Robert Whiting Talks Olympics, Tokyo and More on “Chatter Up!”
Being the vital Japanese baseball writer that he is, we have plenty of coverage of Whiting-san on our website, including a book review of Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball.
While it has certainly been one of the most important cities in the world in recent memory, it’s easy to forget that Tokyo – a city that just hosted the 2020 Summer Olympics – has not always been the amazing metropolis people have come to expect. The development and modernization of the city, invigorated by its first Olympics hosting gig in 1964, is unparalleled. With constantly rising skyscrapers and infrastructure being spread to every corner of the city, Tokyo seemingly blossomed overnight; almost so fast that almost no one paused to observe and capture the metamorphosis.
One person who certainly did capture it is legendary writer Robert Whiting, author of some of the most important English works of Japanese contemporary culture, including the legendary You Gotta Have Wa, one of the most influential baseball books ever written. As a result, it made perfect sense that Whiting joined JapanBall’s “Chatter Up!” on August 5 to discuss his addictive love for Tokyo that inspired his recent memoir’s title.
“I use the term “Tokyo Junkie,” [for the book’s title] and one of the reasons is the city was addictive,” Whiting confessed. “There’s something about it; you have all this energy in the air, it really addicts you. You just don’t want to leave it. It’s just an electric atmosphere. Plus, the fact that Tokyo had more bars and restaurants per square kilometer than any other city in the world. You couldn’t get them all, because by the time you finish, there’d be a whole new group of bars and restaurants that had sprung up, and it was just exciting.”
Whiting was first exposed to the wonder that is Tokyo during that pre-Olympic transformation. “My first impression of Tokyo was just total chaos,” he recalled. “They were tearing the city apart and putting it back together for the Olympics, and the crowds were enormous… in that span, by the time the Olympics had started, they put up eight overhead expressways, and finished most of them. 10,000 new buildings, five five-star hotels, a monorail going from Haneda International Airport into the city, and the bullet train becoming the fastest train in the world, which cut the time to Osaka 200 miles away in half. So it’s really a dramatic transformation.”
Whiting began living in Tokyo in 1962, when the US Air Force sent him to the city, and quickly fell in love with it, ultimately deciding to stay when his enlistment ended. While he had very few friends in the region – even falling in with the yakuza crowd at times – and knew very little Japanese, he found himself gaining experience and understanding of his new home through the universal tongue of baseball.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t speak Japanese. The only thing I could understand on television was Japanese baseball,” Whiting said. “They had a Yomiuri Giants game on every night, whether they were at home or on the road, it was broadcast nationwide from seven to nine. A lot of the words were in English, or English-derived words… so that’s how I learned to read Japanese and then just speak. You could walk into a bar any night of the week during baseball season, or a restaurant, and strike up a conversation with somebody just by saying, ‘How are the Giants doing?’ because everybody was watching. Every place you went in had a TV on the wall. So you could make friends with Japanese by asking, ‘Did the Giants win today?’”
Of course, most Japanese baseball fans know that Whiting would take this experience and run with it, publishing multiple books on the subject, including the Pulitzer Prize Finalist, You Gotta Have Wa. While his work earned plenty of awards and a place on numerous bestsellers lists, it actually took Whiting much convincing to begin working in earnest as an author. He recalled to the “Chatter Up!” audience:
“In university, my major was political science, so those subjects I knew about, but nobody was interested,” Whiting said. “I started telling them about [Yomiuri Giants slugger] Sadaharu Oh, who would practice every night with a Samurai sword… [or] how [Japanese baseball teams] would have drills and start spring training right after New Year’s in the freezing cold… I would tell people these stories… [and] they pushed me to write this book. ‘Oh, [baseball] is a great way to see the national character of Japan.’
“I was reluctant to do it because I had never written anything before, and it just seemed like an overwhelming task to actually sit down and write a book. So then this one guy, he kept bugging me and bugging me. And then finally he said, ‘Well, I guess you don’t have what it takes to do it anyway.’ That’s what did it, I said, ‘Okay, I’ll bet you 500 bucks, and I’ll have a book done in a year.’ It just pissed me off so much that he said that. So I went to Barnes and Noble, and got a book on how to write nonfiction, and then, six months later, I had a draft [of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat”]
As a result of his work, Whiting has become a top Japanese baseball expert, and with the “Chatter Up!” audience he was open about his opinions on the current iteration of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), including the dwindling television numbers, if there’s a difference in the reverence of history between NPB and Major League Baseball, and if, as some reports might lead to believe, the sport may be due for major evolution over the next few years.
“I think the success of [Shohei] Ohtani and [Yu] Darvish, [Masahiro] Tanaka in the big leagues keeps interest in baseball alive in this country,” Whiting said. “It’s healthy for the development of the game. The problem with Japanese baseball is that the teams are run by corporations. They don’t approach them as profit-making businesses like the Americans do, it’s just a [public relations] vehicle for the parent company. The Nippon-Ham Fighters exist to basically promote the sales of pork, the Yomiuri Giants to promote the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, that kind of thing. So they don’t have the minor league development system that the Americans do. So that’s always been the difference between the two, but they have really healthy high school and college baseball systems, so they’ll always be generating good players. I think it’ll just go on like it is now, I don’t think it will change much.”
In addition to discussing plenty of baseball and You Gotta Have Wa! Whiting also discussed his observations of the country leading up to and during the 2020 Olympics (much different than the 1964 edition), his public clash with the Yomiuri Giants over their bloated attendance records, and shared more tales from Tokyo Junkie. To read this conversation in its entirety, check out the full transcript of the discussion, or watch the episode on our YouTube channel!