, important relationship for you, as we read about in the book. But it's also just - it struck me how common it was for you and other reporters to give police detectives, you know, cartons of cigarettes, booze, in some cases taking - take them to - for a meal or a sex show. Again, in the United States, cops aren't allowed to accept gifts like this. Is that just routine in Japan?

ADELSTEIN: This also relates to Japanese society in general. When you visit someone in Japan, especially the first time, you know, you're supposed to bring something. You're not supposed to come empty-handed. It's considered very rude. The first time you go to someone's house - actually, every time you go to someone's house, you're supposed to bring something - a snack, a soft drink, some coffee, something to show that you are sorry, are appreciative of the fact that they are spending time with you. So in that sense, you know, I'm just following natural rules of Japanese behavior. You were visiting someone's house. Therefore, the polite thing to do is to bring something to eat or something to drink with you. Admittedly, that gets - you know, like, comping them with tickets to the Yomiuri Giants games and those things - you're getting into a very gray area there. I never gave a cop money. You know, that was total taboo. Other things that were probably worth money - yes, I gave them.

DAVIES: Jake Adelstein recorded in 2009, when his memoir, "Tokyo Vice," was released. The book is the basis of the Max streaming series "Tokyo Vice," now in its second season. We'll hear more of our conversation after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB JAMES AND NATHAN EAST SONG, "ALL WILL BE REVEALED")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to the interview I recorded in 2009 with Jake Adelstein when his memoir about covering organized crime in Japan was published. The book, called "Tokyo Vice," is the basis for the Max streaming series "Tokyo Vice," now in its second season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: Fascinating stuff in this book about the sex industry in Japan. And you took an early tour through this red-light district in Tokyo called Kabukicho. Do I have the name right?

ADELSTEIN: Yes, that's correct, Kabukicho.

DAVIES: What are some of the differences between what's open - that is to say, out in the open as opposed to secret - and what's legal and what's illegal in Japan, in the Japan sex world, as opposed to what Americans are familiar with?

ADELSTEIN: In Japan, basically any sexual act besides sexual intercourse can be offered as a service for money, excluding minors. Basically, any sexual act that you can possibly think of that does not involve actual intercourse is legal and can be offered and advertised as a service in Japan. That's how it works. In Kabukicho in the old days before government - the current governor decided that he was going to close down as many of those places as possible, it was very, very open.

DAVIES: Right.

ADELSTEIN: Even prostitution itself, while being illegal, has this stipulation that, except in rare cases, the prostitute and the customer can't be punished, that only the pimp can be punished, or the brothel owner if it's a kind of brothel set up. So it exists in this gray zone where everything is pretty much legal.

DAVIES: And there were some fascinating specialties, like a place for people with train fetishes.

ADELSTEIN: Oh, yeah, yeah. There are two kinds of places with train fetishes. They actually have a subway car that they've rebuilt inside the building. There's one where you can be a man going on the train and molest a woman, you know, while she's hanging from the straps and be sexually serviced. And there's another kind where the woman actually molests the man as he's hanging from the straps. Depending upon how much you're willing to pay, you could have several women and actually men in there to make it more convincing and, you know, of course, train sounds and all those things.

DAVIES: Wow. And then there are host and hostess' clubs, which you say are one of the most misunderstood aspects of Japan's adult entertainment industry. Tell us about that.

ADELSTEIN: Yeah, a host club - first of all, first, there were hostess clubs. A hostess club is, essentially, you go into the club and you pay either by the hour or - usually an hourly fee or a set fee for a woman to sit next to you and pour your drinks and light your cigarettes and flirt with you as if you - and sometimes sing karaoke with you - as if she were your girlfriend. That's what happens at a hostess club. It's not about buying sex. It's about buying affection, the feeling, the girlfriend experience, if you will.

And host clubs, which have become a big thing in Japan in recent years, are the same things as hostess clubs except women pay men to pretend that they're attracted to them, to dance with them, to pour their drinks, to light their cigarettes and to flirt with them. Sexual favors are not exchanged. And as a matter of fact, if a host or hostess has sexual relations with a customer outside of working hours, they're usually fired.

