Rising Sun is spread over a period of 4 days, superficially narrating how two cops solve a homicide. A woman is found murdered on the 46th floor of Nakamoto Towers, on the same night the Nakamoto Corporation is hosting a party. Peter J. Smith - a liaison officer with the LAPD is called in along with a senior officer (currently on leave) John Conner, who has a complex relationship with all things Japanese. Connor has dealt extensively with the Japanese, he has observed them, adopted some of their practices, lived among them and maintains valuable contacts in the Japanese business community. He plays a Sherlock Holmes type character to Smith, who though experienced as a police officer has little awareness about the Japanese. Connor asks Smith to address him as sempai, meaning senior, and throughout the novel himself addresses Smith as kohai - a terms reserved for a junior, typically of the bumbling variety who's mistakes the sempai indulges and guides.
From the first interaction with the Japanese executives at Nakamoto Towers, Connor shows Smith the games the Japanese are playing. At every step the two officers are met with the web of plots that the Japanese have prepared. Connor is able the match the higher order thinking of the Japanese, and sees the moves in time or understands the true nature of what they uncover. He is able to stay with the Japanese and stop Smith from falling into their traps. As they navigate LA in pursuit of the killer the nature of the web emerges and Connor's warnings manifest into reality as they see the extent to which Japanese influence has infiltrated American business, politics and law enforcement. The name of the book is taken for the flag of the Japanese Imperial Military, giving a clue to the underlying message of the book. If that wasn't enough the books opens with the Japanese dictum - business is war.
Corporate espionage is barely a theme in Rising Sun, neither are there any martial arts nor any references to Japan's past feudal samurai culture, which is what I would expect from a business thriller involving the Japanese. The book does have the usual car chases, threat of foreigners, and poor female character development. Towards the end the keen reader will remember a scene from The Godfather II film which probably inspired the author to use as one of the key element's in the story.
When Michael Crichton writes about the Japanese two things come across - his preachy lecturing, and his grudging admiration for the Japanese. Below the surface the book is about a lot more than a homicide. The exaggeration with which the Japanese are illustrated seems to betray the anger the author feels, and conveys a sense of urgency for American businesses and policy makers to beware. The Japanese are portrayed as sinister, racist and transactional, which might not resonate with most readers today, and instead makes the author come across as biased, but nevertheless unafraid to be politically incorrect while saying what he believes. Considering the contemporary threat to American global domination comes from China instead of Japan, the book doesn't feel dated for two reasons:
Reading this in 2020 seems like overkill when you look at the numbers.
GDP (Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country's borders in a specific time period. As a broad measure of overall domestic production, it functions as a comprehensive scorecard of the country’s economic health. - Investopedia)
USA (1992): $6.5 trillionJapan (1992): $3.9 trillion
USA (2017): $19.3 trillionJapan (2017): $4.87 trillion
At its peak Japan's GDP was $6.2 trillion in 2012 - still less that the GDP of USA at the time of writing.
It is possible this book woke up the entire American business and political community and that's why the GDP numbers are what they are. A more probable reason is the underlying economic conditions in Japan that led to the financial crisis known as the lost decade (1991-2001). In the 1980s Japans economy grew at 3.89% (compared the 3.07% in the US); it was the envy of the world and Michael Crichton. But the economic cycle began to turn on account of inflated equity and real estate markets, in which banks were heavily invested. To slow down the markets and control inflation the interest rates were increased and kept up even after equity markets cooled because of an still inflated real estate market. Once the equity and real estates markets cooled the interest rates were brought back down, which led to a liquidity trap where households sat on cash and refused to spend hoping for the continued increase in the value of the money the longer they held on to it.
The central bank's measures proved ineffective in dealing with the then prevailing conditions because of the poor quality of investments they poured money into (inefficient public works projects and doomed businesses). Another reason (partly cultural) the banks were slow to recover was the immense social stigma associated with failure and continued losses, coupled with failure of losing control over ownership and management of operations.
Michael Crichton's portrayal of the Japanese is transparent - he wants you to look at them a certain way and makes no effort to hide his POV. The lesser officers of the LAPD in Rising Sun are portrayed as simple-minded Americans with little imagination; if it wasn't for the wisdom and experience of John Connor coupled with the open-mindedness and versatility of Peter J. Smith the case would remain unsolved or the wrong man would be accused. The officers of the LAPD are rendered ineffective as the Japanese throw obstacles in their path even while a dead body lies in plain sight. They don't make the Japanese executives aware of the concepts like 'obstruction of justice', which circles around to reinforce the portrayal of the Japanese and the power they wield through money and influence which is not lost of the LAPD.
As a murder mystery / detective novel the focus remains on tech and John Connor's knowledge of the Japanese way, rather than deduction and footwork. Everywhere the detectives go they are blocked by the Japanese corporations influence. They remain on the right track because of the doggedness alone. The 90s detective moves of checking trash and CCTV seems quaint in the day of digital footprints and a cell phones with un-removable batteries that track your every move and possible hear and see enough.
The story gets interesting every time Connor schools his kohai about the Japanese. Their outlook, social rituals, what they do and more importantly what they do not do - these keep the book interesting. At every stage the evidence and the encounter is put into context as Connor makes Smith get into the mind of the Japanese.
Connor makes deft use of ass-covering corporate culture early on in the book when he brings in his own version of 'obstruction of justice' before Nakamoto executives. But his true motive, as he explains to Smith later, is to give the executive a valid reason to cave in the presence of the ever present but silent bosses. Connor's action makes the executive complicit in the move and he establishes contact with him later.
Connor's understanding of the Japanese also brings context to the situation - whereas Smith might see a two-faced Japanese who attitude changes with the setting, Connor explains it as protean adaptability. Where the American corporate culture is stereotyped as headstrong and ad hoc, the Japanese corporate being is shown as a thinking machine where every action is dependent on precedent, and conversely when there is no precedent the decision making becomes painstakingly slow but exquisitely precise. Where the American way is open and communicative, Japanese information is compartmentalised and on a need to know basis. Soon enough even Smith realises that his appointment is liaison officer is not unlike a piece on a chessboard being moved - ready to be neutralised if he becomes uncontrollable. Finally where American corporates are portrayed as tactical and mercantile their Japanese counterparts are shown as strategic and defensive.
The Japanese influence on Connor is not to be underestimated. Like a perpetual student he has absorbed a great deal of their ways and holds them in high regard, yet he is shunned because of their racism (author's words) that drives him (and any gaijin) out. How deeply Connor admires the Japanese culture comes through strongest in a scene where he feels shame after defending himself against an aggressive night-club bouncer, who he renders helpless and incapacitated.
Returning to Michael Crichton's search for understanding the motivations of the Japanese, lets conclude with the first paragraph from the introduction of Thomas Cleary's The Japanese Art of War - During one of the recent flareups of trade friction between the United States and Japan, a prominent critic was complaining to a member of the Diet about the Japanese attitude toward international relations. The critic contended that even as Japan claims it is misunderstood, it does not try to make itself understood. The dietman smiled ironically "That," he said, "is Japanese"
Japanese business culture.