Voices -- Michael Crichton, 1942 - 2008
November 5, 2008 | 11:15 am
Photograph by Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times
Author Michael Crichton in Santa Monica in 2002
'Rising Sun' Author Taps Darkest Fears of America's PsycheSunday July 5, 1992
By T. Jefferson Parker, T. Jefferson Parker's most recent novel, "Pacific Beat," was published in paperback last month by St. Martin's Press. He interviewed Michael Crichton at the author's Santa Monica office.
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.
Q: If we loosely define racism as an inherent desire in a person to promote and advance the interests of his or her race, I would contend, for the sake of discussion, that most people are racist. And that racism, as defined, can be a good and healthy thing. Would you agree?
A: No. No, I think we live in an increasingly small world, and to make divisions based on race is not to anyone's benefit.
Q: How about nationality?
A: I think nationality is inevitable and necessary. The reason is that, although we may be moving toward a world economy, many aspects of economic behavior are still determined by nationality--they just are. In other words, I can buy a car that comes from many parts of the world now. But I will drive it on an American road; if I get in an accident, I will be in the American legal system; if I get injured, I'll be in the American health- care system.
So, it's not unreasonable to imagine that, at least as we're in a transition to a world economy, it's still necessary now to pay attention to how our country is doing economically in comparison with other countries. To become poor, to move in the direction of decline, to have the good- paying jobs disappear, to abandon our manufacturing sector, to not have a national economic policy as do our competitors--these are all bad ideas.
Q: Has the continued decline in the Japanese stock market, their falling real-estate value and shrinking foreign investment caused you to rethink your views of Japanese-American business dealings?
A: No, not at all. I've not seen figures on what the growth of the Japanese GNP will be this year. You hear stories about economic distress in Japan, but you see that the growth rate is going down to 4% from 5%. If this country had a 4% growth rate, we'd all feel like we were pumped full of testosterone.
Q: How did you feel when Matsushita bought Universal Studios?
A: Fine. It didn't bother me a bit, because that sale doesn't have large economic consequences for the nation. Did it bother you?
Q: Yes. My reaction was best put by Akio Morita, whom you quoted at the end of "Rising Sun," saying, "If you don't want Japan to buy it, don't sell it." I was more aggravated by the owners of Universal than I was by Matsushita. In the book, you seem as ready to blame the U.S. for its own decline as you are to blame Japan. True?
A: I think there's no question it's an American problem.
Q: What allowed us to contribute so willingly to our own weakening? Greed? Altruism? Shortsightedness? Arrogance?
A: (following a large sigh) You have to look back at broad time periods. It's possible now to argue that Americans have had no increase in real earnings power since 1962. Some economists would dispute that, and set the date at 1973.
Either way, the country is in a steady, consistent and ongoing decline. Why? That's an extended conversation. I'll just mention three things I think are of equal importance.
First, American business emerged from the postwar period in a position of tremendous superiority. Principal competitors of pre-World War II--Germany and Japan--are devastated. So American business is pumped up from wartime production, and everyone is feeling really good. We are on top of the world. That inevitably breeds complacency, and Americans had a long period of complacency.
Secondly, in the postwar period, Americans turned away from quality as the principal goal of manufacturing and made cost the principal goal. Japanese, restructuring their companies, made exactly the opposite decision. American quality-control experts who worked in America during the Second World War, became very nearly living treasures in Japan. So Japan and Germany have had decades of structuring business in the direction of quality, whereas Americans have had decades structuring business according to . . . other principles.
Thirdly, the cost of capital. The decline of the individual investor and rise of the institutional investor as the primary player in the stock market, and the change in tax laws so there's no advantage in long-term as opposed to short-term investment, have meant that the American stock market is now entirely speculative.
No one invests in a company anymore, in the way it was done in the '50s, say, because they believe the company is good. They buy because they think the price of the stock will rise or fall. What this means is that American managers are obliged to manage in the short term. There's no incentive for an investor to hang on with a company for the long term. In Japan, savings--up to a certain point--are tax free. Why is that not also true in America? You want savings? Then don't tax it as ordinary income.
Q: OK, a shift of focus. As you probably know, your statement in "Rising Sun," that two floors of the Hitachi Chemical Research building at the University of California, Irvine, are accessible only with Japanese passports, caused quite a ripple at UCI. But the university says your statement isn't true. What do you say?
A: My understanding is there is a building on that campus, part of which is private and closed. How closed is the subject of this debate. My answer would be that the sentence I have in the book is not technically accurate. But the feeling is not wrong. Is the sentence wrong? It's not wrong enough. There's a problem of Japanese investment in American universities. We are not being careful about where the money is coming from. More than 10% of the endowed chairs at MIT are paid for by Japanese corporations. Is anybody worried about that?
Q: Your critics say that you're exploiting an irrational fear of Japan, making Japan a kind of economic great white shark. Was "Rising Sun" written with an eye for the U.S. book market, or from your heart?
A: Absolutely from my heart.
Q: Do you have Japanese friends?
A: (laughs) Yes, I still do.
Q: Without talking specifics, would you describe the advance from your Japanese publisher as large, small or in-between?
A: I would say the advance is a lot.
Q: Any tugging at your soul there?
A: For a Japanese translation? No. I think it's very important it be translated in Japan. I'm not xenophobic. I believe we should be in business with Japan. What would I do, say "no" to a translation? I wrote the book to be read.