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Sunday, April 4, 2004

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Outside the box

Best-selling author ROBERT WHITING talks baseball, gangsters, bribes and more with Japan Times columnist MARK SCHREIBER


Back in 1972, a 30-year-old New Jersey native who had recently graduated from Tokyo's Sophia University was in New York City, trying to talk to anyone who would listen about politics and life in Japan. Nobody was interested.

News photo
Robert Whiting in Tokyo last week, prior to leaving on a U.S. tour to launch his new book, "The Meaning of Ichiro."

"It was only when I started talking about baseball -- about how they'd start spring training in the middle of January in the freezing cold, and a guy named Sadaharu Oh who practiced his batting with a sword, and the phenomenon of the Yomiuri Giants" -- Robert Whiting relates, "that people started paying attention. It was then that I realized I'd found a way to explain Japan to people that was entertaining."

On a bet with a friend ("just to prove I could do it") in 1977 Whiting produced a best-selling book titled "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style" -- a poke at cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict's 1948 classic on Japan, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword."

"I had no idea it would turn out like it did," he reflects. "I took it to 14 publishers. It was turned down. Then I went to Dodd Mead and the guy there . . . offered me a $1,500 advance. I negotiated him up to $2,000."

Thirty years and another three books later -- "You Gotta Have Wa," (1990); "Slugging It Out In Japan: An American Major Leaguer In The Tokyo Outfield" (co-authored with Warren Cromartie, 1992); and "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times And Hard Life Of An American Gangster In Japan" (1999) -- Whiting can look back from his current home base in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, on a tremendously successful career on both sides of the Pacific.

But even he admits he never foresaw the time when blue-collar Americans would sit in Seattle bleachers and cheer wholeheartedly for a wiry, bearded outfielder from Nagoya who performs sumo-style stretching exercises in the on-deck circle.

Prior to embarking on a 19-city U.S. promotional tour for "The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime" -- his latest book, published by Warner Books this month -- Whiting talked to The Japan Times about his life in Japan, his evolution as an author and, of course, baseball.

When you first came to Japan, did you ever expect you'd spend a good part of your life in this country?

No, I didn't. When I first came here I was with the military -- an electronics intelligence unit. I worked in a building with no windows, armed guards, barbed wire, analyzing photos and data from secret U-2 flights over China. I would go down to Tokyo about once a week and watch baseball games. That was my first exposure to it. It really struck me how quiet it was. Korakuen Stadium was like a tomb compared to what I'd seen back home.

I got discharged and went back to the States. I came back here in 1969 to study for a year at Jochi [Sophia University] and wound up staying until 1972. Then I left -- I'd gotten tired of being a gaijin. I'd become a big baseball fan, so I moved to New York. That's where I wrote "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat." I came back to work for Time magazine. The book became a big hit, a bestseller. I started a company with another guy that went bankrupt. The royalties from the book kept me afloat and turned me into a sports writer to pay the rent.

When did you realize Japan was beginning to feel like home?

News photo
Robert Whiting (left) chats with former New York Yankees outfielder Roy White at the Korakuen Stadium home of the Yomiuri Giants in 1982. White, who was with the Giants from 1980-82, is now a coach with the Yankees; while Tatsunori Hara, the player behind in the No. 8 shirt, recently finished a stint as manager of the Giants.

In 1982 my wife joined the United Nations. She's Japanese. She got shipped off to Geneva. I would do research for books here and then go where she was and write the books. And after spending several months in Geneva with her, I realized I really missed Japan. I missed the bright lights and the noise and Shinjuku and Roppongi. I couldn't wait to get back. I mean there's just no place that's got the energy of this city, with the exception of New York.

Before you wrote "Tokyo Underworld" in 2002, your writing had pretty much been focused on professional sports. What was it that moved you to take on such a different subject?

I've got an agent in New York; her name's Amanda Urban. She's a co-CEO of International Creative Management. "You Gotta Have Wa" [a baseball sequel to "Chrysanthemum"] came out in 1990. It got a lot of attention because it was the peak of the bubble era and everybody was looking at Japan. She said you've got to get another book out now because your name is hot. And get a proposal for another book out and do it now because in six months nobody's going to remember who you are. You've already done two books on baseball. You don't want to be typecast. Give us something else. And I'd pretty much exhausted the subject anyway. I was really sick and tired of writing about baseball.

I wanted to do a book called "Tokyo Story," just a collection of stories of people who have lived here since 1945. I interviewed 10 or 20 people and then I realized that one of them was [the former U.S. Marine turned Tokyo restaurateur, gangster and naturalized Japanese] Nick Zappetti and I realized that this story with him and [the late pro wrestler] Rikidozan and [the Japanese-Korean gangster] Hisayuki Machii was the story to go for, staring me right in the face. It had the most color, the most drama to it. So I did that and I thought I'd have it done in a couple of years and I discovered I didn't know nearly as much as I thought I did. I had to do all this study about the gangs, read all these books in Japanese about the yakuza, read all the bios about Rikidozan. It really became a project. I thought it would take me two years and it wound up taking me seven.

