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The Rumpus Interview with Jake Adelstein

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Jake Adelstein possesses an obsessive, infectious energy, coupled with an immense generosity and an ability to be, when necessary, stringently ruthless. This combination serves him well in the line of work that he half-chose, half-stumbled into: Adelstein is the guy who keeps the yakuza honest. Which, as might be imagined, is a monumental, never-ending task.

Adelstein came to Tokyo at the age of nineteen as a student at Sophia University, and stuck around to become the first foreign reporter to write for a major Japanese newspaper. He spent over a year working the seedy Kabukicho neighborhood beat, and years more chasing down leads on gang activity, murders, and human trafficking, often sleeping on a cot in a little room at the area police station, or the Tokyo Police Department headquarters. Soon he had established close contacts in both the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and the major yakuza organizations. His following up on a crucial tip led to the defining moment of his life: a veiled message delivered by emissaries of Tadamasa Goto—a yakuza godfather—against his life, if he published the article he was working on.

The story exposed Goto’s successful scheme of dangling coveted information on yakuza activity in front of the F.B.I. in order to gain entrance to the U.S., and then paying a million dollars to the U.C.L.A. hospital to expedite the finding of a donor for his liver transplant. After careful consideration, Adelstein forged ahead and wrote the articles that lead to his quitting his job at the Yomiuri and to his first book, Tokyo Vice, which reads exactly like a hard-boiled crime novel—except, of course, that it’s not a novel. Adelstein’s reporting ultimately resulted in the ousting of Goto from the Yamaguchi-gumi on October 14, 2008; the former godfather conveniently entered a Buddhist monastery and studied to be a priest, before recently reemerging into the world of organized crime. Consequently, Adelstein has for years lived under police protection, going so far as to hire his own personal bodyguard, a former yakuza member himself who will be the subject of Jake’s forthcoming, The Last Yakuza.

When I brought up the idea to Adelstein to watch a yakuza film with me and deconstruct it, he jumped at the idea and immediately suggested Minbo, or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion. It’s a yakuza film like no other. It’s a comedy, first of all, and the gangsters in it are not at all sympathetic, but as bullying buffoons, clever only in their ability to scheme up new methods of extortion. For the first third of the film, they run rampant through a hotel, while its employees shake in fear at their approach and hand over envelopes of cash as easily as if they were club flyers.

Into this mayhem descends Mahiru Inoue, an anti-extortion lawyer, the film’s protagonist and heroine, who systematically dismantles their attempts at extortion. She establishes a number of rules for dealing with them. “Never go to a meeting with the yakuza on their turf,” she states at one point. “Make them come to yours.” But the most important thing, she says, is to not have any fear. This principle is put to the test when a yakuza underling is sent to stab her. But Minbo is a comedy, and so (spoiler alert) she hobbles triumphantly at the end of the film into the cleaned-up lobby of the hotel.

Juzo Itami, the director of the film, was not so lucky. Six days after it was released, he was attacked by real-life members of the yakuza.

Indeed, if there is a Japanese filmmaker who has exhibited the same degree of fearlessness as Adelstein in the face of possible retribution, it’s Juzo Itami. Best known in the West for Tampopo—a movie about making the perfect bowl of ramen that is, in fact, a brilliant sendup of food and its relationship to just about every fact of human existence—Itami is a comic director of the highest order: versatile, nimble, able to satirize hypocrisies inherent to so many spheres of Japanese society, from the Buddhist institutions behind ancient rituals in The Funeral, to Japan’s tax evaders in A Taxing Woman, to the state healthcare system in Daibyonin.

In Woman in Witness Protection, his last film before his death, Nobuko Miyamoto—Itami’s effervescent wife, who stars in virtually all of his films—plays an actress living under police protection, a role which would prove oddly prophetic. Ever since Juzo Itami died under mysterious circumstances—he jumped off a building, ostensibly committing suicide, after an affair he was having was revealed in a Japanese weekly—she herself has lived under police protection, even while continuing to appear in films and on television.

