An American reporter takes on the yakuza.
BY PETER HESSLER
Jake Adelstein spoke almost no Japanese when he moved to Tokyo from rural Missouri. Five years later, he was a crime reporter for the country’s largest newspaper. Now he lives under police protection
One of the foremost experts on Japanese organized crime is Jake Adelstein, who grew up on a farm in Missouri, worked as the only American on the crime beat for Japan’s largest newspaper, and currently lives in central Tokyo under police protection. Japanese police protection means that the cops make daily visits to Adelstein’s home, where they leave yellow notes that say, “There was nothing out of the ordinary.” The notes feature the Tokyo police mascot, Pipo-kun, a smiling cartoon figure with big mouse ears and an antenna jutting out of its forehead. Some people in town have trouble taking Adelstein seriously. They dismiss him as a crank, a paranoid foreigner who talks obsessively about death threats from the gangsters known as yakuza. Others react with suspicion; a number of people in Japan claim that his journalism is a front for C.I.A. work. Adelstein does little to dismiss such rumors, apart from maintaining an image so flamboyant that it would shame any actual agency man. He’s in his early forties, and he wears a trenchcoat and a porkpie hat, and he chain-smokes clove cigarettes from Indonesia. For a while, he dyed his hair bright red, claiming that this disguise would foil would-be assassins. He employs a bodyguard who doubles as a chauffeur, an ex-yakuza who cut off his pinkie finger years ago as a gesture of apology to a gang superior. Adelstein says he needs a car and a nine-fingered driver in order to avoid the subway, where a hit man might shove him in front of a train.
Japan is not a dangerous country. Each year, approximately one murder is committed for every two hundred thousand people. This is among the lowest rates in the world, on a par with Iceland and Switzerland; the odds of being murdered in the United States are ten times higher. In Japan, it’s a crime to own a gun, another crime to own a bullet, and a third crime to pull the trigger: three charges before you even think about a target. Yakuza are notoriously bad shots, because practice is hard to come by, but somehow they have gained enormous influence. The police estimate that there are nearly eighty thousand members of yakuza organizations, whereas in America the Mafia had only five thousand in its heyday. The economic collapse of the nineteen-nineties is sometimes called “the yakuza recession,” because organized crime played such a significant role.
“I can’t think of a similar major civilized country where you have this kind of criminal influence,” an American lawyer who handles risk assessment on behalf of a major financial firm told me recently, in Tokyo. He has a background in intelligence, and extensive experience reviewing potential investments to make sure they aren’t connected to organized crime. “Every month, we turn away about a dozen companies that want to do business with us, because they have ties to the yakuza,” he said. He told me that during the crash of 2008 Lehman Brothers lost three hundred and fifty million dollars in bad loans to yakuza front companies, while Citibank lost more than seven hundred million.
The lawyer didn’t want me to use his name or identify his firm. He was familiar with Adelstein’s work, and he noted that Adelstein took a completely different approach. “Jake has got a high profile,” he said. “That’s his style.” He laughed about the clove cigarettes and the porkpie hat, but then he said, “If I were to learn that he was murdered this evening, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Adelstein and I both grew up in Columbia, Missouri, and although I met him only a few times, he was the kind of kid that you don’t forget. Back then, his name was Josh, and he was tall and thin, with a spindly frame. He was so cross-eyed that he had to have corrective surgery. Even after the procedure, his expression remained slightly off-kilter, and you could never tell exactly what he was looking at. Years later, he was given a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome, a rare disorder of connective tissue that often causes serious problems for the eyes, the heart, and other major organs. But as a boy he simply seemed odd. His vision and coördination were so poor that he didn’t get a driver’s license, an essential possession for any high-school male in mid-Missouri, and he had to have classmates chauffeur him around town. He loved theatre, which also qualified as a rare disorder in a sports-mad school. The jocks teased and bullied him, until a teacher suggested that he take up martial arts. Karate led to a freshman-year course in Japanese at the University of Missouri, which went well until Josh fell down an elevator shaft while working at a local bookstore. Even this was a sort of distinction—there aren’t all that many elevators in Columbia, Missouri. Josh spent a week in the hospital with a bad head injury, and although he recovered, he couldn’t remember any Japanese. But the head trauma also erased many memories of high school, so it may have been a good trade. He could always learn the Japanese again.
He spent his sophomore year in Tokyo and never came back. He transferred to a Japanese university, and as a student he lived in a Zen Buddhist temple for three years. Somewhere along the way, he abandoned plans to become an actor, and he changed his name to Jake, for reasons that seemed to vary depending on when you asked him about it. He learned Japanese so quickly that within five years of studying the language he had passed the three-part exam to become a police reporter for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Shimbun. Adelstein is believed to be the first American ever to make it through the newspaper’s rigorous exam system.
