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Personality Profile: Robert Whiting

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Personality Profile: Robert Whiting

by VIVIENNE KENRICK (Nov 12, 2000)

For the last 50 years Japan has come under intense Western scrutiny from many quarters. Scholars, writers, professional men and women in different pursuits have contributed observations and analyses of Japanese thoughts and lifestyles and behavior. Bob Whiting crafted a way of his own to add to the body of work on Japan. He chose baseball.

Whiting did not set out to be a writer, far less to combine writing about sports with examining Japanese attitudes. He said, "I didn't know if I had what it took to write a book at all. A friend of mine bet me I couldn't do it." Eventually he wrote it while he was living in New York in the early 1970s. Even then it might never have appeared had Whiting not been out of work and out of money. Desperate to pay his rent, he persisted with publishers until he succeeded with one. "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat" was an instant hit, soaring on the best-seller list. Time magazine named it the best sports book of the year.

Born in New Jersey in 1942 and raised in Eureka, Calif., Whiting entered university there. He didn't do well. "My grades were bad, and I wanted a break," he said. "I joined the air force." In uniform he came to Japan. "I was in electronic surveillance, and at Fuchu worked in a windowless building for 12 hours a day. I went back to the States, but decided I wanted to return to Japan." In Tokyo he entered Sophia University.

He studied Japanese government, and learned a lot about the Liberal Democratic Party. "I had a good professor, who taught me a lot about what went on behind the scenes," Whiting said. With his degree, from university he went to work for the Encyclopedia Britannica in Tokyo. He studied the Japanese language. A consulting company he and his friend set up was "chaotic, and went bankrupt." Whiting returned to the States.

He found it easier to write about his subject when he was away from it. "Living in New York gave me a better focus on Japan," he said. Success with his first book opened a way ahead for Whiting. He received invitations to write for many prestigious American magazines. A Time/Life project brought him to Japan again. Here he became a columnist for the Tokyo Daily Sports, for the weekly Sankei, and the biweekly Nanbei. He contracted to write his next book.

Whiting married Machiko Kondo, who in her work for the United Nations accepted overseas postings. "I was often left behind, as I had to keep up with my columns," Whiting said. He was often with her too, so that his next book, "You Gotta Have Wa," was written in Tokyo, Seoul, New York, Mogadishu and Kamakura. Published in 1989, it was another instant triumph. It was a Pulitzer Prize entry, and is today required reading in the Japanese departments of many American universities, including Harvard and Stanford.

One critic described "You Gotta Have Wa" as "one of the best-written sports books ever." Another called it a "work of cultural anthropology." A third said, "What you read is applicable to almost every other dimension of American-Japanese relations."

For his most recent book, Whiting turned away from baseball to unearth stories of corruption that few non-Japanese ever hear. Remembering his university professor's versions of what went on behind the scenes, he delved into Japan's postwar history, researched and interviewed. The result was "Tokyo Underworld," subtitled "The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan." This is described as "a comprehensive and intriguing expose of an unholy web of colorful gangsters, politicians, ex-GIs and corporate titans . . . a riveting slice of history that is little reported or known in the West." Whiting made of his material a fast-paced, tense and startling story. A movie is now under way based on the book.

As a columnist, Whiting is one of only a handful writing regularly in the Japanese press. His books are translated into Japanese. As a commentator, he appears in documentaries about Japan, and accepts speaking engagements. He has been seen on the "Larry King Live" show, and the "MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour." Privately he reflects on the "funny way life turns out." He said, "When I was living in New York I was 30, and broke. I had no idea how my life would go. I read James Michener's book 'The Drifters,' in which a character says, 'You have only until you are 40 to decide what you want to do. Some things you cannot do after that.' From my experience, I know you don't have to think of yourself as a failure if you don't know what you want to do, and are only 30."

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