Michael Crichton's novel heats up a simmering debate on U.S.-Japanese relations


February 12, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Washington -- Michael Crichton is so low-key, so laconic, that he can say almost anything and seem eminently reasonable.

So when asked if he truly believes the Japanese are "the most racist people on the planet," as one character observes in Mr. Crichton's new and very controversial thriller, he sounds as if he can't understand why one might be offended.

"It's a very common observation," Mr. Crichton says matter-of-factly, giving a slight shrug. "I have a cousin, very fluent in Japanese, who tells the story of being at a Japanese train station. A Japanese man was standing there with his son and an Occidental man -- a very handsome Occidental man -- got on the train. The train pulled away and the Japanese man said to his son, 'You are perfect and that man is a freak.' And my cousin, who tends to be outspoken, said, 'We don't teach our children that people of other races are freaks.' The man got very angry."

Mr. Crichton looks at his questioner coolly.

"I don't even put a lot of moral judgment on that," he goes on. "Japan is a largely monoracial society, and when people live in a group in which most of the faces they see are the same, they tend to react differently from how people do in a society like ours. We see many different kinds of faces and many different colors of skin."

There's no outrage in his voice, no animosity. He graduated from Harvard University's medical school in the late '60s before becoming a best-selling novelist,and one senses this is the man of science speaking -- all distanced and detached.

Michael Crichton may be the only one feeling that way regarding "Rising Sun." At a time when Japanese-U.S. relations are lTC becoming especially strained, when every even halfway critical comment by a politician on one side of the Pacific Ocean is viewed with outrage on the other, along comes Michael Crichton with a tidy little thriller that threatens to raise the temperature by several degrees.

Published this month by Alfred A. Knopf with a first printing of more than 200,000, "Rising Sun" is a tense thriller set around the murder of an American call girl in a Japanese-owned office building in Los Angeles. But it is also a warning about an economic war he says the United States most assuredly is losing with Japan.

Japanese industry is portrayed as an all-out predator; one character notes, "Overall, foreign investment in Japan has declined by half in the last ten years. One company after another finds the Japanese market just too tough."

The United States is depicted as a nation in serious decline, its citizens unwilling or unable to accept the vastly different ways the Japanese think and operate. At the end of the novel, Mr. Crichton provides an extensive bibliography of recent books that deal with Japanese-U.S. relations.

"Rising Sun" already has gained its ardent defenders and vehement critics. Lining up in favor of Mr. Crichton was novelist Robert Nathan, whose front-page review in the New York Times Book Review gushed, "Every so often, a work of popular fiction vaults over its humble origins as entertainment, grasps the American imagination and stirs up the volcanic subtexts of our daily life. . . . Michael Crichton's eighth novel . . . is likely to be another."

"This is going to be a landmark book," says Washington author Pat Choate, whose 1990 book, "Agents of Influence," detailed Japanese lobbying efforts in Washington. "As 'Shogun' introduced Americans to medieval Japan, this one will introduce Americans to modern Japan. It makes a very accurate portrayal in a nonoffensive way. It will also be the most controversial book in 1992."

But a reviewer in Kirkus Reviews called it "brilliantly calculated Japan-bashing that's bound, for better or for worse, to attract controversy and a huge readership." A review in the Washington Post complained,"His views of Japanese society, trade and all the dreary elements of the U.S.-Japanese economic scene are either too pedantic or just too simplistic."

Asked for comment on "Rising Sun," a spokeswoman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington said, "I understand it's very well-written fiction, but I don't think its appropriate to make a comment on a fictional book."

It's an unusual position that Michael Crichton is finding himself in, he concedes, as he talks about the controversy in his hotel room during a publicity tour for "Rising Sun." He's not exactly a stranger to the spotlight: When you're 6 feet 9, as Mr. Crichton is, you get used to being noticed. Becoming a best-selling novelist by the age of 27 (for 1969's "The Andromeda Strain") doesn't hurt, either, nor does going on to write several more popular successes and direct a slew of movies, including "Coma, "Westworld" and the film adaptation of his novel "The Great Train Robbery."

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