Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth. The second obligation is to protect the sources of sensitive information. True journalists will go to the mat for their sources. Judith Miller is one such journalist. Paul Branzberg was another.

Jake Adelstein is another in the long line of journalists doing their job no matter what the consequences are.

Mr. Adelstein was the first American to be hired by the Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest newspaper. He worked as a journalist on the police beat in Saitama and later in Tokyo covering organized crime for 12 years. He quit the newspaper and returned to the U.S. once threats were made against his safety by Tadamasa Goto, a powerful yakuza boss. Goto’s henchmen threatened Mr. Adelstein if he attempted to publish anything in regards to the suspicious conditions that allowed Goto to receive a liver transplant in the U.S. Later, after uncovering further details of a deal made with the FBI to allow Goto into the US, he ran the exposé in The Washington Post after Japanese publishers refused to print the piece. His book, Tokyo Vice, details the inner workings of the media and the symbiotic relationship of organized crime and the police force in Japan.

All this to say, the man knows of what he writes, which made him an obvious choice as consultant for a National Geographic documentary, Gangland Tokyo, about organized crime in Japan. As part of the consulting job, Mr. Adelstein states that helped arrange interviews, handled logistics, and did some of the interviews himself. He introduced the outsourced film team to his own sources and friends. He even went so far as to loan National Geographic footage of actual yakuza ceremonies, for their “dramatization” sequences.

However, National Geographic allegedly refused to allow Mr. Adelstein full access to the materials needed to verify the accuracy of the program. He has since resigned from his job as consultant and has returned his fees to National Geographic Television.

As he states on his website, Japan Subculture Research Center:

“For several months, I have repeatedly asked to have all the materials necessary to verify the “factual accuracy” of the program, as was the agreement. The reply from NGT was to insist that “factual accuracy” actually meant “general accuracy”, and that I was being difficult.”

National Geographic has had issues with objective, truthful reporting in the past. The company, of which News Corp. is a majority shareholder, has a history of manipulating images and creating sensationalistic stories through misinformation as reported in this lengthy exposé in The Huffington Post about National Geographic’s work about Africa and this damning report about the mistranslation of an important early Christian manuscript.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that NatGeo’s use of outsourced film crews working as “parachute journalists“on the yakuza documentary would result in possible compromises of source safety for the sake of creating a fascinating narrative.

After viewing a rough cut of the program, Mr. Adelstein writes:

“I now have serious concerns about the safety of all Americans and Japanese sources, friends, and the staff of National Geographic Channel Japan who are involved with this program. There is a chance that the yakuza that have been betrayed by NGT will use violence against those residing in Japan to express their anger. I am even concerned about the safety of the yakuza that agreed to appear in the documentary, probably under false pretenses and false promises. They will face retaliation from their superiors if the program is aired as it is now. Yakuza are people too, a small minority of them are good people in their own right, and once they cooperate with the program, they are also sources. And sources have to be protected. That is the good faith that is demanded in responsible journalism.

(…)

There is a saying in Japanese, bushi wa nigon ga nai. Literally, a samurai doesn’t have a second word. What it means is that once a samurai has said he’ll do something or promises he’ll do something, he does and he keeps that promises. He doesn’t backpedal and say “factual accuracy” means “general accuracy” or that “we may have said that but that’s not what you signed.” Would I believe the word of three yakuza over the word of an LA based “film director” who brags about his reputation for doing awesome “dramatizations” and “re-creations”? Mmm…Yes. I’d believe the yakuza every time, in this case. The yakuza do have standards and practices. They are not particularly high standards but they exist. Most yakuza have them posted on large ornate scrolls posted on their office walls and written in bold dark cursive: “Any member who engages in theft, robbery, rape and or any other activity that runs contrary to the noble way (ninkyodo) will be expelled.” It’s very clear.

(…)

If they air the film as it is now and anyone is hurt, I’ll be the first one to go to the police and file charges of criminal negligence resulting in injury and/or death. And I will do my best to see that they are extradited. Because recklessly endangering or causing harm to others is a crime here in Japan where the documentary was filmed.

They can’t deny they knew there were dangers. The chain of emails that someone in the organization anonymously sent me establishes that, as well as does this posting. NGT has been warned; I hope they become enlightened and do the right thing for once. Ethical and factual journalism can actually be pleasant, if a little boring.”

Read the rest of Mr. Adelstein’s post here.

The yakuza are compelling figures. Just like the mafia in the West as depicted in The Sopranos or the Godfather franchise, the temptation is there to turn them into the ultimate anti-heroes. There’s a reason they even have fan magazines and video games set in the underworld of Japan. However, that doesn’t excuse NatGeo’s attempts to twist their documentary into a sensational pseudo-exposé at the expense of their sources’ welfare.

H/T: DogsofWar, Botswana Meat Commission FC, Lucky and Rumpofsteelskin. Image via TokyoMango.