Tokyo Junkie


Robert Whiting’s Tokyo Junkie covers the author’s ties to Japan’s megacity over a period of more than half a century, including his relationships and notable encounters with all sorts of people and his work on several popular books and articles about Japanese culture, sport, and politics since the 60s. Whiting doesn’t pull punches, and he gives us an honest sizing up of many Tokyo layers and key figures and events, from the construction boom leading up to the 1964 Summer Olympics to the doings of yakuza syndicates and behind-the-scenes workings of the Yomiuri Giants, to foreign ballplayers in Japan, press freedoms (or lack thereof), government screw-ups and shady deals, wrestling, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and plenty more, with his personal experiences and Tokyo itself taking turns at center stage.


When I heard Whiting was releasing a memoir, I was eager to read it (plus surprised he’d beaten me to the punch, as I’d recently finished writing the first draft of a novel I’d titled Tokyo Junkie.) When I moved here in the mid-90s, a “gaijin-house”-mate passed on to me what was then a selection of current required reading in English on various things Japanese, most of which had been written by “foreigners” who’d dug deep into topics across a spectrum of focus areas. Among these were Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, Ian Buruma’s The Missionary and the Libertine and, of course, Robert Whiting’s You Gotta Have Wa. And they were instrumental in shaping my views and helped to make sense of a place and culture which from every direction confounded me to varying degrees. I still have (and prize) some of these books (I somehow lost the above Buruma, regrettably; if anyone has a first edition they’re willing to abandon, do let me know).


I also enjoyed Whiting’s Tokyo Underworld (1999). It’s arguably the most compelling book about the city’s seamier sides. Alongside Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice (2009) perhaps. And some choice bits in Tokyo Junkie are Whiting’s recollections of Nicola Zappetti interviews and the author’s accounts of brushes with the yakuza. Occasionally (maybe unavoidably) repetitive but consistently absorbing and informative, it’s a book you can either barrel through or sip at, with its countless, roughly two- to three-page chapter sections. I’ve shelved Tokyo Junkie next to Ian Buruma’s memoir, A Tokyo Romance (2018), and I’d recommend it to anyone familiar with Whiting’s work and/or enchanted by (or addicted to) Tokyo.