Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Shogun - A novel of Japan

The year is 1600. The English pilot John Blackthorn serving on the Dutch ship Erasmus is shipwrecked on the coast of Japan. He and his crew are taken captive by the local Japanese samurai. This is the beginning of Blackthorn's life changing adventure in the fields of Japan. The sailor, a Barbarian and an English Protestant is at first reluctant to understand the Japanese culture. In the 17th century the Japanese culture is highly different from the European one. It is based on the ideas of duty, courage, and respect. The Japanese samurai are extremely loyal to their master; for them this loyalty transforms into a life purpose and a form of self respect. They are even obligated to kill themselves (sepuku, or more famous as harakiri) or their families as an act of subordination to their governor. Polite and in the same time proud, the Japanese value their rituals and traditions, aiming to protect them from outside influence.

Years after Magellan made his famous voyage around the world, the Europeans are struggling to gain control and influence in the distant island country. When Blackthorn arrives on the coast of Japan, it is already highly populated with Spanish and Portuguese priests. They are spreading Catholicism by trying to convert as many Japanese from their Buddhist believes and are controlling the trade with China and the rest of the world. At the time of the novel, England is at holy war with both Spain and Portugal. While the latter are Catholics, the English have already separated from the Pope's Church in Protestantism. This peculiarity determines the complex relationship between Blackthorn and the Jesuits. Seen as an enemy of the right Faith by the Spanish and the Portuguese and as a dangerous barbarian by the locals, the English pilot finds himself in the middle of a severe conflict. Slowly but surely, Blackthorn gets acquainted with the Japanese customs and traditions; he learns to be polite and considered, to take showers regularly, and to eat only fish, fruit, and vegetables. He is given a Japanese name, Anjin, which means pilot. The more time he spends among the Japanese, the more Anjin starts to appreciate their culture as his own. He slowly forgets his old habits, his country, his wife. Even though he constantly searches for ways to travel back home, the reader feels that Blackthorn's affection with Japan grows. This is strengthened by his learning of the language and by his love for Mariko, one of the most powerful Japanese women.

Blackthorn's knowledge soon makes him one of the closest samurai and hatamoto to the daimyo (that is Japanese ruler) Toranaga. Shogun is actually based on true historical events, several months before the critical battle of Sekigahara. The country is on the verge of a civil war, since all of the powerful daimyo aim at the highest title possible - the shogunate. Shogun is a hereditary military dictator, the most powerful person in Japan.

It is difficult to write a review and to try and incorporate all the delicate aspects of this masterpiece. Shogun is nearly 1200 pages long, which feature a thorough comprehension of the Japanese culture and customs. Clavell's talent is visible throughout the novel; the author successfully mixes the historical drama with the political drama; he focuses on love, sex, pride, glory, and duty in order to give a comprehensive picture of Japan in the 17th century. I absolutely loved Shogun, the first novel of his Asian saga, which also includes King Rat, Tai Pan, and Noble House. All of these novels center on Europeans in Asia and examine the consequences of the clash between the Eastern and the Western civilizations. Clavell's knowledge on the subject is extensive; his long descriptions do not bore the reader but add to the full image of the Eastern cultures. I have read reviews that Shogun is far too long and that some of the parts must be omitted in favor of concision. I disagree completely. There is not a single chapter I would delete or shorten. Clavell does an amazing job in understanding and exploring the motives and values of the Japanese samurai.

I loved two words from the novel. One of them is "karma". The Japanese accept whatever happens to them by simply exclaiming "Karma". They regard life as temporary and as a gate to death, which is eternal.The second one is "ya". It refers to the physical and mental balance of the human being. As Mariko, Blackthorn's lover explains, when you learn to drink tea from an empty glass or to watch a stone grow, then you are in perfect balance with yourself. In addition to being a historical masterpiece about the great empire of Japan, Shogun is also full of philosophical suggestions. In fact, Westerners have a lot to learn about stability,balance, honor, and respect from the Eastern civilizations.

For 10 days I was immersed in Clavell's world. I learned a lot about Japan, I started thinking about the metaphysical questions and I didn't realize how these nearly 1200 pages flew by me. I would recommend this to anyone.


  1. I agree with you. James Clavell's Shogun is a can't stop reading book, seized my mind for a long time. I spent much more time to finish a book because my poor english but still I m happy

  2. Nice review; I agree with your thoughts.
    Shogun is an experience and to me, the world is divided into those who have and who have not read this novel.
    And what is even more astounding, Clavell was imprisoned by the Japanese as a POW during WW2- King Rat is supposed to be based on his experiences.
    Umm.. the word is "wa" (harmony), not ya.

  3. Yes, I also read that trivia about King Rat.

    Shogun is really an experience; more importantly it is a thorough guide to the Japanese culture. Before reading the novel I had quite a limited knowledge about them; now it is different.

    Plus, the love story in Shogun is amazing. So realistic and touching. Although I still find it hard to assimilate that she was sending him another woman to show him that she loved him. This again proves how different our European culture is from the Eastern ones. We have so much to learn from them (not talking about sex of course, but about harmony and purpose of life).

    Thanks for the correction.

  4. Hi Lora, that's an interesting thought about the difference in our cultures.
    Karmic philosophy is deeply ingrained in our minds- frankly it keeps us sane as we can feel there is some preordained pattern and order in the chaos all around. Helps us get through the day (and this life)!
    On another note, can I use this forum to suggest some reading?
    A series of books on the Arthurian legend (and this is a legend that has always fascinated me) by Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave/ The Hollow Hills/ The Last Enchantment/ This Wicked Day). I think she's done a great job, the people and places in that story are brought to vivid life.
    The scope of this quadrilogy is almost Shogun-like in it's scope. Please try and read- it's worth the effort.