Shogun by James Clavell
Historical Fiction (1975 - 1152 pp.)
Shogun is the third 1100+ page novel I've read during the current pandemic, The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss and 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami being the other two. Unlike 1Q84, which takes place in 1984 amidst a Terminator-style '80s action plot, Shogun takes the reader back to an era I study with some regularity and the general public gobbled up back in 1975: the year 1600.
Shogun follows the story of John Blackthorne, an English sea pilot based on the real-life William Adams, the first English sailor in Japan. Blackthorne's story roughly follows Adams's, as both rise within the Japanese nobility through seamanship and linguistic skills, but Clavell fills out Blackthorne's emotions, dreams and loves in a way that isn't available from the records of Adams. Other characters, such as the daimyos Toranaga (ally of Blackthorne) and Ishido (enemy), the samurai Yabu (mostly ally) and Mariko (aka Maria, a convert to Catholicism, and Blackthorne's love interest), Portuguese pilot Rodrigues (frenemy?), Jesuit priest Martin Alvito (mostly enemy), and Blackthorne's Dutch sailors aboard the Erasmus, are also based on historical figures from the time period. Throughout Shogun, each character confronts conflicted loyalties, cross-cultural mishaps, and the ongoing battle between obligation and desire. Catholics are Blackthorne's mortal enemies, which is frequently lost on Japanese nobles who know Catholicism as the only form of Christianity.
Clavell's historical background is weaved into the story, rather than spat out as a lecture series, keeping the reader engaged with the characters and their surroundings. When Blackthorne draws a map of the world for Toranaga, Blackthorne brushes away everything away from the coastlines, demonstrating the state of mapmaking in 1600. (257) Nakamura's* discussion with Toranaga regarding Toranaga's vassalage to him (459-463) could be from a history textbook, yet the fourth wall stays standing. Likewise, kami are defined in a discussion between Mariko and Blackthorne, (622-623) which is helpful to Western readers unaccustomed to being surrounded by spirits, as an Englishman from the year 1600 would need explained as well. The lack of standardization of military uniforms, even in major military forces,** (531) is a part of history that lasted longer than most non-historians realize.*** These touches make Shogun's history (or at least most of it) real to popular and scholarly audiences.
Although previous authors have discussed Shogun's alleged historical accuracies at length in terms of social norms and political hierarchy,**** there are two more factual inquiries. Clavell makes generous use of socket bayonets as typical armaments of feudal Japanese soldiers, or at least of soldiers equipped with European-made guns: “At once Omi gave an order. His men slipped out the short sheathed bayonet sword that hung almost unnoticed from the back of their belts and snapped it into a socket on the muzzle of their muskets.” (535) However, in 1600, no one was using socket bayonets, European or Asian. Socket bayonets were invented in the late 1600s and were not in widespread use until the War of the Spanish Succession, a century after the events in Shogun took place.
To a lesser degree, Blackthorne's spot decision to pull an arrow out of a wounded soldier without first bandaging the wound unsurprisingly causes more damage. (933) Although modern first aid was not invented until the 19th century, soldiers had used arrows for centuries before 1600. Why Blackthorne, a seasoned veteran capable of commanding a ship, would pull out the arrow in this way is never explained.
A sorely missing concept to much of speculative fiction is one of Shogun's strong points: the wildly contrasting English and Japanese attitudes toward economics and trade. Various Japanese nobles' distastes with the Anglo-Dutch primacy of trade culminate when Yabu tells Toranaga that “Money’s filth – a toy for women to play with or for dung-filled merchants.”^ (281) However, Yabu seeks the ability to strangle rice and silk traffic, (169) characters both English and Japanese squabble over unfair 75% tax rates that, according to the Japanese, should be capped at a still-outrageous 60% (548), and the price of gold figures into Yabu's discussions with Blackthorne and a translator later on. (930)
With commodity availability and pricing being so central to control over feudal Japan, the importance of capital should follow. An early description describes the sad economic situation of the eight-year-old son of General Nakamura, the presumed heir of Japan: “The Court of the Son of Heaven was easy to dominate because, though it possessed all the land, it had no revenue.” (70) This is explained to Blackthorne through a curious inversion of Lockean private property, again emphasizing the central nature of commodities to feudal Japan: “Only peasants can own land. Understand? But samurai own all the produce.” (135) Ownership of land is relegated to farmers, of money below the status of samurai, yet the goods produced on the land and purchased with the money are of extreme importance to samurai. This is one bridge Blackthorne never crosses; he thinks in monetary terms until the end.
Much of Shogun involves cultural differences and misunderstandings between the various nationalities of the characters, especially between the English and the Japanese. Whereas previous authors discuss everything from religion to sex, I'll focus on a topic deeply ingrained in Shogun yet notably absent from many previous reviews: animals.
