Book Review: PR Lessons Learned from Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

“Either erase the story, or we’ll erase you and your family.” This is how Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan begins. Author Jake Adelstein is the only American who has ever worked as a reporter at Japan’s biggest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shinbun. In his book, he tells us the incredible story of how he started as a police reporter in Japan and how he descended into Japan’s underworld to explore their most notorious gangster organization, the Yakuza. At the peak of this amazing tale, he reveals how several Japanese Yakuza received liver transplants in the US. Before he wrote the book, he originally published an article on this in the Washington Post – a move that put his and his family’s lives at serious risk.

What does all of this has to do with PR? At a first look, not that much other than the fact that the book provides interesting insights into the daily life of a reporter at one of the biggest media organizations in Japan. But initially, I didn’t read this book to learn a PR lesson. I was fascinated by the story and as an international PR pro, I’m always interested in learning more about foreign media cultures. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Japan or international media as a great leisure read. I can also personally relate very well to Jake’s situation as someone who started writing in a language that’s not my mother tongue. But while reading the book, I also realized that it reflects on some principals that are significant for PR. Arik Hanson’s excellent blog post, 4 PR lessons I learned from Saved By the Bell, inspired me to write a review that outlines these principals, while at the same time providing you some further insights into this amazing story.

Observe and listen more than you speak

Jake’s initial success at the Yomiuri Shinbun didn’t stem from the fact that he was an outstanding writer (his Japanese wasn’t perfect at the time) but rather from his ability to discover and tell great stories. He was only able to do this because he immersed into the Japanese underworld and hung out at bars in the red light district to closely observe and get to know the right people. He essentially lived like a gangster. In order to get a scoop on an interesting story, he would spend months doing research. While the PR world certainly is less adventurous, the process has similarities. Journalists receive more pitches than ever, so coming up with interesting story angles and tailoring pitches to the specific needs of a journalist is important. The only way to do this successfully is by getting to know journalists and actually reading their pieces. Listen more than you talk. This simple rule can’t be repeated often enough.

Relationships are key

Jake landed his first scoop at the paper after he saved the life of one of the local Yakuza bosses by providing him information on a rival boss who was trying to kill him. This was the beginning of a relationship that was crucial for his career. He was able to receive insider information he would have otherwise never had access to. Over the years, Jake established a whole network of sources. He built relationships with both sides the gangsters and the police. He met with their families during the day and hit the bars at night. Just as in PR, he was in the business of trading information. I actually found it quite interesting that in Jake’s case, the journalist is the one who invites his sources out and builds a relationship with them. In the PR world, it’s mostly the other way around. Relationships with influencers are key for PR pros. Not so much because they will guarantee you coverage but more because they allow you to be heard. Journalists are extremely busy, so having them actually look at the information you provide is half the game. What does it help to have a great story if no one listens?

Trust is your most valuable asset

One of the first rules Jake learned on the job as a reporter is to never burn his sources. Doing this would cut off his information flow and eventually leave him stranded without anything to write about. By providing him proprietary information, his sources put themselves at high risk. He therefore had to be extremely cautious about what information to share, and with whom to share with. For example, if a Yakuza found out he traded information with the police, he not only would have lost this specific source but also ruin his reputation. But maintaining the trust of his readers was equally important. That’s why he always confirmed a story by several sources before bringing it to print. In PR, the role of trust can’t be overstated. The role of public relations essentially is to build a trust relationship between an organization and its publics. Very often this involves building relationships with stakeholders and influencers such as journalists. But a journalist will only use your information if he considers you reliable. Ideally, you become a trustful source for the journalist, so he reaches out to you not only for information on your company or product but for comments and insight on your industry. Social media enables brands to engage with consumers directly in real time without going through gatekeepers. This even further accelerates the role of trust and authenticity for brands, since insincere business practices will surface much faster in the social web.

Order Tokyo Vice at Amazon.

TV interview with Jake Adelstein:



  1. Thank you for the review. I think one other thing that is important in public relations and in life is to remember the importance of reciprocity. It’s very important in Japanese society. It requires a lot of effort to remember who did you a favor and also when it comes time to pay back that favor, it is often at the most inconvenient of times as well. But that can’t be helped. I don’t bat 100% on the reciprocity bit but I try. Sometimes, simply sending a note of thanks is enough. Email is great as well, but nothing beats a hand-written note or a post-card. And of course, when you interview someone and write the article and its published, its always important to let the person know by sending them a copy of the article. It’s basic politeness as well. The webs of reciprocity can be a sticky mess as well but over all, I think that the tag-line of the film “The Yakuza” holds true: “A man never forgets. A man pays his debts.” And those debts are not always monetary either. Thanks again for a nice take on the book. Appreciated.

    • Hannah says:

      A wonderful job. Super hpleufl information.

    • Thanks again for your comment, Jake! I completely agree with you. Reciprocity is one of the core principles for building relationships. It’s especially important in PR but also for any other business role, and in life in general. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future!

  2. Precious says:

    Tip top stuff. I’ll epxect more now.

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