The Yankee Who Didn’t Go Home: On Robert Whiting’s “Tokyo Junkie”

March 28, 2022   •   By Colin Marshall

Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys ... and Baseball

Robert Whiting

EARLY IN HIS new book, Robert Whiting refers to the “Yamate Line,” and most readers who have been to Tokyo in the past half-century will suspect a misprint. Few visitors to the Japanese capital could avoid the subway train in question, which runs in a loop through such well-known districts as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Ginza. But they’ll know it as the Yamanote Line, a romanization of its Japanese name (literally “mountain’s hand,” equivalent to the English “foothill”) first adopted in 1971. But by then, the Californian Whiting had already logged almost a decade in Japan, having been sent there by the United States Air Force in 1962. “Tokyo is the best city in the world,” he remembers a master sergeant saying when informing him of his posting: “You’ll be over there with all those geisha girls, riding around in rickshaws. Ten million people. More neon signs than you can imagine.”

The neon comes up quite often throughout Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball, as one of the city’s few constants during a period of ceaseless change. Whiting closes his memoir with his 77th birthday lunch at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Nihonbashi: “It occurred to me over our gelato that there is very little left in Tokyo that is older than I am, given how this city keeps on renewing itself.” He arrived nearly 60 years ago to “the biggest construction site in the world,” a transformation motivated by preparation for the 1964 Summer Olympics. Still, there were plenty of attractions amid all the dust: there were “deluxe movie theaters with 70mm screens, and pachinko pinball parlors jangling noisily all day long,” beside “noodle stands, yakitori shops with their smoky grills, food marts, and discount shops,” beside “ancient temples with serene gardens of gravel and rocks and inner courtyards.”

As in many pre-Olympics development binges of the 20th century, an overarching goal was to bring the infrastructure of a “backward” country up to the standards of the modern West. “[D]espite the frantic rebuilding, less than a quarter of the city’s twenty-three sprawling wards had flush sewage systems at all, making Tokyo one of the world’s most undeveloped (and odiferous) megalopolises,” Whiting recalls, olfactory memories supposedly being the most deeply recorded of them all: “Tokyo was also rat-infested. Some 40 percent of Japanese had tapeworms. There were no ambulances, and infant mortality was twenty times what it is today. Moreover, house theft was rampant, narcotics use was endemic, and it was considered too dangerous to walk in public parks at night.” This is a far cry indeed from the city world-renowned for its safe streets at all hours, its high-tech bidets, and its far-reaching, precision-engineered train networks.

Even in 1962, that city, its outwardly ultramodern glories now celebrated to the point of cliché in both East and West, lay only a decade or two in the future. Whiting is well placed to reflect on this urban evolution, having borne firsthand witness to nearly all of it. His long acquaintance with Tokyo — or love affair with it, or (as his title implies) addiction to it — grants him an appreciation both for what has been gained and what lost in the process. One fondly remembered institution is Shibuya’s Happy Valley Dance Hall, which boasted a mirror ball, a swing band, and a regular crowd of “beauticians, secretaries, waitresses, and college coeds — nice ordinary girls whose presence helped me overcome my native shyness.” Japanese society in those days “supposedly frowned on premarital sex,” he notes, “but that didn’t seem to bother the girls I met at the Happy Valley.”

The young protagonist of Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (2010), his sensibilities forged in the 1960s, knows that, at the end of his life, “the only thing that would matter was how it had gone with women.” Though by his own account still physically robust as he approaches his ninth decade, Whiting seems to acknowledge having acquitted himself well in that domain. Yet his beginnings, sexually and otherwise, were inauspicious; back in California, his experience had amounted to “an encounter with a girl named Sandy in the back of my 1955 Ford that lasted approximately ten seconds.” But in Tokyo, the floodgates of female companionship disgorge a great many women of interest, Western as well as Japanese, albeit also of highly varying constancy. A few years in, he routinely finds himself stumbling home, “eyes bleary, suit rumpled, some Shinjuku zubeko in tow” (the connotations of that term being left to the non-native reader’s imagination).

