Vice Guy

Vice Guy

An American journalist’s new book exposes the seedy underbelly of Tokyo


Originally published on on October 2009

Photo by Anna Przeplasko

Photo by Anna Przeplasko

During his 12 years as a crime reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbun, Jake Adelstein hobnobbed with prostitutes, gangsters, killers—and the cops who put them away. Now, despite death threats directed at him and his family, the 40-year-old American has written Tokyo Vice, a chronicle of his time on the city’s meanest streets. In this exclusive excerpt, Adelstein recounts his curious encounter with a dapper—but troubled—gangland boss…

From Part I

“Bury Me in a Shallow Grave”

Like many reporters, I covered the yakuza for quite some time without actually ever dealing with them directly. That changed very quickly when a call came in from Naoya Kaneko, aka “The Cat,” the number two man in the Sumiyoshi-kai for all of Saitama, who left a message with The Face. He wanted to speak to me. This unnerved The Face, and when he passed on the message, he asked nervously, “You’re not in trouble, are you? Why does the Sumiyoshi-kai want to talk to you?”

I told him that I didn’t think I was in trouble and that I had no idea why he wanted to talk to me. I thought to ask Yamamoto how I should proceed, but then I thought twice: he’d probably say to ignore the call or dispatch a senior reporter to go with me. I told The Face I’d handle it.

This was at a time in my life when I was a regular at the Maid Station, ostensibly teaching English after hours to some employees. Maid Station was in the “image health” genre of adult entertainment. The girls dressed as maids, referred to the customers as “master,” and would bathe you, massage you, and blow you. Five of the girls were planning a holiday to Australia, and their solicitous manager, whom I had known when he drove a cab in Saitama, arranged for them to have private English lessons. That was me.

The club was located in Minami Ginza, in the heart of Sumiyoshi-kai territory, and I pondered the possibilities why Kaneko had called. Was I misbehaving on his turf? Maybe he was going to blackmail me? But what for? I was a single guy, and in Saitama during the nineties, going for a “sexual massage” was as Japanese as sushi.

I really didn’t know what to do, but my cop source assured me that Kaneko was not a threat and that it could actually be good for me as a reporter to know him, so I called Kaneko’s office from a public telephone.

The guy who picked up was loud and surly. I identified myself, and there was a long pause while he seemed to be figuring out how to address me. I had to repeat my name seven times. Then the guy spoke to Kaneko. It went something like this: “Hey, there’s this fucking gaijin on the phone, and he says he’s a reporter. Do you know this asshole?”

Kaneko roared at him, “Cover the mouthpiece of that phone, and treat the man with respect. I’ve been waiting for his call.”

I’d expected Kaneko to come off as a raspy, threatening, unintelligible thug, but when he came on the line, his voice had an amazingly smooth finish. He sounded like Ernst Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever. He had what the Japanese call a cat-stroking voice, a kind of purr. “So you’re Jake,” he began. “I apologize for calling you at work. I didn’t know how else to reach you. And please forgive my underlings. They are rude, impolite, and uneducated. Please take no offense.”

“Umm, none taken. What can I do for you?”

“I have an unusual problem. It’s rather sensitive, and I was hoping that you might be able to help me solve it.”

“Well, I’m not really in the habit of solving problems for yakuza.”

“Of course not. I realize that I’m putting you into an awkward position. However, I would very much like to talk to you about this personal matter. I could make it worth your while . . .”

“I’d be happy to talk to you. I just can’t accept anything from you.”

“All right. When would you be available?”

“How about after lunch tomorrow?”

“Good. Thank you. Here is how to find me . . . If you get lost, just ask around. People know where I am.”

Since I have no sense of direction, I did get lost and had to ask the tout at a “pink salon”* to point me the way to Kaneko’s office. The tout politely drew me a map. He then mentioned that I’d be welcome to come in and sample the salon’s pleasures. Normally foreigners weren’t allowed, but any friend of Kaneko was a friend of the establishment. Besides, he added wryly, business was slow in the afternoon.

I declined. I had a job to do.

Located just past a row of sex clubs, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a taxidermist, The Cat’s headquarters looked like a branch office of a small construction firm. There was a company name on the glass door that slid open at my touch. In the reception area, a scary-looking fellow was sitting on a sofa, thumbing through a pornographic magazine. He looked up, got up, and saying not a word, knocked on the door to an office.

Out stepped Naoya Kaneko. Kaneko was about five feet seven, probably in his late fifties. His eyes were narrow, he was a little thin on top, he had a goatee. Dark suit, white shirt, paisley tie, black loafers. Two gold rings on his right hand. He looked more like a politician than the second in command of the Sumiyoshi-kai organized crime group.

We shook hands, and Kaneko motioned for me to sit on one of the three dark brown leather sofas. He sat down opposite me. The scary looking guy stepped out of the room and came back with two cups of green tea served in lacquer saucers (meant to show respect).

