‘Tokyo Junkie’: Robert Whiting recounts a lifelong addiction to his adopted city

  • Tokyo Junkie, by Robert Whiting
  • 384 pages STONE BRIDGE PRESS
  • May 2, 2021

In 1962, the year Robert Whiting arrived in Japan as a 19-year-old soldier from small-town America, the United States was at the peak of its economic power. Under the leadership of John F. Kennedy, the nation had embarked on a quest to put a man on the moon and its Peace Corps volunteer aid program was dispatching idealistic young Americans abroad to help countries in need.

Meanwhile, the Japan in which Whiting found himself was still struggling to recover from defeat in World War II, and Tokyo was tearing itself apart and putting itself back together in preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

“I had arrived at what someone would later describe as the biggest construction site in the world,” Whiting observes in the opening of his memoir, “Tokyo Junkie.”

Opting to remain in Tokyo and attend Sophia University after leaving the Air Force, Whiting gradually acquired Japanese language skills and found himself deeply immersed in many levels of local society. It was his fascination with professional baseball here that led to his 1977 work, “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat.” That book was followed in 1989 by “You Gotta Have Wa,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and several more titles on baseball. In a shift away from the sport, Whiting’s personal relationship with Tokyo restaurateur Nick Zappetti led to his 1999 book “Tokyo Underworld,” which centers on the city’s seamy underside during the postwar years.

Whiting’s latest release is “Tokyo Junkie,” which was published on April 20 by California-based Stone Bridge Press. In his readable anecdotal style, Whiting waxes lyrical about the city he’s called home for much of the past six decades. From his military and student days to his transition to a salaryman and sportswriter, the book is a warts-and-all account that serves up a colorful menagerie of characters, from politicians to professional wrestlers.

For instance, after making good on a sports gambling debt in his neighborhood, Whiting befriends a yakuza member named Jiro, “a sort of junior capo” belonging to the Sumiyoshi-kai crime syndicate.

“He was … the first Japanese friend I had … who never wanted to speak English with me, which was somehow flattering,” Whiting writes.

Author Robert Whiting | DAVID STETSON

That relationship led to several walks on the wild side, which is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Whiting; to understand a country, you need to experience interacting with people at all levels of society.

“In Manhattan, if you mingled solely with the people on the Upper West Side, you would get a distorted view of the city,” he says in an interview with The Japan Times. “Likewise if you spend all your time at the Tokyo American Club, you won’t have a very balanced view of Tokyo.”

Indeed, what qualities does Whiting think are essential for new arrivals to make it in Japan?

“Curiosity. Humility. Perseverance,” he says. “Jim Lefebvre, the former LA Dodgers star who played and coached several years here, used to tell newcomers, ‘Forget everything you learned in the U.S. Pretend you are a rookie and try to follow the Japanese way. Do that and you just might succeed.’

“Most people love Japan in the beginning because people are so nice and the culture is so different, so enchanting,” Whiting adds. “Then they learn the language and start to see the groupthink, the insularity, the anti-foreignism and it turns them off. Some pack up and leave. But sooner or later you reach an equilibrium. You can build your own little world.”

Whiting’s own viewpoint, as reflected in his books on baseball, has clearly evolved from having an “us versus them” slant to a more inclusive perspective. “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat” viewed baseball as played in the U.S. and Japan as a “never the twain shall meet” situation. When Whiting’s “The Meaning of Ichiro” came out in 2004, however, he conveyed his fascination over how Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki was driving a “transformation of the sport,” with American kids emulating Ichiro’s characteristic swing.

Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district in the rain | SANKEI SHIMBUN / ROBERT WHITING COLLECTION
Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district in the rain | SANKEI SHIMBUN / ROBERT WHITING COLLECTION

This meeting of the minds was reflected in the 1992 comedy film “Mr. Baseball,” in which American actor Tom Selleck plays as an egotistical player for the Chunichi Dragons. To help his team beat the rival Yomiuri Giants, he gives up the chance to set a home run record, instead laying down a sacrifice bunt that not only wins the game, but the hearts of Chunichi fans.

Whiting notes how Yomiuri Giants slugger Warren Cromartie — with whom he co-wrote “Slugging it Out in Japan” in 1991 — serves as a good real-life example of the story.

“When Cromartie came over to play for the Giants, he struggled in the beginning because his American-style swing didn’t suit Japan,” Whiting says. “Then his manager Sadaharu Oh suggested Cromartie take batting practice with a book under his left arm, to shorten his swing. It worked and he became a big star.

“It took a long while for Japanese — and Americans — to accept the idea that there was more than one way to play the game. It didn’t really happen until Hideo Nomo, Ichiro and other Japanese stars went to the States to play.”

“Tokyo Junkie” owes its origins to a five-part series about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, written for The Japan Times. The series touched upon everything from the city’s reconstruction and standout athletes to the games’ negative impact. After having put so much work into the series, Whiting still had plenty of extra material and ideas for using it.

“I sent (the series) to my agent in New York with the idea of expanding it into a book, and she said nobody reads about the Olympics,” he says. “But then my Japanese publisher Kadokawa asked me to turn it into a memoir juxtaposing the growth of the city from 1962 when I first arrived against my own personal growth.”

From there, the series morphed into a book on the two Tokyo Olympic Games, titled “Futatsu no Orinpikku: Tokyo 1964/2020,” published in Japanese in September 2018. “Tokyo Junkie” is somewhat of a revamped version of “Futatsu no Orinpikku,” geared toward non-Japanese readers.

Writing a personal memoir, however, “turned out to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Whiting says. “I wound up writing a 175,000-word final draft, almost twice the length of a normal book. For (‘Tokyo Junkie’) I had to revise, add new material and cut it down to 105,000 words.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that a memoir is the hardest form of nonfiction writing there is. You are basically interviewing yourself and you’re not sure you’re getting the truth out of your subject — or that you’re even asking the right questions. It was a painful process.”

Shinjuku’s Golden Gai backstreet in 1972 | ALAMY, ROBERT WHITING COLLECTION
Shinjuku’s Golden Gai backstreet in 1972 | ALAMY, ROBERT WHITING COLLECTION

In terms of productivity, the COVID-19 pandemic may have had a silver lining, as it prevented Whiting from leaving Japan for over a year.

“I’ve gotten a lot of work done by staying home most of the time,” he says. “Infection and death rates are much lower here than in the U.S. or Europe, so it’s a good place to be. It’s cleaner, more hygienic for a variety of reasons — the habit of wearing facemasks; the custom of bowing instead of shaking hands, kissing or hugging; not wearing shoes in the house; using special slippers in the toilet; as well as the practice at restaurants of providing oshibori (moistened hand towels).”

It just goes to show, for one American Tokyo junkie at least, how habit-forming Japan can be.

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