Monday, August 22, 2011

Journalism is always about the results, not the effort

It makes sense to take a book recommendation from someone who reads a lot. Having read more books means you have more in your arsenal to pick from and those listening to your recommendation know that you've seen a lot and can pick out the good from the bad. And yet I keep taking book recommendations from my brother who is very much a non-reader. There is some logic here so hear me out. My brother doesn't often read. There are other things he'd rather spend his free time doing, so when he tells me he has a book I should check out I listen. Because this was a book that caught his attention before he wandered back to his usual pastime.

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein is not something I would have picked up on my own. It's a memoir (eh) about a crime reporter (alright) in Japan (I'm listening). Now my brother may have gotten me to pick up the book in the first place but the opening grabbed me. Jake is being told by a yakuza enforcer "Either erase the story, or we'll erase you. And maybe your family. But we'll do them first, so you learn your lesson before you die." We're on page one and Mr. Adelstein is already in a world of trouble. Adelstein then jumps back and tells how he first became a reporter at the Yomiuri Shinbun. The first two thirds of the book introduces you to the world of crime reporting in Japan and feels like individual episodes as he discusses the different crimes he covered. And I know this is positioned as a memoir and I can't say I have any real reason to disbelieve any encounter, but there were definitely points that it felt like Adelstein wasn't going to let the truth get in the way of a good story. Or perhaps it's just his talent as a writer because there were scenes I could picture as a movie. I could see the lighting, the angles, the music, without having anything spelled out.

Weaved within these early reporting exploits are explanations of Japanese culture. If you can't tell by his name, Jake Adelstein is not a native of Japan. He's Jewish-American and constantly teased, sometimes in jest, sometimes not, about being a gaijin, a non-Japanese. Sometimes this works to his advantage as he gathers information. He talks about Japan with a real respect for his adopted home without ever glossing over the uglier parts. And by working the vice and organized crime beats, eventually investigating human trafficking, he's certainly seen his share of the darker side of Japan.

For the first two thirds I couldn't put the book down. It's hard to say exactly what it is, but it had a quality that drew me in and had me thinking about it even when I wasn't reading. By the time he starts investigating human trafficking and as we get to the investigation that lead to a price on his head, the storytelling felt like it was taking a back seat to facts. I was no longer framing scenes for a movie, I no longer thought things seemed too good to be real. Things were slowly building from the start of the book to that yakuza meeting and then all of a sudden we were past that point and I had whiplash trying to figure out how we went by it so fast. The yakuza crime boss Goto didn't want Jake to write the story that ended up becoming Tokyo Vice. It was such a key moment and we sped right by the build up to him finding the story, Goto threatening him, and then his investigation where he finds out what the real story is that Goto was trying to keep quiet. The end of the book is still interesting but it didn't grab me like the beginning did. Which makes no sense because you'd think having the yakuza after him to keep him silent while he tries to hurry and write this story as a kind of insurance policy would be the more interesting part.

I could see this eventually being made into a movie. Or a mini-series. It's has an interesting story with characters you care about, that lost momentum right when it should have been gaining it. Overall I liked the book and I'm very glad I read it. Especially because it's something I would have passed over on my own. It's too bad Adelstein isn't a a fiction writer. I'd read some of his fiction if he ever decides to write it.

Update! My brother sent me a video of an interview Jake Adelstein did on The Daily Show. I feel he gives a bit of the ending away, but then again, it's not supposed to be a twist ending so I suppose it doesn't matter.

Title quote from page 47

Adelstein, Jake. Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat. Vintage Books, 2009.