Rising Sun: A Novel, by Michael Crichton

This book is now 25 years old, and while it holds up as a murder mystery the politics of it are a bit outdated. The late Michael Crichton wrote the book as the personal computer industry was in flux. Much of the industry was starting to be transferred to Asian markets. In addition, the US was facing increasing trade deficits with Japan, the auto industry was in trouble, almost all televisions were being built there as well.

In the quarter century since then the trade deficit has shifted to China and South Korea, US industrialists moved their own factories to Asia for the cheap labor, and once again we’re faced with having a major trading partner in which leaders and consumers think in fundamentally different ways than Americans. As for Japan, they went through a major recession from which they still haven’t fully recovered after several years.

When this was written there was quite a bit of general irritation directed at Japan. Crichton picked up on this irritation and, in more than a few ways, directed it out to the Japanese people themselves while still expressing envy about their culture.

The central story of the book is a murder mystery. The book is set in Los Angeles and during the opening of a new Japanese-owned corporate building a young white woman is found dead in a conference room in one of the upper floors. The Japanese managers refuse to allow the investigation to continue until they have a liaison officer (Lt. Peter Smith) who is encouraged to pick up a more experience former officer on the way to the scene named John Connor. Connor has lived in Japan and is fluent in the language. It’s through his eyes that the Japanese culture is revealed, both good and bad. Connor frequently expresses envy for the cohesiveness of the Japanese while calling them the most racist nation on earth. Their business foresight is lauded while they’re cursed for creating a market closed to American goods while dumping Japanese goods in the American market for cheaper than Tokyo prices.  Meanwhile, note the several times that the two investigators hit potholes as they drive around Los Angeles, the clear implication being that such things would never be allowed in Japan.

This split attitude runs through the entire book as the two work together to unravel the mystery while navigating the layers of Japan-born executives of the company that owns the building.

The mystery holds up, though much of it revolves around the search for original tapes of the crime and some technology that now seems commonplace. The ongoing lessons from John Connor on Japanese business practices and culture are interesting even if some of the interpretations are over the top.

Crichton tends to blame regulation, which would seem to have much less influence than poor trade negotiations, but Crichton was more than a little conservative so it’s no surprise where his focus would be. In the years since the book was written the World Trade Organization (WTO) stepped in a few times to sanction Japan for dumping computer chips in the US market, meanwhile US corporations seem to be determined to continue a downward spiral of underpaying workers, overpaying executives, sending manufacturing to Asia, and then wondering why the American consumer can’t afford their products. In those ways not much has changed over a quarter century.