• INTERVIEW with Richard Setlowe

  • Sexual Occupation of Japan: A Novel

    Der Autor über sein Buch

    A question and answer interview.

    1.Juli 1999

  • Question -- This powerful jacket has an unsettling title. What's your take on the title and the impact you see it having in the publication of the book.

    Answer -- Three years ago there was a terrific documentary "War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us" by New Zealand filmmaker Gaylene Preston. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times she noted, "We had real trouble finding women for this oral history who wanted to talk about anything other than the American boys…thousands of handsome, reckless American soldiers with plenty of money arrived in the country. New Zealand women loved the American soldiers…The American soldiers were a liberating force for women, and they created a generation who never returned to the roles they'd played as women prior to the war." However, the jealousy of the American was such that "the New Zealand soldiers told us they'd knife us if we dated Americans."

    Well, those thousands of American boys became millions who moved on to Japan, where they stayed from 1945 through 1975, the end of the Vietnam War—first as the occupation, then as our primary base in the Pacific. Depending on whether you are speaking privately to Japanese women—or men—we Americans were "reckless, rich, and romantic"—or "over paid, over sexed, and over there."

    And for a quarter century after the official military occupation of Japan ended, this "sexual occupation" continued. In "Speed Tribes" [HarperCollins 1994], Karl Taro Greenfeld's extraordinary book about contemporary Japan, he notes, "Roppongi, Tokyo's trendy nightclub district was exclusively for American G.I.'s because no Japanese could afford the cover charges and pricey imported liquor."

    To this day the primal jealousy and rage of Japanese men who came of age during this period, I believe, fuels a great deal of their politics and business. It is at the heart of the love story and deadly intrigues of this novel. And the title either totally intrigues people, or, as you note, unsettles them. Admittedly, it's a risky title. But it's meant to convey that the novel is more than your standard thriller—that there is a unique love story and erotic element, and a sociological and literary component that is as compelling as the suspense and intrigue.

    Question -- As we look at the recent success of "Memoirs of a Geisha," "Snow Falling on Cedars," "The Rape of Nanking" and "The Century," there appears to be a trend in both fiction and non-fiction to look back at the American relationship with the Japanese. Is this in an effort to understand what was perhaps too difficult to see then or to reinterpret what had been handed down? How do you see your book fitting in with that company?

    Answer -- "The Sexual Occupation of Japan" definitely fits into that spectrum of books, but in its own time and place. I think both of those factors you mention are true. All our books are part of this effort to understand what was perhaps too difficult to see then and to reinterpret what has been handed down. But the primary intrigue and story of the novel takes place in the immediate present. It relives the past to understand what is happening now and why. And it does it at a very personal, emotional level. I believe the Japanese are motivated by very primal emotions in their relationships with America that our economists and foreign affairs bureaucrats are ignoring.

    Question -- Did you embark upon writing a love story or a thriller? Which aspect pleases you more?

    Answer -- A confession here. The original love story of Lilli and a young American Navy pilot was part of my first novel "The Brink," published in 1976. But we reluctantly cut it out, because it really had nothing to do with the main story of that novel and, in a way, detracted from it. But I was haunted by the story, and I kept reworking it as a short story, then a novella, but it always seemed incomplete.


  • I live in Los Angeles, and in my checkered past I've been a studio executive. When Sony took over Columbia Studios and Matsushita Universal and people in the biz I knew began jetting to Japan to wheel and deal, the story began to evolve and developed full circle into the present time.

    Because of the narrator's past in the Vietnam War, the blood-deep resistance there is in Japan to any American takeover of Japanese businesses, that suppressed sexual rage that I mentioned earlier, plus the Yakuza presence in business and politics the thriller aspects just evolved naturally in the storytelling. But the love story remained the genesis and motivation for the thriller. Without it, the thriller would have been an exotic potboiler without a soul.

    The novelist Les Standiford said, "This is Casablanca for the '90s." And Lisa See, an exceptional writer about the American-Asian experience, wrote, "Masquerading as a thriller, this is a layered story of how love, hate, mistakes and good deeds can cause ripples across time and history." To finally answer your question, those comments please me a great deal more than the reviews that called the novel a first-rate thriller.

    Question -- "The Sexual Occupation of Japan" seems to be a study of the shifting military and economic balance of power between the United States and Japan. However at the close of your story it is a very personal tale of love, honor and revenge. How should this shift be interpreted or extrapolated?

    Anwer -- For me, the novel is always a very personal tale of love, honor and revenge that is set in that shifting military and economic history. At one point the narrator says, "These great currents of history created the eddies and swirls in which Lilli, Junko, Cochran, and I were caught up like so much flotsam and jetsam to work out our individual passions and survival."

    In the very first chapter the narrator Peter Saxon is invited to the Tokyo home of the man with whom he is negotiating an historic multi-billion dollar merger, and this American immediately suspects that the Japanese wife was his lover 30 years before. From that point, the story flows back and forth in time to explore that relationship, an impassioned love affair between a young Navy pilot carrying out the first air strike in Vietnam and a beautiful Japanese woman who as a child had survived the horrors of the U.S. fire bombings of Japanese cities.

    Present and past history is always a dramatic presence in the novel. For the Japanese, that shifting military and economic balance of power with the United States, which you spell out, is always a very personal tale of love, honor and revenge in a way it is not to Americans.

    Our cities were not burned to the ground, our industries destroyed, and our wives and mothers did not become the consorts of the conquerors. Shikata-ga-nai—It cannot be helped—to use a popular Japanese expression. Historian John Dower termed the Pacific War, War Without Mercy. But the passions ignited by the 50 years of history since then are at the heart and soul of "The Sexual Occupation of Japan."

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