Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Crime story

Last week I finished Jake Adelstein's hard-boiled autobiography of working the police beat when he was employed by the Japanese-language Yomiuri Shimbun. (A bit slow of me, I admit: I had waited for the paperback.) The book – Tokyo Vice – is an easy-to-read, page turner which would be interesting enough just as the story of an American journalist (eventually "more Japanese than American") working in an all-Japanese environment, covering police and crime (including, for example, the Lucie Blackman case, but also a multitude of entirely local-to-Tokyo crimes). Most often, such "outsider" views on particularly Japanese working methods retain a totally "outsider" perspective. But Jake's life here in Japan was as an "insider" (if we need to use such terms of reference) and his stories of working methods are told from that perspective.

That would be interesting itself, but Jake's added twist is his uncovering of the story of a major yakuza boss who had a liver transplant in the US and whose visa (which would normally be nixed because of his known membership of the yakuza) was arranged via the FBI in exchange for information – much, but not all, of which the boss reneged on supplying. For his troubles, Jake faced (very real) death threats to himself and his family. He eventually decided that publication was a safer bet – with everything public the reasons behind the threats would presumably disappear or at least be diminished.

All most definitely an underbelly-look at Japan. One of the conduits he sought to publishing the story was the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan's small in-house magazine, Number 1 Shimbun – which I happen to design. So it gets a mention toward the end of the book when he's ready to publish and the story has been submitted to the magazine's editor. Unfortunately, and hurtfully, Jake writes, he was accidentally cc'd on an email from the editor who wondered at the story and Jake: "…is this guy a little nuts?"

That's true, I'm sure. But as designer (with no input on content of course) I was at the meeting to discuss content for the issue at that time. At first sight Jake's story seems over-the-top (as it can do still, even when reading it as laid out factually in the book!) and can lead to that initial question: is he on the level? But a little in Number 1 Shimbun's defence: as he writes on the same page in the book, The Washington Post spent more than a month verifying Jake's story – with the resources and staff, both journalistic and legal, to do so. The FCCJ magazine has no full-time staff and very (very) few resources. After the initial reaction, and because of the need for extensive verification, it was decided that there was simply and unfortunately neither time nor resources to do such in-depth fact-checking. As Jake writes, the magazine nevertheless came around fairly quickly, publishing but with omissions, and in a later issue following up with a story on Jake. Having lunch with Jake before I took his picture for that first article in 2008, hearing the story (and of his then-current job investigating human-trafficking in Japan funded by a government agency in America) was still extraordinary.

In its style, the finished book reads as a one-off cross between newspaper reportage and the Barry Eisler's fictional John Rain thrillers. Enjoy (if that's the right word for reading some of the details of crime in this book and noting Jake's predicament) a swift and revealing read – even without particular interest in Japan you may find it hard to put down.

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