Shogun: A Novel of Japan

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Shōgun: A Novel of Japan
James du Maresq Clavell

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Although not considered great literature by most critics, Shōgun: A Novel of Japan made its author, James du Maresq Clavell, one of the most widely read twentieth-century novelists. The novel contains war, trade disputes, cultural clash, passion, death, and descriptions of beauty that have kept readers up until dawn. Such features make Clavell an "oldfashioned storyteller" who spins captivating yarns rather than an artiste like Virginia Woolf or Thomas Pynchon. Clavell's survival of a Japanese death camp gave him unique insight into human behavior and cultural differences, enabling him to produce a truly gripping story. In addition to penning a good book to curl up with, Clavell built a bridge of understanding from West to East by fictionalizing a historical encounter between them.

Shōgun tells the story of an English pilot, John Blackthorne, in charge of five Dutch ships whose purpose is to break the Portuguese monopoly on Japanese trade. Instead, the pilot becomes embroiled in Japanese politics as Lord Toranaga Yoshi employs him as his secret weapon. Shōgun uses straightforward storytelling techniques to keep readers riveted as they imagine themselves in the position of the English pilot. By the end, the reader has learned about Japan alongside Blackthorne as he attempts to survive.

That the West is interested in the East is proved by Shōgun's success. In the first five years of its printing, 7 million books were sold. NBC did not risk much in sponsoring a film extravaganza. For twelve hours of prime time, 130 million people Watched Shōgun. The miniseries prompted sales of another 2.5 million books. Since the movie, even more people have read the book or watched the shorter 2.5-hour-long film.

Author Biography

A successful producer, director, screenwriter, and novelist, James du Maresq Clavell was also a war hero, carpenter, and political conservative who conversed with Roger Moore and corresponded with William F. Buckley. Clavell also contributed to arts and letters a bridge of understanding between the West and the East. Novels like Shōgun enabled the West to gain an understanding and respect for Japan at a time when Japan was emerging as an economic world power.

Clavell, born on August 10, 1924, in Sidney, Australia, was the son of British colonists Richard Charles and Eileen (Collis) Clavell. Clavell grew up hearing sea stories from his father and grandfather, both careerists in the Royal British Navy. They instilled in him a sense of pride and obligation for being British. Consequently, Clavell described himself as a "half-Irish Englishman with Scots overtones," not an Australian. The family moved to different Navy stations, such as Hong Kong, where Clavell spent much of his boyhood.

Clavell attended high school in England. After graduation, he enlisted in the British Royal Artillery the year World War II broke out. Like Peter Marlowe, in Clavell's 1962 King Rat, Clavell was wounded in Malaysia. He was captured by the Japanese and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. He spent three and a half years in the notorious death camp Changi, where one in fifteen men survived. Clavell told an interviewer from the Guardian that in surviving he was conscious of living on "forty borrowed lifetimes."

The experience of Changi informs all of Clavell's fictions. At Changi, Clavell found he could no longer believe in the idealist code of his father. It was replaced by an Objectivist code: the individual is paramount, loyalty is given to a small interdependent group, capitalism and free enterprise guarantee freedom. The lessons he learned at Changi about human nature and the importance of bridging cultural gaps lay at the heart of his novels.

In 1946, back in Britain, a motorcycle accident ended his military career. With a disability discharge, he entered the University of Birmingham. April Stride, a friend of Clavell's sister, married Clavell on February 20, 1951. They had two daughters, Michaela and Holly. Through Stride, Clavell discovered film. Soon, the family immigrated to the United States where he had his first film success, The Fly, in 1958. He won a Screen Writers Award for his 1960 film The Great Escape. He achieved cinematic fame by writing and directing To Sir with Love in 1969. Clavell became a naturalized citizen in 1963.

A screenwriters strike in 1960 gave Clavell time to follow his wife's suggestion and write a novel about Changi. Writing proved difficult but Clavell received help from Herman Gollub, editor for Little, Brown and Company, and his blue pen. The result was King Rat, and a discovery that Clavell could write about the East in a way that made it accessible to Western readers.

Clavell wrote several novels after King Rat, including Shōgun in 1975, and worked on a few more film projects. He died from a combination of cancer and stroke at his home in Vevey, Switzerland, in 1994.

Plot Summary

The Shipwreck

At the opening of Shōgun: A Novel of Japan, John Blackthorne, English pilot of a Dutch ship named Erasmus, arrives in Japan hoping to break the Jesuit trade monopoly on the Far East. Instead, he becomes embroiled in the feudal politics of a war-torn nation. His involvement begins as soon as he reveals his dislike for a Jesuit priest. Lord Omi and Lord Yabu see that Blackthorne may be the key to getting rid of the Jesuits. In addition, Black-thorne has the knowledge necessary to create a musket regiment for Yabu—so he can be Shōgun.

