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Fear and loathing in LA

  • Rising Sun: Michael Crichton, Century, £14.99 hbk
Few books capture the current mood of 'America first' better than Michael Crichton's thriller, Rising Sun, which hit the bookstands last month. At first sight this seems a little odd. After all, the plot is routine, the characterisation thin, the tone positively hysterical. Yet Rising Sun has got under America's skin. With an initial print-run of 225 000, it has topped the American best-seller lists and is about to be turned into a blockbuster movie.

Rising Sun is a very strange book. It is a whodunit with a bibliography; a cross between Starsky and Hutch and a party political broadcast.

The action revolves around an investigation into the death of a beautiful (white) woman in the Nakamoto building in Los Angeles. At every stage of the murder hunt the two central characters, Detective Peter J Smith and Captain John Connor of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), find their inquiry hampered. They are offered enormous bribes and threatened by an elaborate blackmail.

In its paranoia, Rising Sun is a sort of West Coast Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the nineties. Only this time the international conspiracy is Japanese rather than Jewish. The immensely powerful but largely hidden Japanese are revealed to dominate American society. Politicians, the courts, academia and the media are all shown to be 'Chrysanthemum Kissers'. It is an America where you order a Budweiser in a bar and get offered an Asahi beer instead. Detective Smith's concluding plea is for America to start fighting back: 'It's time for us to take control of our country again. It's time for us to start paying our way.'

Smith is the novel's narrator and supposedly the chief protagonist. As a lieutenant in the special services division of the LAPD, his job is to liaise with the Asian community. The story starts with Smith trying to learn basic Japanese from a language cassette. But only through the course of the investigation does Smith learn what the Japanese are really like.

Despite his central role, Smith is in many ways a foil for other characters and their views. There is the crass Tom Graham of the LAPD, whose hatred of Japan is crude and uninformed:

'This country is in a war and some people understand it, and some other people are siding with the enemy. Just like in World War Two, some people were paid by Germany to promote Nazi propaganda. New York newspapers published editorials right out of the mouth of Adolf Hitler. Sometimes the people didn't even know it. But they did it. That's how it is in war man.'

Rising Sun's real hero is Captain Connor. In contrast to Graham, he is exceedingly well informed about Japan. We know that because he speaks the language fluently and likes eating in sushi bars. Yet in many ways his views are indistinguishable from Graham's. The main difference is that Connor believes you have to know about the Japanese before you can beat them.

Like most people who have lived in Japan, Connor says he has mixed feelings about the country. In one of his most generous statements, he says that 'in many ways, the Japanese are wonderful people. They're hardworking, intelligent and humorous. They have real integrity'. But he believes that 'they are also the most racist people on the planet'. He says that he left Japan because he 'got tired of being a nigger'.

This theme of Japanese racism recurs several times in Rising Sun. It is an accusation often levelled against Japan by prominent Americans in real life. Recently America's attention was focused on the predicament of Konishiki, the Hawaiian sumo wrestler, who despite an excellent fighting record has failed to reach the rank of yokozuna (grand champion). In a trans-Pacific bout of mammoth proportions, president George Bush and 'the American people' backed Konishiki, while Kiichi Miyazawa, the Japanese prime minister, denied allegations of racism.

Coming from somebody who won the 1988 presidential election by whipping up fears of black criminality, this is a bit rich. The Bush campaign's notorious television commercial featured Willie Horton, a black man who raped a white woman while on weekend parole from prison. Horton had been released on a reform programme backed by Bush's Democratic opponent in the presidential race.

As for the LAPD, anybody who had any illusions in its anti-racist credentials must surely have abandoned them after recent events in the city. The publication of Crichton's book in Britain coincides with the explosion of black anger in the Los Angeles riots, after an all-white jury found four white LAPD officers not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon or using unnecessary force, after they were filmed systematically beating an unarmed black motorist with metal truncheons in 1991. In the wake of the LA riots, Crichton's attempt to use an LAPD officer as a mouthpiece to condemn Japanese racism comes across as a grotesque paradox.

In a way, Rising Sun is not about Japan at all. Like many of the revisionist writers on Japan cited in his bibliography, Crichton is more concerned with America. The book is a call for America to get off its knees and establish its leading position in the world.

Yet this is easier said than done. A basic assumption of American national identity is that the USA's greatness was largely achieved through its role as the pre-eminent representative of the free market. Today, however, Japan is either catching or overtaking America in most economic sectors. The conclusion drawn by many Americans is that the Japanese must be breaking the rules - since the American system is naturally superior to the Japanese one.

The intense US hostility towards the Japanese cannot be explained simply as a consequence of economic decline. There has long been an important racial element in the relationship between the two sides. The USA has always found it difficult to accept the fact that a non-white nation could make it as a world power. Ever since Japan beat Russia in the 1904-5 war, the USA and the European powers have felt uneasy about its might.

For their part, the Japanese have long been acutely aware that being Asian meant that they could never be fully accepted into the Western club. Measures such as the 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act, which banned all Asian (including Japanese) immigration into the USA until 1952, were a constant source of annoyance to Japan. Such laws served to underline the fact that the Japanese were different, not really part of the elite white man's club.

Although it never disappeared, racial hostility was held in check by the Cold War. In the postwar years the concept of the 'West' was used to denote all the major capitalist nations, and the notion of the 'East' described the Soviet bloc. The US-run Western Alliance united North America, Western Europe and Japan against the supposed red threat. Today the 'West' is in trouble and divided, the Soviet Union has gone, and in many American eyes the 'East' has become, once again, the 'Yellow Peril'.

Crichton has tapped this mood of fear and loathing. He knows that when Americans talk of Japanese racism their real concern is somewhat different: at the back of their minds is the fear that the notion of white superiority is being called into question. As one of the few 'good' experts in Rising Sun puts it, 'Japanese corporations in America feel the way we would feel about doing business in Nigeria: they think they're surrounded by savages'.

The last time anti-Japanese chauvinism took off in America was during the Second World War. In those ugly days, the press routinely referred to the Japanese as 'mad dogs' and 'yellow vermin'. Cartoons portrayed the Japanese as sub-human. The occasion for this eruption of anti-Japanese fever was the attack on Pearl Harbour. But the ideological ground had been prepared long before. The prevailing belief that Americans were a superior race naturally led people to believe that non-Americans, particularly non-whites, were inferior. The danger of racial thought getting a stronger grip on society today is becoming clearer all the time.

Daniel Nassim
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 45, July 1992

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