The Yomiuri is the largest daily in the world. It prints two editions every day, and the total circulation is thirteen and a half million, more than ten times higher than that of the Times. Most stories are covered by teams of journalists. At the Yomiuri, rookie police reporters are assigned to cover high-school baseball, because the sport is supposed to be good training for crime journalists—the teamwork, the statistics, the attention to detail. Adelstein told me that he spent his training period longing for a major crime to be committed. “In the middle of the high-school baseball season, we were saved by the murder of this really beautiful girl who was killed and her body was found in a barrel,” he said. “It’s terrible to say, but I was happy to be doing something different.”
In 2004, when I was living in China, I made a trip to Tokyo and contacted Adelstein. One evening, he gave me a tour of the red-light district in Kabukicho, telling outlandish stories about yakuza pimps. As part of his job, the Yomiuri provided a car and a full-time driver. Adelstein sat in back, dressed in a suit and tie; periodically, he instructed the chauffeur to stop so he could meet a contact at a pachinko parlor or a dodgy massage joint. The last time I had seen him, a high-school buddy was driving him around mid-Missouri in a station wagon, because his vision was so bad, but now he had transformed back-seat status into a mark of prestige. A Missouri friend named Willoughby Johnson once said that Adelstein was still essentially an actor. “There’s a degree to which anybody who becomes a character does so through self-fashioning,” Johnson told me recently. He had been Adelstein’s most faithful chauffeur in high school, and he still called him Josh. “I think of Josh in this way,” he continued. “He decided that he wanted to become this international man of mystery.”
In Japan, yakuza sometimes speak of themselves in terms of acting. “It’s an atmosphere, a presence,” an ex-gang member once told me. As a young criminal, he had been given valuable advice by hisoyabun, the “foster parent” within his gang. “My oyabun told me that when you’re a yakuza people are always watching you,” he said. “Think of yourself as being onstage all the time. It’s a performance. If you’re bad at playing the role of a yakuza, then you’re a bad yakuza.”
The name refers to an unlucky hand at cards—yakuza means “eight-nine-three”—and bluffing has always been part of the image. Many gangsters are Korean-Japanese or members of other minority groups that traditionally have been scorned. These outsiders proved to be nimble after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, an era that is explored in “Tokyo Underworld,” by Robert Whiting. During this period, organized-crime groups established black markets where citizens could acquire necessities, and they were skilled at dealing with the occupying Americans. As Japan rebuilt, the yakuza got involved in real estate and in public-works projects.
For the most part, the yakuza eschewed violence against civilians, because the image of criminality was effective enough in an orderly society. Gangsters decorated their backs and arms with elaborate tattoos, and they permed their hair in tight curls that stood out among the Japanese. If a yakuza displeased a superior, he chopped off his own pinkie finger as a sign of apology. Gang members excelled at loan-sharking, extortion, and blackmail, and they found creative ways to terrorize banks. A few months ago, I accompanied Adelstein on a visit to the home of an aging mid-level gang member, who, along with a former colleague, reminisced about extorting banks in the nineteen-eighties.
“I thought he was a genius, but now I find out he was self-proclaimed.”
“Sometimes we’d send three guys with cats, and they would twirl the cats around by the tail in front of the bank,” one said, with Adelstein translating. “They’d do that until the bank finally gave them a loan. Or we’d have a hundred yakuza line up outside a bank. Each would go in and open an account for one yen, which was the lowest amount allowed. It would take all day, until finally the bank would agree to give some loans, to get rid of us.” He said they wouldn’t pay the loans back. “But we’d give the bank some protection, as well as help with collecting other bad loans,” he said. “So it wasn’t a terrible deal for them.”
Both men were heavyset, with broad noses that looked to have been broken in the past. Their eyes were incredibly expressive—they had high arched brows, as fine as manga brushstrokes, that fluttered whenever they got excited. One had had his shoulders and arms tattooed with chrysanthemums, a patriotic symbol of imperial Japan. The men believed that true yakuza do honorable work: they go after deadbeats who don’t repay loans, and they allow people to solve problems without wasting money on lawyers. Yakuza groups also engage in charity, especially after earthquakes or other disasters.
Many yakuza became rich during the bubble economy of the eighties and nineties, and they developed extensive corporate structures. (There’s never been a law that bans the gangs, which are fully registered.) Nowadays, yakuza run hedge funds. They speculate in real estate. The Inagawa-kai, one of the three biggest gangs, keeps its main office across the street from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in midtown Tokyo. At least one Japanese Prime Minister has been documented socializing with yakuza, and politicians have the kind of contact with criminal groups that would destroy a career elsewhere. In the mid-nineties, Shizuka Kamei, who was the minister of exports, admitted that he had accepted substantial donations from a yakuza front company, though he denied being aware of the criminal links. This did so little damage to his reputation that he eventually became minister of the agency that regulates Japan’s finance industry.
