Image: Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan

Robert Whiting arrived in Tokyo to work in US Air Force intelligence a couple of years before the 1964 Olympics and he’s still there, giving him a marvelous basis for comparison of then and now. 

I first came to the city … in 1962 as a raw 19-year-old GI from small-town America. It was a time when the United States was at the peak of its economic power under iconic new President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Japan was still struggling to recover from the damage of defeat in World War II. Tokyo, at the time, was tearing itself apart and putting itself back together for the Tokyo Olympics.

I was as naïve as they come. I had grown up in Eureka, a small fishing and logging town on the coast of northern California. Military training in Texas, intelligence school in Mississippi and a weekend in New Orleans. That was all I knew of the outside world. My knowledge of Japan was limited to Godzilla movies, dubbed in bad English…. In fact, the first thing I did on my initial visit to Tokyo was to look for the Diet Building that Godzilla had destroyed in his debut Toho feature.”


The next thing he did was to measure his drinking capacity against the city’s offerings, and a few of his accounts of those experiences provide a handy introduction for Asia Times readers to the rest of the volume.

“You don’t know how lucky you are,” Master Sergeant Korn, crusty Air Force lifer from Tennessee with a deep tan and corncob pipe, who ran the Keesler AFB assignment desk, had told me when delivering the news of my next posting. “Tokyo is the best city in the world. You’ll be over there with all those geisha girls, riding around in rickshaws. Ten million people. More neon signs than you can imagine. A sake house on every corner. Makes me wish I was young again just thinking about it.”

Although, as I would discover, hardly anybody used a rickshaw anymore and geisha girls were the expensive preserve of extremely wealthy men, he was certainly right about the rest.

Indeed, there were so many places to drink in Tokyo that even if you could somehow patronize them all, by the time you finished a whole new crop of establishments would have made their appearance. The spectrum of entertainments was infinite.

Narrow buildings in the entertainment areas were crammed full of mizu shobai (“water trade,” as the nightlife business was called) establishments. On the first floor might be a coffee shop, the second a bar, the third a dance hall, the fourth a supper club, the fifth a restaurant, the sixth a hostess nightclub, and so on.

He was, he writes, “hooked before I had a chance to fully process how I got there in the first place.”

The rare US serviceperson who was enthusiastic about learning Japanese and the ways and customs of Japan, Whiting at every opportunity headed off-base. “Clad in a cheap three-piece navy-blue suit, custom made in two days by an off-base Korean tailor, and armed with a Japanese phrasebook and a map,” he took the half-hour train ride to western Tokyo’s Shinjuku station. From there he landed in many of the adventures he lovingly recounts in the book.

In the daytime,

I was partial to Ladies Town in the Ginza, where coffee was served by some of the most beautiful women I have ever met, dressed in long satin bridal gowns and lacy veils, and C’est Si Bon, a little spot playing Piaf and Segovia, run by an aging ex-ballerina who told me that I looked like Warren Beatty.

Then there were the nights. The Club 88 in the highly international Roppongi nightlife area near embassies – which his colleagues in military intel turned him on to –

had 20 tables and a long bar, in addition to a separate sushi bar. It was always packed with an eclectic crowd of people. There were diplomats, foreign correspondents, assorted businessmen and visiting US congressmen.

Officials from the police agencies came in and sat alongside yakuza bosses who sat next to CIA agents.

At times, one might see Catholic priests and missionaries of other faiths sitting next to exotic dancers and hostesses from neighboring clubs who came in with their boyfriends after 11, when the hostess bars closed.

Two Japanese girls in kimonos are heading for Anton Geesink. The Dutch judoka was the most photographed man in Tokyo on September 30, 1964, after he defeated the hometown favorite for the all-weights judo gold, a story that Whiting tells in his book. Photo: AFP / ANP

By the time of the 1964 Olympics, Whiting had lucked into a gig at Ginza’s Le Rat Mort (“The Dead Rat”), the city’s most exclusive and most expensive nightclub, tutoring its hostesses in English.

