Robert Whiting is best known as an expert on baseball. But he’s much more than that. He’s also an expert on mobsters in Japan and the sound a radar site makes when it is “spotted” by a U2 spy plane.
So far, he hasn’t written anything about the “squschheee” sounds the U2s transmitted to his earphones when he worked for the National Security Agency in Tokyo, but if you ever read one book on Japan, it has to be “Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan.”
And if you’re going to read at least two books, then check out “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat” or “You Gotta Have Wa” (which has just been updated) or “The Samurai Way of Baseball: The Impact of Ichiro and the New Wave from Japan.”
But, if you can wait, Whiting is working on a followup to “Tokyo Underworld.” There may be some who say sequels never work, but Whiting’s new book is not a sequel, which would be hard since the main character in “Tokyo Underworld” died, and this ain’t fiction.
The reason why Whiting can produce a “sequel” is that his research was so thorough he had enough material — and a whole new story line and central figure — to write a completely new book.
“I had a lot of characters in ‘Tokyo Underworld’ and I came across some really interesting people I did research on who didn’t fit in because they got in the way of the main narrative,” Whiting said. “So I’m taking that additional information and putting it together to come up with a sequel. I came across some really interesting people, and I also learned that crime knows no borders.”
Whiting’s sequel will be based around a character as equally entertaining and “enterprising” as Nicola Zappetti in “Tokyo Underworld.” That man is Ted Lewin, who was featured in a 1959 report in Time magazine under the headline “The Plug-Ugly American.”
Time described Lewin (whose birth name was Theodore Lieweraenowski) as “an American ex-prizefighter with a taste for dark shirts, penthouses, air-conditioned Cadillacs and shadowy wheelings and dealings.”
“He was a former heavyweight boxer from New York who also had a really good mind for numbers,” Whiting reveals. “He was a natural gambler and knew Meyer Lansky, who sent him to Asia to open clubs for the mafia.”
“He went to Shanghai and Manila before the war and when Japan invaded the Philippines, he enlisted in the army,” Whiting continued. “He was captured and took part in the Bataan Death March. He was held in a camp outside Manila and taught Japanese officers how to gamble, and, as a result, got special privileges.”
Eventually, Lewin wound up in the mines of Kyushu with Lester Tenney, one of the veterans’ leaders who campaigned for compensation from the Japanese government and Mitsubishi.
“Ted would be sitting on the porch sipping iced tea when everyone else was working in the mines,” Whiting says. After testifying in the Tokyo War Crimes trials, Lewin opened the legendary Latin Quarter nightclub in Tokyo in 1949 on land owned by Yoshio Kodama, who Whiting calls “a rightwing godfather and mastermind of the Lockheed scandal” that brought down then-Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.
“The Latin Quarter was a big deal,” Whiting says. “The likes of Nat King Cole and Peggy Lee would fly over and entertain there.” It was burned down in a mysterious fire after Lewin was deported for illegal gambling. Lewin retrenched in Manila, where he operated a casino and, says Whiting, ran guns for Japanese gangsters.
He also made friends with Vice President Fernando Lopez of the Philippines. When the VP’s American son-in-law divorced his wife and took their son back to the United States, Lewin helped kidnap the boy and bring him back to Manila, for which Lopez was eternally and generously grateful.
According to Time, Lewin deposited over $6 million in a Nevada bank between 1951 and 1953, although it’ s unlikely that all the money was his.
“His was an interesting story, and part of it’s even a love story, but I couldn’t put it in ‘Tokyo Underworld,’ ” Whiting states. He hopes to have Lewin’s story on the bookshelves in a couple of years’ time, after the movie of “Tokyo Underworld” is made — or hopefully made, that is.
Whiting could almost write a book about the hurdles he’s faced in trying to get “Tokyo Underworld” onto the big screen.
Originally, the screenplay was written by Nicholas Pileggi of “Goodfellas” fame and was commissioned by DreamWorks Pictures, the company founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.