As a foreigner, Adelstein moves easily between the yakuza and the police, playing the flamboyant outsider with both. Yet he follows strict rules: Information that comes from cops can be taken to other law-enforcement officials, but it cannot be passed to yakuza. In contrast, if a yakuza tells Adelstein something, the goal is usually to expose a rival group, so this information can be passed on to the cops. Adelstein says that the key to his work is the Japanese concept of giri, or reciprocity. His typical routine involves exchanging small favors with contacts, collecting bits of information that can be leveraged elsewhere.
One afternoon last spring, I accompanied Adelstein to a Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood of Roppongi, to meet with a gangster who had a favor to ask. He was around forty years old—I’ll call him Miyamoto—and he was college-educated, with perfect English. During his pre-yakuza days, he had worked for a public-relations firm in Tokyo. Back then, one of the agency’s clients was an American auto manufacturer that regularly sent high-level management to Japan. In the evenings, it was Miyamoto’s task to escort the gaijin to the massage parlors known as “soapland,” where customers can enjoy a bath, a massage, and sex. Eventually, some yakuza extorted the public-relations firm, threatening to go to the tabloids with stories about American auto execs at soapland. Miyamoto handled the payoff, and then the next shakedown, and soon he became the firm’s de-facto yakuza liaison. The gangsters liked what they saw and recruited him away from the agency.
Since then, Miyamoto had become a full gang member, although hisoyabun had told him to avoid tattoos, because they would be a liability in the corporate world. He had kept all his fingers for the same reason. Nowadays, he helped his gang manage three hedge funds. At the restaurant, he handed Adelstein a new business card. “Be really careful with this card, because it’s my legitimate business,” he said, in English. “If this gets out, we won’t get listed on the stock market.”
The favor he needed was personal. His wife had left him after he became a yakuza, and he hadn’t seen his child for years. The recent tsunami, which had occurred less than two months earlier, made him want to get back in touch. He asked Adelstein to contact his estranged wife and tell her that he wasn’t a yakuza anymore.
“I can’t lie to her,” Adelstein said. “I can say you’re doing legitimate business. But I can’t say you’re not a yakuza.”
Miyamoto agreed, and then he talked about other corporate gangsters, mentioning a well-known gang. “They now have a guy who worked for Deutsche Bank,” he said.
Adelstein remarked that Miyamoto had posted his gang symbol online, and he warned him to be careful. “You need to back off on Twitter.”
“Man, I’ve got a thousand followers!”
“You shouldn’t say that stuff on Twitter about your bitches giving you money.”
“The police won’t read it. People think it’s fake, anyway.”
“Well, there’s a new law going on the books in October, and if you’re talking about taking protection money you could get arrested,” Adelstein said.
There was never any mention of what Miyamoto might do in exchange for Adelstein’s contacting his wife. But after a while the yakuza leaned forward and spoke in a low voice about the Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, which owns and manages the Fukushima nuclear reactors that had been damaged by the tsunami. There had been accusations of mismanagement, and Miyamoto suggested that Adelstein research potential links between TEPCO and the Matsuba-kai, a criminal organization. “You know what’s really interesting?” he said. “The Matsuba-kai guys play golf with the waste-disposal guys for TEPCO. That’s what you need to look into.” He also named a yakuza from another gang who had supposedly made a million-dollar profit from supplying workers and construction materials to the reactors.
During the following weeks, Adelstein took pieces of information about the reactors to various contacts. Over the summer, he published a number of articles in The Atlantic online, the London Independent, and some Japanese publications, exposing criminal links at TEPCO. He described how yakuza front companies had supplied equipment and contract workers, and he quoted an engineer who had noticed something strange when he saw some cleanup crews change clothes: beneath the white hazmat suits, their bodies were covered with tattoos.
When Adelstein worked for the Yomiuri, he says there was a tacit understanding that investigative reporting on the yakuza shouldn’t go too far. Media companies, like many big Japanese corporations, often had links to criminal groups, and even the police tried not to be too combative. For one thing, tools were limited: Japanese authorities can’t engage in plea bargaining or witness relocation, and wiretapping is almost never allowed. In the past, yakuza were rarely violent, and if they did attack somebody it was usually another gang member, which wasn’t considered a problem. One officer in the organized-crime-prevention unit told me that, in the nineteen-eighties, if a yakuza killed a rival he often turned himself in. “The guilty person would appear the next day at the police station with the gun and say, ‘I did it,’ ” the cop said. “He’d be in jail for only two or three years. It wasn’t like killing a real person.”
Even the police officer believed that yakuza serve some useful functions. “Japanese society doesn’t really have any place for juvenile delinquents,” he said. “That’s one role the yakuza play. Traditionally, it’s a place where people can send juvenile delinquents.” The fact that these delinquents are subsequently raised to become yakuza didn’t seem to bother the cop too much. When I asked if he had ever fired his gun, he said that he hadn’t even used his nightstick. His business card identified his specialty as “Violent Crime Investigation,” and it featured the smiling Pipo-kun with his antenna, which symbolized how police can sense things happening everywhere in society. The officer explained that until recently the cops would notify yakuza before making a bust, out of respect, which allowed gangsters to hide any particularly damning evidence. “Now we don’t do that anymore,” he said.
