Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan'

'Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan' by Jake Adelstein


July 12, 1992, marked the turning point of my education about Japan. I was glued to a position next to the phone, feet inside my mini- refrigerator--in the heat of the summer any cool will do--waiting for a call from the Yomiuri Shinbun, Japan's most prestigious newspaper. I would land a job as a reporter, or I would remain jobless. It was a long night, the culmination of a process that had stretched out over an entire year.

Not long before that, I had been wallowing in the luxury of not caring a bit about my future. I was a student at Sophia (Joichi) University in the middle of Tokyo, where I was working toward a degree in comparative literature and writing for the student newspaper.

So I had experience, but nothing that would pass for the beginnings of a career. I was a step up from teaching English and was making a decent income translating instructional kung fu videos from English into Japanese. Combined with an occasional gig giving Swedish massage to wealthy Japanese housewives, I earned enough for day-to-day expenses, but I was still leaning on the parents for tuition.

I had no idea what I wanted to do. Most of my fellow students had jobs already promised them before their graduation--a practice called naitei, which is unethical, but everyone does it. I had gotten such a promise too, with Sony Computer Entertainment, but it was good only if I extended my schooling for another year. It wasn't a job that I really wanted, but it was, after all, Sony.

So in late 1991, with a very light class load and lots of time on my hands, I decided to throw myself into studying the Japanese language. I made up my mind to take the mass communication exams for soon-to-be university graduates and try to land a job as a reporter, working and writing in Japanese. I had the fantasy that if I could write for the school newspaper, it couldn't be much more difficult to write for a national newspaper with eight or nine million readers.

In Japan, people don't build a career at the major newspapers by working their way up through local, small-town newspapers. The papers hire the bulk of their reporters straight out of university, but first the cubs have to pass a standardized "entrance exam"--a kind of newspaper SAT. The ritual goes like this: Aspiring reporters report to a giant auditorium and sit for daylong tests. If your score is high enough, you get an interview, and then another, and then another. If you do well enough in your interviews, and if your interviewers like you, then you might get a job promise.

To be honest, I didn't really think I'd be hired by a Japanese newspaper. I mean, what were the chances that a Jewish kid from Missouri would be accepted into this high-end Japanese journalistic fraternity? But I didn't care. If I had something to study for, if I had a goal, however unreachable, the time spent chasing it might have some collateral productivity. At the very least, my Japanese would improve.

But where should I apply? Japan has more than its share of news media, which are also more vital than in the United States.

The Yomiuri Shinbun has the largest circulation--more than ten million a day--of any newspaper in Japan and, in fact, the world. The Asahi Shinbun used to be a close second--now it's less close but still second. People used to say that the Yomiuri was the official organ of the LDP, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japanese politics since World War II; the Asahi was the official newspaper of the Socialists, who are almost invisible these days; and the Mainichi Shinbun, the third largest, was the official newspaper of the anarchists, because the paper could never figure out whose side it was on. The Sankei Shinbun, which was then probably the fourth largest paper, was considered to be the voice of the extreme right; some said it had about as much credibility as a supermarket tabloid. Often, it had some good scoops as well.

Kyodo, the wire service, which is the Associated Press of Japan, was harder to figure out. The service was originally known as Domei and was the official propaganda branch of the World War II--era Japanese government. Not all connections were severed when the firm became independent once the war was over. Furthermore, Dentsu, the largest and most powerful advertising agency in Japan (and the world) has a controlling interest in the company, and that can color its coverage. One thing makes Kyodo a stellar news agency to work for, however: its labor union, which is the envy of every reporter in Japan. The union makes sure that its reporters are able to use the vacation days due them--something very rare at most firms in Japan.

There is also Jiji Press, which is kind of like Kyodo's little brother but a hard worker. It has a smaller readership and fewer reporters. The joke was that Jiji reporters write their articles after reading Kyodo--a cruel joke in a cruel industry.

At first I was leaning toward the Asahi, but I started to feel offended by its tendency to put the United States in a bad light at every opportunity. It seemed at odds with the image I thought most people in Japan had of America--as a voice of democracy, spreading liberty and justice throughout the free world.

The editorials of the Yomiuri were pretty tough-going, though, very conservative and heavy on kanji (the original Chinese ideographs) and vagueness, but the articles in the national news section really impressed me. At a time when the term "human trafficking" had yet to enter the popular vocabulary, the Yomiuri ran a scathing in-depth series on the plight of Thai women being smuggled into Japan as sex workers. The articles treated the women with relative dignity and, if only mildly, was critical of the police for its do-little response to the problem. The paper's stance, it seemed to me, was firmly on the side of the oppressed; it was fighting for justice.

The Asahi and the Yomiuri had their exams scheduled on the same day. I signed up for the Yomiuri's.

