Robert Whiting's Adventures in the Tokyo Underworld

When Devin Stewart, Senior Director of Corporate, Policy, and Lecture Programs at Japan Society, asked acclaimed author and journalist Robert Whiting to deliver a lecture, Whiting gave him a choice of topics.

“I said, ‘What do you want me to talk about? Baseball or yakuza?” Whiting says in a pre-talk interview with JapanCulture•NYC last night.

While Whiting has written several books about Japanese baseball, namely You Gotta Have a Wa and The Meaning of Ichiro, Stewart chose the latter subject because Tokyo Underworld, Whiting’s detailed account of the Japanese mob, is being turned into an HBO series. Whiting also worked on a recent National Geographic special about the yakuza called Crime Lords of Tokyo, so the tie-ins made for timely lecture material.

Robert Whiting, Japan Society, yakuza
Japan Society’s stage is set for Whiting’s lecture

Tokyo Underworld was released in 1999, and projects to bring the book to the screen have evolved and broken down throughout the last decade. DreamWorks originally optioned the book in 2000, hiring GoodFellas writer Nicholas Pileggi and Jason Cahill of The Sopranos to write the screenplay. Since that time, the option bounced from DreamWorks to Paramount to Warner Brothers before HBO began developing it as a series last year.

“[Pileggi and Cahill] wrote fourteen screenplays in seven years, and it went from a three-hour, R-rated epic with lots of sex and violence to a 90-minute, PG-13 comedy/drama with Ben Stiller’s name attached to it,” says Whiting.

Whiting signed a contract with HBO, which has secured Martin Scorsese as executive producer. Scorsese will also direct the pilot, written by screenwriter Paul Schrader.

When asked if he is happy now that the series seems to be on track, Whiting responded with his deadpan delivery, “I’m too exhausted with Hollywood to be happy about it.”

(UPDATE: In an interview with Don MacLaren published in the Autumn 2012 edition of Wilderness House Literary Review, Whiting says, “HBO is no longer involved. Scorsese’s people are moving it to another cable movie channel. Negotiations are underway now and the results should be announced soon.”)

Whiting’s serious countenance makes him rather intimidating at first, and he almost seems bored when he speaks. Yet his sense of humor was evident immediately when he took the stage at Japan Society. “It’s a pretty good audience,” Whiting said, surveying the crowd, “I guess it’s a good thing the Knicks and Jeremy Lin aren’t playing tonight.”

Whiting explained why “Japan is often called the Italy of the Far East” by describing how the yakuza are tightly woven into the fabric of Japanese society. The yakuza are involved in the standard gang-related activities of narcotics, gambling, and the sex trade as well as legitimate and quasi-legitimate businesses, such as construction, public works, finance, real estate, and even the film industry.

One eye-opening fact is yakuza-related companies provide workers for several enterprises, including TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), which has been in the news for its handling – or mishandling – of the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. According to Whiting, “TEPCO and the nuclear industry [are] known as a refuge for lowlifes seeking work in Japan, and it’s been called in some circles as the male equivalent of the sex industry.”

Robert Whiting, Japan Society, yakuza
Robert Whiting

The yakuza’s overwhelming power and presence in Japan was also prominent just after World War II, in the days of the US military occupation. Both Tokyo Underworld and the sequel Whiting is currently writing are set during this time. His new book has a new set of characters, some who were mentioned in Tokyo Underworld, and Whiting says in some ways the sequel is more interesting than the original. Whiting’s research delves into the US government’s use of the yakuza to aid in its anti-Communist endeavors, and he tells the stories of Yoshio Kodama, a Class A war crimes suspect who went on to work for American intelligence; and Jack Cannon, an Army major from Texas who hired yakuza to work for him.

Personally, as a fan of Japanese baseball, I would’ve preferred a lecture about yakyu rather than yakuza, but Whiting’s talk and slideshow were entertaining nonetheless. The HBO series and the new book about the seedy Tokyo underworld should be highly anticipated.

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