Travel|Book Review

Olympic success

A sports journalist observes a changing Tokyo

By Lesley DownerTokyo Olympics Athletes Village, Japan, 1964Tokyo Olympics Athletes Village, Japan, 1964|© The Asahi Shimbun via Getty ImagesJune 18, 2021Read this issue


TOKYO JUNKIESixty years of bright lights and back alleys … and baseball
384pp. Stone Bridge Press. £14.99.Robert Whiting

When Robert Whiting arrived in Tokyo in 1962 at the age of nineteen the city was engulfed in a frenzy of construction as it prepared to welcome the world to the Olympics two years later. The “rickety wooden houses, scabrous shanties and cheaply constructed stucco-covered buildings” that had sprung up after the devastation of the Second World War were being torn down and new highways and high rises were springing up. It was, he writes, “the most dynamic city on earth”.

For Japan the Olympics were to demonstrate that the country was back on its feet, ready to take its place among the community of nations. Everyone was sure the city would not be ready in time. In fact, as Whiting recounts, the 1964 Olympics were a triumph. Sixty years later Whiting is still in Tokyo and another Olympics looms; this one too already had huge question marks hanging over it, even before the pandemic.

Few foreigners have spent as long in Japan or know the country as well as Whiting, and fewer still have had the many colourful encounters he has had. Tokyo Junkie is the hugely engaging and occasionally very funny memoir of a Tokyo insider who has grabbed all the excitement the city has to offer. He tells his story though various lenses – baseball, yakuza (Japanese gangsters), and the amazing ongoing development of Tokyo. As a sports writer he has a down-to-earth style with a laconic turn of phrase. He doesn’t waste words.

He depicts himself as an ordinary guy caught up in an extraordinary place and time. A lad from “the foggy backwater” of Eureka in rural California, he joined the US Air force and happened to be posted to Japan. Instead of staying at the base, a mini America, he set out to explore the intriguing new country he found himself in. At the time foreigners were a rarity and accorded special privileges. Whiting frequented nightclubs and bars, crossing paths with yakuza whose business cards gave their name, gang affiliation and rank. On one occasion, he relates, he answered a knock on the door of his tiny downtown Tokyo apartment to find “a young man in his late twenties, short, squat, muscular … assorted scars on his eyebrows and cheeks”. “Whiting-san”, the man growled, “I’m here for the money.”

Whiting had placed a bet in his local bar on a particular Japanese baseball player (a bit like football pools) and had lost and forgotten to go the bank. The yakuza demanded Y30,000 in cash. In the end Whiting and Jiro, the yakuza, became friends of a sort, though the yakuza lifestyle, fuelled by alcohol, cigarettes and amphetamines, was not conducive to long friendships or long life and Jiro soon disappeared.

Whiting was not particularly interested in traditional Japanese culture. As an ordinary American, he loved baseball. With no television at home he spent his time at the local bar watching matches. He learnt Japanese by reading the sports pages. This gave him an immediate bonding point with almost every Japanese in Tokyo. Most were fans of the Yomiuri Giants, the great Tokyo team, and he too soon became one. Studying the game he began to see that the Japanese approach to baseball was radically different from the American. The Japanese trained for baseball as if it were a martial art, mirroring their way of life.

The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, his depiction of Japan and the Japanese as seen through baseball, was published in 1977. It seemed to capture the essence of Japan and brought Whiting instant success and recognition. His second book, You Gotta Have Wa, was written at the end of the 1980s during the Japanese bubble economy when American companies were groaning under the weight of Japanese competition (at one point, sledgehammer-wielding members of Congress smashed a Toshiba radio on the lawn of the Capitol). As a journalist, Whiting wrote what he thought, in articles that the Japanese often considered “critical of Japan”. He highlighted the country’s widespread racism and was barred from the Japanese correspondents’ club and denied accreditation. He was told more than once that he was asking for trouble. “Asking for trouble,” he writes, “seemed to be a big part of my journalistic MO.”

But Tokyo Junkie is also the story of Tokyo over the sixty years that Whiting has been there, from the frantic rebuilding for the 1964 Olympics, to those bubble years when a man could become a millionaire overnight by selling a small bar on a priceless piece of land, and on to the death of Emperor Hirohito, in 1989, which seemed to usher in the so-called Lost Decade of the Japanese recession. Throughout, the building work has never ceased as Tokyo endlessly transforms, most recently in preparation for the 2020 Olympics, now opening this July.

Lesley Downer’s four novels, The Shogun Quartet, are set in mid-nineteenth-century Japan

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