Did this interest in the sleazy side of Japan and these colorful characters change your views on this country?

Yes. It changed my views on my own country too, as a matter of fact. When I graduated from Jochi I wrote my graduation thesis on the factions in the Liberal Democratic Party. I had a professor there named Kan Ori, who introduced me to Tsuneo Watanabe, who was a very hot-shot political editor at the time for the Yomiuri Shimbun. [Editor's Note: Watanabe is currently president and editor-in-chief of the Yomiuri Shimbun.] Watanabe was also a big supporter of Nakasone who, at the time, was being hailed as a Japanese JFK. I met Nakasone through him.

News photo
Robert Whiting and his wife, Machiko, on holiday in Kenya in 1987

Watanabe was being transferred to Washington, essentially being removed from the scene because he was writing articles that were criticizing the government of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. And he needed an English teacher. So I would go to his house three times a week and he would tell all these stories about bribery and corruption, about how Sato became prime minister because of a big bribe that was paid. At that time Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda was supposed to name a successor. He had throat cancer and couldn't talk, so it was written on a piece of paper. A lot of money changed hands and that piece of paper suddenly had Sato's name on it. Watanabe would tell me about how Sato's wife would come around bearing envelopes full of cash for his wife as a subtle way of suggesting he stop criticizing Sato so much in print. But she would refuse to accept it.

That was when I learned how corrupt Japanese politics was. I had tremendous respect for Watanabe at the time because he was absolutely fearless as a reporter. He wouldn't let anyone intimidate him. Now, of course, he's metamorphed into Genghis Khan.

And I knew something about the involvement of the gangs at the time, because I became a big hit in Higashi-Nakano with the local gang boss when he found I was writing a thesis on the LDP. He said, "Oh, we're big supporters of the LDP. We get out the vote at election time. We all like Nakasone." That was really funny.

Let's jump ahead to the subject of your latest book. Were you surprised that [L.A. Dodgers pitcher] Hideo Nomo and [Seattle Mariners outfielder] Ichiro Suzuki achieved stardom in the eyes of American fans?

I always knew there were players here who were good enough to play in America. Right from the beginning, Daryl Spencer, the first guy I interviewed, who played here in 1964-65 -- said [Sadaharu] Oh, [Shigeo] Nagashima, [Katsuya] Nomura and [Masaichi] Kaneda -- could all be stars in the States. And over the years you ask people in a position to make judgments like that and they will all say there were two or three dozen players who could play in the States. But I never thought they would have the wherewithal to get out of their contracts and find a way to get there.

Then it turned out that what changed was not the ability of the players but the will to go, and Nomo really wanted to go. He'd played against the Americans in the Olympics. He'd pitched against them in the Major League postseason all-star series. And everybody who faced him or saw him pitch said he had what it took to be a big star in the States. And he hooked up with [the bilingual American-Japanese "superagent"] Don Nomura, who had found a voluntary-retirement loophole in the player's contract. That's how he got out. But I never knew that existed. They had been using the same contract for 50 years. And it was a fluke. Or a really lucky break. I was surprised that they were able to go. But I thought Nomo would do quite well. I didn't think he would be the huge star that he was, and that something like "Nomomania" would occur. That surprised me.

In your interview with Ichiro in Time magazine, you asked whether there had been any incidents of racism directed toward him. He paused before replying in the negative. Was there anything else he said that didn't wind up in the magazine?

News photo
Robert Whiting contemplates a friend's antics in Tokyo's Roppongi district in 1972.

No. he just stopped for a moment and thought and said no. But then he went on to say that he's so protected all the time. He said "New Yorkers will boo me. They'll yell things at me like wasabi [Japanese horseradish]." But he said he's never experienced discrimination the way Nomo did when he was at Shea Stadium the first time -- "Go home Jap."

Was this when he was with the Dodgers?

Yeah. And there was a fistfight in the stands between a group of Japanese-Americans and some guys from Queens.

The media here seems almost disappointed sometimes that there hasn't been a racial incident directed toward Japanese athletes.

American sportswriters seem to go out of their way to avoid that. The only negative story I ever read about Ichiro was in Slate magazine by this guy Ben McGrath. He titled it "Japanese Zero." He gave all these detailed reasons why Ichiro was not one of the best five players on the planet as Bobby Valentine had said. His on-base percentage was too low etc. etc. Maybe he was one of the five top players on Seattle. This flood of responses came in by e-mail. People were furious. They accused him of racism and anti-Japanese bias. But I think the remarkable thing about Ichiro . . . [is that] he really has narrowed the gap between Japan and America, because there is a segment of the population in the Pacific Northwest that is redneck. They are historically fishermen and loggers, Scandinavian types. Ten years ago there were lots of people who went to the Seattle Dome who didn't even know what sushi was. Now they are eating it at Safeco Field and yelling gambare [come on!] to Ichiro and there are signs in Japanese all over the ballpark. And that's really quite a shift. As Midori Masujima, a prizewinning sportswriter, has said, Ichiro has done more than all the diplomats, all the business leaders, all the product makers -- Sony, JVC, Pioneer -- to bring Japan and America together. It's hard to describe how much this means to Japanese, because Ichiro has finally made Japan a member of the world. China had John Woo, Chow Yun Fat and Ang Lee, and they were cultural icons in America, but Japanese never had a cultural icon.

