July 12, 1992, marked the turning point of my education about Japan. I was glued to a position next to the phone, feet inside my mini- refrigerator—in the heat of the summer any cool will do—waiting for a call from the Yomiuri Shinbun, Japan’s most prestigious newspaper. I would land a job as a reporter, or I would remain jobless. It was a long night, the culmination of a process that had stretched out over an entire year.
Not long before that, I had been wallowing in the luxury of not caring a bit about my future. I was a student at Sophia (Joichi) University in the middle of Tokyo, where I was working toward a degree in comparative literature and writing for the student newspaper.
So I had experience, but nothing that would pass for the beginnings of a career. I was a step up from teaching English and was making a decent income translating instructional kung fu videos from English into Japanese. Combined with an occasional gig giving Swedish massage to wealthy Japanese housewives, I earned enough for day-to-day expenses, but I was still leaning on the parents for tuition.
I had no idea what I wanted to do. Most of my fellow students had jobs already promised them before their graduation—a practice called naitei, which is unethical, but everyone does it. I had gotten such a promise too, with Sony Computer Entertainment, but it was good only if I extended my schooling for another year. It wasn’t a job that I really wanted, but it was, after all, Sony.
So in late 1991, with a very light class load and lots of time on my hands, I decided to throw myself into studying the Japanese language. I made up my mind to take the mass communication exams for soon-to-be university graduates and try to land a job as a reporter, working and writing in Japanese. I had the fantasy that if I could write for the school newspaper, it couldn’t be much more difficult to write for a national newspaper with eight or nine million readers.
In Japan, people don’t build a career at the major newspapers by working their way up through local, small-town newspapers. The papers hire the bulk of their reporters straight out of university, but first the cubs have to pass a standardized “entrance exam”—a kind of newspaper SAT. The ritual goes like this: Aspiring reporters report to a giant auditorium and sit for daylong tests. If your score is high enough, you get an interview, and then another, and then another. If you do well enough in your interviews, and if your interviewers like you, then you might get a job promise.
To be honest, I didn’t really think I’d be hired by a Japanese newspaper. I mean, what were the chances that a Jewish kid from Missouri would be accepted into this high-end Japanese journalistic fraternity? But I didn’t care. If I had something to study for, if I had a goal, however unreachable, the time spent chasing it might have some collateral productivity. At the very least, my Japanese would improve.
But where should I apply? Japan has more than its share of news media, which are also more vital than in the United States.
The Yomiuri Shinbun has the largest circulation—more than ten million a day—of any newspaper in Japan and, in fact, the world. The Asahi Shinbun used to be a close second—now it’s less close but still second. People used to say that the Yomiuri was the official organ of the LDP, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, which has dominated Japanese politics since World War II; the Asahi was the official newspaper of the Socialists, who are almost invisible these days; and the Mainichi Shinbun, the third largest, was the official newspaper of the anarchists, because the paper could never figure out whose side it was on. The Sankei Shinbun, which was then probably the fourth largest paper, was considered to be the voice of the extreme right; some said it had about as much credibility as a supermarket tabloid. Often, it had some good scoops as well.
Kyodo, the wire service, which is the Associated Press of Japan, was harder to figure out. The service was originally known as Domei and was the official propaganda branch of the World War II–era Japanese government. Not all connections were severed when the firm became independent once the war was over. Furthermore, Dentsu, the largest and most powerful advertising agency in Japan (and the world) has a controlling interest in the company, and that can color its coverage. One thing makes Kyodo a stellar news agency to work for, however: its labor union, which is the envy of every reporter in Japan. The union makes sure that its reporters are able to use the vacation days due them—something very rare at most firms in Japan.
There is also Jiji Press, which is kind of like Kyodo’s little brother but a hard worker. It has a smaller readership and fewer reporters. The joke was that Jiji reporters write their articles after reading Kyodo—a cruel joke in a cruel industry.
