Books: Shogun

As a boy, I remember this book sitting on the coffee table and end-tables around the house for something like a year.  Dad and Mom both took a turn.  I remember the ominous-looking katana on the battered cover and Clavell’s name in big bold font.  Later I remember the mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain – but only a little.  Since it came on at eight, I got to watch about an hour before bedtime.  It all seemed very dangerous and exotic and interesting.

So when I decided I wanted to read a book about pre-modern Japan – something with samurai, sacrifice, and yes, ninjas – it didn’t take long for Shogun to pop into my head.  A little google research will tell you this book sold tens of millions of copies, set the stage for a series of other Asia-themed novels, and made Clavell a truckload of money.  I was hoping it would stand to the decades and provide some well-researched historical action.  And that’s just what the book delivered.

Shogun recounts the fictional arrival of a Dutch trader in 17th Century Japan.  The Portuguese (and a few Spaniards) have been in the country for about 50 years, inserting themselves as the middlemen in the lucrative silk trade with China and converting hundreds of thousands to Catholicism.  Aboard the Dutch ship is John Blackthorne, an English pilot, leader of men, and our surrogate guide to Japan.  Blackthorne is a big, strong, handsome, smart, stubborn westerner – your classic leading man.  He soon becomes known as the Anjin-san, which means ‘pilot’.

No doubt Blackthorne is in some respects a metaphor for Clavell’s own attempts to learn about and function within Japanese and Asian culture.  And in the first few hundred pages, as Blackthorne becomes Anjin-san, he progresses from haughty, incredulous, and disgusted to curious, respectful and accepting.  This progression, both in terms of characterization and as a device for learning about pre-modern Japan, is one the more enjoyable aspects of the books.  It’s especially effective for someone who knows very little about Japanese history (like me). Continue reading