It’s Adelstein’s conviction that Itami’s suicide was not, in fact, a suicide, but a hit job by the Yamaguchi-gumi/Goto-gumi faction.

Adelstein and I watched Minbo at his house in Tokyo, along with a few friends that included journalists and filmmakers. We sat on the tatami floor with bowls of popcorn and, for kicks, donned glasses that turned this 1992 movie into a faux-3D experience. Adelstein offered up his observations as we watched (“See how that cop looks and talks like a yakuza? There’s a lot of cops on the yakuza beat who could pass for yakuza themselves”; “That guy there on the left? He’s a yakuza in real life, too”), but it was our conversation afterward that proved the most interesting.

We finished our interview in San Francisco, which Adelstein visited for a meeting with an informant for an upcoming story.

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The Rumpus: With so many yakuza movies out there, why was Juzo Itami targeted?

Jake Adelstein: Well, the gangsters in Minbo don’t exactly look smart or cool. This was not exactly appreciated. But more importantly, even though it’s a comedy, the movie is basically a handbook on how to deal effectively with the yakuza. It’s incredibly accurate in that regard.

So a few days after it was released, Itami was slashed in the face with a knife and stabbed by five members of the Goto-gumi. All of the guys were arrested, but they were never able to prove where the order came from.

Rumpus: Do you believe it came from Tadamasa Goto himself?

Adelstein: Yakuza work like this: in order to avoid responsibility, a yakuza boss very rarely orders a direct hit on someone. What he’ll do is wait until someone of his underlings or someone close to him comes by and says something like, “Have you read this book by this Rumpus writer? I hate the way he depicts the yakuza in here. The world would be better off without a writer like this on the earth.” So a young yakuza’s like, All right, I’m going to go out and I’m going to beat the crap out of this guy, and I’ll score major points with my boss, and I’ll do it on my own.

In his book, Goto comments on the event with something to the effect of, “This was an unpleasant movie, it insults the yakuza, it ridicules us—but while I didn’t give the order, when I found out that one of my boys had gone out and slashed him up, I was proud of him.” There’s no sense of, Gee, this was a terrible thing to do. So yes, he clearly gave the order, without actually having to utter the words.

Rumpus: What were the circumstances leading up to his death, and why do you not believe he committed suicide?

Adelstein: The movie that Juzo Itami was working on when he was killed was examining the relationship between the Goto-gumi and Soka-gakkai, which is a religious organization that Goto, in his book, admits he’d done dirty work for for a number of years. Soka-gakkai is one of Japan’s largest religious organizations, with over twelve million members worldwide. It even has its own political party. Goto didn’t want this film to be made, as it would have caused huge problems for him.

Rumpus: What about the suicide note?

Adelstein: The suicide note…here are the things that make it suspicious: first of all, it was printed out on a word processor. And allegedly he killed himself because he was accused in a weekly magazine of having an affair. But when Friday magazine interviewed him about the affair, he just laughed. In his own writings he’s written this essay called “Uwakiron,” in which he says it’s just the nature of men and women to have affairs in Japan. It’s part of the culture. So this isn’t someone who sees a marital affair as something worth, you know…

Rumpus: …Taking your life over.

Adelstein: Yeah. Not by any means. It’s pretty hard to believe that he would kill himself over having his affair outed. Additionally, his wife, who is the actress who plays the lead in Minbo and all his other films, is still under police protection, twenty years later. The police wouldn’t bother unless they felt there was still a threat.

Rumpus: So what actually happened with Juzo Itami on that rooftop?

Adelstein: What happened—and I have this from a source who would know—is that a Goto-gumi member named Mikuni, maybe with one other accomplice, took Itami up to the top of the building, pointed a gun in his face, and said, “You either jump or we’ll blow your brains out. If you jump, you might live.” So he jumped. Didn’t live. Of course, if you do an autopsy on someone who jumps from a building, all you’re going to find is that they died from jumping off the building.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the movie that started all this. Minbo is clearly a satire, and the organized crime members certainly aren’t portrayed favorably. But is the portrayal of their methods accurate?