Whiting references these encounters only glancingly, no doubt leaving the most colorful episodes untold. Abbreviated in the name of propriety, this parade eventually culminates in Machiko, a woman “educated, cultured, and intelligent, all the things I wasn’t,” and today his wife of more than 45 years. She is now retired from a career at the United Nations. If Whiting occasionally indulges in what Terry Eagleton once called “the annoying American habit of heaping lavish praise on his own wife,” it counts among his few obviously American traits. His first decade in Japan drilled into him “bizarre social skills.” Even abroad, he noticed himself “bowing when talking on the phone, sucking wind as Japanese do when trying to think of something to say, pouring beer for dinner partners”; even in English he peppered his speech with words like “sugoi, shoganai, maitta (wow, can’t be helped, I give up).”

Such acculturation set Whiting apart from most of his compatriots in Japan, especially at Fuchu Air Base, “a tiny island of small-town Americana in the Tokyo suburbs.” There were those, he discovered, “who had spent three years at Fuchu and had never eaten sashimi or learned to speak any Japanese other than sayonara, from the Marlon Brando film, and the ‘Phrase of the Day’ from Walt and Hiroko on FEN.” Even while working as an analyst at the ELINT Center, “a highly classified electronic spy operation” run by the CIA and NSA, he fielded such questions from colleagues as, “You speak that shit, Whiting?” After leaving the US military and studying at Tokyo’s Sophia University, he took a job with Encyclopedia Britannica Japan, where a fellow American colleague justified his own ignorance of the Japanese language by “arguing that you got a clearer view of the society without it.”

That is nonsense, but not complete nonsense. Whiting counts among his acquaintances such non-Japanese speakers as the Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen, whose 1989 book, The Enigma of Japanese Power, was nevertheless acclaimed for its insights, even in Japan itself. And Whiting’s own entrée into Japanese society didn’t come through its language, but his own: “Like other Americans in the capital, I found I could be sitting quietly in a kissaten or bar and someone would approach me asking, ‘May I speak English with you?’” His first Japanese girlfriend was sent his way by her father, the owner of the local izakaya, ostensibly to receive one-on-one language lessons. Even after he attained a command of Japanese, he found his English skills in demand from local yakuza, who needed an interpreter to communicate with the freshly imported Thai and Filipina hostesses at the Shinjuku nightclub they’d opened.

After answering an ad on a college bulletin board, the young Whiting found himself recruited as the private English tutor and “besuto furendo” of a successful plastic surgeon. The good Dr. Sato introduces him to members of Tokyo’s elite, including movie stars, and drives him along the city’s just-opened elevated expressway in a brand-new Nissan roadster, “listening to ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ by a new group called the Beatles, on the radio.” Whiting subsequently kept up as best he could with the entire Western culture of “the Sixties” — through the the moon landing, the Manson murders, and Woodstock — from the other side of the world. Despite remaining “a long-haired Californian, a semi-hippie, if one who eschewed the pony tails, love beads, jewels, bandanas, and psychedelic drugs (strictly illegal in Japan in any event),” he must surely have wondered if he wasn’t missing out on something.

Though Whiting didn’t make it back to America for the 1960s, he did return to catch some of the 1970s, not long after turning 30. Despite a comfortable job and salary, “I was getting tired of being a gaijin [literally, ‘outside person’] in Tokyo, with everything that the word implied. I was tired of having the same conversations with people I’d meet. Can you use chopsticks? Did you know Japan had four seasons? Why are you here?” Such a time of soul-searching visits every Westerner resident in Japan, or at least those who write books about living there. In his memoir A Tokyo Romance, the journalist and historian Ian Buruma describes the fear that he would “catch a dose of gaijinitis, and become obsessed with the often imaginary slights that go with being pegged to one’s ethnicity.”

In Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere (2008), the Japanologist John Nathan, a closer contemporary of Whiting’s, writes of receiving a much blunter message: “[I]n Japan you cannot win!” These words are delivered by Shintaro Katsu, an actor famed for his portrayal of the blind swordsman Zatoichi in a long-running film series of the 1960s and ’70s. Whiting, too, mentions encounters with the famously hard-drinking Katsu, as well as other Japanese notables like the director Hiroshi Teshigahara, “Blue Light Yokohama” singer Ayumi Ishida (a neighbor in his apartment building), and the late ultranationalist novelist and onetime Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara. A variety of well-known Westerners also cross his path, including Shirley MacLaine, David Halberstam, and Paul Schrader (whose enthusiasm for alcoholic beverages would seem to rank at least in Katsu’s league), along with a fair few baseball players.