DAVIES: On a more serious note, I mean, you became aware of some women who were working in the sex industry who appeared not to be there of their own free will. There was human trafficking going on. How did it work in the cases that you found?

ADELSTEIN: You know, Japan is much better than it was at the time I started writing about this, but essentially it works like this. You bring foreign women into the country, often under false pretenses that they would be working as hostesses or working as waitresses in a restaurant. You take away their passports, you put them in a room, you monitor their activity so that they can't leave. And then you take them to the clubs where they have sexual relations with customers and aren't paid.

The women have no freedom of movement. They're told after they've slept with a customer or been forced to slept with a customer - sometimes they were raped first so that they would get used to the job - that if they go to the police, since they're in Japan illegally, that they will simply be deported and that they will still owe money for their travel expenses to Japan. And very often these traffickers would have agents within the countries where they were recruiting these women, which were often in Eastern Europe, and contact the families of the women, you know, under various pretexts, to let the women know that, yes, if they disobeyed or did something in Japan or ran away that their families back home would be menaced or killed.

DAVIES: You worked really hard to develop sources and get enough on the record to write a story about this going on and identify some - a couple of the people that were operating these human trafficking sex joints. What was the reaction among the police and other authorities when you exposed this?

ADELSTEIN: The reaction was that they asked me to introduce some of the women who were victims to them so that they could arrest them and have a pretext to raid these clubs. An officer there I really liked the lot named Ida-san (ph) said, I'd love to put these places out of business, but you have to understand that these women, while they are victims, we can't protect them. We have to prosecute them under Japanese law. There is no provision in the law that allows us to keep these women in the country while we do the investigation.

So I could do the investigation. I could put these people out of business, but in order to do that, I'm going to have to have you put me in contact with some of the women. And I'm not going to be able to take a statement without them - from them without arresting them. And which I couldn't do that. I went to another division of the police department and asked them, you know, like, can you do anything about that? And they said we could do something about it, but first of all, we don't have enough people who speak foreign languages to do a very competent investigation right now. And we've got a lot of other things on our plate. While your article is good, it's not something that's immediately actionable for us.

DAVIES: Which was enormously frustrating to you.

ADELSTEIN: It was enormously frustrating. And what I realized, of course, was that, you know, while the cops had problems with this and would like to do the investigations and put these people out of business, that essentially the law didn't let them do it.

DAVIES: So what did you...

ADELSTEIN: That's why I began writing about the flaws in the law and the whole legal system. And I also began taking, you know, studies and information and cases that I had written up as a reporter and taking them to the U.S. State Department representative at the embassy in Tokyo.

DAVIES: Yeah. And in effect, by embarrassing the government, you were able to get some reform.

ADELSTEIN: Yes. I'm not going to take - I can't take total credit. I would like to take some credit for supplying the U.S. government with enough information that they could embarrass Japan enough that Japan felt compelled to actually put some laws on the books that made trafficking harder to do. One of the things I was most proud of was the International Labour Organization did a very scathing study of human trafficking problems in Japan, pointing out the victims weren't protected, the traffickers were widely punished, fined and rarely did jail time, which the Japanese government, who sponsored the study, told them never release. I was able to get a copy of that report and put it on the front page of our newspaper as a scoop while the Japanese government was still getting ready to announce their plan of action. And I think that had a very positive effect on making them put together a plan that was actually effective.

DAVIES: Jake Adelstein, recorded in 2009, when his memoir, "Tokyo Vice," was released. We'll hear more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAUNDER JURRIAANS AND DANNY BENSI'S "1999")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2009 interview with Jake Adelstein, whose memoir about covering organized crime for a daily paper in Japan is the basis for the Max streaming service "Tokyo Vice," now in its second season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DAVIES: You know, time is limited, so I wanted to get to the circumstance that allowed - that prompted you to leave Japan in the first place and for you to get, well, threatened with murder by the yakuza. What did you do that got them to the point where you seemed a mortal threat to them?

