Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jake Adelstein defies Yakuza death threats

In a brave article in the Washington Post last month, a Japanese-based American journalist blew the lid on Yakuza activities in Japan and abroad. The article is remarkable for Jake Adelstein’s rare insights into criminal activities that infect every aspect of Japanese society. Its wisdom is also hard won: the article’s author has received death threats from the Yakuza but refuses to be silenced. Adelstein is a rarity; a “gaijin” or foreigner who has immersed himself in the dark world of Japanese organised crime.

While most people outside Japan think of it as a law-abiding country, there are an estimated 1.3 million members of the Yakuza and they infiltrate every aspect of Japanese society. Their origins are shrouded in Japanese history; some believe they emerged from groups of leaderless samurai who either stole or gambled for a living. A group of violent yakuza emerged in Japan during the period of rapid industrialisation that followed World War II and took control of the black market. Various groups took over different industries and most now have very complex organisational structure. The yakuza have also spread to California where they have made alliances with Korean and Vietnamese gangs as well as more traditional partnerships with the Chinese triads. The bonds between members, and the bribes they pay to officials, make information on their activities very hard to come by.

One of the Yakuza’s biggest enemies is a Missouri-born journalist. Jake Adelstein was the first American ever hired as a regular staff writer for a major Japanese newspaper. He came to Japan as a graduate student, took the Japanese press entrance exam and became a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper. Yomiuri Shimbun is one of four national newspapers in Japan. This 120 years old institution has a circulation exceeding 10 million papers a day making it the biggest circulation newspaper in the world. Adelstein was one of two thousand journalists employed by Yomiuri and he was placed on their crime beat.

Though he initially knew nothing of organised crime in Japan, it wasn’t long before following Yakuza prostitution and extortion rackets would become part of his life. Adelstein used his charm to befriend cops and criminals alike and got on well with most of them because of his own outsider status. Adelstein noticed that over the last seven years the Yakuza has changed its tactics. It has moved out of traditional money-making schemes such as prostitution, gambling, drugs and protection and into high finance. Tokyo police have identified more than 800 yakuza front companies which masquerade as investment and auditing firms, construction companies and even pastry shops. They are now moving money offshore and have set up their own bank in California. Japan's Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission now has an index of more than 50 listed companies with ties to organized crime. Adelstein said the Japanese market is so infested with criminals that Osaka Securities Exchange officials review all listed companies in March this year and expelled those it found to have links with the Yakuza.

Adelstein’s mistake was to alienate Goto Tadamasa, one of the more psychopathic Yakuza bosses. Tadamasa is head of the Tokyo based Goto-Gumi gang and has a reputation as the “John Gotti of Japan”. According to Adelstein, Tadamasa is an unforgiving sort given to “doing things like driving dump trucks into pachinko parlours that won't pay protection money.” In 2005 Adelstein researched a story about Tadamasa’s involvement with the FBI. He found out that four years earlier the mobster agreed to provide information about yamaguchi-gumi (Japan’s largest Yakuza syndicate) activities in America in exchange for a visa to get a liver transplant operation in California. Tadamasa jumped a long queue to receive the life-saving operation from a world-renowned liver surgeon and donated a large amount of money to the hospital in return. Tadamasa threatened to kill Adelstein if he wrote a story about it. One of Tadamasa’s underlings gave the journalist a chilling message: “Erase the story or be erased”.

Adelstein (pictured left) took advice from one of his friends in the police department. He decided discretion was the better part of staying alive. He not only abandoned the scoop but also resigned from the Yomiuri Shimbun two months later. But Adelstein planned to write about it in a book banking on Goto's poor health to ensure he'd be dead by the time it came out. However disaster struck in November 2007 when the book contents were leaked to the media. Now Adelstein and his Japanese wife and child require 24-hour protection from the FBI and Tokyo Police. The book is called Tokyo Vice and will be available for publication in November. Adelstein said his aim in writing the book was the hope "to be such a public target that the calculation of repercussions of whacking me is so detrimental that nobody wants to do it."


Jake Adelstein said...

Thank you for the excellent write-up. I doubt I'm the yakuza's worst enemy, but I'm pretty sure that Goto Tadamasa does not like me. Well, the feeling is mutual.
The yakuza as they are now, especially the Yamaguchi-gumi, are more like corporate entities than ever before. Private equity and intimidation goes a long way in the business world.
The players are smarter than they ever were and the victims are not just Japanese firms or Japanese people either.

Derek Barry said...

Thanks for your comments, Jake.

I think what you are doing is exceptional brave and commendable in the face of such intimidation. Yours is an example of journalism at its best, seeking answers to questions someone, somewhere doesn't want exposed.

Good luck with the book launch, and I hope you and your family keep safe.

amarsanaa said...

Good job, Jake, keep on going!