In 2002, some people were saying that with the onslaught of professional soccer and Japan's hosting of the World Cup, baseball was doomed. Do you ever see anything challenging baseball's dominance as the most popular professional sport here?

I don't think so. It's got too long a tradition. Look at the Hanshin Tigers. People say that everybody's watching Seattle and the Yankees -- Ichiro and Matsui -- but no one's watching the Giants anymore. But the Giants had an average rating of 14.6 percent on Video Research last year and everybody is wringing their hands and saying this is terrible because it used to be 27. But that's still like 18 million people -- and you get only an average of a million or a million and a half viewers for one of these satellite broadcasts. So there's still a lot more people watching Kyojin and Hanshin then there are the major leaguers -- it's something people overlook.

Japanese players seem to appear so much more clean-cut and boyish than U.S. major league players. You don't see Japanese players with beards or earrings or 10-kg gold neckchains. They don't look like drug dealers or pimps. Is this deceptive or are they really just big kids?

Well [former N.Y. Mets/S.F. Giants outfielder] Tsuyoshi Shinjo looked like a pimp. Ichiro's got a scruffy beard. There was a Japanese reporter in San Francisco, part of the group that followed Shinjo around all the time when he was with the Giants. They had nothing to write about him because he was on the bench all the time. So this one guy took a photo of Shinjo and took it down to the Castro district where all the gay bars are, asking people if they'd seen him there. Shinjo was so furious he stopped talking to Japanese reporters for a while.

Who are your favorite Japanese players of all time?

I really liked [Shigeo] Nagashima when he was a player. I liked him and [Sadaharu] Oh. I hated [their team] the Giants, but I always rooted for those guys to get hits.

Because of Nagashima's charisma?

Nagashima was just so much more colorful than Oh. It was fun just to watch him in the on-deck circle, because he would come up with these quirky movements. And I just loved [Hanshin Tigers pitcher] Yutaka Enatsu in his first four or five years. When I was a student he struck out 401 guys in a season.

If there had been a Japanese Pete Rose, do you think the outcome -- his expulsion from baseball for gambling -- would have been any different?

I think that he would have been treated the same. I think Japanese baseball has been more effective than the LDP in keeping gangsters out.

Your books seem to convey baseball as a reflection of wider social trends. And do you see Japanese and U.S. societies as having evolved since "Chrysanthemum" in 1977?

I think Japanese have a lot more self-confidence now. There's more and more of them going overseas. Seeing guys like Nomo and Ichiro becoming so successful -- Ichiro was named Most Valuable Player in his rookie major league year in 2001 -- seeing that has made them feel equals of Americans where they didn't feel that way before. It has given them a tremendous boost in self-confidence. This new generation that came up in the '90s -- they are much more in tune with this global youth culture than their predecessors were.

What impact would you like your upcoming book to have?

They gave me a really big advance for this book. When I wrote "Chrysanthemum," I had to go knock on doors and beg people to buy it. The guy who edited "You Gotta Have Wa" is now vice-president of Time Warner Books. He called me up and he said it looks like Ichiro is the real deal. . . . He says it's time to do a book. It's obvious that the Japanese have really got something to offer the United States. It's a complete reversal.

Fifteen years ago, Japan was a place where aging major leaguers who couldn't cut it anymore went to play and then made fun of the Japanese. Now it is completely turned around. People want to know about these guys but the reporters in the States really don't know anything about them. Ichiro has been there for three years but no reporters in the States have really touched on the story of his father's dedication to training him, which is really quite remarkable, a quite dramatic tale that comprises the first chapter of the book.

Given the amount of money that they offered me and the enthusiasm, and the fact that they are giving me a 19-city tour in conjunction with Warner Books and the Japan Society -- I think the book will do quite well, not because of me, but because of the interest in Ichiro, Matsui and the Japanese stars.

For "Tokyo Underworld" I had a six-city tour. . . . So the fact they have this interest is an indication the book will sell.

Anyway, I think these guys have had an enormous impact on kids in the States with their work ethic. Ichiro is the only guy who cleans his glove. A quick story: When he was 3, his father, who was a frustrated high-school baseball star who never went anywhere, bought him the most expensive glove available -- red leather, 30,000 yen. The mother went nuts. How can you spend so much money on a toy like that? The father said, this is not a toy; it is a tool of education. They would play catch every day. The son would have to clean the glove and oil it and everything. And the father would teach him that all things, animate and inanimate, have spirits, and you should respect that, and when you see him on the bench in Seattle, he's got racks behind him where he cradles two or three of his bats and the bat he uses during the game -- he's got a couple of tongue depressors taped to the side of the bench so the handle of the bat can rest between the tongue depressors. He's the only player in the major leagues who does that. Plus his pre-game work ethic and the fact that these guys never complain about money.

Finally, just out of curiosity, did you get a good grade for your Sophia University graduation thesis?

Yeah. I got an A. My professor said your research is outstanding but you really should learn how to write!



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