Shogun by James Clavell

shogun book coverShogun has been one of my favorite novels for years. I had read the book back in the 80’s (a couple times) but had watched the mini series (released in 1980) dozens of times since then. I decided to re-read the book this year when I noticed the Kindle version was available.

Shogun tells the story of Pilot Major John Blackthorn and his time in Japan during the year 1600. After sailing across the Pacific ocean, Blackthorn’s ship is damaged on the coast of Japan. The crew are taken prisoner and accused of being pirates.

Blackthorn find himself in the middle of a power struggle between two powerful Japanese daimyos (lords) which is complicated by the presence of Jesuit (Society of Jesus) priests and Portuguese traders. The Portuguese and Jesuits see Blackthorn as a threat to their monopoly of trade between China and Japan and take steps to limit his influence. Against all odds, Blackthorn gains the respect of Lord Toranaga, is awarded the rank of Samurai and comes to appreciate Japanese culture and society. I encourage you to read the Wikipedia article for an extensive summary of the plot and characters.

Learning from Shogun

I found a wonderful pdf document from on the Columbia University website named Learning from Shogun. In the preface the editor tells us, “Shogun provides a wealth of factual information about Japanese history and culture, information which is probably new to the majority of its readers.” The document contains essays about the history, the clash of cultures, the religion, politics and economy of the time plus Blackthorn’s efforts to learn Japanese.

William Adams and John Blackthorn

In essay one, by Henry Smith, we learn that the character John Blackthorn is based on a man named William Adams who sailed to Japan by way of the Straits of Magellan and the Pacific Ocean. Smith tells us that Adams was “undeniably the ‘first Englishman in Japan,’ indeed probably the first Englishman to settle in Asia.” (Pg. 2). Smith explains that what little we know about Adams time in Japan “comes from six letters which he wrote back to England and which miraculously survived among the records of e British East India Company. Scattered other bits of information are available from the correspondence and other diaries of other Englishmen in Japan in the years 1613-20 and a few more details from Japanese records”. (Pg. 2)

Like Blackthorn, Adams also arrived in Japan with most of his crew dead and in poor health. Adams was also accused of bring a pirate. Smith goes on to say,

But somehow Adams managed to survive not only the slander of the Portuguese, but also the treachery of two members of his crew, and soon found himself being transported to Osaka to meet with the “king”—who turned out to be Tokugawa Ieyasu.

This is similar to what happened to Blackthorn when Lord Toranaga sent a ship to bring him to Osaka castle for an audience.

Trade, Diplomacy and Religion

Essay five is titled Trade and Diplomacy in the Era of Shogun. This essay by Ronald Toby confirms that James Clavell accurately portrayed the political and religious tensions between the Japanese and Europeans during the year 1600. Toby writes, “Only sixty years before ‘John Blackthorn’ arrived, Japan had been reached by the furthest extension of The European Age of Discovery, fist by Portuguese traders then by Jesuit missionaries, who cam east from Africa and India.” He goes on to say, “As a result of a half century of Jesuit proselytization (to induce someone to convert to one’s faith) the Iberian’s of the Counter-Refromation were deeply entrenched, with several hundred thousand converts to Catholicism and a critical role in Japan’s external trade to support their position.” The Portuguese and Jesuits were Catholic. So as a Protestant from England, Blackthorn had landed in hostile territory from both a religious and political perspective.It’s no surprise that he was quickly labeled as a heretic.  Blackthorn and the English were defiantly a threat to the Portuguese and Jesuit control of the lucrative trade with Japan. Clavell was also accurate that there were a fair percentage of Christian converts in Japan at the time. I was surprised to learn there were so many Christian’s in Japan at the time.

Toby also observes that “Japan was excluded, by Chinese law, from direct access to the markets of China.” (Page 54) Toby writes, “Direct access to China was now out of the question. This gave the Portuguese, based in Macao on the south coast of China since the 1550’s, an even more important role in Japan’s foreign trade.” Once again Clavell has added drama to Shogun by understanding the threat that an Englishman like Blackthorn would have to the Portuguese (and Jesuit) trade monopoly in Japan.

The Struggle for the Shogunate in 1600

Essay six in Learning from Shogun, by Henry Smith, discusses the struggle for the Shogunate. A Shogun was “the military dictator of Japan during the period from 1185 to 1868 (with exceptions).

As I had hoped, Clavell based the plot and Japanese characters in Shogun on actual events from the late 15 and early 1600’s.  Smith writes,

“Hideyoshi’s (The Taiko) death in the autumn of 1598 created the highly unstable political situation which provides the stage for the drama of 1600—both in Shogun and in reality. Since Hideyori (“Yaemon” in 1600—both in Shogun and in reality. Since Hideyori (“Yaemon” in the novel), the Taiko’s heir by his consort Lady Yodo (“Lady Ochiba”), was only a child of five at the time, a council of five “Regents” (in Japanese, tairo, literally “great elder”) had been set up to govern until he came of age.”

Smith tells us, “In Shogun, the author takes the general political situation of 1600 as the basis for his plot, although he makes no attempt at a very precise correspondences.”

An article on History.com tells us, “After Hideyoshi’s death resulted in a power struggle among the daimyo, Ieyasu triumphed in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and became shogun to Japan’s imperial court in 1603.”

Since William Adams actually visited Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ieyasu became Shogun it seems to me that Clavell based the character Yoshi Toranaga on Ieyasu.

In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith writes, “only the scheming ‘Ishido’ has a clear model. This was Ishida Mitsunari, whi was indeed an inveterate plotter and implacable enemy of Tokugawa Ieyasu.” (Pg. 56)

Blackthorn’s efforts to Learn Japanese

Essay nine, by Susan Matisoff, discusses Blackthorn’s efforts to learn Japanese. She writes, “and there’s much to be praised in Clavell’s decision to take the readers along on Blackthorne’s odyssey into an unfamiliar language.” (pg. 80) I agree with her! Picking up some words and phrases along with Blackthorn as he learns about Japan and Japanese culture is one of my favorite aspects of the story.

I was a little disappointed to learn that Clavell got many aspects of the Japanese language wrong in the novel. Matisoff tells us, ” A Japanese language review of the book (Hokubei mainichi shimbun, May 28, 1980) calls the language “classroom Japanese,” objecting to the over politeness of some of the common phrases like wakarimasu ka (“do you understand?”), ” (Pg. 81). Matisoff explains, “Although there are occasional correct, complex Japanese sentences in Shogun which must result from Clavell’s asking a Japanese how to say such and such, much of the Japanese reflects not a “classroom” but a “phrasebook” approach to the language.” (Pg. 81).