He lamented a loss of civility among a new generation of yakuza. “It used to be that they didn’t do theft or robbery,” he said. “It was considered shameful.” He blamed greed: when the bubble economy collapsed, in the nineties, many wealthy yakuza had trouble adjusting. After years of adopting the façade of dangerous sociopaths, some began to live up to the image. The officer identified a gangster named Tadamasa Goto as an example of the new breed. “He’s much more ruthless than yakuza were in the past,” he said. “He’ll go after civilians. Unfortunately, more yakuza have become like that.”
Six days before our conversation, one of Goto’s former underlings had been shot dead in Thailand. For years, he had been on the run, a suspect in the murder of a man who had stood in Goto’s way in a real-estate deal. The cop said that Goto was cleaning up potential witnesses, and he reminded me that the gangster had also issued death threats against Adelstein. The most recent had been made last year, when Goto published his autobiography. “We suspect Goto of being involved in the killing of seventeen people,” the cop said.
“Say the egg didn’t come back—then what?”
The criminal autobiography is a perverse genre anywhere, but this is especially true in Japan, where Goto’s book appeared with the title “Habakarinagara,” a polite phrase that means “with all due respect.” At the time of publication, the author announced that all royalties would be dedicated to a charity for the disabled in Cambodia and to a Buddhist temple in Burma. The book begins in a David Copperfield vein: As a boy, Goto lacked shoes, and he ate barley instead of rice. (“Those years were extremely tough, with an alcoholic bum for a father.”) He describes the rise from juvenile delinquency to the yakuza with a nice baseball metaphor. (“I felt as though we had been playing neighborhood baseball in a weedy field then suddenly got scouted to play in the major leagues.”) Crimes are mentioned breezily, with few details, although even the offhand ones tend to be memorable. (“My third brother, Yasutaka, was one of the guys who threw leaflets and excrement around Suruga Bank, and he went to prison for that.”) Goto emphasizes his sense of honor; if nothing else, he has the courage of his convictions. (“I couldn’t go apologize and beg forgiveness. I am not cut out that way. I have pride. So instead I chopped off one of my fingers and brought it to Kawauchi.”)
For years, this auto-amputee was one of the largest shareholders of Japan Airlines. According to police estimates, Goto’s assets are worth about a billion dollars, and he controlled his own faction within the Yamaguchi-gumi, the top criminal organization in the country. He is notorious for an attack on Juzo Itami, one of Japan’s greatest filmmakers. In May of 1992, Itami released “Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion,” a movie that portrayed yakuza as fakes who don’t live up to their tough-guy image. Days later, five members of Goto’s organization attacked the filmmaker in front of his home, slashing his face and neck with knives.
Afterward, Itami became even more outspoken. Five years later, he apparently committed suicide, leaping from the roof of his office building. He left a note explaining that he was distraught over an alleged love affair. But Adelstein, citing an unnamed yakuza source, subsequently reported that the filmmaker had been forced to sign the note and jump, and the police have treated the case as a possible homicide. The American lawyer who researches organized crime told me that some yakuza groups specialize in murders that look like suicide. “I used to think they committed suicide out of shame, because the Japanese do that, culturally,” he said. “But nowadays when I hear that somebody killed himself I often doubt that’s what happened.”
At the Yomiuri, Adelstein started investigating Goto. He had been making progress when one of his sources, a foreign prostitute, disappeared. Adelstein was convinced that she had been murdered, and soon he became obsessed with the case. He was married to a Japanese journalist named Sunao, and they had two small children. But Adelstein rarely made it home before midnight, because Japanese crime reporters are expected to smoke and drink heavily with cops and other contacts. Sometimes he was threatened by yakuza; once he was badly beaten and suffered damage to his knee and spine. Like many people with Marfan syndrome, he took daily medication for his heart, and there were signs that his life style was becoming self-destructive. He had always had a tendency to dramatize his health problems—this was part of his image—but now he seemed to be growing into the role of the troubled crime reporter.
Years later, both Adelstein and his wife said that this period destroyed their marriage. It also finished his career at the Yomiuri. After a certain point, he says, the paper balked at publishing more stories about Goto, and Adelstein quit. To this day, nobody at the paper will speak on the record about him; some reporters told me that he was a liar, while others said that the Yomiuri had been frustrated by his obsession. A couple of people alleged that he worked for the C.I.A. Staff from competing papers seemed more likely to praise his work, and a number of people indicated that the Japanese media tended to shy away from stories that would anger powerful yakuza figures like Goto. They also said that people at the Yomiuri were angry about Adelstein’s departure because it violated traditional corporate loyalty.
