When Robert Whiting arrived in Japan as a 19-year-old to work for the United States’ National Security Agency at Fuchu Air Station near Tokyo in 1962, Nippon Professional Baseball was in its infancy. Established in 1950, NPB quickly capitalized on this nation’s love of the sport.
When Whiting published his memoir, Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball, (Stone Bridge Press, 384 pp.) in April 2021, he delivered a literary grand slam. It’s an introspective look at his life, providing a mesmerizing collection of anecdotes about the people he encountered, with abundant recollections of friends and acquaintances, notorious underworld figures and prominent politicians, and vivid descriptions of his adopted hometown’s remarkable transformation in the early 1960s in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics to the present day.
An acerbic wit and a deep appreciation for history help propel this book to great heights.
And when the topic is baseball, which is deftly weaved into the book’s overall broader themes, Whiting is in his element. He is an authoritative writer on the subject, bringing the game to life with crystal-clear clarity.
Whiting’s The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977), You Gotta Have Wa (1989) and The Meaning of Ichiro (2004), are an essential introduction to Japanese baseball, giving readers a window into how the sport mirrors the culture here.
Before his deep dives into baseball on clacky keyboards in smoke-filled cafes and elsewhere, Whiting witnessed the unforgettable Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on October 10, 1964, on television. As becomes clear throughout the book, he was in the right place at the right time.
In a chapter titled “Zen Cathedral” about one-third of the way through the book, Whiting’s keen awareness of baseball’s ties to traditional Japanese culture is highlighted.
“It was baseball, a quintessentially American sport, that gave me my first true connection to Japan and its people,” he admits in the opening sentence of the chapter.
Baseball also became the foundational subject of his Japanese language education. Ample opportunities existed every day, and Whiting developed a productive routine.
He watched Yomiuri Giants games every night on TV. And as he heard Japanese combined with American baseball words and phrases again and again during the telecasts, his language education had a key building block.
It wasn’t enough, though, for Whiting to follow baseball on TV. He challenged himself by attempting to read the morning sports daily newspapers. It was a difficult task but he persevered, as he recalls in this memorable portraiture:
“Each morning I dragged myself out of the futon, put on my jeans, T-shirt, and sandals and, brushing my long hair out of my eyes, headed for the station kiosk, armed with my kanji dictionary. There I picked up a copy of the Nikkan Sports, one of the top million-selling sports papers, and proceeded across the street to the Sakura coffee shop. For the next couple of hours, I would sit in a booth with the paper spread out before me on the polished oak table, sipping my morning roast and smoking my Hi-Lite cigarettes as I made my way through the stories. I would become aware of the curious stares bent in my direction as soon as I began deciphering the front-page headline with its colorful array of Chinese characters.”
As time marched on, Whiting’s command of the language improved immensely. And his understanding of the foothold that baseball had on Japanese society grew, too.
Credit Whiting with boiling down the most important talking points about Japanese baseball in Tokyo Junkie — and in his other books, essays, columns and speeches — to bite-size nuggets.
Case in point: Everything you really need to know to grasp the Giants’ omnipresent cultural begins with the following facts he writes about from the 1960s:
“Enter any coffee shop, sushi shop, izakaya, or bar after seven at night and there would be a TV tuned to the Giants game. It was a citywide obsession. It was a nationwide obsession. Surveys showed that one out of every two adult Japanese was a Giants fan. You could compare their popularity to that of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers combined. But that would be understating the case.
“If baseball was the national religion of Japan and the Giants the leading practitioners of the faith, then Korakuen Stadium was its cathedral.”
Japanese Baseball’s Ties to Samurai Culture
A baseball team is a reflection of its manager’s personality, and the Yomiuri Giants embodied legendary manager Tetsuharu Kawakami’s character.
Without jotting down an unnecessary superfluous list of examples, Whiting quickly points out that Kawakami meditated on a daily basis and lived by a famous mantra, “baseball is Zen.”
He also notes the stark contrast between the team’s two top superstars, all-time greats Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima.
