Books on Asia Review Tokyo Junkie

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Review—Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys…and Baseball

April 2, 2021

A memoir and book about the dramatic growth of the megacity TokyoMore Info

Upcoming Release! (Stone Bridge Press, April 20, 2021)

Review by Mark Schumacher

Since the 1977 release of his first book The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, author Robert Whiting has remained the “go to” guy for entertaining and educating and enlightening books about Japan. His many English books and articles, once translated into Japanese, have hit the bestseller lists in Japan. Whiting resonates on both sides of the Pacific.

This book is Whiting’s memoir of his adventures (often riotous) as a longtime Japan resident. It is a definitive, detailed, and authoritative book: an “ensemble of curiosities with enough facts to fill two books.” That quote, by the way, is from the N.Y. Times book review of Chrysanthemum and the Bat. It still accurately describes Whiting’s style of writing.

Tokyo Junkie‘s 60-year trajectory carefully and entertainingly details the rebuilding of Tokyo (and Japan) from a destroyed postwar backwater reeking of urine, into a global economic powerhouse reeking of graft, bribery and scandal. It references slogans, cartoons, poems, propaganda films, secret reports, sports columns, and a wealth of other documents of the time. It is also a roller-coaster ride into the underbelly of Japan and into the underworld of Whiting’s own life in Tokyo during those decades.

Drunkenness and debauchery and chicanery play a big part in Whiting’s riveting narrative, but the book’s larger message of “renewal” (both Japan’s & Whiting’s) and the “goodness” of Japan’s common people, is crafted with great skill. His wife Machiko plays a big part in Whiting’s “recovery.”

Writes Whiting: “My story is part Alice in Wonderland, part Bright Lights, Big City, and part Forrest Gump, among other things. It is a coming-of-age tale as well as an account of a decades-long journey into the heart of a city undergoing one of the most remarkable and sustained metamorphoses ever seen. It is also something of a love story, with all the irrational sentimentality that term entails. Tokyo and I have had our differences, our ups and downs—I once left for what I thought was good, so tired of being a gaijin (foreigner) that I thought I would die if I stayed any longer—but as our relationship reaches the end and I look back, I must say that all in all it was the right place to spend all these years. It is not too much to say that I am what I am today because of the city of Tokyo. It was here that I learned the art of living, discovered the importance of perseverance, grew to appreciate the value of harmonious relations as much as individual rights, and came to rethink what it means to be an American as well as a member of the larger human race.”

Later in the book, Whiting describes his own metamorphoses: “I had developed bizarre social skills, to use the term loosely. I knew how to talk to my fellow Tokyoites but found I was becoming less conversant with Americans. I peppered my speech with Japanese words used all the time in daily conversation—sugoishoganaimaitta (wow, can’t be helped, I give up)—without realizing what I was doing. Moreover, I had unconsciously adopted Japanese mannerisms: bowing when talking on the phone, sucking wind as Japanese do when trying to think of something to say, pouring beer for dinner partners.”

Whiting and I have been friends since the mid-1990s, when we both lived in Kamakura. He was perpetually stuck inside a Japanese newspaper or magazine, researching his latest book. When I visited to fix or backup his Microsoft computer (I was his PC tech), I asked him how long it took him to write a book. He said: “About five years.”

Like Japanese baseball, Whiting’s approach to writing is a lot of hard training and practice and research, over and over and over. He had a routine of reading the Japanese newspapers and magazines and journals, with a toothpick in his mouth, which replaced the thousands of cigarettes he had smoked and beers he had drunk in earlier times. He had come down to earth. He had become one of us again, a famous man without pretension. I like him for that.

This book is Whiting’s love letter to Japan, to Tokyo, to the overall kindness of Japanese people and Japan’s endearing culture, which allowed him to arrive as a hated foreign conqueror and later to return as a friend. Writes Whiting: “I first came to the city over five decades ago in 1962 as a raw nineteen-year-old GI from small-town America. I spent over three years working for the CIA and the NSA, secretly spying on the communist regimes in Russia and China.”

In his book’s conclusion, he writes: “The product of the city’s continuing renewals and rebirths has redefined what it means to be Japanese. Along the way it redefined me as well.”

Tokyo Junkie is a likeable, breezy, well-written memoir, packed intensely with detail and eye-opening information about Japan, about the foibles of its author, and about bitter WWII enemies becoming steadfast friends in the following decades.

About the Reviewer:

Mark Schumacher is a longtime Japan resident based in Kamakura. He is an independent scholar of Japanese Buddhist statuary, and author of the popular A-to-Z Photo Dictionary of Japan’s Buddhist & Shinto Deities (online since 1995).FacebookTwitterEmail Categorized BlogReviews Tagged Japanese baseballmemoirsreviewRobert Whiting


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