Robert Whiting Interview: Sluggers, mobsters, a pizza don and now Ichiro

Trends & Culture - March 5th, 2004
tokyoweekender_Robert Whiting

Story and photos by John Domokos

Robert Whiting’s best-selling books have explored Japanese society through the exploits of ageing ex-Major Leaguers and the rise and fall of an ambitious young Italian-American, who all came to Japan to ply their respective trades. His new book, The Meaning of Ichiro, turns the tables and looks at the impact of Japanese baseball stars in the U.S. Before hitting the road for a promotional tour, he talked to Weekender about his latest project and looked back on a career path that began in secrecy and has led to acclaim.

Robert Whiting hasn’t always been able to talk this openly about his work: when he first came to Japan, in 1962, he was with the U.S. Air Force, analyzing data from U-2 spy plane missions to China.

“I worked in a building in Fuchu with no windows and armed guards protecting it. When I got out, my C.O. told me if I ever breathed a word about the work I did, I’d be sent to Leavenworth. I got back to San Francisco, picked up a copy of Newsweek, with the cover story ‘America’s Secret War.’ It had everything. Even a photo of the place I worked. So much for secrecy.”

The world is a very different place now. China has a player in the NBA, Korea gets to the semi­finals of the soccer World Cup, and Japan has a baseball star called Ichiro Suzuki.

The Seattle Mariners’ right-fielder is the subject of a new book by Whiting, The Meaning of Ichiro, taking a look at the impact of U.S.-based Japanese baseball stars on bilateral relations between the two countries.

Back in 1965, when Ichiro was just an apple in his baseball-obsessed father’s eye, Whiting had developed a keen interest in the culture of Japan. He returned to enroll at Sophia University, leaving four years later with a degree in Japanese Politics but with a feeling something was missing from the reading list.

“What bothered me about all of the books I had to read was that there were no people in them, just facts and theories. I wanted to do a book about Japan that was filled with real flesh-and-blood humans, something that people would enjoy reading.”

Living in America again, Whiting was bet by a friend he couldn’t do it. He took up the challenge and wrote The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, considered by many to be a baseball classic (Whiting says he can only see its rough edges now). His editor told him books on baseball and Japan don’t sell, but 55,000 people thought oth­erwise, and Time Magazine chose it as Sports Book of the Year in 1977.

In the quarter of a century since then, Whiting has gone through a colorful cast of characters including sluggers, mob­sters and an infamous pizza restaurant owner to expose the clashes, scrapes, chafes and anecdotes that arise when two cultures as different as those of Japan and the U.S. meet.

Whiting followed up with Slugging it out in Japan (co-written with Warren Cromartie) but he hit the big time with his third book, You Gotta Have Wa, telling of the mixed fortunes and often-hilarious exploits of U.S. baseball players in Japan. For Whiting, baseball was the perfect window through which to view the cultural differences between the two countries.

“In baseball, it’s all out there in the open … on the field, in the stands, in the press. In business, all the conflict happens behind closed doors,” he points out.

Whiting didn’t know it yet, but he would spend the next six years peering behind those closed doors. He planned to write Wa and leave Japan, but the book sold almost 300,000 copies in English and Japanese, was cho­sen by Bukusu Magazine as one of the 50 best non-fiction books ever written in Japan, and it led to a manga spinoff, Reggie, that sold a million copies.

“That’s when I quit writing columns. The weekly deadlines were driving me crazy,” he said.

He didn’t have the time, nor did he need the money. His pub­lishers were now calling for another book, but Whiting did­n’t want to be branded a base­ball writer.

One evening, he was eating at a pizza restau­rant called Nicola’s, when owner Nick Zappetti, who had read Wa, came over to intro­duce himself. Zappetti soon got started on the subject of his past.

“Nick was not the kind of guy to be elected president of the ACCJ. He had 11 arrests, one deportation, the top spot on the Justice Ministry’s gaijin enemies list and four marriages. But he had more money in his prime than any other Westerner in the city and lived a really col­orful life.”

Zappetti had found someone who would listen to his stories; Whiting had found the central character of his next book.

Whiting says, “My initial idea was to write a social history of Tokyo since the war, focusing on the U.S. and Americans. But after looking at Zappetti, his gangster friend (Hisayuki) Machii across the way in Roppongi and anoth­er friend, Rikidozan (the sumo star turned national pro-wrestling icon), in whose build­ing I lived, it dawned on me there was a great story right in front of me, dealing with a side of Tokyo about which nobody had written … These guys symbol­ized so much. The hard part was learning the history in order to verify everything.”