After leaving the Yomiuri, Adelstein kept investigating, until finally he homed in on Goto’s liver. For yakuza, the liver is a crucial body part, a target of self-abuse on a par with the pinkie finger. Many gangsters inject methamphetamines, and dirty needles can spread hepatitis C, which is also a risk of the big tattoos. In addition, there’s a lot of drinking and smoking. In the yakuza community, a sick liver is a badge of honor, something that a proud samurai like Goto brags about in his memoirs. (“I drank enough to destroy three livers.”) But it also means that yakuza often need transplants, and a criminal source told Adelstein that Goto had received a new liver in the United States, where his extensive record would make him ineligible for a visa. After months of investigation, Adelstein discovered that Goto and three other yakuza had been patients at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center, one of the nation’s premier transplant facilities. Goto had been granted a visa because of a deal with the F.B.I.—he had agreed to rat out other yakuza.
Adelstein broke the story in May of 2008, first in the WashingtonPost and then with details that he gave to reporters at the Los AngelesTimes. Jim Stern, a retired head of the F.B.I.’s Asian criminal-enterprise unit, confirmed the deal, although he told the L.A. Times, “I don’t think Goto gave the bureau anything of significance.” (Stern was not involved in the deal.) According to Adelstein’s Japanese police sources, the U.C.L.A. Medical Center received donations in excess of a million dollars from yakuza. An investigation at U.C.L.A. found no wrongdoing, and the medical center reported only two hundred thousand dollars in donations, although it acknowledged other signs of giri—for example, one yakuza gave his doctor a case of wine, a watch, and ten thousand dollars. The year that Goto received his liver, a hundred and eighty-six Americans in the Los Angeles area died while waiting for a transplant. Long before the articles appeared, Goto’s men had contacted Adelstein. He says that they threatened to kill him, while another gang leader offered him half a million dollars to drop the story. After that, Adelstein was placed under Tokyo police protection, and the F.B.I. monitored his wife and children, who had moved to the United States.
In 2008, the Yamaguchi-gumi officially expelled Goto. He undertook the training necessary to be certified as a Buddhist priest, a step that’s not uncommon for ex-yakuza who fear retribution from former colleagues. It’s bad karma to kill a priest, even if he’s a former crime boss who reportedly still commands many loyal followers. And Goto is the type of Buddhist priest who uses his autobiography to issue oblique threats. “Just because I’ve retired from the business, doesn’t mean I have the time to track down this American novelist,” he says in “With All Due Respect.” “If I did meet him it would be a serious matter. He’d have to write, ‘Goto is after me’ instead of ‘Goto may come after me.’ ”
In 2010, Adelstein hired a lawyer named Toshiro Igari to sue Goto’s publisher and force the retraction of this threat. Igari was involved in many anti-yakuza cases, including investigations into fixing sumo matches and professional baseball games. In August, the lawyer went on vacation to the Philippines, where he was found dead in a room with a cup of sleeping pills, a set of box cutters, a glass of wine, and a shallow cut on his wrist. The Philippine police report was inconclusive, although most Japanese newspapers reported the death as a suicide. In Japan, Goto’s book has sold more than two hundred thousand copies, and, since the earthquake in March, all royalties have been dedicated to tsunami relief.
During the spring, I visited Adelstein in Tokyo, and the first thing he told me was that a week earlier he had been given a diagnosis of liver cancer. He had also nearly completed training to become a Zen Buddhist priest. Adelstein figured that if Goto could do it for protection he could, too. He considered himself a Buddhist, and he liked the concept of karma, although he had told the priest who was training him that he didn’t believe in reincarnation. “He said you don’t have to believe,” Adelstein said. “In Buddhism, it’s not about faith. It’s about doing.”
He seemed neither surprised nor upset about the cancer diagnosis. The disease had been discovered in the early stages, and doctors at a clinic in Tokyo were treating it with injections of ethanol. They had told Adelstein that the cancer might be connected to diet, or to years of drinking and smoking, or even to Marfan syndrome. Regardless, his tranquillity probably had less to do with Zen than it did with operating in a milieu where everybody knows something about liver problems. One afternoon, we stopped by the neighborhood police station, where Adelstein mentioned the diagnosis to a detective friend. “Wow, you’re just like a yakuza!” the cop said. “Are you actually covered with tattoos?” When we met with one of Adelstein’s criminal contacts, he talked about how his gang boss had originally hoped to get a U.C.L.A. liver, but after Adelstein’s exposé he had been forced to settle for an Australian organ instead. (He eventually went through two Aussie livers, and then died.) Periodically, Adelstein’s driver gave updates on a mutual acquaintance whose liver hadn’t responded to ethanol and was currently being zapped with radio-wave treatment. The driver himself had a lucky liver—his hepatitis C had been successfully treated with interferon.
