Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, by Jake Adelstein.  Pantheon Books (2009), 335 pages.

I normally stay as far away as possible from books that include words like “crime boss,” “FBI,” and “death threats.” But I made an exception for Tokyo Vice, first because it was given to me as a Christmas present, and secondly because it’s nonfiction (not even a death-bed plea from my beloved could get me to read this sort of thing in fiction.)

For those of you who share my feelings about police procedurals, detectives, and various other crime genres (yawn) I want to assure you this book is a great read. Ignore the lurid cover and the occasional descent into Jonathan Kellerman territory  (“‘Erase the story, or we erase you,’ was what the enforcer had said.  That was the proposal. I didn’t have any cards to play, and I was out of cigarettes.”) and you will be rewarded with an absolutely fascinating insider’s look at underground life in Japan.

Did you know, for example, that not only is Tokyo full of hostess bars where men go to have beautiful women flirt with them and pour their drinks, but that there are also host bars? Apparently there are now bars full of charming, good-looking men waiting to tend to the needs of exhausted and unappreciated Japanese businesswomen.  Though Adelstein does a good job of dispelling the illusion of innocent fun around this industry, I have to say I can’t help feeling pleased that the debauchery is now equal-opportunity.

And how about this? It’s illegal to pay for intercourse in Japan, but everything else in the sex industry is one hundred percent government approved.  This has led to a situation in which one can find a club that caters to every fetish imaginable. In addition to the usual pornography shops and strip clubs available in any city, there are clubs that specialize in nurses, virgin brides, school girls (the Shinjuku School for Girls club has a copy of every uniform from every high school in Tokyo), nuns, animated characters, and a club with a subway car inside where one can perform sexual acts with girls pretending to be passengers.

And perhaps most interesting of all is the liver transplant situation among the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) that Adelstein uncovered while working on a story for his Tokyo newspaper.  Apparently the Yakuza are a hard-drinking group who also, being big tattoo fans, cover their entire bodies from head to foot with ink.  Since the ink used has tended to be toxic, and since tattooing virtually 100% of one’s skin leaves the body unable to expel toxins, many Yakuza find themselves in need of new livers.  As organ donation is uncommon in Japan, there is not much to be gained by patiently waiting one’s turn for a new organ.

The biggest crime boss in Japan in the 1990’s (Tadamasa Goto) decided to solve this problem by turning over information to the FBI who then helped him get into the United States despite his presence on the U.S.’s official no-fly list.  He then traveled on to UCLA where he received a new liver which, magically, required no waiting at all.  Adelstein’s investigation into this uncovered the news that Goto’s was not the only transplant of this kind.  It seems there were a handful of other liver-challenged Yakuza who also made their way to UCLA and got themselves onto the quick and easy transplant plan.

Adelstein, as a Westerner (he is a Jewish-American from Missouri) and an insider (he speaks fluent Japanese and worked for twelve years in Tokyo as in investigative reporter) is the perfect tour guide to a side of Japan most foreigners never see.

The Japanese believe there is a right way to live, to love, to induce female orgasm, to chop off your pinkie, to take off your shoes, to swing a bat, to write an article about homicide, to die—even to kill yourself.  There’s a right way—a perfect way—to do everything.

The reverence for “the way”—the ideography is the tao of Chinese philosophy—is an integral part of Japanese society, a society that loves manuals, loves doing things by the book, literally….

A few years ago, the term manual ningen (“manual humans”) was in vogue to describe a generation of younger Japanese who seemed incapable of independent thoughts.  The term is now part of the vernacular, used for someone who can only follow instructions and can’t think outside the box. A synonym for manual ningen is shijimachi ningen (“the waiting-for-instructions people”), which, as you can imagine, refers to passive employees with no initiative.

Reviewed by Cindy Blackett