The exam was part of the Yomiuri Shinbun Journalism Seminar, a well-known covert method of hiring people before the official job-hunting season begins. It helps them grab the cream of the crop. It's not promoted in a big way, so if you are serious about joining the Yomiuri, you must read the paper religiously, or you will miss the golden ticket. Everyone at the university paper who had aspirations of being a Yomiuri reporter was checking the paper's pages. In a country where appearances count, I needed to look respectable. I poked through my closet only to discover that the humid summer had turned my two suits into fungal experiments. So I trotted down to a huge discount men's retailer and bought a summer suit for the equivalent of about $300. It was made of a thin fabric that breathed easily and had a nice matte black finish. I looked good in it.

I wanted to wow Inukai, my friend and the editor of the school paper, with my sartorial finesse, but when I showed up at the office, located in a dark, dungeonlike basement, his response was different from what I'd expected.

"Jake-kun, my condolences."

Aoyama-chan, another colleague, looked pensive. She didn't say a word.

I couldn't figure out what was going on.

"What happened? Was it a friend?"

"A friend?"

"Who died?"

"Huh? Nobody died. Everybody I know is fine."

Inukai took off his glasses and polished them with his shirt. "So you bought that suit yourself?"

"Yep. Thirty thousand yen."

Inukai was enjoying this. I could tell because he was squinting like a happy puppy. "What kind of suit did you want to buy?" he asked, all false seriousness.

"The ad said reifuku."

Aoyama-chan tittered.

"What?" I said. "What's wrong?"

"You idiot! You bought a funeral suit! Not a reifuku but a mofuku!"

"What's the difference?"

"Mofuku are black. Nobody wears a black suit to a job interview."


"Well, maybe a yakuza."

"Well, could I pretend I just got back from a funeral? Maybe I'd get sympathy points."

"That's true. People sympathize with the mentally challenged."

Aoyama chimed in, "Maybe you could apply to be a yakuza instead! They wear black! You could be the first gaijin yakuza!"

"He's not cut out to be a yakuza," Inukai said. "And what would he do when they threw him out?"

"That's true," Aoyama said, nodding. "If it didn't work out, he'd have a hard time going back to being a writer. It's hard to type with only nine fingers."

By now Inukai was on a roll. "I don't think he could get out of the organization with nine fingers. Eight is more like it. He's a classic screw-up, rude, clumsy, never on time. A barbarian."

"I can see that," Aoyama said. "Actually, he could still hunt and peck. But in terms of a career, I don't think yakuza is it for him, even if he does look nice in a black suit."

"So what am I supposed to do?"

"Buy another suit," they said in unison.

"I don't have the cash."

Inukai looked thoughtful. "Hmmm. Maybe you can get away with it because you're a gaijin. Maybe someone will think it's cute . . . if they don't just decide you're an idiot."

So that's what I did.

Funeral suit and all, on May 7, I dragged myself to the first session of the seminar, held at 12:50 p.m. at an impressive-looking place right next to the Yomiuri Shinbun's main office. The seminar was to take place over two separate days. The first was a day of classes. The second was enshuu, or "field practice" a euphemism for the exams. I was a little surprised to see the word used, because it's basically a military term.*

The seminar started with an opening speech and a lecture "for those of you aspiring to be journalists," followed by a second lecture on the fundamental ethics of newspaper reporting. Then came a two-hour session during which "guys on the front line"--working reporters--talked about their jobs, the joys of getting a scoop, and the agony of being scooped by the competition.

I don't remember many details about the lectures. The long hours spent reading and learning to write semicompetently in Japanese had a downside: my listening ability was piss poor. I wasn't exactly the most fluent of speakers either. I was, however, making a calculated gamble. You had to score well enough on the written test to get even an interview, so I had spent more time on reading and writing than on any- thing else. I wouldn't say that I was deaf to the Japanese language, just hearing- and speech-impaired.

But from what I could make out, the comments of the police reporter about covering the public security section of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department sounded pretty good. The guy looked to be forty years old, with gray curly hair and slumped shoulders--what the Japanese would call a "cat posture" kind of guy.

According to him, the public security section rarely made an- nouncements and never, ever handed out press releases. Everything was said at the briefing, so if you didn't pay attention, you missed the story. This was not a place for adrenaline junkies (or foreigners). Reporters sometimes spent an entire year without writing a single word. But when an arrest came down, it was always huge news, since it involved matters of national security.

The actual exam, or "military drill," as it was called, was scheduled for three days later, at the Yomiuri Vocational School of Engineering, located in the suburbs of Tokyo.