“Sadaharu Oh practiced his swing with a samurai longsword, slicing pieces of paper suspended from the ceiling in perfect halves,” Whiting recalls. “Third baseman and national heartthrob Shigeo Nagashima, the most popular sports figure in the land — Joe DiMaggio’s popularity squared — reportedly slept with his bat in his arms every night. He swung so fiercely and fielded his position so aggressively the shortstop was almost unnecessary.”
Shortly thereafter, he dives into the ways martial arts became synonymous with Japanese baseball, and not just at the pro level.
Whiting cites the influence of martial arts on school teams at the high school and college level.
“The most successful early practitioners of the new sport were high school and university teams that grafted the philosophy of the martial arts onto the game, emphasizing the virtues of discipline, loyalty, dedication, endless training, development of spirit, and absolute execution of instructions delivered by the manager (kantoku) or coach, all inherited from the vanished world of samurai,” he declares. “Left out of the equation was any suggestion of having fun.”
Again, another powerful example that quickly educates the masses about how Japanese baseball operated for decades.
Whiting reveals that the inspiration for The Chrysanthemum and the Bat was Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants), a popular animated TV series that made its debut in 1969 on NTV and aired on Saturday nights before Giants games.
He also notes that American slugger Daryl Spencer experienced the reality of anti-foreigner sentiment, as Whiting calls it, when he was in pursuit of the Pacific League home-run crown in 1965. He wound up second with 38 homers, trailing Nankai Hawks’ Katsuya Nomura, who clouted 42. One pivotal stretch of the season helped derail the Hankyu Braves star’s chances. Or as Whiting remembers: “He failed to win a title, facing pitchers who walked him intentionally (eight times in a row in one doubleheader) to stymie his bid.”
The Catalyst for His First Book
Upon relocating to New York City in the early 1970s, Whiting received the impetus to write his first book. Armed with a degree in political science from Sophia University in Tokyo, he conversed about Japanese politics and detailed observations about why he felt Tokyo was such a marvelous city.
The subject that piqued New Yorkers’ interest the most, though, was Japanese baseball. Looking back at how he discussed the game during his time in the Big Apple, he writes:
“Oddly enough, what people seemed most interested in was baseball, how Japanese turned a wholly American game into something completely their own.”
And a friend named Dwight who lived in the same Manhattan neighborhood told him he should write a book about it.
That suggestion changed his life.
Fueled by a bet that he could write a book within a year, a great challenge emerged. He needed a spark to channel his focus, and he found it.
“I went to the Barnes and Noble store at 5th Avenue and 46th Street, across from Saks, bought a book on how to write non-fiction, and studied it,” he writes. “Rule Number One, as I recall, was that an author should be able to express the thesis of his book in one sentence.
“Everything else should flow from that algorithm. I hammered out mine— ‘The Japanese national character as seen through baseball’—and the book’s basic structure with Dale, Dwight, and other West Side friends in a skull session at Marvin Gardens. I clearly remember Marvin Gaye singing Let’s Get It On in the background.”
Fueled by a diet of pizza and beer for half a year, and a growing knowledge of his subject enhanced by intense research, Whiting’s book began to take shape.
But he needed sources, too. He paid a visit to the then-retired Spencer in Wichita, Kansas. Spencer read the first draft of the book, then gave the young writer insights that powered the book’s central theme.
Spencer hammered home the point about the intricacies of Japanese baseball at the cafeteria in the Coors factory, including, as Whiting recalls, “Baseball in Japan is all about losing face,” he said. “Batters sacrifice bunt because they are afraid to swing away and possibly suffer the embarrassment of striking out. Also, in doing so, they can demonstrate that they are thinking of the team. Pitchers are fined if they give up a hit while ahead in the count, so they nibble at the corners after two strikes. Coaches have to show they are doing their jobs, so they are constantly coming out to offer advice…”
Armed with an overhauled 100,000-word manuscript in autumn of 1974, Whiting began shopping his book around, looking for a publisher. After 12 rejections, he caught a break. A Sports Illustrated staffer named Patricia Ryan saw promise in the project and helped him attract the attention of a publisher, setting the wheels in motion for The Chrysanthemum and the Bat to be published. He received a $2,000 advance from Dodd, Mead and Company, and the cash served as an investment for more journeys to come.
Returning to Tokyo, Whiting became a full-fledged baseball writer.