Adelstein: It’s very accurate. Even now, it’s still relevant. Every method the yakuza use in Minbo to extort money from the hotel has been used.

There’s a scene in Minbo where the group plays a couple of their members off each other in a good-yakuza, bad-yakuza routine in order to gain concessions. That happens. Similarly, when the yakuza drive around and around the hotel in a right-wing van, blaring out vague threats over the loudspeaker—“If I were so-and-so, I would fear for my life”—that also happens.

Let’s take the scene where the hotel manager is drugged, photographed naked with an underage girl, and then is blackmailed. That’s called tsutsumotase (美人局)—a “badger game,” in English. It’s used all the time. Luring a man into an elicit affair, and then photographing it and blackmailing them about it is Yakuza 101.

There was a famous Japanese politician, Eitaro Itoyama, a member of Japanese Parliament and one of the wealthiest Japanese, who was set up with a sixteen-year-old girl and had sex with her, and the yakuza set it up and then blackmailed him for it. Tadamasa Goto tried to step in and squash the scandal and wasn’t successful. The incident was reported as an extortion case, but because Eitaro Itoyama claimed he didn’t know the girl was underage, the Yomiuri newspaper didn’t publish his name. They published the names of the yakuza who extorted money out of him, but they wouldn’t publish his name.

More recently, Tatsunori Hara, the coach for the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, admitted to paying a million dollars in hush money involving an encounter he had with a woman many, many years ago. In that case, the yakuza either got ahold of that information, or they actually set the affair up and then bided their time until he was named manager.

But you could also say the movie was correct in everything except for the central bit of advice the lawyer gives the helpless hotel staff, which is that if you don’t show fear, the yakuza will leave you alone. Basically: call their bluff. Itami complicates this message by having the lawyer stabbed for her efforts. It’s prescient, in a way, of course, since he, himself, was attacked.

Rumpus: Can you expand on when and why a civilian might be targeted?

Adelstein: The idea that the yakuza aren’t going to physically harm a civilian is mostly true. For assault cases over the course of extorting someone, well, it’s for a piddling amount of money, and if a guy goes to jail you have to look after his family for years…it doesn’t add up. And killing a civilian is such bad P.R. that the yakuza have been loathe to do it. Believe it or not, they portray themselves in Japanese society as humanitarian groups. And if you’re killing civilians who get in the way of making money, you’re not much different than a bunch of terrorist criminals.

But let’s take a different case. A lawsuit was filed last month asking for two million dollars in damages against Tadamasa Goto and the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi. The principle there is that even if Goto hasn’t been convicted of ordering the murder of this real-estate agent, two of his former soldiers were convicted and are in jail, and the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, who was in jail at the time that this happened and definitely didn’t order it, under current Japanese law has what’s called shiyousha sekinin—user responsibility: he’s responsible for everything the people underneath him do.

Recent court cases involving shiyousha sekinin—there have been three now that have been settled—have resulted in the guys at the top actually discouraging their underlings from using violence, because they’ll have to pay the damages.[1]

Rumpus: And yet you yourself have been targeted.

Adelstein: So, Goto’s emissary came to me in 2005 and issued a not-so-veiled threat. The Japanese language can be so vague, right? “You can erase the article, or something else might be erased.” And then, “Oh, and by the way, you’ve got a family, too.”

These kinds of threats aren’t typically acted on, but once in a while, they are. For Mizuguchi Atsushi, the most famous yakuza writer in Japan, his son was stabbed in 2006 when the Yamaguchi-gumi couldn’t get to him because he was under police protection. A well-coordinated attack.

The Japanese yakuza don’t kill people a lot. They’re not like the Mexican cartels—they’re not going to throw forty people on the side of the road—but every now and then they will stab a civilian to make their point. Just enough to where you have to take a threat from them seriously. [This] October, it will have been four years since Goto was kicked out of the Yamaguchi-gumi. But he’s still—he came out under a new criminal enterprise, so I’m still under police protection. The last time I talked to the police, they asked me if I would move someplace with better security. I’m not like, “No, I like having a house.”

