What's a Story Worth? 

Musing on Journalism's Cost in Tokyo Vice

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POOR OLD JAKE ADELSTEIN. Like an everyman's idea of a great news reporter, he is as driven as he seems troubled. The author of the recent memoir Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, Adelstein met me in the no-man's lobby of a hotel near the Portland Airport on Tuesday night, February 9, with a fractured scapula. He was to catch a flight to Tokyo the next morning, where he would take advantage of free government-run health care to assess the extent of the injury he had, ironically, received last time he was in Japan.

"I had a rather acrimonious meeting with a source, which ended up with me getting my ass kicked," said Adelstein.

Self-destructive streak? Check. Adelstein's a reporter's reporter, all right.

Bit of an asshole? Also, check. I asked if he'd found it difficult to go from writing in the third person, during his years as a reporter in Japan, to writing Tokyo Vice, a more personal account of his investigations into the Japanese underworld. Particularly, was it difficult airing intimate details of his sexual exploits? One source, a prostitute, demanded that he "jack her off" (his words) in return for information, for example.

"I didn't want to put that sex stuff in the book," he said. "But the Yakuza own private detective agencies, to dig up any embarrassing information about you to discredit you and undermine what you write. So, I thought well, fuck that, I've got skeletons in my closet, I'll air them all out so that I don't have anything to hide."

And did his wife mind, when he told her he'd had to put his fingers inside a prostitute in the line of duty?

"I don't think I told her that," said Adelstein. "I think that's probably one of the reasons why this book is a precipitator of our probably impending divorce."

Awkward. Still, whatever this book coming out may have cost Adelstein personally, there is no denying he's been professionally vindicated by the reception it has garnered.

Fresh from interviews on NPR and The Daily Show, Adelstein appears to have unearthed a pretty enormous conspiracy: A Yakuza boss named Goto traded information with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a visa to enter the United States. Once here, Goto and three of his Yakuza buddies jumped the line for liver transplants at UCLA before returning home, largely stiffing the feds on the information side of their visa bargain.

Goto threatened to kill Adelstein if he ran with what he knew, and Adelstein's wife has since hit out at him, he says, for "risking everyone's lives for a stupid story."

But I'm with Adelstein: It's not a stupid story. It raises significant issues: Does a person's moral character have any bearing on whether they deserve an organ transplant? Should the US government have allowed Goto a visa in exchange for information on the mighty Yakuza?

"So when my wife, who I kind of expected to have my back on this one, says it's a stupid story, that creates a huge rift," he told me. "I've got a lot of friends who ask, 'Are you such an egomaniac that you want to risk your wife and children to write this?'

"But I don't want to teach my son that when you stand up to the bad guys and they shout at you, you capitulate," he continued. "Otherwise the world would be run by assholes."

Now that's a reporter I can believe in, whatever you may think of him, personally. I just hope he makes it back from his trip to Japan for his appearance at Powell's.

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