ADELSTEIN: Well, I had problems and issues with one particular yakuza boss named Goto Tadamasa, head of the Goto-gumi. Goto-gumi has about - had, at its peak, about 950 members, and Goto is famous as the yakuza boss who was parodied in a film by Itami Juzo in 1992 called "Minbo No Onna." And he was so offended by that film, which made the yakuza look like the extorting, money-grubbing thugs that they are, that five of his people went to the director's house and slashed him up in broad daylight several times and put him in the hospital for three weeks. That's Goto Tadamasa. I stumbled upon this story about how he had gone to UCLA in the year 2000 and gotten a liver transplant, and he had gotten into the United States by making a deal with the FBI in which he had proffered information about yakuza activities in the United States, including their financial institutions and the names of their major front companies in the U.S. and their bosses, you know, and their dates of birth.

DAVIES: And when you got this information, you had an extraordinary visit from somebody from his organization. Tell us about that.

ADELSTEIN: Yes. I started to make inquiries in the United States as to how this had happened. This was in 2005. I didn't know about the FBI involvement, and I didn't know - you know, I didn't know how Goto Tadamasa had gotten into the United States. I knew that he'd gotten in, I knew that he'd gotten a liver transplant at UCLA, and I knew the name of the surgeon. But I still couldn't figure out how he could have done it because the guy is blacklisted, right? You know, everyone knows that this is a yakuza gangster. Really, I couldn't visualize any way for him getting into the country other than bribing someone on the U.S. government side or on the Japanese government side. I made a couple inquiries. Then I got a phone call one day from someone connected to the Goto-gumi, and the phone call was essentially, you've made the old man very angry. You have three hours to show up at this meeting at the Shinjuku Keio Plaza Hotel. And I said, well, what if I don't show up? And the answer was, well, you'll be dead by the weekend. So I decided I would take that meeting. And I called up Sekiguchi-san in Saitama, and he came up, and the two of us...

DAVIES: That's your friend, the detective, right?

ADELSTEIN: That's my friend, the detective...

DAVIES: Right.

ADELSTEIN: ...Like, you know, my surrogate dad. And we sat down at this, you know, table in the Keio Plaza Hotel, and basically the representatives of the Goto-gumi made me an offer that I didn't think about refusing, which was to back down on the story. And they made the offer in the wonderful way that you can do things in Japanese, where it's very hard to say you've been threatened.

DAVIES: What was said between you?

ADELSTEIN: Literally they said, you know, (speaking Japanese). And literally that could mean, you know, erase the article or something will be erased, and there is a family that exists. Now, my interpretation of that was you either erase the article or I'll erase you and your family. But if you follow the Japanese as it's said, it could be translated 10 different ways, and there's no way to say that - you know, does erase mean kill? Who will do the erasing? Is it a threat? And probably it wouldn't stand up as a threat. I mean, if there's anyone who is skilled at extorting and threatening people without violating the law, it's the yakuza. I mean, it's their bread and butter.

DAVIES: And, of course, this was said in the presence of a police detective who was there as your friend and adviser.

ADELSTEIN: Yes. Yes. Well, they didn't have any qualms about doing that. The one thing they did that was smart is they didn't put down their business cards. We put down ours. They didn't put down theirs. They pointed to this little - you know, this label on their lapel, which indicated they were members of the Yamaguchi-gumi. Even then, it's - you know, if I had filed a criminal complaint, it probably wouldn't have been accepted because I couldn't prove that I'd been threatened.

DAVIES: And it was a big decision for you. What course did you take?

ADELSTEIN: Well, Sekiguchi-san's advice was that I didn't know what I was doing, that I should be grateful that they didn't know how much I didn't know and that for the time being, I should back down and wait until I had more information before I wrote it up or even probed deeper. So his advice was, you know, if you're going to fight these guys, you need to pull back until you're ready and armed to do it right. So I took his advice, and I said, all right, I won't write up this article. It's a done deal.

DAVIES: And it wasn't just that you killed one story. I mean, at this point, you'd been working as a reporter for more than a decade in Japan. You were married to a Japanese wife and had two kids, right?

