WiK’s first anniversary event could hardly have had a more prestigious speaker than Robert Whiting, famous not only for his bestselling book on baseball, You’ve Gotta have Wa, but for the even better selling Tokyo Underworld, an exposé of Japan’s influential gangster mobs. Robert has personally known several of Japan’s leading personalities in sports and politics, and he’s also been involved with Hollywood shenanigans discussing adaptations of his books (the film Mr Baseball was based on his writing). He resides in Tokyo and is currently treasurer to the Foreign Correspondents Club in Japan (FCCJ). As writers in Japan go, you can hardly get bigger, so WiK was extremely honoured to have him speak at the Gael on Sunday (4/24).
In his talk Robert drew on his personal experience to reflect on the role of serendipity in life. Along the way anecdote followed anecdote, some of which induced loud chortles from the audience. He had started out in life with no thought of being a writer. Born in the US in 1942, he dropped out of university and avoided the draft by working for military intelligence in Fuchu, Tokyo, in conjunction with the CIA programme of U2 spy planes.
He subsequently enrolled and graduated from Sophia University in Tokyo, specialising in political science. A chance encounter led to him tutoring Watanabe Tsuneo, who went on to become head of the Yomiuri group, responsible for the largest circulation newspaper in the world – a useful connection! His research topic on the factions of the LDP led him to an interest in ties to the yakuza (though he didn’t mention it, Wikipedia claims his contacts were such that he acted as ‘informal advisor’ to the Sumiyoshi-kai).
Back in New York, Robert kept up his reading skills by browsing the Japanese baseball pages, building up such a store of knowledge that it was suggested he write a book. In this way he started writing at the age of 32 for the first time. Chrysanthemum and the Bat was the result, published in 1977. Following this he wrote for periodicals, putting in the requisite ‘10,000 hours’ that are said to be necessary for proficiency, whatever the field.
Twelve years later came You Gotta Have Wa with its analysis of the cultural differences between Japanese and American baseball. The samurai ethos of group harmony, brutal discipline and unceasing endeavour underlay the Japanese game, in contrast to the individualism of the American way. The book rode a tidal wave of interest in Japan (it was the time of Japan as No. 1) and proved a massive hit in both the US and Japan. Whiting suggested that in contrast to other studies, his was ‘the taxi-driver’s guide to Japan’.
Being a customer at Nick Zapetti’s pizza parlor in Tokyo turned into his next big break, for the information Zapetti gave him in some twenty hours of tapes was to provide the material for Robert’s worldwide hit, Tokyo Underworld (now being turned into a tv series). Here Robert divulged that he writes ten drafts of every book he writes. He also uses a reading out loud technique, testing the written words by speaking them to a mirror. In this case he first wrote a rambling 170,000 words with no focus or narrative spread. He then tried it again, this time in the words of Nick Zapetti. That didn’t work well either, but then he realised that there was a central theme he should concentrate on, namely the paralleling of official US-Japan relations. It meant that over a period of six years he wrote thirty different drafts (10 drafts of three different versions). His persistence certainly paid off in the end.
Hollywood is infamous for the way books, authors and scripts get treated. Robert’s involvement was no exception. Dreamworks produced 14 different screenplays in seven years, and in the process Tokyo Underworld had been turned into a family comedy! Paul Schrader became involved and transformed the story into his own personal vision, then Amazon Studios optioned a version written by Robert himself. Somewhere along the line he made a million dollars from Kodansha for reuse of the screenplay. Now he’s giving back to the community by acting as treasurer for the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan (FCCJ), a volunteer job that is taking up so much time that it’s put back his writing by a year. If he takes as much care with the finances as he does with his drafts, one can only presume the future of FCCJ is in good hands!