(A word of warning that this article gets deep into the plot particulars of “Shogun” and includes spoilers)
My fiction reading for much of this past summer was James Clavell’s 1975 monster of a novel “Shogun.” Clocking in at 428,000 words, this beast of a book was roughly the size of all three “Lord of the Rings” novels combined.
More than two decades ago in junior high, I was entranced by this book’s stark samurai sword cover. Unfortunately, I only made it through 100 pages or so before realizing that my reading pace was much too slow. Back then, it probably would have taken me a full year of periodic reading to finish the book.
As a faster adult reader, I went back to the novel and found myself frequently comparing “Shogun” to George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice.” While “Shogun” didn’t have any supernatural elements in its story, the two works were similar given the focus of both on political power plays and maneuverings amongst a ruling class.
Also similar was the unpredictability of both works. In “Shogun,” as soon as the main character arrived in Japan, he witnessed a shocking beheading. The result was that the reader learned how little the culture of the time thought of killing. This was primarily due to the predominant religious beliefs in Japan involving reincarnation and/or the emergence of Christianity with its own promises regarding the afterlife. Basically, anyone could happily (or not) die at any time and there were many shocking twists.
For context regarding the name of the book, Shogun was the highest title given to a ‘mortal’ in Japan. The title was given by the Emperor, who was considered divine and lived a largely secluded life. Becoming Shogun meant that one was the head of the military and essentially a dictator.
The “Shogun” story opened during a period when there was no ruling Shogun in Japan. Instead, there was a ruling council of daimyo, top leaders from different regions across Japan. The Taiko, a former leader with similar stature in title to Shogun, had recently died and his son was still too young to take his place. The story was set around the year 1600 and it was based on real-life exploits involving various political and military clashes of the period in Japan.
It was with this backdrop in mind that a Dutch warship led by an English ship pilot (or ‘anjin-san’ as the Japanese would refer to him) named John Blackthorne encountered a storm that led to the ship landing in Japan. Blackthorne’s ship was confiscated. He and the handful of men who also survived from the ship were taken prisoner, their situation seemingly hopeless.
To simply stay alive, Blackthorne used bluffs involving the threat of a coming fleet. Of course, there was no fleet. Blackthorne’s ship had been the last surviving vessel in its group.
During Blackthorne’s detainment, the politic situation in Japan became known to readers. One would almost need a flow chart to keep track of the various Japanese political power players. Blackthorne initially encountered Omi, an up-and-coming local ruler. Omi’s uncle Yabu arrived soon thereafter, at which point the situation briefly turned from bad to worse. The ship survivors went from being well-treated guests in the region to having to survive together in a dank pit.
Besides having the ‘barbarian’ foreigners detained, Yabu confiscated the ship’s guns and canons. He knew that these weapons could be of value in increasing his station in life. Yabu and Blackthorne got off on the proverbial wrong foot after demanding the boiling water death of one of Blackthorne’s crew members. The two would never again be on good terms.
It also became clear during this time that Omi was the brains for his uncle’s rule. Yabo was a slippery character who would eventually go one step too far in playing both sides of any conflict for his own benefit. His character resolution and how it tied back to Omi was memorable.
Yabu’s initial plan was undercut with the unexpected arrival of Hiro, a top general of Yabu’s boss Toranaga. Spies were a part of the game across all political levels and Yabu had been betrayed, with Toranaga already being aware of the newly-arrived ship’s weapons. Blackthorne and his assets were turned over to Hiro, who eventually took Blackthorne to meet Toranaga. Blackthorne would then spend the majority of the book separated from the rest of his crew.
Toranaga and Blackthorne hit things off well, with the Englishman figuring into Toranaga’s scheming. Toranaga was in the midst of a power struggle for rule of Japan with his rival Ishido. The two were part of the ruling council and both were cutting deals with peers who were being pressured to keep or switch alliances.
Communications between different factions or individuals usually occurred via pigeon-delivered messages, often in code. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an overly reliable means of communication given the prevalence of hawks in the story. Clavell would repeatedly to the motif of Toranga hunting with hawks, particularly at the end.
Toranaga would spend the entire book continually putting his enemies off balance and buying himself time. He would use that time to let situations further develop and to think of a way out of a particular predicament. The resulting power plays frequently revolved around quietly taking hostages and creating Cold War-like standoffs. If any of the stalling failed, Toranaga kept in his back pocket a last-resort plan called ‘Crimson Sky’ in which his forces would likely go down with honor.
Blackthorne eventually rose in power to become a samurai and hatamoto (direct advisor) to Toranaga. The honors were related to Blackthorne’s value in providing weapons training and information on European culture. It also helped that saved Toranaga’s life roughly two to three times throughout the book, most notably during an earthquake.