Rumpus: When you watch other yakuza movies, what kinds of things stand out as unrealistic?

Adelstein: Well, what was realistic a few years ago in a yakuza movie is now going to be completely unrealistic. For one thing, the three major yakuza organizations have now banned members from buying Mercedes-Benz. Black suits are out.

Rumpus: What’s replaced them?

Adelstein: Dark gray. Navy blue. Out in the boonies, you might still see the black suits. Yakuza in this movie are carrying business cards, right? Well, at the end of 2011, the Yamaguchi-gumi issued orders prohibiting its members from carrying business cards anymore. As a yakuza, if you can’t carry that business card around, what are you?

Rumpus: What about tattoos?

Adelstein: Tattoos are highly discouraged amongst younger recruits. Because it so marks you. So is cutting off a finger as a means of apology or penance.

Rumpus: But cutting off a finger is a longstanding yakuza movie tradition!

Adelstein: If you watch Outrage, Beat Takeshi plays an old-school yakuza who tries to solve a problem by cutting off his finger and bringing it to the number-two guy. The guy shrugs and says, “This thing isn’t going to bring in a dime.” So it’s all about money now. And those ritual acts of honor and obedience are falling by the wayside.

Rumpus: Did this moral code really exist before?

Adelstein: The Inagawa-kai used to have a list of things you couldn’t do. Not that they were necessarily adhered to, but they were there. They’re very specific. No theft. No robbery—robbery being like, not just stealing, but no dealing drugs, no selling drugs, no using drugs—no sex crimes, nothing that violates the noble way. Okay, that’s not much! As a corporate code of ethics, nothing to be proud of—nothing prohibiting extortion or fraud. Though it was always understood that fraud was not good, that you’re not supposed to deceive people.

Rumpus: Fraud was considered wrong?

Adelstein: Extortion—okay. Fraud—not okay.

Rumpus: I don’t get the ethical distinction.

Adelstein: Fraud is lying, so that’s wrong. But the rationale for extortion is that if you’re collecting protection money, you’re actually providing a service, right? You’re keeping away other (worse) organized crime groups, you’re helping them deal with unruly customers, and you’re providing assistance more quickly than the police can. With blackmail, the rationale was that, if you’ve done something so horrendous that you could be blackmailed by the yakuza, that’s your fault. Under that reasoning, the yakuza are actually serving social justice.

Rumpus: Social justice? Just like an investigative journalist?

Adelstein: Yeah. But now the new code of ethics, adopted two or three years ago, just talks about chivalry, noble spirit, endurance…there’s nothing concretely forbidden. So there’s an indication there of the decline of the values, such as they are, in the yakuza. Even if those values were regularly contradicted, they were still there.

Rumpus: Other aspects of yakuza movies that stand out as unrealistic…

Adelstein: Gun violence. Most yakuza have never fired a gun in their life, unless they’ve gone to the Philippines on a gun-shooting tour, so, most times that a yakuza fires a gun, they miss or the gun is so old—because it hasn’t been cleaned or it’s been hidden away so long—that it misfires and they hurt their hands. Yakuza are pretty terrible shots. Because where are they going to practice?

On the southern island of Kyushu, where gang wars are actually escalating and there’s a huge concentration of yakuza, these guys are lobbing hand grenades at each other and using machine guns. There’s a scene in Outrage where someone lobs a hand grenade into the protagonist’s office that’s based on those incidents. But that’s Kyushu; up here, the police wouldn’t stand for that. Still, there was a time when the Yamaguchi-gumi was splitting in two that they were trying to buy bazookas, I mean, they were driving trucks in each others’ houses. I guess a movie is going to take the most dramatic moments and exaggerate them. So…stuff like that does happen occasionally, but you don’t have shootouts on the streets.

Interestingly enough, there’s a tendency for…there’s sort of a mini-revival for using the Japanese sword, because there’s less of a crime to kill with a Japanese sword, or rather it’s harder to kill someone with a Japanese sword. You end up wounding them.

