An American in Japan
Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys… and Baseball
By Robert Whiting (Stone Bridge Press 384pp £14.99)
Picture the scene. Early 1960s Tokyo at a late-night bar called Club 88. You might spy owner Alonzo Shattuck, a former American intelligence agent who tracked North Koreans smuggling crystal meth into Japan. At the piano you might find Nat King Cole, enjoying a night out while on tour, while Hollywood actors such as Rick Jason and Shirley MacLaine might be seen among the parade of expats from around the world. In the background are diplomats, journalists, CIA agents, businessmen, dancers, priests, prostitutes and yakuza.
Club 88, the Japanese incarnation of Rick’s Café Américain, was the perfect spot for Robert Whiting to soak up post- war Tokyo’s atmosphere. Its heady mix of seedy and smart proved irresistible to the young military intelligence analyst from Eureka, California. Unlike his colleagues at Fuchu Air Base, many of whom couldn’t wait to get back to the United States, Whiting found himself ‘going native’ – exploring the city as it was being rebuilt in time for the 1964 Olympics, learning Japanese, getting to grips with local customs and collecting illuminating information and tales. As he relates in Tokyo Junkie, one night a drunk Tosei-kai yakuza entered Club 88 with a .38, in violation of Japan’s strict gun laws:
Shattuck asked him to leave. The yakuza refused. In a flash, Shattuck pinned the man’s right arm, grabbed the gun from the holster, and dragged him out of the club. A week later, the head of the gang, Hisayuki Machii, also known as the Crime Boss of Tokyo, came around to apologize for the fuss, bringing with him the offending sub- altern, who was now missing the tip of the pinky on his left hand, having been ordered to slice it off in what was the standard act of contrition in the Japanese underworld for embarrassing the gang.
Tokyo Junkie is packed with intriguing and recollections of this sort, drawn from six decades of living in what has become one of the world’s greatest metropolises. It is both a chronicle of the dizzying modernisation of Toyko after the Second World War and a memoir of Whiting’s own life. After leaving the military, Whiting worked as an English teacher, as an educational writer and as a sports journalist and author, penning numerous articles as well as the books The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, The Meaning of Ichiro, Tokyo Underworld and the bestselling You Gotta Have Wa.
Few Tokyo expats can claim to have had even half of Whiting’s remarkable encounters, made by chance or design, with every stratum of Japanese society. Tsuneo Watanabe, a star political columnist for Japan’s largest daily, Yomiuri Shimbun, in the 1960s told Whiting how he was drafted in 1945, suffering abuse at the hands of his superiors and watch- ing as his comrades were sent off to die as kamikaze pilots. ‘There was no bravery,’ he said. ‘No joy. No yelling, “Long Live the Emperor!” That was all a lie.’ Another relationship was with a gangster who brought Whiting to yakuza-run gambling dens and hostess clubs. Then came a boozy meeting with the gang’s boss, who playfully put the American in a headlock and asked about his military connections before making a request: ‘A .44 Magnum would be nice. Like Dirty Harry.’ Then there was the fiery Waseda University student and antiwar activist who became his girlfriend. After taking Whiting to meetings in coffee shops and even a demonstration that was tear-gassed by the police, she promptly vanished from the scene. She called months later to inform him that she’d returned to Kagoshima and was taking sewing and cooking classes to prepare for an arranged marriage.
As Japan’s export-led economy boomed, Whiting moved into an apartment built by the wrestling star Rikidozan and found himself living one floor below Giant Baba, a 6ft 8in grappler who practised his moves at night, cracking the ceiling plaster. His burgeoning sports-writing career brought him interviews with American baseball players living in Japan, such as Randy Bass, Warren Cromartie and Reggie Smith, that captured the highs and lows of the lives of celebrity gaijin (‘foreigners’). Although well paid, they complained of racist atti- tudes, micromanaging coaches and an overemphasis on team discipline and har- mony. ‘It’s not baseball they play here,’ said Smith. ‘It’s ping-pong.’
Both humorous and incisive, Tokyo Junkie is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand modern Japan. It is underpinned by a deep love for this city and its endless nightclubs, bars, sushi restaurants, noodle shops, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and gleaming skyscrapers. Whiting changed along with his adopted home: ‘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.’ Who could ask for more?