Tom Clancy’s Debt of honor

Imagine that some elite and highly trained American spies have gone undercover in Tokyo. One of them is trying to follow a woman down a city street at an unobtrusive distance.
“In Los Angeles she would have been unremarkable … And though her Western clothing was somewhat distinctive, many people on the street dressed the same way — in fact, traditional garb was in the minority here, he realized with a slight surprise.”
The spy business just aint what it used to be. If a CIA officer could be surprised by the minority status of traditional clothing (well under one percent), then the Agency’s training manual on Japan must be seriously out of date. By the better part of a century.
In the last ten years, the Central Intelligence Agency has had its share of embarrassment. They were caught unawares by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Indo-Pakistani nuclear tests, and a malignant double agent in their own ranks. Happily, though, the CIA’s lack of fashion sense is pure fiction. The passage quoted above comes from “Debt of Honor,” a 1994 novel by Tom Clancy.


Tom Clancy is the CIA’s most famous fan, and the agents he writes about in his novels are usually brave and brilliant. In this particular book, though, he makes them look like fools because Clancy himself knows next to nothing about Japan.
He’s the kind of guy who finds it メsurprisingly Westernモ that some Japanese engineers drink coffee on their work breaks instead of tea. While he underestimates Japan’s similarity to the West (specifically the U.S.) in that regard, he overestimates it in another. He has one of his spies leave only a small tip when paying for a drink, in order to be inconspicuous. Obviously someone forgot to tell Clancy that leaving a tip of any size is a sure-fire way to get noticed. There is no tipping in Japan.
Clancy used to have higher standards. His name has been a regular feature of U.S. best-seller lists for the past 15 years. Several of his books have been made into movies, including “Patriot Games” with Harrison Ford and “The Hunt for Red October” starring Sean Connery. Ronald Reagan was an early fan, and in the 1980s Clancy was often credited with having invented his own genre, the “techno-thriller.”
Research, research, and more research was the secret to his success. His early novels were bursting with technical details, and his first one took him years to write. There was a fascinating fact on every page, and they were all woven seamlessly into the plot.
Unfortunately, success made him lazy. By the time he got around to “Debt of Honor” he could no longer write his characters a decent lunch.


Two of Clancy’s supposedly clever American spies are living in Japan disguised as Russian journalists. This cover forces them to make some uncomfortable adjustments to their lifestyle:
“The food, while strange, was exotic and interesting enough that the novelty hadn’t quite worn off yet. [One of them] might have grumped about the desire for a hamburger, but to say such a thing, even in Russian, would have broken cover.”
Anyone who stays in Japan for more than 24 hours will find hamburgers whether he wants them or not. The suburb where I live and work is not exactly a major center of world trade, but there are no less than four McDonald’s restaurants within a five minute walk of my workplace. Within the same distance, there are two Lotterias, two KFCs, one Wendy’s and one First Kitchen.
Not only do all the major international fast food chains operate here, –McDonald’s alone has over 2,600 outlets –but there are a number of home-grown franchises as well. Among these, MOS Burger has what are far and away the best fast-food hamburgers I’ve ever tasted. They even beat Wendy’s. Clancy’s poor famished spies missed out on a real treat by not visiting MOS Burger.


When “Debt of Honor” first came out, a number of critics accused Clancy of Japan-bashing. The villain of the book is a highly intelligent but coldly arrogant billionaire who uses his wealth and connections to control the Japanese government behind the scenes. James Bond, Dirk Pitt, and their ilk have beaten up dozens of guys like that over the years, and they came from every nation on earth. He’s just a standard-issue pop-fiction bad guy. There’s nothing especially Japan-bashing about that.
But there is a more sinister current that runs through the book, something so subtle that at first I mistook it for more bad writing. At several points in the story, the mood of the Japanese population changes abruptly as the result of decisions that the government has made in secret.
In secret. For this to make any sense, it must mean that Clancy buys into the old obnoxious notion that Japan is a hive with a collective intelligence. That there are no individuals, only cells.

Sick stuff.


Looking at “Debt of Honor” as a whole, though, it seems that Clancy is bashing all of us through his 19th-century worldview that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. We are us and they are them and that’s that.
In Clancy’s world, no Russian could crave a hamburger. No Japanese would serve one. Japanese who drink coffee are a little odd. So are Americans who like rice. Everyone takes their borders with them.
Clancy is not alone in thinking that way, but I’m happy to report that the real world isn’t like that. The real world is getting smaller all the time, and most of the people in it don’t mind getting to know one another. In the late 20th century, cultures have begun to mix more comfortably than ever before, with fabulous and unpredictable results.

I’m going to stop writing now and walk over to 7-11 for a burrito. They’re just introduced a new flavor. Tandoori chicken.

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