The driver’s name was Teruo Mochizuki, and he had a long criminal history. As a teen-ager, he had been a delinquent, until finally his parents, in frustration, passed him off to a local yakuza. Mochizuki joined the Inagawa-kai, and he became addicted to methamphetamines. He had gone to prison four times on drug-related charges. Now in his fifties, he said he had been clean for more than two decades. He was powerfully built, with broad shoulders, no neck, and a bullet-shaped head. Like other yakuza I met, he had expressive eyes, although even the manga brows remained still when I asked about his left hand. He said quietly, “There was some trouble and I had to lose the finger.” He had done it in front of his boss at the gang’s office. A doctor stopped the bleeding, but Mochizuki had declined treatment of the nerve endings. “To repair the finger would be to take back the apology,” he explained. He said that the yakuza tradition is connected to the way that samurai warriors ritually sliced their own stomachs in ancient times. He also remarked that Japanese law grants disability status to a nine-fingered person, but Mochizuki refused to apply, out of respect for his digital apology.
He had known Adelstein for more than fifteen years. When I asked how they had first met, he told the story casually, as if these were the details of an everyday personal encounter. In 1993, an associate of Mochizuki’s was blackmailing the criminal owner of a pet store, so the owner murdered the yakuza, and, according to rumor, carved up the body and fed it to his dogs. Adelstein, who was single at the time, covered the story and interviewed the dead yakuza’s meth-head girlfriend; almost immediately, they began sleeping together. One day, Mochizuki went to the girlfriend’s house to pay his condolences, and Adelstein answered the door, postcoital.
I had lots of possible questions but decided to go with the most obvious: “What was your first impression of Jake-san?”
“My first impression was ‘What an idiot!’ ” Mochizuki said. “You can look all over Japan and you won’t find a reporter willing to do these things. I was surprised that he was fearless. He was just so strange.”
Over the years, Adelstein and Mochizuki became friends. In 2007, Mochizuki was expelled from the Inagawa-kai, after an internal conflict that he didn’t want to talk about. The following year, Adelstein offered Mochizuki a job as his bodyguard and driver. “I didn’t want to do it,” Mochizuki told me. “Goto is one of the most influential guys in Japan, and nobody would want a job like that. But I felt like I had no other choice.” He explained that Tokyo job prospects are poor for an uneducated middle-aged man with nine fingers and tattoos that show beneath a dress shirt. He now earns about thirty-five hundred dollars a month for driving Adelstein around Tokyo in a black Mercedes S600, which is a common yakuza car model. Adelstein had bought it cheap from a gang contact who was retiring and no longer needed a statement vehicle.
Mochizuki told me that Adelstein behaved differently from typical Japanese journalists, who are careful not to cross certain lines. “He has no regard for those taboos or restrictions,” he said. “If he were Japanese, he wouldn’t be around right now.” Mochizuki explained that some yakuza dislike Adelstein’s stories, but he is widely recognized as a man of his word. “He has a heart,” Mochizuki said. “People appreciate him for that. It’s not common for somebody who is not Japanese to have this feeling of obligation.”
Adelstein has published a book about his adventures on the police beat, “Tokyo Vice,” and is working on two more. A few years ago, he researched human trafficking for the U.S. State Department, and now he serves as a board member for the Polaris Project Japan, a nonprofit that combats the sex trade. Periodically, he does investigations for corporations. The American lawyer who researches organized crime told me that when he first met Adelstein his image was off-putting. But he had become deeply impressed by his work. “He’s a craftsman,” he said. “He takes pride in doing the kind of research he does correctly.” He continued, “It’s this odd thing where you have this white guy who is as close to that part of Japanese society as a person can get.”
Adelstein follows his strict rules of reciprocity and protection of sources, but otherwise he is willing to do nearly anything to get a story. He said that once, after his marriage had fallen apart, a lonely female cop offered access to a file on Goto if he slept with her, so he did. In the red-light district, he relies on foreign strippers for information, and on a few occasions when they have run into visa problems he has introduced them to gay salarymen who need wives in order to rise at their conservative Japanese companies. Adelstein says he never breaks the law—he puts these people in touch and tells them that they are free to fall in love and get married, and then they are also free to apply for spousal visas and to show up at corporate events together. But he acknowledges that a journalist in America would be appalled. “I’ve slept with sources,” he told me. “I’ve done hard negotiations that are probably tantamount to blackmail. I’ve ransacked rubbish bins for information. I’m willing to get information from organized crime or antisocial forces if the information is good.”
By now, he’s played the stereotypical role of the crime reporter for so long that he can’t shake the life style. Whenever I went out with him, we always seemed to end up having drinks with some beautiful, bright woman. For five years, he has rented a house in a quiet neighborhood, but it was as if he had just moved in: at night, he dragged a futon out of a closet and slept on the floor of his office. For breakfast, he microwaved instant meals from a convenience store and served them on paper plates. In the kitchen, I counted five bottles of whiskey, four bottles of vodka, and three spoons. There was no table; he ate takeout meals on the couch. He marked his hand with a pen every time he lit a clove cigarette, supposedly to cut back, although once I watched him accumulate six marks while we were en route to a cancer treatment. On that particular day, the doctor decided to postpone the injection of ethanol, but I wasn’t sure that Adelstein’s body noticed the difference. We went straight from the appointment to dinner at a shabu-shabu restaurant, where he ordered two bottles of sake and finished them while waiting for an elegant Japanese-American woman to join us. After that, he had five more drinks at three different bars, and he was still going strong at two in the morning.
