‘Tokyo Vice’ Under Fire for Misleading Source Material: ‘I Don’t Think Half of That Stuff in the Book Happened’

One of the spring’s highest profile new television series was “Tokyo Vice” on HBO Max. The show tells the story of Jake Adelstein, the real life American journalist who built a career as a crime reporter in Tokyo, establishing deep relationships with members of the city’s criminal underworld to document the dealings of the Yakuza.

He told this thrilling life story in the 2009 memoir “Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan,” which became a bestseller before being adapted into the HBO Max series that shares its name. Adelstein is played by Ansel Elgort, and Michael Mann directed the pilot of the buzzy show.

But a massive story in The Hollywood Reporter this week revealed that many people in Adelstein’s circle, both characters mentioned in the book and experts on the subject matter, have questioned the accuracy of his memoir.

One of the many details called into question is the idea of Adelstein going undercover in the Yakuza while working for Tokyo newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun. Stories of his undercover reporting are an essential part of the brand Adelstein has built for himself, but Adelstein’s colleague Naoki Tsujii doubts that he ever did such a thing.

“There is absolutely no way that a journalist at the Yomiuri would be allowed to go undercover — a journalist wouldn’t even ask their bosses if they could do that,” Tsujii said. “In Japan, even the police don’t do real undercover operations; it’s basically illegal and evidence can’t be gathered that way, though there have been some legal reforms recently. … The Yomiuri was very strict about that kind of thing.”

Adelstein insists the story is true. “We don’t have any rules like that … for obtaining information; it was by any means possible, except buying information is forbidden,” he said.

While Adelstein is adamant that the stories are true, the show’s creative team is quick to point out that truth was not top of mind when they were developing the series. Entertainment value was the top priority, and any truth that happened to make it into the series was just an added bonus.

“There were so many things that we embellished and created that had nothing to do with, let’s call it ‘the real Jake Adelstein story,’” says executive producer John Lesher. “Whether the book is true or not, you should take it up with him and the people depicted in the book. I wasn’t there.”

Tsujii ultimately splits the difference between the two viewpoints, acknowledging that many of the stories are likely fabricated while admitting that there’s no harm in stretching the truth to write good fiction.

“Japan is a country that works according to systems, so there are certainly things in the book that wouldn’t have happened the way they are written. There are definitely exaggerations,” Tsujii said. “But that’s part of what makes Jake interesting.”

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