WASHINGTON — Washington MICHAEL CRICHTON is so low-key, so laconic, that he casay 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 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 non-offensive 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 it's 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."
For that matter, he has always written popular fiction with a serious theme. His previous novel, the ingenious "Jurassic Park," was not only a marvelously entertaining thriller about a dinosaur theme park in Costa Rica but also a cautionary tale about the negative ramifications of genetic engineering.
But "Rising Sun" is different. It's his first overtly political book, and it deals with an already emotionally loaded issue. Thus, despite his steady demeanor, one can detect a note of irritation and defensiveness as he goes over objections to "Rising Sun."
"There are two things so far that I have been struck by," Mr. Crichton, 49, says, stretched out expansively on a couch as he begins to tick off his points. "One, no one seems to be interested in my criticisms of the United States."
( ". . . in America, you think a certain amount of error is normal," observes John Connor, the Japanese-speaking Los Angeles policeman who emerges as the hero -- and voice for Mr. Crichton -- in "Rising Sun." ". . . you expect things to go wrong all the time.")
Mr. Crichton pauses for a moment; although he has an agile, dry sense of humor, he usually seems to be intent on formulating a precise response.
"The second thing is that the more people know about Japan, the more certain kinds of questions never arise. Many people have been disturbed by the statement in the book that Japan is the most racist society on Earth. It's the people who come across these concepts for the first time who find them extremely provocative."
"I can see why the book could be misunderstood as an anti-Japanese book," says James Fallows, the Washington editor The Atlantic magazine, whose 1989 critical study of Japanese-U.S. relations, "More Like Us," also is cited in Mr. Crichton's bibliography. "But the people who react that way might look inward. He's much more critical of our standards and morals than anything the Japanese characters did in the book."
Mr. Crichton says Americans need to reach "a non-judgmental understanding -- to say that this is the way the Japanese are, and it's fine. They like to control markets; they like to have collusive arrangements; they like to have predatory business practices. It works for them. Leave them alone.
"If you don't like that to happen in your country, see that it doesn't happen in your country. Let them have their country as they want. And if it comes to that, if they want to keep their markets closed, what are you going to do about your markets?"
He takes pains to emphasize he likes the Japanese people very much, and counts Japanese writers as among his favorites.
The movie rights already have been sold to "Rising Sun," with filming set to begin in May with Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff") directing and Sean Connery starring. This summer, director Steven Spielberg is scheduled to begin filming "Jurassic Park." As for Mr. Crichton's own plans, he says he isn't sure.
"I'm a little dissatisfied, after 20 years in Los Angeles, with the film industry, but I can't say I'll never go back to films. As for writing, one of my feelings is to try to always do something different with every book . . ."
"The best luck I have is when I have some challenge that I don't think I can do. . . . In the case of this book, there's also the technical challenge -- the idea of doing a detective story about economic issues. On the face of it, it looked like it couldn't be done, so that was my challenge."