“The first draft was three hours long and an astonishingly good panoramic view of postwar Japan, with sex, violence, pathos and a sweeping vista taking in everything from the postwar black market to the U.S.-Japan security treaty,” Whiting recalls. “But then, over the course of several rewrites, and many years, it gradually metastasized into something more family-friendly, more comedy than drama. Adam Sandler was even mentioned as a lead. Then Ben Stiller was going to act and direct.”
The frustration was only mildly relieved by the annual option payments.
“I wasn’t doing very much,” Whiting admits. “They would call me up and say, ‘Where is Akasaka?’ In one script they had (pro wrestler) Rikidozan knocking out a water buffalo that had charged out of a toilet stall at the Latin Quarter. I told them there are no water buffalo in Tokyo and if there were, they wouldn’t fit in the toilet. I was told, ‘Don’t worry, it’s not a documentary.’ “
The final script, says Whiting, is “actually pretty good,” despite all the changes. But problems occurred after DreamWorks entered into a joint venture with Paramount that did not work out and Paramount wound up with the rights to the finished screenplays.
“There was a rights dispute and the project was at a standstill for a time,” Whiting says, “but a resolution is in sight and Martin Scorsese says he is going to direct it.”
At an absurdly youthful 66, Whiting remains a busy man. Apart from dealing with “Tokyo Underworld” scripts and working on its sequel, he is in demand as a speaker and as a writer. On top of that, his wife has just retired from a senior post with the United Nations. So he’s got plenty on his plate. And he’s still trying to explain Japanese baseball and Japan to the outside world.
He did this first with “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat,” an inspired attempt to explain Japan through baseball, and its followup “You Gotta Have Wa,” which focused on cultural conflict between Japan and America as reflected in the game.
With the major leagues embracing Japanese stars such as Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, Whiting was able to complete his trilogy with “The Samurai Way of Baseball: The Impact of Ichiro and the New Wave from Japan.”
The use of baseball was far more apt than, say, soccer or rugby because baseball in Japan has a long history that dates back to the Meiji era, when it became the Japanese national sport, and in the process it has been “Japanized.” Despite the strict parameters laid down in the laws of baseball, Whiting was able to see in dramatic fashion how different the same game could be between two absurdly diverse countries.
“I could see the difference between the individual and the group ethic, as well as the sport as a kind of martial art,” Whiting explains. “It goes back to the 19th century, the samurai and the warrior ethic developed over the centuries.” Whiting points out how, in Japan, individual freedoms or rights are always low on the list of social values.
“There are numerous surveys that show in England, France or Germany, the importance of individual freedoms rank much higher on the scale than in Japan, and in the United States rank even higher. You can clearly see the differences between Japanese society and Western society.”
Whiting’s bicultural credentials come from spending time here for the NSA while in the U.S. military and then studying at Sophia University, where he specialized in Japanese politics. He was fortunate enough to work with Tsuneo Watanabe, the future boss of the Yomiuri Shimbun, and befriend a member of the Sumiyoshi-kai. Both taught him about the influence of the yakuza — Watanabe in relation to politics, and his nine-fingered friend in relation to thuggery.
With the outside world embracing Japanese culture more than ever before, how does Whiting reconcile this newfound love with the lingering scars of its warrior past and a disruption of the social fabric?
“A Japanese professor once said to me a long time ago the Japanese either kiss your feet or put a boot in your face,” Whiting states. “I think that might be a bit extreme these days, but (baseball) stars are certainly helping Japan to get rid of its inferiority complex.”
“When I first came here, Japan was a quiet backwater that no one was interested in; the country had no influence at all. Japanese products were a joke, you couldn’t read the instructions because they were written in bad English and they were cheaply made. But it got better in the ’70s. Then, it was American TV sets that kept breaking down.
“Soon, the headline was ‘How to stop the Japanese juggernaut,’ and I remember one guy, Kent Calder, saying we were all doomed to being enlisted men in the Japanese corporate army.
“When Ezra Vogel brought out ‘Japan As Number One,’ Americans first began to think they weren’t the superpower anymore; it was the Japanese.
“But then the Nikkei lost 75 percent of its value and everything changed again. Now, the Americans look at Japan and talk admiringly about its horror films, fashion, anime, manga, Hello Kitty and — something that was once an object of ridicule — baseball players.
“I wonder what the next 20 years will bring.”