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Number 1 Shimbun

Robert Whiting

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Gavin Blair talks to Robert Whiting
and finds a author steeped in Tokyo history -- from
spies in the sky to baseball statistics,
thugs and media moguls.

 

Touching down in Japan in 1962, Robert Whiting’s first job here was analyzing data gathered by U2 spy planes on reconnaissance missions over China and Russia.

I was going to Humboldt State University and was about to flunk out. I had all sorts of problems; I just had to get away. I was going to get drafted, so I joined the Air Force,” recalls Whiting. “They gave me a test, and as a result of that I was sent to electronic intelligence school, and then to Japan, to a U.S. Air Force base at Fuchu, just outside Tokyo.”

The cutting edge of intelligence technology at the time, the U2 planes had temporary wheels that dropped off when they were airborne, remembers Whiting. “As they came in to land, when it got to a point where they had slowed down enough, this jeep would run alongside and this guy would reach out and stick these wheels on underneath the wing so it could land properly.”

As his time came to leave the military, one of his bosses offered him the chance to join the NSA, but Whiting was already bewitched by the energy of Tokyo as it prepared to host the ’64 Olympics. Returning to Japan after his discharge, he enrolled in Sophia University to study politics.

 

Tsuneo Watanabe paid Whiting ¥20,000
a few times a week
to get his English up to speed.

 

With the GI Bill providing $200 a semester, he was on the look-out for part-time work to pay the bills. “My graduation thesis was on the Liberal Democratic Party factions. One professor knew this newspaper editor who was going to be sent to Washington D.C. to run a bureau. He asked me if I wanted to be his English tutor for a year.”

The editor turned out to be the Yomiuri Shimbun’s Tsuneo Watanabe, who paid Whiting ¥20,000 a few times a week to get his English up to speed. [Watanabe is now Japan’s most powerful media baron.]

Watanabe was being sent overseas because he had repeatedly criticized Prime Minister Eisaku Sato in his column, leading the government to insist something be done to get the young hotshot editor out of the way.

 

Whiting got to know Watanabe and his wife well, but the relationship would sour years later when he reported on alleged racist treatment of legendary Yomiuri Giants’ slugger Sadaharu Oh, and later on the exaggerated crowd figures for the newly-opened Tokyo Dome. Both incidents led to him being banned from Giants’ home games.

Graduating from Sophia, Whiting worked at a Japanese company for a couple of years, then “got bored of being a gaijin and moved to New York.”

Nobody was interested in Japan, in the politics, but people loved the stories about baseball, like how Oh would practice cutting paper with a sword to strengthen his wrists for batting.” From there the idea for The Chrysanthemum and the Bat was born, which Whiting says he wrote on a bet.

While working as one of the few guys at the Kelly Girls temp agency, thanks to his typing abilities, Whiting finished the book with the help of a $2,000 advance, which he used to visit Japan and gather more material. This was followed by what he calls “a miracle,” when after having turned in the manuscript, and with $120 left in the bank, Time-Life offered to send him to work in Tokyo.

 

I had people admitting to murders.
They were worried about being sued,
but I had the tapes,
and these people don’t sue.

 

After the success of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, “the phone started ringing,” and he was soon writing columns for Japanese publications, in-flight magazines and Sports Illustrated. After “putting in the hours and learning my craft, I wrote You Gotta Have Wa,” which Whiting says, “changed everything” and led to the contract for Tokyo Underworld.

Told by his agent to write about something other than baseball, he came upon the story for Tokyo Underworld when he met Nick Zappetti, the protagonist of the book. “It was such a strong story, but it took me years to check out whether all of what he’d said was true.” While researching the book, Whiting realized he was living in Rikidozan’s mansions, the widow of the legendary wrestler was his landlady, and the local thugs were members of the Tosei-Kai gang, all central to Zappetti’s stories. It was “just serendipity.”

Before the book came out, Whiting says the, “legal people went over and over it with a fine-tooth comb; I had people admitting to murders. They were worried about being sued, but I had the tapes, and these people don’t sue.”

 

Following Tokyo Underworld’s publication, Whiting received a letter from representatives of Hisayuki Machii, the former boss of the Tosei-Kai gang that features heavily in its pages, who wanted to discuss the contents with him. Machii died before Whiting was able to meet, but he learned of his concerns through lawyers.

Machii had heard that there was going to be a film and he wanted to be portrayed as a patriot, because he helped rid Japan of the communist threat. He had a letter from Douglas MacArthur expressing gratitude for his help and calling him a friend of America and Japan. The fact that he had committed two murders with his bare hands and a rap sheet as long as . . .

 

"I have a 150,000-word draft,
but unfortunately
I picked the wrong 150,000."

 

He would get flagged at immigration going to Hawaii, because he was boryokudan [yakuza], and he would produce this letter. I met an agent who had stopped him and was shown the letter.”  

Whiting has yet to see his work make it onto the screen, having been through numerous offers, options, and screenplays with DreamWorks, Paramount, Warner Bros and HBO, with Martin Scorsese twice slated to direct. He recently accepted an offer to turn Tokyo Underworld into a TV series, though at this stage, he says he has, “no illusions.”

His next book is set to feature more of Tokyo’s colorful postwar characters, both Japanese and foreign. He is currently undergoing the process of rewrite after rewrite that he says he does with all his work.

I have a 150,000-word draft, but unfortunately I picked the wrong 150,000. Now I’ve got to go back and replace them with the right ones.”

Gavin Blair covers Japanese business, society and culture for publications in America, Asia and Europe.

 

Published in: January

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