Number One Passport

Julian Loose

  • Rising Sun by Michael Crichton
    Century, 364 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 7126 5320 1
  • Off Centre: Power and Culture Relations between Japan and the United States by Masao Miyoshi
    Harvard, 289 pp, £22.95, December 1992, ISBN 0 674 63175 7
  • Underground in Japan by Rey Ventura
    Cape, 204 pp, £7.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 224 03550 9

The Japanese language seems designed for the speaker who wants to deceive. In Japanese, the verb is always placed at the end of a sentence, a syntax that can be artfully manipulated. It permits the speaker to monitor the reactions of others present and, at the very last moment, insert the verb ... The Japanese language, in effect, allows him to speak from both sides of ‘his mouth at the same time. On learning Japanese, St Francis Xavier, the 16th-century Jesuit, called it “The devil’s tongue”.’

The Japanese Conspiracy: Their Plot to Dominate Industry World-Wide, and How to Deal with It

Marvin Wolf, 1983

If you don’t want Japan to buy it, don’t sell it.

Akio Morita, Sony Chairman

For all its awesome success in the world market, Japan remains somehow stubbornly Other. Yet few can afford to ignore its looming presence. Certainly not in America, where the annual trade imbalance stands at 50 billion dollars in Japan’s favour, where nearly a third of the budget deficit is shouldered by Japanese investors, and where many now recognise Japan as employer, banker and landlord. When Sony bought up Columbia Pictures in 1989, a Newsweek cartoon replaced the Statue of Liberty in the Columbia logo with a geisha; other icons now under Japanese management include the Rockefeller Center, Universal Studios and Michael Jackson. Such high-profile acquisitions are seized upon by opportunistic commentators, all too keen to foster suspicions of Japanese duplicity, racism and greed. Writing about Japan, its society and its foreign affairs has to an overwhelming degree become the preserve of alarmist political economists. Yet who is served by the perpetuation of the simplistic image of Japan Inc? We turn from such commentators to other voices and different genres, in the hope of moving beyond such stereotypes.

The American novelist Michael Crichton, whose best-selling thrillers are usually based on less divisive topics – great train robberies, genetically re-animated dinosaurs, messages from other planets – has in Rising Sun chosen to dramatise the troubled relationship between Japan and the United States. According to Crichton, Japanese influence now extends to all spheres of American life, and anyone who attempts to speak out against it is ruthlessly suppressed. Presumably Crichton had a hard time explaining to himself how it is that his own book has seen the light of day – why his publishers have not yet been bought up by Japanese money, or Crichton himself discredited in some fabricated scandal.

Crichton’s insipid hero, Detective Peter Smith, is an officer in the diplomatic section of the Los Angeles Police Department. His task is to investigate a murder committed during the glitzy opening party for the American headquarters of the Nakamoto Corporation. The narrative proceeds on a twin track: as Smith unravels the events which culminate in the murder (a tale involving computer chips, video trickery and blackmail), so he also receives an education in the predatory methods of the dastardly Japanese.

Everyone Smith meets has things to say on the Nippon question, and we soon realise that this is less a novel than yet another remorseless tract. Arriving at the scene of the crime, he overhears real estate agents discussing how the Japanese own at least 70 per cent of downtown Los Angeles; a press secretary at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory complains that the Japanese are hiring the best American researchers; two farmers discuss selling a sizeable chunk of rural Montana to the Japanese, raising the enticing prospect of Japanese cowboys out on the range; and a cable news producer reflects that the Japanese cleaned up during Reagan’s Presidency (‘In the name of free trade, he spread our legs real wide’). This unnerving barrage continues even on the freeway, as Smith surveys enormous billboards advertising the likes of Canon (AMERICA’S COPY LEADER) and Honda (NUMBER ONE RATED CAR IN AMERICA!).

Smith’s senior partner on this case is John Connor, the most knowledgeable of Special Services officers on matters Japanese. Some of his fellow policemen suspect that Connor went native during his years in Japan. His apartment is decorated in Japanese style, with tatami mats and shoji screens, he converses through silences and indirection, and his method of investigation relics heavily on dai rokkan, or intuition. In Connor’s view, Americans compare unfavourably to the Japanese in almost every respect: in Japan (as in Mussolini’s Italy), ‘trains are on time. Bags are not lost. Connections are not missed. Deadlines are met.’ In Japan you can safely walk in the parks at night, companies are more interested in fixing the problem than the blame and at times of trouble, executives are the first to take a pay cut.

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