Shogun – James Clavell

IMG_20150104_125219“Isn’t it only through laughter

we can stay human?”

(Shogun)

It’s many years ago since I first read this novel from 1975 by James Clavell. To me it was my first introduction to Japanese culture. My previous picture was quite confused – a mixture of suicide bombers, evil Japanese from adventure comics, Hiroshima and geishas, “lotus blossoms” from Sayonara and The Teahouse of the August Moon. This was the first time I encountered concepts like “wa” (harmony) and “bushido” (literally “the way of the warrior” – the moral principles which the samurai were required to observe). To have them explained by the experiences of an Englishman, just as confused as I, made everything more clear than any instructional materials could have done.

The novel is set in the 1600’s and is loosely based on actual events. After years of military dictatorship, Japan is on the brink of political turmoil. The death of the dictator has left a power vacuum. The appointed heir is too young. The five most powerful overlords has formed a council and rules the country in his name. One of them is Toranaga (based upon the actual Tokugawa Ieyasu), and it’s his rise we see through the eyes of the English sailor, John Blackthorne.

But it’s also set in a time of fierce empire-building by European nations before England had established naval mastery. England was aligned with Holland but at odds with catholic Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese and the catholic church, mainly through the order of jesuits, have gained a foothold in Japan and seek to extend their power.

John Blackthorne, pilot of the Dutch trading vessel Eramus, finds himself shipwrecked in Japan in the middle of this political situation. He is taken prisoner by a regional Samurai, aligned with Toranaga. Adapting to his captor’s way of thinking, Blackthorne maneuvers himself into an advantageous position initially using the arms and ammunitions cargo onboard his vessel as a bargaining tool. Subsequently he works his way into Toranaga’s favour, piquing the warlord’s curiosity about European politics, ship-building and the cargo of arms.

Once Blackthorne is finally in a more stable position among Toranaga’s allies, the story starts to build its main plots: the twisty and complex struggle for political control of Japan among many internal factions and a strong romantic sub-plot between Blackthorne and a Japanese woman. But the center of the novel is Blackthorne’s slow understanding of Japanese culture, growing appreciation for their world view, and attempt to hold to his core beliefs while adapting and fitting in.

I don’t know how accurate Clavell’s description of old Japan is, but I think it’s an excellent portrayal of a culture clash and slow growth of understanding. He manages to show how completely one’s opinion of a culture can change after exposure and thought.

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