“Patience is very important. The strong are the patient ones, Anjin-san. Patience means holding back your inclination to the seven emotions: hate, adoration, joy, anxiety, anger, grief, fear. If you don’t give way to the seven, you’re patient, then you’ll soon understand all manner of things and be in harmony with Eternity.”
– James Clavell, Shogun
Weighing nearly 1100 pages, James Clavell’s Shogun is both an account of the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate and a tale of love and tolerance. Published in 1975, Clavell’s opus deals with the rise of a military dictatorship in 1600 that would rule Japan for the next two and a half centuries superimposed on the experiences of Japan’s first foreign visitor: an Englishman. A commerical success and a New York Times bestseller, it was later adapted into a famous television miniseries in 1980. My history teacher used to play the miniseries during class to show how the Japanese initially treated and perceived foreigners in the early modern era. He also mentioned that the miniseries was adapted from a bestselling novel, which immediately got my attention. An action-packed, hilariously profane novel, Shogun is as entertaining as it is academic.
The story revolves around John Blackthorne, an English pilot of the Erasmus, a Dutch ship. His strong naval background and experiences cause him to be hired by the Netherlands to pilot a voyage to Japan through Magellan’s Pass around the tip of South America (thus being the first non-Portuguese to sail that route) to establish relations with Japan and simultaneously disrupt the relations of Portugal and the Catholic Church, both of which have already gained considerable influence throughout Japan. However, whilst they’re sailing, a huge storm ensues and blows the ship off-course and knocks out Blackthorne. When he regains consciousness, he is in a traditional Japanese home where the hostess does not understand any European languages. Things change from bad to worse as he learns that his crew has been imprisoned by the chieftain of the village under the pretext of being pirates, his ship has been confiscated, and he is wanted by Lord Toranaga, the most powerful daimyo (warlord) in Japan. We follow Blackthorne as he struggles to assimilate himself into Japanese culture, attempts to establish his credibility, and pursues a love affair with a Christian noblewoman, torn between her native and Western cultures.
Despite being over 1100 pages, Shogun is filled with so much action that you’ll raptly be flipping pages, oblivious to the time and surroundings. Even the dialogue, with all its profanity and taboo allusions (e.g. “Satan’s penis”), is fun to read! Through the dialogue, we learn more about the characters and the plot events. Like Tolstoy in War and Peace, Clavell does not digress from the main storyline; rather, he takes time to substantiate on the historical context and simultaneous events in the story. Moreover, Blackthorne’s experiences in Japan are eventful as well as rich, giving us insights into Japanese culture and politics during a tumultuous period in Japanese history.
I would recommend this book to people who like history, Japanese culture, war, and general reading.