'Tokyo Junkie' review - Kyoto Journal
By Stephen Mansfield
The city Robert Whiting stepped into in 1962 bore little resemblance to the urban utopias of its ambitious future architects and town planners. The capital’s long-suffering residents stoically put up with contaminated rivers, suspect tap water, the extraction of night soil by suction trucks, and legions of rats. In the short interim between the end of the war and the author’s arrival, Tokyo’s hastily created, prefabricated structures were already in an advanced state of decomposition. Surveying the broken, odiferous city, ravenous crime groups, known as yakuza, closed in like hyenas. Tokyo at this time, was also, according to those who experienced it, the most vibrant, forward-moving city on the planet, its citizenry driven by the conviction that things could only improve.
Whiting describes how, much like the preliminaries for a papal visit, supposedly unsightly aspects of the city, its streetwalkers, scowling mobsters, beggars and homeless, were somehow induced to melt away for the duration of the 1964 Olympic Games. Sensitive to the impressions likely to be formed by foreign visitors pouring into Tokyo, signs were put up reading, ‘Let’s refrain from urinating in public.’ Judging from my more recent nocturnal wanderings through the city, those signs could be dusted off and put to good service today.
Writers have not always treated the city kindly. Australian author, Hal Porter, described the capital as, “an allegory to warn, a horrifying and bloated City of Dreadful Day where post-1984 robotics and the superstitions of prehistoric animism are inextricably braided together, an abnormal metropolis, feverish and discordant, hysterical, hybrid and chaotic.” Whiting is more benign in his treatment, while steering clear of fact-distorting elegies and paeans.
Applying himself to a vigorous study of the language, the writer, assisted by liberal doses of tobacco and coffee, devoted the early morning hours to studying the sports daily newspapers. Even those with little interest in Japanese sport will enjoy his profiles of erstwhile baseball and wrestling champions, and anti-heroes. Whiting’s passion for Japanese baseball acquires almost anthropological proportions, as he begins to see it as a metaphor for Japan, its dual embrace and wariness of foreign players, the mortifying training regimes imposed by the game’s managers, the stultifying conformity.
I recall the writer, Donald Richie, once telling me that the publisher of Edward Seidensticker’s autobiography, Tokyo Central, had urged him, unsuccessfully, to be more confessional. As a memoir, Tokyo Junkie offers something akin to full disclosure, the sense of a professionally edited, but uncensored text. He doesn’t shirk, for example, from describing in detail, as neither accomplishment nor act of shame, a night spent in a Shibuya love hotel with a nineteen-year-old junior college student. The results are raw, unmediated slabs of reality, commentary that avoids many of the politically correct niceties that can hobble writers. Rather than avoiding the unsavory, Whiting embraces it, consorting with yakuza minions, local hoods, prostitutes, an arms dealer, gamblers and jailbirds. Along the way, he learns a great deal about the functioning of the economy and the shady links between organized crime and politics.
The author’s induction into the circles of the yakuza allow him to compare popular cinematic images of its foot soldiers as torch bearers of a vanishing samurai ethic, with a more thuggish reality. “Everyone in the gang drank copiously and seemed to be taking some form of methamphetamine,” he writes in a particularly insightful passage: “The combination did slow damage to the central nervous system and caused a perpetual chemical imbalance that put them on edge, ready to fight at the first perceived insult. A psychologically stable yakuza was an oxymoron.”
His eye-witness account of a violent anti-war demo in Shinjuku is one example of Whiting’s debunking of stereotypes about Japan, in this instance, the notion of Japanese docility. The activities of the Japanese student movement in the late sixties have been criticized as a re-run of events taking place on the campuses of Berkeley and the Sorbonne, or the anti-Vietnam engagements I myself took part in as an ill-informed schoolboy in Grosvenor Square, London, then location of the U.S. embassy. Whiting’s experiences make it clear that these young Japanese were passionate and committed, not to mention well-informed.
Whether unconsciously or by willing osmosis, reviewers often replicate the style of the author, whose work they are covering. Thus, the verbose writer gets a wordy review, an examination of an experimental novel digresses into free association. I’ve tried to resist the reflex, but if I were to replicate Whiting’s style, the result would be something like the smart swagger and hard-boiled breeze of a noir novel, a review in the manner of Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy. It’s a style well suited to a city that, despite its civilities, can be tough and unforgiving.
Given his standing as a writer, Whiting is surprisingly self-deprecating. Describing his future wife, Machiko, he declares, “She was educated, cultured, and intelligent, all the things I wasn’t.” A friend pointedly asks, “What the hell is she doing with you?” A capital dedicated to tearing down buildings, can also elevate a person. “I am what I am today” the author declares, “because of the city of Tokyo.” Reading Tokyo Junkie can be a singularly humbling, even emasculating experience, leaving the impression of existing on the periphery of everything, the center of nothing. Viewed more constructively, we might interpret the work as a clarion call to live more intensely.
In the closing pages of the book, Whiting, an avowedly unsentimental writer, casts a piercing eye over the city from the heights of a swanky Nihonbashi restaurant. “It occurred to me over our gelato,” he writes, “that there is very little left in Tokyo that is older than I am.”
In the world’s most provisional city, memories are perishable. Whiting has saved some of his best ones for us.