Today, Whiting is known primarily as a writer on Japanese baseball. During his first decade in Japan, he wasn’t a writer at all, but he did design a children’s English course whose profits funded the move back to the US that made him one. His attempts to explain Japan to his countrymen kept returning to baseball, which had been Japan’s most popular sport since its importation in the late 19th century. “The more I talked the clearer it became that the Japanese approach to baseball, with its focus on harmony and effort and the corollary distrust of foreign players, even when they wore the same uniform, was a metaphor for the society as a whole.” He had opened a window onto “the culture, the national character — if there is such a thing — and on the values and assumptions that divide the Japanese version of the game from ours.”

The fruit of Whiting’s labors — performed only after friends bet he couldn’t rise to the challenge — was The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, his first book on the American national pastime as played in Japan. Though published in 1977, and much concerned with Eastern and Western players of eras even then bygone, it holds up surprisingly well today as a primer on both Japanese baseball and Japanese society. It also assumes a noticeably high degree of unfamiliarity with Japan itself. Whiting describes a post-game “wild night of merrymaking in the narrow twisting sidestreets of Shinjuku (Tokyo’s version of Greenwich Village) that is reminiscent of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.” To understand the public stature of the mighty Yomiuri Giants, one must imagine a reality in which “one out of two baseball fans in the United States is a devout Yankee enthusiast.”

Some of these comparisons were surely inspired by Whiting’s life at the time, which he led, after a fashion, in the squalid inferno of 1970s Manhattan. “I would get up in the morning and head out to have breakfast at Ray’s Pizza over on Broadway,” he writes of his daily routine, “stepping over the ubiquitous dog shit on the sidewalks.” A “violent, decaying metropolis,” New York had by that point deteriorated to a rougher condition than that of the relatively primitive pre-Olympics Tokyo.

The subways were dark and dirty, the stations announced over the public address system were indecipherable. City cabs were like mobile trashcans. There was a beggar on every streetcorner, many not begging but demanding money, intercepting you as walked down the street, hand out, glaring with menace.

This urban contrast, underscored by his research for The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, convinced him that his future lay in Japan.

Unlike John Nathan or Ian Buruma, neither of whom have lived in Japan in decades, Whiting made a permanent return to Tokyo in 1975. On both sides of the Pacific, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat drew special attention for its chapters on the lives of aging American major-leaguers hired to play in Japan. Most such players were handsomely paid but also frustrated by the rigorous formalism of Japanese baseball and the xenophobic attitudes of Japanese society. Some also came to resent the symbolic nature of their role, as the young Whiting did upon realizing that Dr. Sato, the plastic surgeon, had been using him as “the male equivalent of a Tokyo nightclub hostess, an accessory to enhance his elite status in Japan’s New Order.” Whiting published You Gotta Have Wa, a follow-up dealing entirely with that subject, in 1989, with postwar relations between the United States and Japan at their nadir.

The close of what Whiting calls the “Mammonesque” 1980s in Tokyo saw the publication of The Japan That Can Say No: Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals (1989), Shintaro Ishihara and Sony chairman Akio Morita’s treatise on their country’s newfound economic might. Meanwhile, in America, there were books like The Reckoning, David Halberstam’s 1986 study of the failure of the US auto industry in the face of relentless Japanese competition. While doing his research in Japan, Halberstam also took on a Playboy profile of outfielder Reggie Smith, then spending the twilight of his playing career with the Yomiuri Giants. This gave him occasion to call upon Whiting as a fixer, known as he must already have been as Tokyo’s go-to American authority on Japanese baseball, and even more so on the game’s American players. That reputation grew in 1991 with Slugging It Out in Japan, the co-written memoir of another American Yomiuri Giant, former Montreal Expo Warren Cromartie.

By the end of the 20th century, Japanese ballplayers were being sought after by American teams. None of these reverse gaijin is more famous in either the US or Japan than Ichiro Suzuki, on whom Whiting wrote a book in 2004. In the wake of his signing with the Seattle Mariners three years before, Japan had experienced an explosion of public fascination with Major League Baseball, but as Whiting notes, “there was little interest in players not from Japan. News reports invariably focused on the Japanese star in the lineup: ‘Ichiro gets two hits in Mariners loss.’” Even with a win, “nobody really cared, unless the Japanese player had contributed to a victory.” This presaged what Whiting now sees as a 21st-century resurgence of classical Japanese insularity: “Students don’t look to study abroad the way they used to,” and “fewer people in today’s Tokyo speak English well — this despite a billion-dollar English tutoring industry.”

