Forget Flying Cars - 'Back to the Future' Missed Something Much Bigger

October 21st 2015

Mike Vainisi

Back to the Future II proves that one of 1980s America's biggest fears about the world turned out to be wrong — or at least misplaced.

You might remember the scene. Old man Marty McFly is fired by his boss, a fiery Japanese character named Ito Fujitso. So why did the filmmakers pick a Japanese boss for Marty? One can assume that — like so much of Back to the Future II — Fujitso is a prediction about the future. In this prediction, the filmmakers were playing on the fear among many Americans that the Japanese economy would soon surpass the United States and that all Americans would someday be working for Japanese-owned companies.


They had good reason to worry. Japan's auto industry and its electronics sector did push past the United States in the 1980s, and Japanese companies were buying up American companies and real estate. (Sony even bought CBS Records and Columbia Pictures.) In 1988, a year before Back to the Future II was released, one national newspaper columnist angrily wrote that Americans selling out to Japan was an "economic Pearl Harbor."

But Japan's growth would slow after a financial crisis in the 1990s. And none of those fears, such as those expressed in the 1980 book "Japan is Number One," came true.

It's China, not Japan.

Instead, it's another Asian country, China, that is challenging the United States in 2015. And today we see similar movie references predicting future Chinese dominance, just like Back to the Future II bet on Japan. In the 2012 time travel film "Looper," for instance, Bruce Willis' character meets his younger self, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, and advises him to move to China. "You should go to China," Willis tells Levitt. "I'm going to France," Levitt responds. But Willis won't let it go: "I'm from the future. You should go to China."

So, no it's not only the mounted fax machine that Back to the Future II got wrong in this scene, it's also their guess about the future of the world economy. It's China's economy, not Japan's, that Americans fear in 2015.