Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor was a staple on the bestseller list from its release in August of 1994. It debuted on Publisher's Weekly's bestseller list the month after it hit the shelves. As of 1996, three million copies had been sold. Popularity among readers was immense; however, critical reception to the book was somewhat mixed. Most critics agree that Clancy can write an interesting and worthwhile story, but they complain of the length and, in this installment of Jack Ryan, the content as well. Critics have accused Clancy of Japan-bashing in this novel. Ken Mochizuki of Northwest Nikkei writes, "However, as soon as Debt of Honor came out, media watchers around the country sounded the alarm that Clancy's new novel could be another pop culture and media forum for Japan-bashing, ala last year's Rising Sun" (Northwest Nikkei). Another critic from the New York Times Book Review writes, "?but this book is as subtle as a World War II anti-Japanese poster showing a mustachioed Tojo bayoneting Caucasian babies" (New York Times Book Review). The problem with these criticisms is that they don't fit into the bigger picture. Clancy uses the anti-Japanese writing, not because he is bashing them, but simply because they are the enemy in the novel and he needs to get the audience against them.
The plot against the Japanese begins when an everyday car accident that leads to the fiery deaths of a Tennessee family caused by a faulty gas tank made by, who else, the Japanese. The United States then places a trade embargo on the Japanese. From there Clancy goes on to make them seem like cruel and power hungry people. The Prime Minister of Japan has a white mistress that he abuses on a regular basis and forces to have sex with him. As Mochizuki is quick to point out, "Through the eyes of American characters, the Japanese are often described with the adjective 'little,' as in 'little professor,' 'this little bastard' or the 'small, jolly man.'" Clancy is completely describing the Japanese as an inferior race and blaming them for all the problems that occur in the novel.
The blame, however, is supposed to lie with the Japanese in this novel. Clancy needs to get the audience against the Japanese or the novel is pointless. As in many novels, the antagonist in Debt of Honor is made out to be the enemy. Without bashing the Japanese, Clancy cannot make them out to be the enemy. "[T]he Japanese characters (all men) are never seen with families (or women) like their American counterparts, except for the prime minister's lust for a Caucasian. And the Americans liberally use the word 'Jap,' especially the servicemen and women," writes Mochizuki. The need for the Japanese to be disliked by the reader is what Mochizuki does not understand. The reader would not care who won in the end if both sides were described as valiant and good and praiseworthy. The negative portrayal of the Japanese is necessary for the plot to be advanced and so that the audience is not surprised by their actions and disappointed when they are beaten.
Clancy, despite his negative portrayal of them, gives the Japanese the upper hand almost until the very end. They gain that upper hand through militaristic and economic means. They take out two United States supercarriers, the USS Enterprise and the USS John Stennis with torpedoes, disabling the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific and erase an entire day's trading on the New York Stock Exchange with the push of a button. They also take over the Mariana Islands, which have been in the control of the United States since the end of World War II. Clancy's web of war is spun with the Japanese in complete control. The description that he gives is only meant to further the audience's dislike of his antagonist, Japan. He is not taking a cheap shot on the Japanese. That dislike is necessary in order for his readers to be on his side at the end of the novel. The Americans win in the end and that would not be a popular resolution if the Japanese were not made out the way they are in Debt of Honor.
Clancy is also very politically correct in the novel. As Christopher Buckley states in his review in the New York Times Book Review, "Practically everyone is either black, Hispanic, a woman or, at a minimum, ethnic" (New York Times Book Review). This also can be seen by the fact that Clancy has a woman serving as deputy director of operations at the CIA and a Comdr. Roberta Peach of the Navy. One of the CIA agents doing undercover work in the novel is Latino. Clancy would not make such an effort to be so politically correct if he were truly out to simply bash the Japanese. In the early parts of the novel as well, he depicts the Japanese in a positive light as a very ambitious and hardworking people. "In a few minutes his staff would start arriving, and his presence in the office earlier than any of the team-in a country where showing up two hours early was the norm-would set the proper tone" (Clancy, DoH, p. 13). This ambition and determination are what allow the Japanese to surprise the United States with their attacks. Mochizuki even gives Clancy credit for not completely turning the Japanese into stupid neanderthals, "To Clancy's credit, the Japanese characters are not entirely mechanical and unemotionally methodical as often seen in most mainstream portrayals. They worry, question, and all do not fanatically follow their leaders. There's even a Yonsei (fourth generation Japanese American) CIA agent working undercover in Japan who plays a key role in helping the U.S. fight Japan" (Northwest Nikkei).
Current events at the time of the novel's release also help to explain why the bashing is necessary. The military that President Reagan had built in the 1980s was no longer the powerhouse it had once been. According to John Lehman of The Wall Street Journal in a review he wrote on Debt of Honor, "America's Navy is half of what it was 10 years before" (The Wall Street Journal). John Calvin Batchelor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review says that war with Japan would be "war with the wrong foe. For the United States of America is not at present in a position either to defend itself from nor to counterattack a Japanese military strike" (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Readers need the reassurance that if anything should happen, their world would not come tumbling down. For them the description of the Japanese as little and weak is a safety blanket. Economic headlines constantly mentioned the economic differences between the United States and Japan. "In one tight scene Tom Clancy has done the work of all the king's horses and men-he has put before you?the possibility of a battle that is implicit in every economic headline this summer about the U.S. trade gap with Japan, the yen versus the dollar, and the fragility of the U.S. government bond market and the Nikkei stock market," writes Batchelor. The fear of a Japanese take over of American business is all around. Clancy simply uses that sentiment to help calm the public by demonstrating exactly how we would combat any attempt at take over that the Japanese would make.
Mochizuki complains that "the Japanese military loses so easily in Debt of Honor" and claims that this is a form of Japan bashing. What he fails to recall, however, is how quickly and easily the Japanese gained the upper hand. They had to be destroyed in order for the book to be a success. No one in America wants to read about how we are going to lose a war to the Japanese. The bashing and the quick work made of the Japanese at the end of Debt of Honor are what the American audience is looking for in a novel. It makes them feel safe. Even though by the end of the novel almost the entire government has been destroyed and Ryan is now the President, the final lines keep the American public from worrying, "I'm not really sure what I'm going to do right now, except to make sure my wife and children are really safe first, but now I have this job, and I just promised God that I'd do it the best way I can. For now, I ask you all for your prayers and your help. I'll talk to you again when I know a little more" (DoH, p. 990). Despite the bashing the Japanese receive, they end up with the last laugh.
Batchelor, John Calvin. "Tom Clancy's Damn-the-Literary-Torpedoes Style Dances at the Edge of the Daily News." Rev. of Debt of Honor, by Tom Clancy. Los Angeles Times Book Review 21 August 1994: 1-9.
Buckley, Christopher. "Megabashing Japan." Rev. of Debt of Honor, by Tom Clancy. New York Times Book Review 2 October 1994: 28-9.
Clancy, Tom. Debt of Honor. New York: Berkley Books, 1994.
Lehman, John. "Jack Ryan's New Gizmos Save Another Day." The Wall Street Journal 2 September 1994: A7.
Mochizuki, Ken. "Tom Clancy starts WWII all over again: It's war again with Japan, according to best-selling novelist Tom Clancy." Northwest Nikkei 31 October 1994: 6.
Zatkowski, Alicia. "To Japan, With Love: Jack Ryan, as the Spy Who Simply Got Too Old." Irish Voice 11 October 1994: 30.