ADELSTEIN: Right.

DAVIES: And you quit and moved back to the United States, right?

ADELSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, I was in many ways - and probably I think I've tried to explain this in the book, but it doesn't come across right - is I was already decided - I had already decided that I wanted to leave the newspaper. The 80-hour workweeks, the fact that neither of my kids could speak any English, coupled with the fact that my mother back in the United States was in and out of the hospital and we thought there might be something seriously wrong with her - you know, I was ready to leave the newspaper. And I had been discussing leaving the newspaper. What I wanted was one last big scoop, and I thought, this is my big scoop - you know, yakuza boss goes to the United States, seemingly jumps ahead of everybody else to get a liver and comes back. I didn't know about the FBI involvement. If I knew about the FBI involvement in 2005, I probably would have been a little more prudent in approaching people related to this story.

DAVIES: And, again, without going into all the details - people can read it in the book - you - after a period of time when you did some, you know, other investigative work on the State Department study of trafficking, you eventually did come back to this story of the crime boss and his trip to the United States for a liver transplant and got it all published. And...

ADELSTEIN: Yeah. And it wasn't just him. It was three other yakuza - I mean, three other yakuza, like, a total of four yakuza at UCLA getting liver transplants, which is just mind-boggling.

DAVIES: And - but it also got you back into the danger zone in Japan. I mean, you were again threatened numerous times to the point where you were advised better to get it in the paper because then they have less to gain from killing you. Where do you stand today with these folks? Do you sleep comfortably at night?

ADELSTEIN: I sleep relatively comfortably. You know, Goto Tadamasa was kicked out of the Yamaguchi Gumi on October 14, 2008, a very happy day for me. His organization has now been split into two different groups. He allegedly has become a Buddhist priest and is living a life of peace and harmony. I'm very dubious about that claims, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. He still has a hundred people working for him, and he still apparently is involved in loan sharking and other things but probably with a nice Buddhist tolerance in the background of that. There's one other organized crime boss that I have alienated by writing his name in a Japanese book and naming as one of the four yakuza who got a liver transplant, which seems to have implied that he also made a deal with the FBI. Once I can get that corrected somewhere in print in Japan, he probably won't want to kill me. And maybe life will go back to normal.

DAVIES: Do you feel you have to take steps now for the safety of you and your family?

ADELSTEIN: I feel that my family in the United States is probably safe. I think we've all reached agreement that it's not proper or honorable to attack family members. That doesn't mean I'm off limits, but at least it means they're off limits. I've certainly had talks with people high up in the Yamaguchi Gumi and in the Matsuba-kai, and we've sort of reached an agreement that that's unacceptable and would be very bad press for everyone involved.

DAVIES: I don't know if you're comfortable talking about this, but what do you do to ensure your own safety?

ADELSTEIN: In Japan, I have hired a ex-yakuza crime boss to be my bodyguard. We go back about 16 years. I always check in with the police when I go there. I don't take public transportation anymore. I always move my car. I try and be fair in my reporting on organized crime in Japan so that I don't alienate more people than I've already alienated. And that's about the best that I can do.

DAVIES: Well, Jake Adelstein, I wish you safety and continued success. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

ADELSTEIN: Well, thank you very much.

DAVIES: Jake Adelstein is an executive producer for the Max streaming series "Tokyo Vice," now in its second season. We spoke in 2009, when his memoir, "Tokyo Vice," was first released. I checked in with Jake this week to update his story. He says the yakuza are far less powerful in Japan these days. Tough local laws have made their crimes easier to prosecute, and they have roughly a quarter of the membership they had when he wrote his book. He says the practices of getting full-body tattoos and severing fingers are rarely practiced now. He's living in Japan, working as an investigative reporter and author and is far less concerned about his personal safety. He no longer has a bodyguard. He's written a sequel to "Tokyo Vice" titled "Tokyo Noir," scheduled for release this fall. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK QUARTET'S "RHYTHM-A-NING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tags
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.