Not having read the corporate brochure, I was a little puzzled that a newspaper would also be running a vocational school. I was still unaware that Yomiuri was far from being just a newspaper; it was a vast conglomerate of companies ranging from the Yomiuriland amusement park to Yomiuri Ryoko, a travel agency, and the Yomiuri lodge in Kamakura, a traditional Japanese inn. The Yomiuri also has its own minihospital on the third floor of its corporate headquarters, sleeping quarters on the fourth floor, a cafeteria, a pharmacy, a bookstore, and an in-house massage therapist. The company-owned baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, are often compared to the Yankees for their national popularity. With entertainment, vacations, health care, and sports, you could live your entire life in Japan without ever leaving the Yomiuri empire.

From the station, I followed the throngs of Japanese young people in navy blue suits and red ties, the classic "recruit look" of the day. In 1992, that also meant that all those who had followed the popular styles and dyed their hair brown or red had dyed it black again. There was a smattering of women in the female equivalent of sober navy blue suits.

I got to the vocational school fifteen minutes before test time and signed in. One staff person at the reception asked me, "Are you sure you're in the right place?"

"I'm sure," I answered humbly.

The exam was divided into four parts. The first was a test of the Japanese language; the second was foreign languages, where you had a choice of several; the third was a written essay; and the fourth was your chance to sell yourself as a potential employee.

I breezed through the first section and was done twenty minutes before everyone else. I sat there for some time, feeling quite proud of myself, until I nonchalantly flipped the exam over and noticed something that made my stomach lurch--there were also questions on that side of the page. I tried hard to finish, but I feared I'd blown the exam. When time was called, I turned in what I'd done (or not done). Furious at myself, I went back to my seat, prepared to forget the rest of the exam and go home.

I must have been sitting there blank-faced with shock when a Yomiuri man came up and tapped me on the shoulder. He had a Beatles bob, wore wire-rimmed glasses, and had a husky voice that didn't match his stature or appearance. (I would later know him as Endo-san of the human resources department, and he would die of complications from throat cancer a few years later.)

"I couldn't but help notice you among the applicants," he said to me in Japanese. "Why are you taking this test?"

"Well, I thought if I did well on it, it might help if I wanted a job on the English-language Daily Yomiuri."

"I took a quick look at your test. You did really well on the first questions. What happened to the rest?"

"It's very embarrassing. I didn't realize there were questions on both sides of the page until it was too late."

"Ahh. Let me make a note," he said as he pulled a little organizer out of his jacket pocket and scribbled in it.

He turned to me again. "Don't think about the Daily Yomiuri. It would be a waste. You should try for the real thing. You still have a chance to do well on this. You're a Sophia student, right?"

"Yes," I said.

"Thought so. Stick it out," he said, patting me on the shoulder.

... So there I sat, inner debate raging. Give up and go home, or stick with it? I got up out of my seat and tossed my backpack over my shoulder. As I looked across the room, it seemed for a moment as if time had stopped. All the chatter faded out, people froze in midmovement, and I heard a high-pitched buzzing in my ears. In that instant, I knew that leaving or staying would be the biggest decision in my adult life. Somewhere in an alternative universe, I walked out. But not in this one.

I put my backpack on the table with a clunk and sat down. I pulled out my pencils, pulled in my chair, sat up straight, and got ready for round two. If I could attach a sound track to my life, I would have selected the James Bond theme right then. Admittedly, aligning one's pencils doesn't make for a great opening film montage, but it was the closest I'd ever come to heroic action.

The next section was foreign languages, and cleverly I picked En- glish, where months spent doing boring translation and subtitling instructional kung fu videos paid off. Then I had to translate a passage on the Russian free economy from English into Japanese, followed by a brief passage on social progress in modern society from Japanese into English. I nailed both of them before the next ten-minute break.

Next was the essay. The theme was gaikokujin, or "foreigners," and after the first-round curse, I was beginning to feel blessed. This topic was something every foreigner is regularly asked about and, at Sophia, to write essays about.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

It turned out that although I had done abysmally on the Japanese- language section, I still ranked ninetieth out of one hundred applicants, meaning that my Japanese tested better than that of 10 percent of the Japanese applicants. I came in first in the foreign-language section-- in both translating English into Japanese and translating Japanese into English. Actually, I lost points on the English translation, which doesn't say much for my mastery of the English language. I got a C on my essay, more on content than on grammar. In total, on the first three parts of the test I had a score of 79 points out of a possible 100, making me fifty-ninth out of a hundred. Not glittering, but still I was called in for an interview. The only reason I can imagine was that someone cut me some slack for missing the back page of the Japanese-language test.

The first interview, held three weeks later, was blissfully brief. I had the chance to explain my screw-up, then was asked my expectations of the job and my willingness to work long hours. I stressed my willingness to work hard. They quizzed me about my knowledge of the Yomiuri, and I mentioned the series on Thai prostitutes and how impressed I had been by the in-depth coverage--which scored brownie points with the metro reporters at the session.