However ineffective it may be, that industry employs a great many more Westerners than Japanese baseball ever has. An American living in Japan today is likely to work or to have worked as an English teacher, with an associated lifestyle of mundanity and inconvenience bearing rather little resemblance to Whiting’s exhilarating sojourn of the 1960s. But even in that era, a recently arrived expatriate would have looked in envy to his predecessors, those “foreign carpetbaggers and soldiers of fortune that poured into the city after the war,” and threw themselves into enterprises of ambiguous legality (or unambiguous illegality). One such figure, restaurateur and “mafia boss of Tokyo” Nick Zappetti, would become the central character in Tokyo Underworld (1999), one of Whiting’s few books not related to baseball, and the only one to bring him death threats from the yakuza.

In Tokyo Junkie’s final chapters, Whiting elaborates on his reasons for continuing to reside in Japan, despite the persistence of the belief — even today, with calls of “Yankee go home” very seldom heard — that a foreigner living in the country must sooner or later return from whence he came. After the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster it caused, he was “deluged with messages from relatives and friends abroad,” all of them “asking when we were going to evacuate, suggesting strongly that it was time for us to fly back to California.” But he never considered doing so, in part because, unlike in Fukushima, life in Tokyo went on almost as usual: “[P]erhaps the biggest inconvenience I suffered was having to walk up six flights of stairs to our apartment” due to electricity outages.

The same could perhaps be said of Tokyo in the time of the coronavirus, though the pandemic did expose “weaknesses in Japanese technological readiness.” So, much more dramatically, had the events of 2011; so, in another way, had the fumbling preparations for the city’s 2020 Olympic Games, of which “no one seemed to be in charge.” Four decades after Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel published the Western industry-spooking Japan as Number One (1979), “the country that invented the Walkman was losing the battle on communication tools and apps. Japan still had its inventors, but except for game programmers, manga and anime producers, and robotic engineers, they were not going out into the world.” Since the turn of the millennium, Japan has seemed perpetually about to emerge from the slump that followed the bursting of its 1980s asset bubble, but it has yet to find its way decisively out.

Yet Tokyo remains “the largest city on the planet, with thirty-eight million inhabitants in the Greater Metropolitan Area,” as well as “the highest GDP of any city at $1,520 billion,” “more Fortune 500 global headquarters than anywhere else,” and an “awe-inspiring metropolitan skyline that ranks with that of Manhattan, Sydney, and other great capitals.” His wife’s ever-changing UN postings let Whiting spend a few months of each year in world cities from Paris to Mogadishu, each such visit supporting his conclusion that Tokyo ranks at the top. Like every big American city, New York “is not as dangerous as it used to be” but also “not as livable as it used to be,” owing to a loss of small businesses and neighborhood distinctiveness; San Francisco is “the product of a failed civic system.” (Whiting does admit to liking Los Angeles, despite its underdeveloped transit network.)

“[Y]ou can leave your laptop computer on your table when you visit the restroom at any Tokyo Starbucks,” Whiting boasts, and enjoy a “100 percent assurance it will still be there when you get back.” This is also true of Seoul, where I live; as a fellow American (one also born in small-town Northern California) who has found his way to an Asian metropolis, I struggle to think of what would induce me to give up the basic quality of life here. One could well argue that the capital of a modestly sized and relatively homogeneous country, no matter how impressively developed, will always lack a certain cultural vitality. But then, we don’t live in the most culturally vital age. After watching “the latest series on Amazon and Netflix” during pandemic lockdown, Whiting and his wife reverted to the Ken Takakura yakuza movies which had thrilled him in the 1960s.

As much as Whiting celebrates the richness of life Japan has afforded him, I wouldn’t doubt that he can also hold forth over any number of drinks about its infuriating qualities. (His political and media connections have clearly kept him informed about the almost parodic degree of hypocrisy and corruption found throughout Japanese society, not least at the highest levels of government.) But it was the sound of monoglot expat watering-hole grousing that made him vow, in his first Japanese years, to be “the one American to deal with Japan free of bias, becoming a voice of reason in uncovering and extolling its virtues (and feel virtuous myself in assuming so generous a stance). I would be the one Yankee who didn’t go home, earning instead a positive welcome to remain.” It seems he’s earned that — along, after almost six decades, with a right to complain.

¤

Colin Marshall is at work on a book called The Stateless City: A Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his website, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.