Before Yabu can secure Blackthorne, Lord Hiro-matsu, the trusted aid of Lord Toranaga Yoshi, persuades Yabu to give the ship, its contents, and its pilot to Toranaga. Hiro-matsu then takes them all to Osaka aboard a galley piloted by Vasco Rodrigues, a Portuguese merchant. He tries to kill Blackthorne, but Blackthorne saves his life instead.


For Blackthorne, Osaka makes the "Tower of London look like a pigsty." Inside the castle, Blackthorne meets Toranaga, President of the Council of Regents and overlord of the Kwanto. Father Alvito is present to interpret and to negotiate with Toranaga about the Black Ship—the trading vessel under Jesuit control whereby the Japanese obtain goods from China. Toranaga decides Blackthorne could be his secret weapon if he learns to be Japanese. Lady Mariko will be his teacher.

In order to keep Blackthorne from his rival Ishido, Toranaga has Blackthorne thrown in prison. There, Blackthorne learns the history of the Jesuits in Asia from Father Domingo, a Franciscan and enemy of the Jesuits. After a few days with Father Domingo, Ishido's guards kidnap Blackthorne. While they attempt to steal Blackthorne away, Toranaga's men in disguise steal him back. By coincidence, Yabu arrives and rescues Blackthorne. Ishido, consequently, loses face, while Yabu and Blackthorne feel closer to Toranaga. Hiro-matsu and Toranaga get a good laugh.

The Escape

With information from Blackthorne, Toranaga begins to understand how European affairs impact Japan. More immediately, Ishido is ready to orchestrate the political demise of Toranaga. Therefore, Toranaga disguises himself as Lady Kiri and sneaks out of Osaka, but Blackthorne notices the trick.

As the party nears the last checkpoint, Ishido stops them. Blackthorne risks his life to prevent Ishido from noticing Toranaga. He succeeds, and the party makes it to the galley, which is barricaded in the harbor by samurai in fishing boats. Toranaga cuts a deal with the Jesuits, and they take him out of the harbor. Rodrigues repays Blackthorne a life by allowing him to pilot the galley alongside the Portuguese vessel as it leaves. As a result of enabling Toranaga's escape, Blackthorne is made Hatamoto—a high-ranking samurai.

Blackthorne's Education

Back in Anjiro, Toranaga avoids Yabu's traps. He does this by honoring Yabu in front of all his men, who cheer "Toranaga!" Then, Toranaga quickly exits before Yabu realizes he has been manipulated.

That night, Blackthorne attempts suicide to protest Yabu's order that the entire village be killed unless he learns Japanese. To their surprise, Black-thorne was not bluffing, but Omi stops his arm. The Japanese now see Blackthorne as a true samurai.

While working to train Yabu's musket regiment, Blackthorne falls in love with Mariko, who is teaching him Japanese. Blackthorne discovers that to progress in his studies, and to survive, he must become Japanese.

The Game Begins

Toranaga returns to Anjiro and begins to implement his war strategy. First, he develops a false personality—one that is indecisive and weak—in order to make everyone think he is beaten. Second, he does everything in his power to gain time.

After speaking with his officers, Toranaga tells Mariko she must go to Osaka with an order for his ladies to join his procession to the castle. Then he converses with Blackthorne about the Black Ship. An earthquake disrupts the meeting, and Blackthorne saves Toranaga again. As a reward, Blackthorne receives a fief and several declarations of friendship.


Lord Zataki meets Toranaga, on behalf of the Council, at Yokose. Toranaga tricks Zataki into revealing both of the Council's messages. First, the Council asks Toranaga to come to Osaka and declare obedience. If the invitation is refused, the second message orders him to commit seppuku—suicide. Toranaga promises an answer tomorrow. Toranaga now knows that Ishido has an alliance, and he has gained a day through the rules of diplomatic ceremony. Yabu also accepts a scroll and must go to Osaka without delay. At noon the next day, Toranaga says he will accept the invitation. Toranaga gains more time this way because he must arrive in Osaka with all the trappings of his societal position.

Back to Yedo

Toranaga orders everyone back to Yedo by different routes. Toranaga travels quickly by way of Anjiro to collect his men and use the galley. Back at Yedo, he begins to probe Ishido's alliance for weaknesses. Mariko and Blackthorne, meanwhile, take a lingering route overland to Yedo. On the way, they consummate their affair. When they arrive at Yedo, the love affair ends.

At Yedo, Toranaga blackmails the Jesuits by openly encouraging Blackthorne's plan to steal the Black Ship. Goyoko, a madam who is trying to create a red-light district, gives Toranaga several secrets to use against Zataki and the Christian Lords. Toranaga immediately offers Zataki a deal. While waiting for a response, Toranaga continues to act as a defeated man. He tests the loyalty of his son and heir, Lord Sudara, and then disinherits him to thwart treason plans. When he hears that Zataki accepts his offer, he sends Sudara to Zataki as a hostage. Coincidentally, Yabu succeeds in killing Lord Jikkyu—thus taking both Zataki's and Jikkyu's armies out of the field.