As an aside, earthquakes were portrayed as the most destructive forces in Japan during the era. This was due to possible fire outbreak as a result of burning lamps and similar fire-based items being tipped into flammable materials. Most structures built with very simple materials so that they could easily be rebuilt or repaired after earthquakes or a typhoon.
Throughout the political gamesmanship, Blackthorne remained motivated by money and his own well-being. He used his improving situation to push a plan to regain control of his ship and then hire a crew to take over the ‘black ship.’ The ‘black ship’ was an incredibly valuable annual trading vessel controlled by the Spanish/Portuguese alliance of the era.
Most of the non-Japanese characters that Blackthorne encountered were in some way related to this alliance, the first Europeans with a major presence in Japan. The Spanish/Portuguese alliance had a profitable trade based out of the port city of Nagasaki that they were interested in protecting. The Japanese leaders didn’t seem to welcome the ‘barbarians,’ but Japan needed silk from rival China and the Japanese tolerated the European visitors due to their role as intermediaries in that trade.
As part of that trade relationship, Japan had been opened to Christianity. As some Japanese became Christian, their beliefs complicated their loyalties. Christians also served as translators for the higher-ranking Japanese, positions that put them into influential roles and that provided valuable intelligence information regarding happenings in Japan.
Those translators, usually higher-ranking priests, complicated Blackthorne’s initial interactions with top Japanese leaders. Where Blackthorne was able to prevail against them was in publicizing the fact that a rivalry existed between the Catholics (who were the Christians in Japan) and Protestant Christians. The Japanese rulers already seemed wary of the potential for European expansionism affecting their island and Blackthorne planted seeds in their minds regarding plans by the Catholic church to assert more control over Japan.
A fellow ship pilot named Rodrigues worked for the Spanish/Portuguese alliance and he had a complicated relationship with Blackthorne. In fact, Blackthorne dramatically saved Rodrigues despite the man having tried to kill him during a storm at sea along the Japanese coast. Rodrigues and Blackthorne would have an odd association throughout the entire story, loyal at times to their shared profession’s code of honor but also loyal to themselves and/or their country affiliations.
Blackthorne would eventually learn enough Japanese to begin communicating in the native tongue. He was aided by a dictionary created by the priests and loaned against their will to Blackthorne under Toranaga’s orders.
Shading in all of the character interactions were details regarding daily life amongst those in Japan that proved incredibly fascinating. Clavell covered just about anything that one might have thought to ask about daily life in Japan during the time period in question. Food, religion, and even bathroom habits were discussed.
Above all though, the concept of honor and a delicate protocol of communication between those in the ruling classes was observed. While ascending in importance amongst the power players, Blackthorne would learn about the importance of karma and modesty. Seppuku, or ritual suicide, was a frequent story point as mentions were made of choosing a ‘second’ to finish the job honorably for the person committing suicide. Not surprisingly, swords and the reputation of certain blades were also frequently mentioned.
When Blackthorne wasn’t involved in the greater political situation or fending off rivals, his life in Japan eventually became populated by a trio of women. These women were, in turn: His official consort Fujiko, his translator and secret lover Mariko, and a high-end prostitute named Kiku.
Fujiko was a young widow appointed to take charge of the household that Toranaga established for Blackthorne. Although Blackthorne wasn’t attracted to Fujiko, he respected her and became her lover to ensure that she felt honored in his house.
Mariko was a troubled woman but greatly respected samurai who had become a Christian. She primarily served as a translator who could speak several European languages. This made her the wheel at the center of much of the story, as she frequently connected Blackthorne to the major power players. She had a husband who mistreated her named Buntaro and a son with a deformed hand. Mariko’s father had shamed the family in the past and her relationship with Buntaro had provided a way to move past that shame.
Mariko’s affair with Blackthorne was highly dangerous but Mariko’s station made it so that she could get away with the relationship despite her staff being aware of the antics. Rumors of the affair spread, but they were not believed with certainly by the top leaders.
Gossip in general related to ‘pillowing’ situations became central to the story. Prostitution and ‘pillowing’ was viewed very differently in Japan when compared to the European norms. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for a wife or consort to arrange for their husband to visit a prostitute. Prostitutes weren’t limited to women though and Blackthorne was disgusted to learn that boys were sometimes involved in the trade. Homosexuality as a broader topic was taboo and highly shameful in Blackthorne’s mind, but he did admit to its prevalence on ships during their long ocean voyages.
