Michael Crichton's new novel, "Rising Sun," rose to the bestseller list and stayed there 19 weeks--buoyed largely by the controversy and heated opinions the book has aroused. Crichton's premise--that Japan's rise to economic power is a serious danger to our own economy--has left people predictably polarized.
"Rising Sun" is a cautionary tale couched as a mystery. In it, Crichton argues that the United States is a second-rate economic power and is going to have to make some profound changes if it wishes to compete with vigor in the changing world economy.
Crichton, of course, has already proved himself a master at tapping into the near-atavistic fears of American readers. In his movie, "Westworld," and novel, "Jurassic Park," technology runs amok and attacks its handlers with a serious vengeance. In "Rising Sun," the Japanese pose a similarly dramatic threat by which our darkest intimations of a collapsed U.S. economy dominated by Japanese interests are encouraged to flourish. Crichton is fluent in the language of America's popular nightmares.
Crichton himself is a well-spoken and deliberate man, apparently used to bringing all of his considerable attention to bear on whatever situation is before him. Though just 49, he has written eight novels, four works of nonfiction (ranging in subject from Jasper Johns to "electronic life") and has directed the movies "Westworld," "Coma" and "The Great Train Robbery." On top of all that, he graduated Harvard Medical School and, in 1969, was a post-doctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. For the record, Crichton stands six feet nine inches tall, and weighs a slender 235 pounds. He was not prone, in this situation at least, to jocularity. He is married, has one child and lives in Los Angeles. He sat talking amid books ranging from "Strategic Use of Scientific Evidence" to Gary Larson's "The PreHistory of the Far Side." A bevy of toy dinosaurs sat atop one end table--presumably they were his, not his child's.
Question: "Rising Sun" makes a strong argument that Japanese business is unfairly aggressive and Americans are foolish to have tolerated this unfairness for so long. Is that a decent synopsis?
Answer: Not exactly. Let me just restate it. In the immortal words of my hero, Ross Perot: "It's not a two-way street. It never has been a two-way street. It's not their fault." It's our fault.
Q: That stated, then, I'd like to talk to you about two things--Japanese-American economics and race. Let's get to the dangerous stuff first. Are you a racist?
Q: Do you consider the Japanese racist?
A: Yes. Well, first of all, let's track. There's an extended discussion of race in the book. Different characters represent different views on perceptions of race. The central character, John Connor, who is the voice the reader is asked to believe, says, "Japan is the most racist country in the world."
Now, how people respond to this comment is, in my experience, a function of how much they know about Japan and how much experience they've had there.
Many people who have worked extensively in Japan will point to that statement and say, "That's true." When I did the Dick Cavett show--and Dick Cavett has a good knowledge of Japan--he made a joke. He said, "Yes, that's true. In fact, I invented racism. Ha, ha."
But what are we talking about here?
We're talking about a historically inward-looking nation, an island nation, largely monoracial. That's a good structure in which to have the rise of feelings of superiority about your own people as opposed to other people in the world. Of course, these broad statements can't be applied to the individual Japanese person. One of the things that Americans, as a multiracial society, feel is a tremendous sensitivity to racial comments of all kinds.
In the book, one of the things I tried to say to Americans was: Hey, while you're tiptoeing around the race issue, your competitors are a monoracial country, very much aligned, and tend to hold in common beliefs that would astound you.
Q: Have you been accused of Japan- bashing in "Rising Sun?"
A: Yeah, sure. I think that people who read the book tend to see one of two attitudes. Either they see this is a book about Japan, or a book about America. I think this is a book about America. My interest is America, and my whole focus is on how America is responding and behaving in the contemporary world. I'm not interested so much in how Japan is behaving because we have no control over that.
Unfortunately, our postwar policy has been to ask Japan to change so that our economic policies will dovetail. I think that is completely wrong. The solution is for America to change.
Anyway, you asked bashing. If Japan- bashing means an unreasoned and intemperate attack based on some irrational motive, then "Rising Sun" is not Japan- bashing.