Hard-hitting author of the popular book Tokyo Vice and the first foreign journalist to work for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Jake Adelstein has stopped at nothing to get a scoop, even if that meant risking his life to take on a highly feared yakuza boss.

By Matthew Hernon

Next year shooting will start on a movie about his time in Japan starring Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. Eager to hear more about the film, and his thoughts on the yakuza and human trafficking, Weekender met up with the 44-year-old at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Yurakucho. Unsurprisingly he pulled no punches.

Let’s start with the movie: how much influence will you have on what goes into it?

I’m so low down on the totem pole; it’s hard to see what’s happening at the top. That said I am being given a significant input into the authenticity of the film, which makes me happy. I just hope it’s realistic and not glorifying the yakuza. It’d be great if it could show some depiction of the joys and pains of investigative journalism, the fact that there is a human intelligence to it and not everything is Googleable.

So Daniel Radcliffe must be busy studying Japanese; what were your thoughts when you heard he was going to play you?

Well I haven’t met him in person yet, but I was told he really wanted to play the role so my first thought was “why?” My agent told me he’d read the book, loved it and asked about a script. Growing up, he wanted to be a reporter and used to write articles for the school newspaper. He sounded very enthusiastic and that counts for a lot. Secondly I wanted to know what his favorite scene in the book was; he told my agent that it was when I was going through my business cards trying to figure out who I had endangered the most. I thought, “right; he’s basically caught one of the moral points of the book.” There’s no clean war: it’s a great thing to fight against injustice and stand up to oppressive thugs who kill innocent people, but there will be collateral damage and that’s your responsibility.

Yakuza politics are dark and sneaky. People die mysteriously all the time, including civilians. I’m certain (movie director) Juzo Itami was murdered, I have it from three creditable sources; the problem is how do you prove it? Take the assassination of the real estate agent (Kazuo) Nozaki: Tadamasa Goto (former yakuza boss known as the John Gotti of Japan) apologized to his family, but he has never been charged for it.

Jake Adelstein

You also received death threats indirectly from Goto; didn’t feel that might have been a good time to step back?

I learned very early that you can’t retreat: the only thing they don’t expect is you to run towards them. Of course I was terrified; the police still occasionally come by and check on me now. I mean the guy had more than 1,000 people under him; there were days when I couldn’t leave the house. I decided I needed an ally so I talked to someone I knew in the Yamaguchi-gumi who disliked Goto. I told him I was working on a story (about Goto receiving a liver transplant in America) and without spelling it out was hoping he might decide that it would be in his interest to keep me alive as it might get his rival kicked out.

The hardest thing was getting the article out there, as no Japanese media would touch it. So I went to the Washington Post who ran with it after a lot of fact-checking. Before that, one magazine actually had a printout of the article ready to go; [I was] sitting in a hotel room with the editor [and] he gets a call saying they were dropping the story and couldn’t explain why. I understood their position—at that time everyone was afraid of the yakuza.

Since then the Organized Crime Exclusion Ordinance has been introduced; do you think the power of the yakuza in the business and political world has been lessened as a result?

In 20 years covering the yakuza I’ve heard many times they are on their last legs; well, they’re very far from that. Take the recent banking scandal: Mizuho gets a business improvement order a few days before the 2nd anniversary of the Organized Crime Exclusion Ordinance. It will have the effect of encouraging companies to work more closely with the police and screen their customers better, but this is by no means an indication that the yakuza are out of the business world.

The problem is that while you have idealists who understand how destructive the yakuza are, you also have the realists asking what are we going to do about the nuclear crisis if we get rid of them? They are not all completely evil groups, they do sometimes contribute to Japanese society and that is why they are tolerated here. Also you have a large number of politicians who are in debt to them and are worried about being blackmailed, so they are not going to make a push to oust them. For example, Prime Minister Abe denies any involvement with them, but there is a picture of him with a Yamaguchi-gumi financier (Icchu Nagamoto).

“I learned very early that you can’t retreat: the only thing they don’t expect is you to run towards them.”

Another big issue for you in Tokyo Vice was human trafficking. have there been any improvements regarding this in the past few years?

What we’re increasingly seeing at Polaris Project Japan (a nonprofit organization aimed at eradicating human trafficking), is Japanese runaways getting sucked into that world. Traffickers are smarter than before. You get a young naive girl, drinking at a host club free a couple of times; she then gets slapped with a huge bill that she can’t pay. After threatening to tell her parents or employers, she’s taken to a loan shark who introduces her to a sex club, which is owned behind the scenes by the same host club that set her up. For the police it’s hard to prove as a human trafficking case.

In terms of foreign women the situation’s improved. There is more screening when they arrive in the country so they are less likely to wind up in the exploited situations they might have experienced in 2008. We are also campaigning to make the possession of child pornography a crime. Japan is one of the few countries where you can still own child porn legally.

What other campaigns are you most passionate about right now?

I wouldn’t say I was an anti-nuclear crusader, but as someone who lives here, the idea of Japan restarting the nuclear power plants is alarming. Everything suggests there is going to be another horrible accident and I don’t think this island country can survive. I can’t say they should give up nuclear power, but it needs to be re-examined.

Then you have the new secrecy law, where they have already said anything relating to nuclear power will be an official secret. Do you really trust this country to tell you what is going on the next time there is a terrible accident? As a journalist I’m seriously concerned. The secrecy law will herald a new dark age in Japan.