I was told there would be two more interviews, and then I heard nothing for weeks.

Now I was nervous. What had begun as a totally off-the-wall challenge was now in the realm of possibility. Every day I came home early and waited for the phone to ring. I read the newspaper religiously. I ramped up my Japanese studies. If I get this job, I thought, how will I survive? I started watching television in the hopes of improving my listening comprehension.

But one day, the frustration of living in limbo became strong enough to shove me out the door and into a bad horror flick at a Kabukicho movie theater.

On my way home from the film, I spotted a funny-looking tarot fortune-telling machine at the entrance of an arcade. In my uncertain state of mind, I figured it couldn't hurt to consult an expert.

I plunked 100 yen into the machine. The screen lit up and swirled around in a pink and green vortex. I picked the category "Jobs," my choice of fortune teller, "Madame Tantra," and plugged in my personal information. Madame Tantra, a very cute Japanese woman wearing a shawl, with a red mark on her forehead like a Hindu priestess, appeared on the screen in a blaze of smoke and had me pick my cards. I rolled the crystal ball--shaped mouse around and clicked on the stacks of cards laid out on the virtual table.

The Final Verdict: King of Swords, Upright.


Keyword: Curiosity

The job you are best suited for is as a copywriter or editor or something involving writing. For this kind of work, literary skills are necessary, also a certain amount of lowbrow nosiness (inquisitiveness). Because you have both attributes, you'll surely be able to make use of those skills. If you always keep your antenna out probing for information and nurture your morbid curiosity in a good way, FATE WILL BE ON YOUR SIDE.

I was thrilled. It seemed so dead-on that I kept the printout. Fortified with the good graces of Fortune, I took the last train home and checked my answering machine. There was a call from the Yomiuri asking me to attend a second round of interviews.

The second round consisted of a panel of three people. Two of the judges seemed enthused, but the third looked at me as if I were a fly on his sashimi. I had the feeling that I was a controversial candidate. After a number of queries, one of them asked me the following question, with great seriousness.

"You're Jewish, yes?"

"Yes, nominally."

"A lot of people in Japan believe that the Jews control the world economy. What do you think about that?"

I quickly replied, "Do you think that if the Jews really did control the world economy I'd be applying for a job as a newspaper reporter here? I know what the first-year salary is like."

I guess that was the right answer, because he chuckled and winked at me. There were no further questions.

I got up and was leaving when one of them stopped me. "Adelstein-san, there will be only one more round of interviews. If you are called in for that, you are pretty much in. We will be calling the final candidates on July 12. Be home. We won't make more than one call."

And so back to my small apartment on July 12, 1992, where I sat half in the refrigerator, one hand glued to the phone. My throat was parched, and I had the shakes. I felt as if I were waiting to get a last-minute date to prom night.

The call came at nine-thirty in the evening.

"Congratulations, Adelstein-san. You have been selected for the final round of interviews. Please come to the Yomiuri Building on July 31. Do you have any questions?"

I had none.

The last interview went very well. There were smiles all around and the atmosphere was very relaxed. There were no tough questions. One panelist began asking me a very complicated question about Japanese politics, but his Osaka dialect was so thick I had no idea what he was saying. I just played like a psychiatrist and repeated parts of his last sentence, with vague comments, such as, "Well, that's one way of looking at the problem." He seemed to interpret my response as total agreement and I didn't bother to disabuse him.

There were two final questions:

"Can you work on the Sabbath?"

It wasn't a problem.

"Can you eat sushi?"

Neither was that.

And with that, Matsuzaka-san, one of the senior human resources people, who looked remarkably Jewish for a Japanese guy, slapped me on the back and said, "Congratulations. Consider yourself hired. The formal material will be sent to you in the mail."

As he walked me out the door, he whispered conspiratorially in my ear, "I'm a Sophia graduate too. I heard good things about you from your teachers. It's nice to have another Sophian on board." Incredibly, my dumb luck had stayed with me throughout the whole process, even to the point of having a school connection on the hiring board.

I don't know why the fates had been so kind, but I thought I should cover all the bases. On my way home, I stopped and added some coins to the pile in front of the Buddha in the gardens of the Nezu Museum.

I owed that Buddha some cash (borrowed subway fare) and I always liked to pay back my debts.

* Yomiuri reporters as an entity are sometimes called the Yomiuri-gun (Yomiuri army), and the unassigned reporters in the shakaibu (national news/crime/metro unit) are the yu-gun (literally the "goof-off army," but with the traditional meaning of "reserve corps").

Excerpted from Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein Copyright 2009 by Jake Adelstein. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Jake Adelstein