In Japan, over the years, they’ve changed the laws so that it’s a crime to own a gun, it’s a crime to fire a gun, it’s a crime to hit someone with a gun, it’s a crime to possess the bullets…they can throw so many things at you that, you know, having a gun and shooting someone, you’re facing maybe thirty years in jail. With that one act. The head of the Yamaguchi-gumi went to jail for five years or more because one of his bodyguards had a gun. And the court’s decision was that “you must have known you had a gun,” because it was the same as if you possessed it. He was found “not guilty” by one court but then “guilty” by another, partly because you can’t just let the head of the Yamaguchi-gumi walk.

As an example of how ineffective guns can be for yakuza, there was an incident a few years back where two guys with Japanese swords from one organization were surrounded by twenty guys with guns from another. The two guys took a couple of slashes at the big group, wounding a couple, and immediately the rest of them fled. Nobody wanted to get in trouble for shooting.

Rumpus: With the newer organized crime laws on the books, have the numbers changed at all? Have they had any discernable effect?

Adelstein: The only discernable effect is the number of officially registered yakuza members have declined, while unofficial, or associate, members has risen. But, basically, when this movie [Minbo] came out in 1992, you’re talking about 83,000 members, and now it’s about 79,000. That’s a pretty small decline.

Rumpus: Any decrease in violence? Or profits?

Adelstein: A lot less gang violence, because it invites crackdowns by the police. As far as profits, well, the Yamaguchi-gumi now has such a huge share of the market that no one can fight with them. They basically have a monopoly. You can’t have a price war with Walmart.

Rumpus: The Yamaguchi-gumi is the Walmart of the yakuza.

Adelstein: It is. It occupies so much turf now. But these ordinances that have gone on the books, these organized crime exclusionary ordinances, which make it a crime for a company to provide any profits to the yakuza—it’s not a serious crime, and it’s set up so that you get a warning first before they can even give you a fine—but the scary thing about that law is that it gives the police the right to say that if you don’t heed their warning, that Company X is doing business with the yakuza and is closely linked to them, and they’ll publicly announce that. Once that’s publicly announced, then according to Japanese contractual law—and most contracts have an organized crime exclusionary clause in it—then you lose: as a business you lose customers, you lose the ability to bank, because banks won’t do business with you now; you can’t rent an office, because almost any place has an organized crime exclusionary clause in their lease agreement.

So the police now [have] the ability to put out a statement saying, Company X is doing business with the yakuza, and by doing so they can effectively put that company out of business.

Rumpus: And that works?

Adelstein: To an extent. The fear of being tagged as such and put out of business is enough to make people cut off all ties to the yakuza, like, “I’m sorry, we can’t pay you protection money anymore, because the risk is too big.”

One more thing. Right now the second in command of the Inagawa-kai is facing a warrant for his arrest. But the crime they’re trying to get him for is accepting association dues as money laundering. And that’s never been done before in Japan. That’s got huge implications, because that’s the whole yakuza system—everyone pays money up to the top. Every yakuza organization is a pyramid scheme; you pay your dues, and anything else you can make you get to keep. But if you can criminalize the paying of dues as money laundering, then…wow.

Rumpus: Thanks for speaking with us, Jake. Let’s end with a list of your favorite yakuza movies.

Adelstein: Shura no mure. Onibi: The Fire Within. Outrage. Brother. Sonatine is a great movie, too. Those are probably the best yakuza movies out there.

Also, though it’s about American gangsters, Miller’s Crossing is a good parallel. There’s a line in that film I love that sums up the yakuza mentality well: “You only run this town because people think you run this town. Once people don’t think you run it anymore, you don’t run it.”

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[1] The most recent lawsuit was settled on October 4th, by Goto paying 1.4 million dollars to the family of the real estate agent and expressing his condolences to the family. See The Atlantic Wire for details.


Shimon Tanaka is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. He lives in San Francisco. More from this author →