In the farmland of southern Boone County, atop the last line of hills that overlook the Missouri River, stands a six-sided pagoda. The structure has three tiers marked by upturned eaves. “It was my impression of what a Japanese house should be,” Eddie Adelstein told me, when I visited in April. He said that he didn’t know much about Japan, having travelled there only once to see his son, but he had always liked the idea of an Asian house. He had a friend in Kansas who specialized in designing six-sided buildings, so they combined their interests. Since 2005, the pagoda has been home to Sunao Adelstein and her two children. Eddie and his wife, Willa, live in another building on the property.
The neighbors are mostly farmers and people who moved to the countryside for the quiet, but they’ve picked up certain ideas about the yakuza and Tadamasa Goto. “When it started, somebody from the F.B.I. came by and talked to everybody,” Heidi Branaugh, a nurse who lives on a small farm nearby, told me. “It was just odd. The first night I was here, after the sheriff came by, there was a helicopter overhead.” Branaugh keeps a donkey, forty chickens, ten goats, and a dog named Bessie. She said that for a year Bessie barked at the car that the sheriff’s department parked near the pagoda every evening. “They’d sit right up there on the drive, watching. Once, they chased some guys who were looking for mushrooms.”
Sunao Adelstein told me that she was tired of thinking about Goto. In 2008, the F.B.I. had advised the family to install an alarm system and buy some guns, because it wouldn’t be too hard for a hit man to track down a pagoda near the Missouri River. Since then, the authorities believed that the local risk had passed, although at the time of my visit Sunao had not returned to Japan for two years, because the Tokyo police were still concerned about Goto’s threat. Sunao used to work as a business reporter in Tokyo, but now she was studying accounting and trying to adjust to life in rural Missouri. She liked the pagoda, although she complained that there was almost no closet space, because the designer had been so obsessed with the Japanese exterior. Who would have imagined that a pagoda needed closets? “Very often I think, Why am I living here?” she said. “I grew up in Saitama. It’s not a big city, but it’s a suburb of Tokyo. I never dealt with ticks, with bugs. I hate ticks!”
Sunao is a slender, pretty woman, and she took me for a walk in the countryside with the children. She wore a short red skirt and black leggings; periodically, she stopped to check for ticks. After years of living apart, she and Jake had finally decided to file for legal separation. She said that her husband had changed after his research took him deep into the criminal underworld. “He was beaten by somebody, so he was wary. He was not goofy Jake anymore,” she said. “He would use words the yakuza way.” She continued, “It has to do with the facial expression, the way they speak. When he got angry, he was like this. We argued once and he said, ‘Omae niwa kankeine! Kono Bakayaro!’ I thought, Oh, he knows bad Japanese now.”
She said that at one time she had hoped he would find a different career, but now she realized that it would never happen. Some of Adelstein’s friends and family told me that he was addicted to the excitement, while others mentioned that he was too attached to the character that he had created. But beneath the chaotic personal life there was also something deeply moralistic about his outlook. He seemed to have more faith in girithan he did in any system of justice, and he could respect even a criminal as long as the man kept his word. “He expects people to be fair and honest,” his father told me.
Eddie Adelstein said that his own experiences with crime had influenced his son. He worked as a pathologist at the V.A. hospital in Columbia, and had served as the county medical examiner for more than twenty years. In the early nineteen-nineties, patients suddenly began dying at a high rate, and there were rumors about a nurse named Richard Williams. Finally, Dr. Adelstein commissioned an epidemiologist, who performed a study and said that there was evidence of foul play: it was ten times more likely that a patient would die during one of Williams’s shifts than under another nurse’s care. Some believed that the nurse might be killing patients by injecting codeine, but nobody knew for certain. When Dr. Adelstein approached hospital administrators, their first response was to hide the findings. “Everybody who took part in the coverup was promoted, and everybody who tried to expose it was punished,” he said.
Williams eventually left the hospital, but the director gave him a letter of recommendation that helped him find a job at a rural nursing home. During Williams’s first year at the nursing home, there was a sudden increase in deaths over the preceding year. Dr. Adelstein and others took the story to the F.B.I., Congress, and “ABC News.” The F.B.I. investigated, but forensic results were incomplete, in part because labs were too busy with tests related to the O. J. Simpson trial. Williams was charged, but the case was dismissed when prosecutors could not determine the cause of death. At last report, he was living quietly in suburban St. Louis. He is suspected of murdering as many as forty-two people, many of them war veterans—more victims than are attributed to Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or Tadamasa Goto.