Whiting spent several years interviewing some of the most colorful characters this town has ever seen (including Weekender‘s own man about town).

He schooled up on every­thing from Tokyo’s post-war black markets to international trade and economic issues. And, considering the reputations of some of the people he was interviewing, he also had to find multiple sources for everything he heard.

“In the beginning I thought it would take a couple of years. It took six. It was like going back to school and getting a Ph.D.”

This side of Japan’s history may have been a whole new ball-game for Whiting, but Tokyo Underworld had much in com­mon with its predecessor. According to Whiting, “Both present entertaining, painless ways to look at the U.S.-Japan equation. Baseball shows the cultural gap that separates the two countries—same sport, different approach. Tokyo Underworld shows the corrupt side of the U.S.­Japan relationship.”

Tokyo Underworld went to No. 2 on Japan’s book charts (No. 1 in Tokyo). It was surprisingly popular among young Japanese (“I thought they knew all that stuff,” says Whiting) and older women, for whom Zappetti “confirmed everything they expected about the American male.”

The book’s back cover was graced with an enthusiastic quote from the legendary’ Mario Puzo (author of The Godfather), and the film rights were snapped up by Dreamworks. “Goodfellas” scriptwriter Nick Pileggi took on the screenplay, now in its seventh re-write (when Whiting asked him if it wasn’t a bit much, Pileggi said he re-wrote “Goodfellas” 22 times).

While Pileggi wrestled with his script, Whiting returned to the subject of baseball. Fifteen years after Wa, the roles are reversed and it is Japanese baseball stars who are making waves in the Major Leagues. Whiting was approached by his editor for Wa (now a Vice President at Time Warner Books) to do a book on the Ichiro phe­nomenon.

“The idea appealed to me because it would be a reverse of Wa, and I would get to travel around the U.S. I put in about 100,000 miles for this book.”

But what is the “meaning” of Ichiro, a modest young man from Aichi Prefecture?

“Ichiro is the first Japanese cultural icon in the U.S. China has John Woo and Ang Lee who make blockbuster movies with Hollywood’s top stars. Chow Yun-Fat is a matinee idol in the States. All Japan had was VCRs and automobiles—until Ichiro came along. His success made ordinary Japanese feel as if they belonged, that they were no longer just sideline observers, not just people who made things, if you know what I mean,” said Whiting.

On the American side, Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Co. have raised the profile of Japan, according to Whiting. “(Ichiro) has probably done more than all the diplomats, CEOs and Japan specialists to improve under­standing of Japan. It sounds like a cliche, but that’s what happened.”

And since Ichiro came along, the previously small-minded town of Seattle has been transformed.

“There’s a whole segment of the population in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, that didn’t even know what sushi was 10 to 15 years ago. Now, thanks to Ichiro, they’re eating it at Safeco (Field) and yelling ‘gambare!

“Japan is now ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ in the eyes of many Americans, thanks in great part to him. People love his swagger, his flash, his Juliet Oakley shades.”

But it’s not just his eyewear they admire.

Ichiro has introduced the concept of doryoku (roughly translated as “effort”) to the Americans. When he met Tony LaRussa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, he was asked what he thought of American baseball. “Ichiro replied that (the American players) would be a lot better if they trained the way they should. He went on to explain about the Japanese emphasis on perfectionism, end­less training, covering every little detail. LaRussa almost fell out of his chair.”

Whiting could also have told LaRussa a thing or two about doryoku. When asked what goes into writing his books, the author replies, “Lots and lots and lots of research. Read 100 books. Interview 200 people. Write a first draft of 200,000 words or more, then whittle it down to 100,000 or so. It usually takes six or seven drafts. Sometimes more. It takes three to four years, depending.

“You reach a magic point somewhere in the middle of your research when you realize you know more than the person you are interviewing. That’s when you know it’s time to write the book.”

That done, it’s off to the US. for a grueling 19-city tour. “Then I’m going to find a nice quiet beach and relax.”

There is a sequel to Tokyo Underworld in the pipeline, as well as the movie. Knowing how painstakingly Whiting and Pileggi go about their work, we could be waiting a bit longer for those.

The Meaning of Ichiro hits the shelves in April, published by Time Warner Books. Watch this space for a review.