The place looked like something conjured up in a 1950s MGM movie musical, featuring a marble floor inlaid with mother of pearl, deep leather sofas, Picasso paintings on the walls and gold lighters and ashtrays….

I began giving lessons every Saturday at noon at the Ginza location and it was a revelation. I barely recognized the women when they filed in wearing blue jeans, sandals and scarves, with no makeup or perfume, chewing gum and thoroughly hungover, thoroughly shattering the nighttime image they had worked so hard to cultivate.

I also discovered that most of them hated their high-paying job, which they deemed terminally boring, with its mindless chatter ….

This is just a taste, themed around the author’s choice of gin joints, of Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball – a rich and beautifully written book that will never let you down as you read through to the end; a splendid account of a remarkable life in a fabulous city.

In the more plebian watering holes that he could actually afford, Whiting came to know the subject with which he’s most closely identified today as the author of The Meaning of Ichiro, The Crysanthemum and the Bat and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated You Gotta Have Wa. Namely: Japanese baseball (which was constantly playing on the TV screens) and how it is influenced by traditional culture.

Image: Amazon

There’s the story about the night he didn’t have enough cash to pay off when, in a saloon he frequented, he lost a side bet on a baseball game. Figuring he could go to the bank and make good on it the next day, he went home.

Around midnight he answered a knock on his door to find “a young man in his late twenties, short, squat, muscular, built like a fireplug, buzz cut, assorted scars on his eyebrows and cheeks. He didn’t bow when I opened the door as people ordinarily did.”

The yakuza, who said, “I’m here for the money,” became his bosom pal for a time – and the underworld eventually became Whiting’s second area of authorial expertise. See his excellent Tokyo Underworld.

Whiting for a time became an unofficial advisor to this ‘family.;. Photo: Tokyo Junkie

Not being able to attend Olympics events in person is no problem for me, as I’m not much of a fan of spectator sports. What I find really regrettable about the great, postponed, locked-in Tokyo Summer Games is that tourists haven’t been admitted to Japan and a whole lot of people will miss experiencing one hell of a great city.

As Robert Whiting writes, Tokyo has become “what many people regard as the cleanest, safest, most modern, most transportation-efficient, most fashion-conscious and the politest city anywhere – with arguably the best selection of restaurants on the planet, boasting more than twice as many Michelin three-star restaurants as any other city, including Paris.”

Indeed, he reports, a 2018 Trip Advisor poll of users ranked Tokyo “most satisfying” to visit among 37 top cities around the world.

“The city may have its flaws,” he admits, starting his negatives list with “crushing rush-hour crowds.” However, “the good, in my opinion, outweighs the bad.” He explains:

Tokyo is now the largest city on the planet, with 38 million inhabitants in the Greater Metropolitan Area – 13 million in the city proper.

Tokyo has the highest GDP of any city at $1,520 billion, ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, Seoul, London and Paris. Tokyo also has more Fortune 500 global headquarters than anywhere else and boasts a newly minted, awe-inspiring metropolitan skyline that ranks with … Manhattan, Sydney and other great capitals.

The city also ranks among the highest around the globe in terms of literacy levels, with a rate of 99% for people above the age of 15, and life expectancy, with almost a quarter of the population over the age of 65. Special features incorporated by the city fathers to accommodate Tokyo’s aging society include talking traffic lights and ATMs, as well as ubiquitous directional tactile pavers to aid pedestrians with poor eyesight, along with special ramps accompanying steps in train stations and public buildings for the benefit of the less mobile.

For those who’ve missed the chance to experience this amazing place in person, reading Whiting’s book is the next best thing.

Robert Whiting’s new book was published by Stone Bridge Press. Reviewer Bradley K. Martin was first stationed in Tokyo in 1977 and he agrees with Whiting that it is the greatest of cities.