All that had happened while Jake Adelstein was starting his career in Japan. “It made me extremely distrustful of everyone,” he told me. “The biggest lesson I took was that even when you’re in the right, when you’re doing something good, you won’t be rewarded.” And it occurred to me that the darkest element of his life wasn’t the image he projected of the tormented reporter, or even the crazy yakuza stories. Beneath all the exoticism, it was actually the normalcy of crime that was most disturbing. Whether you’re in Missouri or Tokyo, things aren’t always what they seem—the nurse might be a murderer, and the gangster might run a hedge fund.
During one of my trips to Japan, I contacted Tadamasa Goto’s publicist, who said that his client wasn’t accepting interviews. So I got in touch with Tomohiko Suzuki, a journalist who has written for yakuza fanzines, which cover criminals as celebrities. Recently, there had been rumors that Suzuki was channelling messages from Goto.
We met at a Tokyo coffeehouse. Suzuki wore blue work clothes and heavy boots, because he had just returned from a charity event in a town called Minamisoma, which was still suffering from the effects of the tsunami. In recent weeks, yakuza had been donating aid, and Goto had pitched in by sponsoring the day’s charity event, which was called With All Due Respect. When I asked if any famous yakuza had attended, Suzuki named one and said, “He’s the guy who stabbed the cult member in front of the media.” I didn’t pursue the details; by now I understood that the blandly offhand tone of such statements was basically the point.
Suzuki said that Adelstein’s status as a foreigner had protected him from Goto. People in law enforcement and in diplomatic circles had told me that they still took the threats seriously, but Suzuki said that their caution wasn’t necessary anymore. “Those are the kinds of things that yakuza say all the time,” he said. “It’s kind of like saying ‘Hello’ for a yakuza.”
A few months later, though, there were reports that Goto had become formally active again in organized crime. Not long after that, new laws went into effect that finally made it illegal to pay off yakuza. It was unclear how rigorously such regulations would be enforced, but they seemed to reflect a growing desire to control criminal groups. Suzuki hadn’t said anything about Goto’s plans during our meeting. He had visited the crime boss just a week earlier. “I didn’t notice anything wrong with him—he looked very healthy,” Suzuki said. “I think U.C.L.A. did a good job.”
On the morning of my departure, Mochizuki drove Adelstein and me to Narita Airport. Adelstein had heard that somebody had recently smuggled a Marine-issued rifle through customs. “I have a contact in customs that I’ll talk to about it,” he said. “There might be a story.” Afterward, he planned to go to a press conference downtown, and he was dressed in black suit pants, a pin-striped shirt, and a black trenchcoat with red silk lining. He wore his porkpie hat. We had been on the road for a few minutes before he realized that he had forgotten his shoes. He laughed hysterically at his bulky house slippers and said that he’d have to buy a pair of loafers at an airport shop.
He was scheduled to undergo a chemotherapy treatment in about a week. At seven-twenty-five, he lit the day’s first clove cigarette, and he chain-smoked during the long drive to the airport. (A few months later, he would finally succeed in quitting cigarettes.) On the way, Mochizuki asked Adelstein if he’d like to go on a beach vacation with him. “We should do this before one of us has bad health,” the driver said. A couple of nights earlier, I had been in the car when Adelstein asked Mochizuki if he had ever killed a person. The driver paused, as if choosing his words carefully. “I’ve never killed anybody who wasn’t a yakuza,” he said at last, laughing.
Stories tended to tumble out of Adelstein, full of crazy yakuza details, and today he told a new one. He said that during his period of obsessive research he had conducted an affair with one of Goto’s mistresses. The gangster reportedly kept more than a dozen women in Tokyo and other cities, and Adelstein slept with one who gave him useful information. Eventually, he helped her escape Goto by introducing her to a gay salaryman who needed a wife and was about to be posted overseas. He said that the couple still shared an address in Europe. I asked what the mistress was like.
“We had this lovely conversation once in bed,” Adelstein said. “She said, ‘Do you love me?’ I said, ‘No, but I like you.’ She said, ‘I like you, too. You’re a lot of fun.’ Then she said, ‘Are you sleeping with me to get information about Goto?’ I said, ‘Pretty much. What about you?’ She said, ‘Well, I hate the motherfucker and every time I sleep with you it’s like I’m stabbing him in the face.’ She was into astronomy. Once, we went to a planetarium in Sunshine City. I think that was the only time we ever went out in public together. That was our only date.” He continued, “It was nice. Another time, I gave her a gift—I bought an expensive planetarium set that Sega makes. She cried.”
He lit another cigarette. He had told me once that he didn’t expect to have a long life, but in Tokyo he always seemed happy and full of energy. I liked the image from his story: the odd couple at the planetarium, the Japanese gangster’s mistress and the cross-eyed kid from Missouri, both of them staring up at the stars. I thought about that until we reached the airport and he went off to find some shoes. ♦
Peter Hessler joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2000.