For some, John McTiernan’s 1988 Die Hard has undergone a cultural transformation into the unlikely position of a favorite Christmas classic. The setting of the film on Christmas Eve and the inclusion of Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC, Let It Snow over the end credits, and Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th playing as the terrorist/thieves loot the Nakatomi vault as as exuberantly as children opening presents have firmly cemented a connection between the holiday and the film in the minds of most viewers. Yet often overlooked is Die Hard‘s intentional subtextual commentary on the state of America in the late 1980s and the fear of a rising Japan overtaking the United States. It was a fear that appears alien today, with Japan viewed more positively for its popular culture.
Die Hard is based on Roderick Thorpe’s 1977 novel Nothing Last Forever and adapts many elements of the book fairly faithfully, including some of the more iconic moments seen on film such as the final confrontation between Hans Gruber and John McClane. However, one major change to the setting of the book influenced the entire tone of the film and reflected a pervasive social anxiety over Japanese power in late 1980s and early 1990s America. Thorpe’s novel was originally set in the headquarters of Klaxon Oil, a large American company. The film switched the firm to the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation. The change fit the times. Oil was a hot button topic in the late 1970s, as the two oil shocks, the gas crisis and clashes with OPEC dominated headlines. Japan was squarely in the news as a global competitor to the United States in the late 1980s–a rival that seemed to be winning on all fronts.
By the 1980s. Japan’s economy was firing on all cylinders. An unprecedented economic revival since the end of World War II had positioned Japan as the third largest economy in the world. Alongside this economic might appeared to be elements of a strong, stable society. Crime rates were very low compared to the States, the educational system was lauded as superior, living standards were high, companies cared for their employees, family was held in high regard, and Japanese technology was seen as the pinnacle of advancement. As Marty McFly stated in Back to the Future, “All the best stuff is made in Japan.” Japan in 1988 was seemingly an unstoppable powerhouse–but a fatal flaw lay at the heart of the Japanese economy.
Japan leveraged that economic power and began purchasing assets in the United States, eventually holding over a third of America’s total debt. Japan appeared ready to surpass America in global economic, if not military, power. This did not go over well with several groups within the United States, many of which took to Japan bashing or to argue for stronger sanctions in an economic showdown with an unexpected rival. The underlying tension in U.S. – Japanese relations in the late 1980s is evident in a short exchange of dialogue between John McClane and Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi:
McClane: You throw quite a party. I didn’t realize they celebrated Christmas in Japan.
Takagi: Hey, we’re flexible. Pearl Harbor didn’t work out so we got you with tape decks.
Another, more subtle reference to the state of the U.S. – Japanese relationship is found in the set design for the 30th floor of the Nakatomi Tower, where the Christmas party takes place. The exposed stone and waterfall design of the floor are replicas of elements of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a masterpiece of design by one of America’s greatest architects. The unspoken takeaway for the audience is that the Nakatomi Corporation purchased Fallingwater to serve as decoration for its headquarters, suggesting the sale and breaking up of America echoed in reality by the purchase of Rockefeller Center by Mitsubishi Estates in 1989. Reports stated that 30% of Hawaii and Los Angeles were owned by Japanese interests with 53 billion in American assets purchased, often more as a display of economic strength than economic practicality. The decision to use an architectural landmark rather than famous American paintings (works by Jackson Pollock and American Gothic come to mind) is again meant to evoke the then high-profile purchase of American property by Japanese firms. The result is a more visceral mental image, as it suggests the loss of territory, the expected outcome of a defeat in war. American icons are the prize of a dominant Japan, heritage displayed as trophies in the halls of a foreign power.
Pearl Harbor is also tangentially referenced again when Theo cracks the first code to the Nakatomi vault. The password is “akagi” which directly translated means “red castle” in Japanese. Akagi was also the name of one of the aircraft carriers that participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Business is war, after all.
Die Hard‘s subtext of Japanophobia is not unique. Other films of the era touch upon anti-Japanese sentiment and fear of Japanese economic dominance, including Michael Crichton’s 1992 thriller Rising Sun, which was turned into a mediocre film in 1993. Coincidentally, or perhaps simply reflective of the perceived financial power of Japanese companies buying up American real estate, Rising Sun also features a high rise building named Nakamoto Tower. Several other works use the fear of a rising Japan and an America outmatched by Japanese efficiency and sharp business sense in various ways, including Ron Howard’s 1986 comedy Gung Ho about an ailing American auto plant bought out by a Japanese firm. (Point of fact: The term “gung ho” is not derived from Japanese rather from Chinese. It is a commentary on the general lack of understanding about Japan that still persists to this day.) Tom Clancy’s 1994 novel Debt of Honor has the more outlandish premise of Japan going to war with the United States. A more speculative take on the eventual future of the U.S-Japanese rivalry can be found in the 1992 Emilio Estevez vehicle (pardon the pun) Freejack, where the United States has lost “the trade wars” against a vague Asian power (or powers). The growing influence of Japan upon the United States is seen in the costuming and art direction of Blade Runner and Demolition Man.
The anxiety about Japan buried in Die Hard was not simply restricted to entertainment. Like alien invasions of the 1950s or the zombie films of the 1990s, popular culture reflected the social anxieties of the times. Fear of what was seen to be unfair Japanese business practices and the impression of Japanese workers as superhuman were pervasive. Labor unions exhorted Americans to boycott Japanese products and buy American, particularly automobiles. Politicians and new organizations chimed in on the subject, such as Time magazine in a 1987 cover feature. Writers and academics also pursued the issue, resulting in scholarly analysis such as Politics and Productivity: The Real Story of Why Japan Works, The Enigma of Japanese Power, and Japan. Inc. More alarmist and Japanophobic books hit shelves like Trading Places: How We Are Giving Our Future to Japan and How to Reclaim It, Zaibatsu America: How Japanese Firms Are Colonizing Vital U.S. Industries, and The Japanese Conspiracy. These books either offered advice on how to better emulate Japanese business tactics or attempted to portray Japanese business strategies as a sinister attack on America, akin to a second Pearl Harbor.
The endgame for this particular form of Japanophobia in the United States came from within Japan. A property bubble had been building for years, as speculation drove land value in Japan to astronomical levels. As an example of the massive overvaluation of property, the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo were worth more on paper than the entire state of California. Stock prices also went soaring, fueled by a ready supply of currency. Japanese banks were inefficient and issuing bad loans, saddling themselves with debt. The central Bank of Japan was aware of the problems but did not react quickly enough to solve the issues. The result was the bubble bursting in 1992, resulting in losses of trillions of dollars and shattering the gears that propelled Japan’s economy. Japan entered the Lost Decade and has struggled to recover ever since. The undercurrent of anti-Japanese sentiment largely vanished from American popular culture and politics with the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy and a resurgence in the American economy in the early 1990s.
- Japan-Bashing: Anti-Japanism since the 1980s by Narelle Morris
- “Revisiting the ‘Revisionists’: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Economic Model” by Brink Lindsey and Aaron Lukas
- Contemporary Japan by Jeff Kingston
- The Bubble Economy: Japan’s Extraordinary Speculative Boom of the ’80s and the Dramatic Bust of the ’90s by Christopher Wood
- Die Hard, directed by John McTiernan
- Superhuman Japan by Marie Thorsten
- Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower