Kensei: a pulpy Japanophobic 80’s technothriller

So yesterday I was doing some housecleaning and getting rid of a bunch of old books that had been stashed in my home office bookcases: novels I’ll never read again, kid’s books that my children have outgrown, etc. I ran across the following paperback, I don’t even know where or when I got it:

Let me give you the blurb text on the back:

The samurai code for total victory in the war on America.

At first, suspicion pointed tot he Russians. Because whoever stole the top-secret 256K optical microchip – key component in the Pentagon’s ultimate nuclear strike system – was risking all-out confrontation.

Art Garrett had staked his future and the success of his Silicon Valley firm to develop the 256K. Now he was gambling his very life, and the only women he ever loved, for the survival of America… Against a fanatical Samurai military-industrial conspiracy prepared to conquer the world. Or die.

Wow, that’s quite a mouthful. “Fanatical Samurai Military-Industrial Conspiracy” would be a great name for a rock band. It probably won’t surprise to learn that the publication date on this novel is 1984, right at the height of the ‘Japanese yellow peril’ in the US and the peak of Japan’s economic boom before it progressed into an economic bubble.

It actually precedes by almost 10 years more famous novels that follow a similar theme of Japanophobia, such as Rising Sun by Michael Crichton and Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy, both of which were published in the early 90s. I was also thinking of some similarities with the 1979 novel Shibumi by Trevanian (most well-known for The Eiger Sanction), but that novel is more of Japanophilia than -phobia. It even comes before the 1986 film Gung-Ho, about a Japanese company buying out an American automobile factory in the rust belt.

The author introduction text inside the cover is pretty interesting too:

Steven Schlossstein, who has spent twenty years in the Orient, knows Japan and the Japanese mind. He did graduate studies in Japanese history and language at the University of Hawaii and Tokyo University, and later served six years as vice president of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. in Tokyo. Now president of his own financial consulting firm, he divides his time between Tokyo and New York.

Simply using the word ‘Orient’ instead of ‘East Asia’ dates the book considerably. However it’s the phrase ‘knows Japan and the Japanese mind’ that I want to call special attention to.

I’m only 40 pages into this book (total 457 pages), and here are some of gems I’ve come across already. Our first point of view character is Fukuda Keiji, a bucho or division head of Matsuzaka Electric Industries, Ltd., Matsuzaka Denki Kogyo. (Aside: the whole book is written like this, where he uses the Japanese word for something that has a perfectly acceptable translation in italics, and then immediately after gives the translation in English. After that he just uses the Japanese word without italics, so if you don’t remember the specific word’s meaning, then you have to flip back to where it was defined or flip to the glossary at the end of the book. Not an issue for me since I know the Japanese terms, but I think this would get really old for a reader that doesn’t know the language.) Matsuzaka Denki is obviously a thinly-veiled renaming of Matsushita Denki, more commonly known as Panasonic. His company is part of the Matsuzaka Conglomerate, which is conveniently the biggest conglomerate in Japan, even larger than the Mitsui, Sumitomo, and Mitsubishi conglomerates (all of which are real-life conglomerates).

The novel starts with Fukuda up at 4AM, sparring with his kendo instructor at a dojo. Are they wearing kendo armor and using split bamboo swords? No, that wouldn’t be manly enough. They’re using straight-up wooden swords without any protection at all. Fukuda’s internal monologue is endless quotes from Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi: ‘become one with the sword’, ‘the mind is like a teacup: it must be emptied before it can be filled’, etc. Utilizing his now-sharpened Zen superpowers, he defeats his sensei who concedes the match. Congratulations, he’s now a sword master and never needs to return to the dojo again!

The apprentice had absorbed all the master could impart. He was on his own now. He had emerged into a realm where he would have to make his own rules, fight his own opponents, on the strength of his own cunning and character. His face reflected a newly won confidence.

Seriously, has the author never trained in a martial art? The first time you beat your sensei doesn’t mean you are now a master and have nothing left to learn, it means you got lucky, and you’re just now just good enough for your sensei to be able to finally get some meaningful practice in as well. Heck, even I’ve been able to throw my judo instructor a couple of times, and I completely suck.

Anyway, after this he heads to an early meeting with a Colonel in the Japan Self-Defense Force, where we learn that they are both part of a secret cabal organized by the National Institute for Competition (a thinly-veiled Kaidanren) to develop an ICBM in order to assert Japan’s rightful place as the world’s greatest superpower. I’d say this is exactly the same plot as Debt of Honor, but again this book precedes it by almost 10 years.

But the problem is that in order to do the next round of testing and not fall behind schedule, they need the MacGuffin: the 256K Optical Processor. Capable of making 256 thousand calculations per second, it was the technology they needed to be able to control the missile guidance system. So… in the mid-80’s cutting edge microprocessors were able to to do over 10 million calculations per second. So he’s only off by two orders of magnitude, I’ll give him a pass. Maybe it took him 10 years to write the book or something.

So far the real creme of the crop though, is when he then goes into work. Walking past the Central Post Office, the following message is hanging from the side of the building on a large banner:

We will encourage and protect the people at home, and wait patiently for the confusion that will eventually destroy the unity of purpose and action among the Western powers.

And then our bucho goes into his office where the Matsuzaka company motto is displayed:

Being forced to work, and work hard, will breed self-control and discipline, perseverance and loyalty, virtues the idle foreigner can never have.

WTF? This is supposed to be 1980’s Japan, not 1940’s wartime propaganda!

Anyway, I’m on twitter at @Dwbassett2, I’ll be tweeting more of these gems as I run into them while I read through this novel.

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