Journalist and author Robert Whiting uses his latest book, Tokyo Junkie, to recall his life as an American living in Japan and the transformations he witnessed in the nation he has long called home. Whiting weaves Japanese history into the stories he tells of his own experiences. His writing recounts the city’s massive transformation from post-war devastation to a gleaming beacon of progress and hope, then later dramatic cultural shifts due to the economic bubble bursting, the 2011 tsunami, and the build-up to the delayed 2021 Olympics.
The book is arranged chronologically, beginning with Whiting’s arrival in Tokyo in 1962. As an American GI stationed at Tachikawa Air Base, Whiting was fascinated by the city. Few Americans ventured beyond the comfortable confines of the base, but Whiting took advantage of the opportunities, as Tokyo was a city in the midst of transformation.
Japan was still recovering from World War II’s physical and economic devastation, yet Tokyo was also preparing to host the 1964 Summer Olympics. Since the event marked the return of Japan to the international stage, presenting a pristine city with a dynamic culture was crucial to establishing a positive image for the rest of the world. For the first time, the Olympics would be broadcast live and in color internationally.
Interest in the Olympics also led locals to develop an interest in learning English. Whiting’s habitual visits to certain restaurants and bars led to new acquaintances and requests for tutoring to improve English language skills. Through his work as an English tutor, Whiting came to know individuals with significant cultural and political influence, helping him understand the shifting culture of Japan as it moved toward economic prosperity in the ’70s. He describes his students and their lifestyles to introduce readers to Toyko.
Before the Olympics, Whiting began going out to eat and drink with Dr. Sato, the wealthy plastic surgeon who invited him to watch the Olympics opening ceremonies in his new luxury apartment in Harajuku. Later, Whiting landed a corporate tutoring engagement. He met a soft-spoken bank executive who survived the Tokyo firebombing in March 1945 and said he would have rather died in the atomic bombing, where at least death was instant. However, that was not the case for many in Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Despite living most of his adult life in Tokyo and being married to a Japanese woman, Whiting thinks of himself as gaijin, the Japanese word used to designate a foreigner. Gaijin is not a derogatory term but indicates the strong insider/outsider ethos of Japanese culture. Whiting’s aim in all of his writing is to delineate the cultural differences and similarities between Japan and the United States. Baseball, a sport that is quintessentially American and in other ways also quintessentially Japanese, was a starting place for Whiting’s study of contrasts.
His first book, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: The Game Japanese Play (1983), was one of four books about baseball in his oeuvre. As a career-spanning memoir for Whiting, Tokyo Junkie relates the backstories of his previous books. These tales are sometimes intriguing and often funny, as he conveys them in the brusque manner expected of an old-school journalist.
Whiting’s interest in baseball not only led to his career as a writer, it was also the gateway to learning Japanese and developing friendships over a shared interest in the sport. He also worked as a typical Japanese salaryman in the ’60s, enhancing his understanding of life in Tokyo. Like his Japanese colleagues, Whiting would work a 10-hour day then head out to the city for many more hours of drinking and eating. The scope of this decadence is somewhat staggering. He reports: “From 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. every evening, some eight million people jammed into the 30,000 places to eat and drink in the city.”
After the publication of his first book, Whiting found himself in demand as a journalist, regularly writing for the Japanese media and appearing on television. This time coincided with “the bubble era” in Japan, a time of unprecedented and decadent financial success internationally. He notes that “nearly half of all the cash in the world was in the hands of Tokyoites,” leading to the conspicuous consumption of high-end gourmet food, luxury automobiles, and social excess.
Shortly before the economic bubble burst in Japan, Whiting published You Gotta Have Wa (1989) inspired by his efforts to explain the cultural difference that made it difficult for Japanese and Americans to get along. The staggering economic power of Japan, along with the tendency for Japanese corporations and individuals to buy land and invest in US interests, fueled that discord.
Whiting traveled internationally quite a bit during this period, living in New York for a while and spending time with his wife who lived in various countries during her career as a United Nations officer. When friends in New York urged him to move back stateside, he finally realized that Tokyo was his home.
Like the diehard journalist he is, Whiting ends Tokyo Junkie with a brief exposé of some of the controversies surrounding the upcoming Tokyo Olympics: cost overruns, mismanagement of resources and people, concerns about meeting the deadlines to launch the games. Having lived in Tokyo for the span of time between the two Olympics (1940 and 1964), Whiting sees how the same problems that appeared in 1964 have come up again, enabling him to see the city, and his life, come full circle.