With things falling into place, Toranaga brings Hiro-matsu into his confidence. A relieved Hiro-matsu stops the disintegration of the officer ranks. Next, Toranaga releases Mariko, Yabu, and Black-thorne to open up Osaka. As they prepare to leave, Mariko gives information to the Jesuits in order to keep Blackthorne safe should Toranaga lose.

Mariko's Poem

Toranaga cannot act until Ishido is forced to give up the hostages in Osaka and every lord, free of coercion, can choose sides. Mariko, according to Toranaga's directions, disrupts Lady Ochiba's birthday party by demanding that Ishido allow Toranaga's people to obey his summons to join his procession to Osaka. He refuses. Citing the laws of tradition, Mariko ignores Ishido and the Council and attempts to escort Toranaga's ladies out of Osaka. They are prevented from leaving and Mariko declares she will commit seppuku at sunset. As a result, all the other ladies take Mariko's side because she was prevented from following the order of her liege lord.

The Council cannot allow Mariko to commit seppuku, so they publicly give in. Secretly, they plan to disarm Mariko and keep her at Osaka. To do this, Yabu opens a secret door for Ishido's ninja, but Blackthorne prevents them from disarming Mariko. During the battle, Mariko is killed. As Toranaga will later reflect, in this game of chess, he sacrificed his queen, "but Ishido lost two castles." The deed is done; the Council has to let everyone leave or Ishido will be admitting to murder. Proof that the alliance is weakening comes when Lord Kiyama's men provide a safe exit for Blackthorne. Blackthorne learns his ship has been burned and he races back to Yokohama.


Blackthorne, who thinks the Jesuits burned his ship, receives a note from Mariko telling him to build another. Some day he will learn that Toranaga burned Erasmus to neutralize the Jesuits. For betraying Mariko, Yabu is ordered to commit seppuku.

Mariko's sacrifice unlocks Osaka and disperses Ishido's alliance. It is now clear that Toranaga was never entirely defeated, and when Ishido comes out of Osaka to fight, Toranaga launches his battle plan. He wins and becomes Shōgun.


Lady Mariko Akechi

The Dictator Lord Goroda was assassinated by General Lord Akechi Jinsai. As a punishment, the entire family was killed or ordered to commit seppuku. Lady Mariko, daughter of Akechi, was not allowed either privilege. Instead, Buntaro sent her to a province far to the north for eight years. There she studied Latin, Portuguese, and Catholic doctrine with the Jesuits. Even so, she is first and foremost a samurai and one of the most admired women in all Japan.

In Toranaga's falconry terms, Mariko is a prize peregrine falcon. Such a falcon is to be enjoyed and hunted with for a time but then released. Like Toranaga's prize falcon, Mariko, once released, will appear to soar away but then come back and masterfully kill her prey. Throughout the novel, Toranaga trains Mariko on Buntaro and on Blackthorne. Then he releases her on Osaka. There she performs beautifully and wins the release of hostages from Osaka.

Father Martin Alvito

Father Alvito (also known as Tsukku) is a Jesuit priest who has spent most of his life in Japan and understands Japanese culture. He has the highest respect for Japanese culture but still views the Japanese as inferior people who can never be ordained priests. Father Alvito, due to his understanding of the Japanese, always gives the correct advice to his superiors, but he is not always followed. Toranaga respects Father Alvito but knows that his Catholicism and his vows of obedience to the Pope cloud him. He is working on a dictionary that will rival previous dictionaries. He gives one to Toranaga for Blackthorne's use. For his efforts, Toranaga allows him to build a cathedral in Yedo.

Father Alvito should be the hero when the novel is viewed in terms of Clavell's Objectivist philosophy. He is a capitalist who knows the Japanese and who knows how to expand trade. But he is defeated and, eventually, exiled. Meanwhile, the Englishman who wants trade becomes the hero and a samurai who will never leave Japan.


See John Blackthorne

John Blackthorne

John Blackthorne (also known as Anjin) is an Englishman who received a complete education in sailing and war from Alban Cardoc. He left his family to become the greatest English pilot. Instead of realizing that dream, he becomes the Anjinsan, advisor on foreign trade and shipping to the Shōgun Lord Toranaga. The process is not easy. Blackthorne dies to himself as a European in his suicide attempt and is reborn a samurai.

Blackthorne immediately impresses everyone by defying the Jesuit priest. Then he wins respect by his sailing ability. Everyone notices how he laughs at death and challenges the sea when at the helm. He makes the Japanese wonder about other Europeans and how strong they might be. However, while he sticks to his European ways he is clumsy on land. It is only his education in the ways of the Japanese that makes him a man again. Black-thorne's mind is very methodical. It is the mind of a European at the earliest stages of the New Science and Enlightenment.