At first I was leaning toward the Asahi, but I started to feel offended by its tendency to put the United States in a bad light at every opportunity. It seemed at odds with the image I thought most people in Japan had of America—as a voice of democracy, spreading liberty and justice throughout the free world.
The editorials of the Yomiuri were pretty tough-going, though, very conservative and heavy on kanji (the original Chinese ideographs) and vagueness, but the articles in the national news section really impressed me. At a time when the term “human trafficking” had yet to enter the popular vocabulary, the Yomiuri ran a scathing in-depth series on the plight of Thai women being smuggled into Japan as sex workers. The articles treated the women with relative dignity and, if only mildly, was critical of the police for its do-little response to the problem. The paper’s stance, it seemed to me, was firmly on the side of the oppressed; it was fighting for justice.
The Asahi and the Yomiuri had their exams scheduled on the same day. I signed up for the Yomiuri’s.
The exam was part of the Yomiuri Shinbun Journalism Seminar, a well-known covert method of hiring people before the official job-hunting season begins. It helps them grab the cream of the crop. It’s not promoted in a big way, so if you are serious about joining the Yomiuri, you must read the paper religiously, or you will miss the golden ticket. Everyone at the university paper who had aspirations of being a Yomiuri reporter was checking the paper’s pages. In a country where appearances count, I needed to look respectable. I poked through my closet only to discover that the humid summer had turned my two suits into fungal experiments. So I trotted down to a huge discount men’s retailer and bought a summer suit for the equivalent of about $300. It was made of a thin fabric that breathed easily and had a nice matte black finish. I looked good in it.
I wanted to wow Inukai, my friend and the editor of the school paper, with my sartorial finesse, but when I showed up at the office, located in a dark, dungeonlike basement, his response was different from what I’d expected.
“Jake-kun, my condolences.”
Aoyama-chan, another colleague, looked pensive. She didn’t say a word.
I couldn’t figure out what was going on.
“What happened? Was it a friend?”
“Huh? Nobody died. Everybody I know is fine.”
Inukai took off his glasses and polished them with his shirt. “So you bought that suit yourself?”
“Yep. Thirty thousand yen.”
Inukai was enjoying this. I could tell because he was squinting like a happy puppy. “What kind of suit did you want to buy?” he asked, all false seriousness.
“The ad said reifuku.”
“What?” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“You idiot! You bought a funeral suit! Not a reifuku but a mofuku!”
“What’s the difference?”
“Mofuku are black. Nobody wears a black suit to a job interview.”
“Well, maybe a yakuza.”
“Well, could I pretend I just got back from a funeral? Maybe I’d get sympathy points.”
“That’s true. People sympathize with the mentally challenged.”
Aoyama chimed in, “Maybe you could apply to be a yakuza instead! They wear black! You could be the first gaijin yakuza!”
“He’s not cut out to be a yakuza,” Inukai said. “And what would he do when they threw him out?”
“That’s true,” Aoyama said, nodding. “If it didn’t work out, he’d have a hard time going back to being a writer. It’s hard to type with only nine fingers.”
By now Inukai was on a roll. “I don’t think he could get out of the organization with nine fingers. Eight is more like it. He’s a classic screw-up, rude, clumsy, never on time. A barbarian.”
“I can see that,” Aoyama said. “Actually, he could still hunt and peck. But in terms of a career, I don’t think yakuza is it for him, even if he does look nice in a black suit.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“Buy another suit,” they said in unison.
“I don’t have the cash.”
Inukai looked thoughtful. “Hmmm. Maybe you can get away with it because you’re a gaijin. Maybe someone will think it’s cute . . . if they don’t just decide you’re an idiot.”
So that’s what I did.
Funeral suit and all, on May 7, I dragged ...
Revue de presse
Sacred, ferocious, and businesslike, Adelstein describes the Japanese mafia like nobody else. --Roberto Saviano, author of Gommorah
Gripping and absorbing ... A terrifying, deeply moral story that you cannot put down. --Misha Glenny, author of McMafia
Fascinating. --Books Quarterly
Hardcore. --Jewish Chronicle