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BOOKS: Japan through the eyes of a 'Tokyo Junkie'

Robert Whiting traces the changes in a city, and himself, across six decades

Tiny bars line a backstreet in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. In his book "Tokyo Junkie," Robert Whiting writes with a sense of wonder and empathy toward his chosen subject and adopted home. (Robert Whiting collection)

TOKYO -- "Officials from the police agencies came in and sat alongside yakuza bosses who sat next to CIA agents. At times, one might see Catholic priests and missionaries of other faiths sitting next to exotic dancers and hostesses from neighboring clubs."

That was the scene in 1962 at a watering hole in the Roppongi entertainment district called Club 88. It was set up by two former Occupation-era intelligence agents who went on to join a Tokyo-based U.S. black ops group, the Canon Agency, fighting North Korean agents smuggling heroin and crystal meth into Japan.

At Club 88, you might see Shirley MacLaine on a trip to visit her Tokyo-based husband, a businessman named Steve Parker. Or Nat King Cole, dropping in to play a few tunes after a gig. You might also notice a wiry young American in a cheap three-piece navy-blue suit sitting in a corner soaking up the vibes. That would be the author of this book, who is probably the only person on the planet capable of telling us what it was like to be there at that particular moment in time.

"Tokyo Junkie" is a double biography. It describes six decades in the life of Tokyo and six decades in the life of Robert Whiting. Both would undergo dramatic changes over the years. The character arc of Tokyo is clear. From a cacophonous, smog-choked sprawl with a limited sewage system to a clean, well-functioning, increasingly vertical city. From an age of "endemic drug use" and rampant burglary to one known for social cohesion and low crime rates. From the ruins of defeat to a city largely at peace with itself.

Whiting's personal journey is more complex and perfectly summed up by his chapter headings -- "The Soldier," "The Student," "The Degenerate," "The Penitent," "The Professional," and so on. He presents his young self as a naive, small-town guy who happened to get a job as a U.S. military data analyst in Japan. None of his colleagues had any interest in the country to which they had been posted and barely stepped off the base. Whiting was different. As with many long-term residents of Japan, a switch suddenly flicked in his mind and, to continue the metaphor of the book's title, before he knew it he was hooked on the place.

Top: Ginza nightlife, 1960s. Middle: Tokyo traffic, 1960. Bottom: Sean Connery at the Kokugikan Sumo Hall while in Tokyo to film "You Only Live Twice" in 1966. (Robert Whiting collection) 

Several senior figures, including the priest who taught him Japanese, advised young Robert not to waste his time hanging around in a backwater like Japan when there were so many opportunities in "the real world," wherever that was. Whiting had the confidence and foresight to ignore them. Instead, he committed one of the worst offenses among Western expats. He "went native," living in ramshackle apartments, taking his meals in cheap eateries, being moved to tears by an anime series he regularly watched in a neighborhood bar. As time went by, he started to sound Japanese and think Japanese, too.

Whiting's range of acquaintance was exceptionally diverse, taking in hard-charging corporate samurai, gangsters, a plastic surgeon related to the Imperial family, and the future head of the Yomiuri media group, Tsuneo Watanabe. Not many people can say they were kept awake by the sound of pro-wrestling icon Giant Baba practicing falls in the apartment above. Particularly memorable is a fire-breathing radical girlfriend who suddenly moves back to her hometown and transmutes into a demure housewife. Whiting does not question her choice. On the contrary, in an endearing flash of self-knowledge, he admits "I didn't know it at the time, but the same thing would be happening to me." Within a few years, Whiting cleaned up his act, calling time on the temptations of Tokyo nightlife which derailed many a promising career. He found a good woman and the career for which his talents had destined him -- as a writer.

One of the highlights of the book is Whiting's account of the 1964 Olympics, which should be read before viewing Kon Ichikawa's artistically bold film of the event, Tokyo Olympiad, which was released in 1965. To clean up the country's image, the government requested gang bosses to dispatch the most "unpleasant-looking" yakuza to the countryside for "spiritual training," while streetwalkers and vagrants magically disappeared from the city, too. The whole nation was agog with excitement, as the Olympics were widely viewed as the symbol of Japan's reentry into the cohort of respectable nations. There were shocks and disappointments -- in one case, ultimately leading to the tragic suicide of an athlete -- but the overall result was a tremendous success for Japan in terms of medals and, far more importantly, in what we now call soft power.

Top: Opening ceremony at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Middle: Rush hour madness in 1960s Tokyo. Platform pushers were required. Bottom: The author with wife Machiko Kondo in 1979. (Robert Whiting collection)

Given that history, it comes as no surprise that the Japanese government is doing everything in its power to stage another Olympics in 2021. The geopolitical map now is very different from what it was in the early phase of the Cold War and Japan is a very different country. Nonetheless, pulling off a successful games in the era of COVID-19 would be a similarly impressive feat. The fact that Japan had negative excess mortality in 2020 -- meaning that fewer people died than in a usual year  -- means it is highly qualified for the task.

Whiting is the author of several acclaimed books about baseball in Japan, and the bestselling "Tokyo Underworld," which recounts the secret history of Japan's postwar period via the biography of Italian-American pizza entrepreneur and all-around rascal Nick Zappetti. These are the nominal subjects of the books, but the underlying theme is culture, its importance, and the trouble it causes when you get it wrong.

In a sense, Whiting is a kind of Lafcadio Hearn for our times. Unlike the 19th-century Greek-born writer who introduced Japan to the West, he does not "do" temples and shrines. He prefers stories about mobsters to those about goblins, and it is hard to imagine him wandering the streets in a kimono, as Hearn did. Yet the two writers have in common a sense of wonder and empathy toward their chosen subject and adopted home. Not many foreign writers would have the magnanimity to say what Whiting does about the "salaryman" ethos: "I came to admire them for their dedication to their firms -- and to their country. To many Japanese, that gritty all-consuming struggle out of the dust and the ashes was a kind of life fulfillment. There was a certain beauty in it."

Top: The Kabukicho entertainment district has more bars per square meter than anywhere else in the world. Middle: Bubble-era decadence at the infamous Juliana's disco in 1991. Bottom: Morning commuters at Shinagawa Station in the COVID-19 era. (Robert Whiting collection) 

The words of a true Tokyo Junkie. Whiting's memoir is packed with insights and extremely funny in places. Historians of the postwar period will learn much about the nexus of politics, money, media and organized crime that helped fuel Japan's phoenix-like rise from the ashes of defeat. It is also a narrative of change and growth -- the turbulent maturation of a single individual and of a megalopolis inhabited by some 30 million souls.

And if you simply feel like time traveling back to Club 88 and chatting to the hoodlums, spies and good-time girls that frequented it, while Nat King Cole tinkles the ivories and Shirley MacLaine flirts with the best-looking missionary, this book is the only way of getting there.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research and a longtime resident of Japan.

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