Kaneko sipped his tea, but I let mine sit.

“You don’t want the tea?”

“I’m not a big green tea fan,” I replied, waving my hand.

“How about coffee?”

“Sounds good.”

“Right.” He turned to the scary guy and barked, “Bring him some coffee.”

He seemed relieved when the coffee came and I brought the cup to my lips.

Now we began our formal introduction. Kaneko handed me his meishi, which I took with both hands and bowed. I then handed him my card, which he in turn received with both hands and bowed (but not as deeply as I had)…

We made small talk. He asked me how a foreigner had gotten hired by the Yomiuri Shimbun, and I summarized my life in Japan up until that point, including going to school at Sophia University. He listened and we chatted, all unnervingly normal.

“I wish I’d gone to college,” he said. “It would have been a different life for me. I could have gone. You’re lucky that you had the opportunity.”

I acknowledged that and then cleared my throat and got to the point: why had he called me?

“I heard that you’re trustworthy and that you’re good at what you do.”

“Who did you hear this from?”

“That would be telling. Let’s just say I’ve heard good things about you. There’s something I need to know, and I think you could find it out. I think you would keep it to yourself too. People say you’re like a Japanese, an honorable man.”

“That’s news to me. You sure you have the right gaijin?”

“I’m sure.”

It’s not often a yakuza pays you a compliment. It was probably insincere, but I didn’t mind.

So I returned the favor. “Well, I hear that for a yakuza you’re not a total scumbag. I hear that you’re a gentleman and more of a white-collar criminal than a thug. In your line of business, I guess that would mean you’re like Mother Teresa.”

He chuckled at that and asked who I knew that knew him. I told him that would be telling. It was a touché that made him smile.

He offered me a cigarette, which I accepted, which he lit, and which I tried not to inhale. He, on the other hand, lit up and inhaled so deeply that the tobacco sparked, and then he pointed at my cup of tea, sitting untouched.

“You want to ask me why I don’t like green tea?” I asked.

Kaneko laughed. “No, but the story is about tea, actually. You see, a few detectives from the Saitama police force drop in here once or twice a week. I usually offer them a cup of tea, maybe some pastries. We chat; they leave. That’s the usual protocol. But lately, when I put tea out for them, they won’t touch it. They won’t touch anything. They make a point of refusing.”

“That’s a problem?”

“Let me finish. I asked them why they were refusing my small gesture of hospitality, and they said that the word on the police force is that I’m bribing a cop, that I have one of the detectives in my pocket. These guys tell me, ‘If we take anything from you—tea, candy, even a calendar—Internal Affairs will be all over us.’ So they refuse.”

“Why is that a problem for you?”

“Because now everyone in the organization thinks that the police are just posing. They think that I’m now an informant for the police, that I’ve turned.”

“Because they won’t drink your tea?”

“Exactly. I think the cops really believe that I’m bribing one of them, but the people I work with don’t believe them. They think it’s a police ruse to make me look like I’m not an informant. If this keeps up, I’m going to be in serious trouble.”

“What would serious trouble mean in your line of work?”

“It would mean that my own crew and the people I have raised like my children are going to drag me out to the mountains of Chichibu in the middle of the night, shoot me in the head, and bury me in a shallow grave.”

“Ouch. Could it get any worse?”

“Oh, yes. They might make me dig my own grave, beat me to a pulp, and then bury me alive. But I don’t think that will happen. I’ve been around for a long time. I think I’ve earned enough respect to be buried only after I’m completely dead.”

I was about to laugh and looked for some indication that he was making a joke. Didn’t see one. The Cat must have been pretty desperate, calling me.

“Well, who do you have in your pocket?” I had to ask.

“No one. I don’t bribe cops. And I’m not a snitch. That’s not how I do business. The cops and I have always had a good working relationship, so I have no idea where this shit is coming from.” He was hunched over the table now, almost whispering to me. Our noses could have touched. It could have been my first Eskimo kiss with a yakuza.

“So . . .”

“I’d like to know why the Saitama police are so convinced I’m bribing them. I’d like to know the name of the cop I’m supposed to be bribing. If I knew that, I could handle the situation.”

I had to think about this for a little while. It took me another cigarette to figure out what to say.

“Well, Kaneko-san, I’m a reporter, not an informant for the yakuza. And to tell the truth, I really don’t like doing favors for the yakuza. I do know one person I can talk to. If I decide that there is information that I can pass on to you, I will. I won’t make any promises.”

“That’s all I ask.”

*Otherwise known as blow job parlors; hand jobs are also available. Usually 3,000 yen ($30) for thirty minutes. You get a cup of coffee in addition to the gratification. There aren’t many of these parlors left in greater Tokyo. According to one magazine that targets women who want to work in the sex industry, there is the occupational risk of carpal tunnel syndrome.