Blackthorne revolts the Japanese by hanging a pheasant to age until his servants claim it is rotting, causing the gardener to cut it down against Blackthorne's orders. The subsequent execution of the gardener is completely against Blackthorne's wishes, but is aligned with the way the Japanese servants are accustomed to operating. That a dead pheasant is considered food at all, let alone aged, is alien to the Japanese; that the saga ends in death - "over a pheasant!", Blackthorne exclaims in horror - is alien to Blackthorne and to any modern-day reader. Hare soup, a favourite of Blackthorne's, is similarly unpopular among the Japanese faithful. (555) Meanwhile, Mariko assures Blackthorne he will eventually appreciate eating raw fish, skeptical as he is. Near the end of the book, Blackthorne eats raw fish with rice, not only with tolerance, but having craved it.^^
Companion animal husbandry is a topic that allows for more cross-cultural understanding. Toranaga is an avid falconer, often using his falconing^^^ time to meditate on his actions and his place in the Japanese fedual hierarchy. Thanks to a combination of Shogun and the timely searching of a few relevant maps, I learned just how easy the husbandry of peregrine falcons is as a cultural adaptation for Blackthorne, as they breed in both the United Kingdom and Japan. (585) Cross-cultural reverence of the majestic peregrine falcon continues to the present day, such as in Toronto's peregrine falcon live webcam.
As always, when an author introduces me to a new word, I give thanks where it is due. In Clavell's case, the word is "caparisoned", (287) a word I am surprised I had not encountered in my readings of medieval and early modern European history. According to Dictionary.com, a "caparison" is:
a decorated covering for a horse or other animal, esp (formerly) for a warhorse
rich or elaborate clothing and ornaments
(tr) to put a caparison on
All those Renaissance fair horse garments are so much more easily summarized now.
Shogun caps off the run of extremely long novels I've had the fortune to read. The reading portion has been good fortune, although it almost seems crass to think of good fortune in 2020. Mariko offers a bit of Japanese civil war-era wisdom during a discussion with two courtesans that feels like it could be describing the current pandemic: “These are sad times. Difficult for nobles. Difficult for peasants.” (868)
Ease of Reading: 5^^^^
Educational Content: 7****
*Nakamura is based on Toyotomi Hideyoshi (d. 1598), the unifier of Japan in the immediate pre-Tokugawa period. English-language fiction featuring Hideyoshi would have been fascinating, but I understand Clavell's need to (a) have an English visitor present for the reader live through vicariously, and Adams did not appear in Japan until after Hideyoshi's death; and (b) write a story with more compelling rivalries than simply having everyone bow down to Hideyoshi a bunch of times.
**"Major military forces" excludes irregulars, such as Islamic State, while not being limited to post-Treaty of Westphalia-style nation-states.
***For example, World War II armies in Eastern Europe occasionally wore old Austro-Hungarian uniforms from World War I; this was a cruel irony considering how many European countries fought World War I in part to gain independence from Austria-Hungary. This is mentioned briefly in The Eagle Unbowed by Halik Kochanski, in the chapter on the war in Ukraine, but is unfortunately unmentioned in my entry on that book.
****Numerous sources debate the accuracy of the events depicted in Shogun. Clavell straddles the divide between history and fantasy, two genres discussed at length in the 1981 New York Times feature on Clavell, by having his characters engage in unlikely acts influenced by Clavell's own time period (e.g.: 1970s-era women's liberation movements) while existing in a highly realistic setting. For a comparable balance, see The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak or Sutton by J.R. Moehringer.
^This is not the only time people believed to be beneath samurai are referred to as "dung-headed". Peasants receive the same moniker.
^^I usually use spoiler alerts in these situations, but you didn't seriously think Blackthorne would die anywhere before the end of the book, did you?
^^^"Falconing" appears with a squiggly red line under it in Blogger despite no such underline appearing under the word "falconer". I am unsure what activity Blogger thinks a falconer engages in then. If Blogger is correct, and "falconing" should appear as a spelling mistake, consider it a word I have invented.
^^^^Shogun reads as quickly as an airport book. However, the sheer number of characters and locations in the book makes the reader forget some of the more minor ones exist. A Shakespeare-style Dramatis Personae and a detailed map of Japan in 1600 are all that keep Shogun from being a very easy read. Otherwise, Shogun's ease of reading is a compliment to the terseness of Clavell's prose. He deftly avoids 100-word sentences in favour of a short, clipped style. Off topic: this eighth footnote is likely a record for this blog. Any more of them, especially if they source more, and I'll have a damned term paper.