One notable prostitute arrangement took place for Blackthorne with Kiku, a first-rank prostitute. Mariko semi-participated in this visit to the ‘cloud world’ of high-end prostitution, but ultimately it was Blackthorne and Kiku who spent a night together. Not long thereafter, Toranaga bought Kiku’s contract for himself at an unheard of price, but later decided that she was too good for him. In many ways, Toranaga was as interested in Kiku for her skills and beauty as he was for her use as a chess piece to manipulate Omi, who was Kiku’s secret but forbidden love.
Other notable women included the Kiku’s longtime mama-san (a Madame) named Gyoko. As part of the deal for Kiku, Gyoko gained approval from Toranaga for a plan to centralize prostitution and also to introduce the Geisha profession as an alternative to prostitution.
Also of note was Ochiba, the widow of the deceased Taiko and mother to the young heir Yaemon. She was set up as a bit of a black widow spider but readers would later get insights into her situation. To begin with, the heir was actually her child via a peasant. Ochiba had needed to protect her position since her husband had issues with fertility and she didn’t want to be replaced. Hence, she found a way to give him the son that he’d long desired. Marriage to Ochiba would later be used as a chip in the overall political dealings, although she would eventually reveal what seemed to be a legitimate attraction to Toranaga.
Something that might seem unusual to modern readers was how Clavell frequently switched character perspectives, sometimes within a single scene. Much of the story was told through Blackthorne’s eyes though, with his character having both pros and cons. Blackthorne’s major downside was that he often came off as a temperamental creep, even late in the book. Blackthorne’s wife Felicity and children back home became vague memories as he had relationships with the aforementioned three women. Throughout the course of the story, Blackthorne would unknowingly impregnate two of the women, but what would essentially be two abortions by those women kept those children from coming to birth.
Somewhat redeeming the character of Blackthorne was the impressive job that Clavell did in making him the cultural proxy for the reader. There was a realization of just how far readers had come in getting to appreciate Japanese culture when Blackthorne was reunited with his other surviving crew members. He found their behavior to be truly barbarian-like and that feeling was also felt by the reader, a testament to Clavell’s character development.
The political situation finally began to wind down in the last three hundred or so pages. Blackthorne and Mariko were involved in a hostage situation at Ishido’s stronghold, Osaka Castle. Amid a betrayal by Yabu that allowed ninja assassins to raid the area where the hostages were being held, Blackthorne had to fight to protect Mariko and several other hostages. This sequence, involving several barricaded rooms, was the book’s foremost action piece.
After that series of events, the final two-hundred or so pages of “Shogun” barely featured Blackthorne. “Shogun” instead almost fully became Toranaga’s story during its final stretch. Only at the very end of the book readers learned that Toranaga did, in fact, wish to become Shogun. Despite his denials of that goal throughout the story, it was his ultimate ambition and he would indeed achieve it.
Some readers might have been upset to have much of the plot resolved at the end via a combination of foreshadowing achieved through Toronaga’s thoughts and several afterward sentences. Providing those details in a more thorough manner would have required a sequel book and I suspect that such a book would have ultimately proved unnecessary.
In researching “Shogun” after reading it, I found many who agreed that it was quite accurate in its portrayal of life in Japan during the era presented. Quibbles could be made regarding small mistakes, but Clavell’s achievement was undeniable.
In essence, “Shogun” dramatized the tale of how an Englishman helped an ambitious Japanese leader launch a dynasty that lasted for another 260 years. This was a rough portrayal of the real-life tale of William Adams, on whom Blackthorne was based. Toranaga was based on Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became Shogun in 1603. The real-life equivalent of Toranaga’s reign would include an isolationist streak, something that the character mentioned in his closing thoughts. Christianity in particular would begin a period of diminished influence and prevalence in Japan.
“Shogun” was a sensation in the mid-to-late 1970s and it was easy to see why given the immersive canvas painted throughout the book. It was light on action, but it was more interesting for having focused on the political maneuvering of the various characters.
That story focus helped the book to more-easily translate into a widely-seen television mini-series adaptation. The mini-series adaptation of “Shogun” helped lift the NBC network out of some of its struggles at the time and that success foreshadowed a strong programming run for the network through the 1980s and 1990s.
One last aside: Comic book readers might be curious about the influence that “Shogun” had on the Marvel Comics character “Wolverine.” Longtime “Uncanny X-Men” writer Chris Claremont seemed to borrow from the book’s central premise of introducing a westerner into Japan when he did so with Wolverine around 1978, introducing a longtime love interest named Mariko in the process. The theme of Wolverine as a sort of latter-day samurai would be further expanded in the 1982 “Wolverine” mini-series that Claremont created with Frank Miller. Miller’s own interest in Japanese samurai culture would lead to his mid-1980s work “Ronin” as well as having influenced aspects of his work on “Daredevil” and even “Sin City.”