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June 12, 2010 12:22 am
When I moved to Japan as a student in 1988, I knew nothing about the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. I was fascinated with Zen Buddhism and wanted to live in a monastery. Instead, after university in Tokyo, in 1992 I started work for Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun. I was the first US citizen ever hired as a staff reporter writing in Japanese.
I had been working on the police beat for a year when a yakuza boss asked me to meet him. That’s when I found out that he controlled several construction companies and that he regularly met policemen to exchange information. I realised the yakuza weren’t a bunch of criminals with tattoos, but a power in society. Although they are increasingly ostracised, they are part of the social fabric. The bosses give interviews, hand out business cards and meet politicians.
There are about 86,000 yakuza members in Japan, working in 22 groups. They are engaged in finance and real estate, but also in prostitution and human trafficking. No efficient criminal conspiracy law exists in Japan: there’s no plea bargaining, no witness protection programme and no wire taps. In 2003, I was researching a story about a crime boss who had set up a chain of loan offices that charged huge interest rates. A source told me that some of the money was laundered in Las Vegas, and the crime boss had learned how to do that from Tadamasa Goto.
At one point, Goto was the largest shareholder in Japan Airlines. But he was also one of the most brutal yakuza bosses. My source told me that he had received a liver transplant at the UCLA Medical Center in 2001. It sounded like a good story – especially because Goto had been banned from entering the US.
The story about Goto’s liver transplant was supposed to be my last scoop – in 2005, I was so exhausted by 80-hour weeks and five deadlines a day that I’d decided to leave the newspaper. But within three days of starting my research, I got a phone call from a yakuza gangster, who told me: “The old man is really mad at you because you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.” I had three hours to meet Goto’s men, he said. Otherwise, I’d be dead by the weekend. At the meeting, a gang member told me: “Either erase the story, or we’ll erase you.” I decided to retreat, but didn’t drop the story. I found out that the FBI had made a deal with Goto that allowed him to enter the US and get a liver transplant. In return, Goto would feed information to the FBI.
My findings were confirmed in 2007. A police officer in Tokyo downloaded some porn and while doing so accidentally uploaded on to the internet a gigabyte of material on organised crime. There was an entire folder about Goto, and it gave me enough material to write a book about the case. In the end, my Japanese publisher pulled out but not before they publicised a summary of the intended book. It was detailed enough for Goto to be able to figure out that I was going to write about him and I knew I was at risk. I was placed under police protection and moved my family to the US.
A Japanese police officer told me that my best bet was to publish what I knew because once it was out there Goto wouldn’t gain anything by killing me. I had trouble finding a newspaper that was willing to run the story, but it was finally published in The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Goto was booted out of his gang – he’d made too many enemies. Today, he’s studying to become a Buddhist priest.
I’ve heard that many yakuza members are glad he’s gone. I live in the US with my family but regularly travel to Japan. I don’t know if I’m still on a hit list, so when I’m there I have a private bodyguard. He was a yakuza himself once.
‘Tokyo Vice’, by Jake Adelstein, will be published by Constable on July 8.
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