Raising his Profile
In 1975, Whiting took spring training trips to watch the Chunichi Dragons (Hamamatsu), Taiyo Whales (Shizuoka) and Yomiuri Giants (Tamagawa). An invitation to ex-New York Yankees standout Clete Boyer’s apartment that spring was one more step on his path to entering baseball’s inner circle here.
Then playing for the Whales, Boyer was in the latter stages of his career. Also at his Tokyo apartment that day were the rest of the foreign ballplayer contingent from teams in the big city.
Among other things, Boyer opined about the great Sadaharu Oh, as Whiting recounts:
“People in America just don’t know how great an athlete Oh is. I think he’s super. If he played in the MLB, he would be a Hall of Famer. He is like Hank Aaron and Ted Williams. In his own way, he is that good. Too bad Americans will never see him play.”
Through his important first book, which was published in Japanese as Kiku to Batto, Whiting became recognized as a serious baseball observer in Japan. He recalls that a Bungei Shunju editor wrote an essay about it in the magazine, and this distills the essence of the piece: “We never thought of foreign players as real people. We just thought, ‘They are paid a lot of money to play baseball and that’s that.’ This book, however, really made us take a closer look.”
As a baseball writer, Whiting was never afraid to ruffle a few feathers.
Reggie Smith, another former MLB star who joined the Giants in 1983, delivered colorful anecdotes for Whiting, who became a prolific freelance writer for magazines, a columnist for several Japanese-language newspapers over the years and a sought-out TV commentator.
“From the start, Smith had all sorts of problems with Japanese baseball,” Whiting writes. “He had arguments with coaches over his refusal to do the 100-fly-ball drill and other grueling exercises. He had arguments with umpires who gave him what he termed an expanded strike zone after he hit three big home runs in his opening weekend, and he had arguments with pitchers who intentionally walked him, even with the bases loaded, a practice he termed ‘gutless.’ “
Whiting’s rise to prominence in the 1980s also provided the background for a revealing tale about his clout with Japanese bigwigs.
David Halberstam, a 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wanted to interview Smith for a magazine article. And he was getting nowhere with his project during his trip to Japan.
“It is easier to deal with the White House than it is to deal with the Yomiuri Giants,” Halberstam is quoted as saying in the book. “My deadline is fast approaching. Can you get me an introduction to Reggie Smith? And tickets to a game?
Whiting knew exactly what to do.
He paid a visit to Takezo Shimoda, the NPB commissioner and ex-Japanese ambassador to the United States. He brought him a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. In return, the commish gave him a pair of tickets to his own private box at Korakuen Stadium, and after the game the two journalists and Smith had dinner before Halberstam conducted his interview.
Whiting’s second book took shape in Mogadishu, where he lived while his wife, Machiko, worked for the UNHCR in the Somali capital. You Gotta Have Wa was a labor of love in the East African city.
“When I had finished the final draft of Wa,” Whiting recalls, “I went out on the balcony and read it out loud into the wind that blew in from the Indian Ocean, the dhows plying the waters off the coast in the distance. … It took me two full days. I am certain I am the only person in the world to have written a book about baseball in Japan while living on the continent of Africa.”
This memoir does an admirable job of giving more than a few quick glimpses of how baseball fits into each era of his adult life.
For instance, star pitcher Hideo Nomo’s departure from the Kintetsu Buffaloes and subsequent signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers in February 1995 revolutionized the relationship between Major League Baseball and NPB.
Whiting understood the context and meaning of Nomo’s trailblazing move to the bigs, and the ramifications of it.
“Nomo’s rebellion shook the nation,” Whiting writes in “The Nomo Effect” chapter. “Baseball executives, media pundits, and fans alike painted Nomo as a traitor, an ingrate. Even his father stopped speaking to him.”
But Nomo’s sensational success with the Dodgers captivated his homeland, especially at the outset of the MLB All-Star Game in Arlington, Texas.
Half a world away, Whiting watched as Tokyoites were captivated by the historic event.
“The energy in the air when Nomo took the field as starting pitcher in the 1995 MLB All-Star Game was charged in a way I hadn’t felt in the city since the 1964 Olympics,” writes Whiting.
It’s a poignant remark that compresses his life (and career) into a single sentence.
Author: Ed Odeven