Behind The Book With Jake Adelstein

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Behind The Book With Jake Adelstein 

My latest Behind The Book will be with Jake Adelstein. I was lucky enough to do one of my early Q&A’s with him last summer where we discussed Tokyo Vice, (both the book and the show) the upcoming sequel Tokyo Private Eye, and his current book The Last Yakuza. This current Behind The Book will be about The Last Yakuza. 

Q: Jake, would you like to tell the readers of the blog who haven’t read The Last Yakuza a little bit about it? 

A: In the winding streets of Japan, where the mundane and the profound often collide there was a man named Makoto Saigo who took a detour that none would expect. With rock star potential ringing in his ears, he instead embraced the rhythm of the yakuza. This curious soul, son of an American-Japanese mother who retraced her steps back to the Land of the Rising Sun to dodge internment shadows, was never your everyday Japanese kid. Branded as “that American kid” or just another face in the crowd, Saigo, like many in the crossroads of cultures, danced to a unique beat.

With the 70s rolled around, with its splashy colors and shifting mores, Saigo rode with Japan’s raucous Bōsōzuko motorcycle crew. Pedal to the metal in more ways than one—with the thrum of drugs, the rev of engines, and electric guitar tunes. But Tokyo’s sparkling lights hid darker alleys, and a twist of fate nudged him to helm the Inagawa-kai, a behemoth in the shady world of organized crime.

Now, this book isn’t just a chronicle of Saigo or of clashing swords and baseball bats, flying bullets, lost fingers (ouch!), rock riffs, dodgy deals, gang face-offs, body art, and old-school beefs. It’s more nuanced. “The Last Yakuza” paints a panoramic view of the yakuza’s evolution since the tumultuous days of World War II, shedding light on their deep roots in Japanese soil. At the heart of it all is Saigo, a man of quirks and a peculiar honor code. His life’s journey offers a prism through which tales of the yakuza and their intricate role in Japanese life refract. If his life were a mural, it’d be inked on skin, with a missing finger pointing to pivotal moments.

Saigo was once my bodyguard and spinning the story of his life as the center, I hope it’s a wonderful history of the yakuza. Maybe it’s like sipping sake while people-watch in a bustling Tokyo street, understanding the heartbeat of a culture.

I hope when you’re done that it feels a tad like leaving a riveting conversation in a cozy Japanese izakaya. It’s not just for those intrigued by the enigmatic yakuza, but for anyone keen on diving into the layered stories of everyday folks with not-so-everyday lives—doused in turbulence, moments of calm, missteps, potential comebacks, and a sprinkle of humor that’s as refreshing as a cool breeze on a humid Tokyo evening. 

Q: In the acknowledgements section you said it took you almost eight years to write The Last Yakuza. Why? 

A: The amount of research that went into the book was immense. The yakuza in Japan are semi-public figures and one thing that helped me tell this story was reading through the yakuza fanzines and books of the time. I probably PDFed and scanned 2000 periodicals and I’m not exaggerating. And I have over a hundred hours of audio and video. 

The hard part was getting interviews with the yakuza in the story and their subordinates and also squaring different accounts of the same thing. Sometimes, it took years to set up the meetings. And then there were taboo topics. For example, the battle over the succession of the Inagawa-kai, is a thorny subject in which people are still reluctant  to speak. It may be of little interest to the reader but I wanted to know what really happened. 

The other setback was when Japan banned the statute of limitations on certain crimes like murder in 2010. Suddenly people who spoke to me on the record believing they were beyond the reach of the law–were suddenly facing a real possibility of being accountable for what they said. Unless someone says, “off the record” typically anything they tell you is on the record. But what happens when their on the record words can suddenly put them in jail—should you ignore that danger or publish? I chose to protect my sources. And that meant rewriting some chapters and scrapping others. 

Q: At any moment while you were writing this book, did you want to change your mind and not write it at all? I know you said you hesitated when Saigo asked you to write his story down and you made it clear that you weren’t going to glorify the yakuza. 

A:  There was a person who I was interviewing who told me something that he never should have done. It was an admission of committing murder in cold-blood. And now that he’d told me, I wondered if he might get cold-feet and worry about me spilling the beans–and kill me first. I realized that I was also his insurance policy. I think he planned to tell his boss,  “If anything happens to me, everything you did will be exposed.” 

And I thought, man, I don’t want this responsibility or this burden or this danger. You can’t unknow what you know. And at that point, I thought about scrapping the book. 

And I had arguments with Saigo, too. There were things he said, “You shouldn’t write that”—because it made his organization look bad. But I stood my ground in the end. I recognize that are some yakuza who upheld their code of honor: The Buddha and The Coach and Seijo Inagawa amongst them but they’re the exception, not the rule. Most yakuza are sociopaths and parasites who contribute almost nothing to society. 

Q: What do you hope readers’ takeaway after reading The Last Yakuza? 

A: I would like every reader to come to their own conclusion. But there are a few things. 

You should never betray your friends because eventually you won’t be able to trust anyone at all. Its okay to get double-crossed but don’t be the person doing it. 

It’s important to have a code of honor and uphold it. That’s how you derive a sense of self-worth that no one can take from you. Decide what you will and won’t do. 

And finally, maybe this–the yakuza life is a game that nobody wins. The higher you rise, the more you have to pay, and at the end of that road of violence is a prize that’s not worth having. Crime does pay but the cost to your soul is more than the profits you’ll make. 

Also yakuza are not heroes. They’re mostly bad people who sometimes do good things.