Media Adaptations

  • Shōgun, produced by Shōgun Productions, appeared in 1980 as a television adaptation of twelve hours and five parts. The NBC-sponsored film was made in Japan for $22 million. Eric Bercovci and Clavell wrote the script. Orson Welles narrated and Jerry London directed Richard Chamberlain as the Pilot, Toshiro Mi-fune—as classic an actor in Japan as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in America—as Toranaga, and Yoko Shimada as Lady Mariko. Clavell was also paid one million to be executive producer. It is estimated that 130 million viewers watched the five parts when they aired. One of the most surprising features of the film was the lack of subtitles during the first part of the series. This feature forced viewers into the position of Blackthorne until he had learned Japanese. In 1981, a 2.5-hour movie was cut from the longer series.
  • In 1989, Shōgun provided enough material for Infocom to make a computerized adventure game. While the characterization and graphics of the product were rated highly, as an adventure game it was not received very well.
  • In 1990, with investment from Clavell, the novel was adapted to the stage under the direction of Michael Smuin. "James Clavell's Shōgun, the Musical," with lyrics and script by John Driver, bends the novel's around Shakespeare's King Lear. Instead of a struggle for power, Taiko divided his realm between rivals. The play was unsuccessful both commercially and critically.

Toranaga realizes that Blackthorne is a special bird and sets him apart from his other falcons. Blackthorne is "a short-winged hawk, a hawk of the fist, that you fly direct from the fist to kill anything that moves, say a goshawk." It is the fierceness of the goshawk with a mix of unpredictability that makes Blackthorne such a fun bird for Toranaga to fly. While Mariko was his favorite bird, Toranaga hunted with a peregrine falcon, but in the end, Toranaga is hunting with a goshawk. This symbolizes that Blackthorne has become the friend and advisor Toranaga needs in the first years of his Shōgunate.

Lord Buntaro

Mariko's husband is the son of Hiro-matsu and a ruthless war general whose loyalty to Toranaga is beyond question. Buntaro is desperately in love with Mariko but he has never come to terms with the shame her father brought on the Akechi family. Due to this torment, Buntaro has become an abusive husband. Buntaro, except for his anger, complements the perfection of his wife by being the perfect samurai. As a display of his warrior ability, he performs the Tea Ceremony and flower arranging with perfection.

Friar Domingo

Toranaga keeps Father Domingo alive in prison until he can find a way to get information from him. Blackthorne easily extracts information from Father Domingo on the Jesuits doings and other matters of Japanese politics. For this help, Blackthorne wins his release, but when the cell guards call Father Domingo's name, he thinks it is for execution and dies of fright.

Captain Ferriera

Captain Ferriera is the military commander of the Jesuits. He wants to put Blackthorne to death immediately. He nearly does so against the wishes of his superior. Ferriera is for the Catholics what Buntaro or his father are to Toranaga, an absolutely dependable killer.

Lady Fujiko

The widow of Uragi, who was killed for insulting Ishido, is denied permission to commit seppuku from Toranaga. Instead, she is ordered by Toranaga to be Blackthorne's consort. In this capacity, she runs his household. She proves her samurai mettle when she has a showdown with Omi over Blackthorne's guns. From that point on, against their wills, Fujiko and Blackthorne grow fond of each other, although Fujiko's wish to die at the end of six months is honored.


The woman who holds Kiku's contract is madam Goyoko. Her societal position gives her access to a realm of secrets. She trades several of these to Toranaga in exchange for his support in creating a red-light district and a new class of entertainment girls, called geishas.


Hiro-matsu is "very good at killing" and one of the reasons Toranaga has never lost a battle. He is not just Toranaga's first general but his most trusted vassal. Hiro-matsu, for his part, chose to serve Toranaga because he believes in Toranaga and he does not want to lose.

Hiro-matsu is the perfect warrior and the perfect samurai. His son, Lord Buntaro takes after him, except for Buntaro's uncontrollable rage. Toranaga loves Hiro-matsu so much that he must keep Hiro-matsu at a distance lest he tell him what the real strategy is. Finally, when Toranaga is satisfied his plan is working, he brings Hiro-matsu into his confidence. The old soldier is so happy that his master is doing precisely the opposite of rumor that he feigns illness lest he be unable to control his smile. Renewed in his faith, Hiro-matsu is the ideal man to carry out the battle plan, with his son, Lord Bun-taro, leading the men directly.

Lord Ishido

Ishido is a peasant who has risen to be a powerful lord. He is in charge of the emperor's guard and the castle of Osaka. At first glance, he to have the upper hand against his rival, Toranaga. He gradually marginalizes Toranaga and uses every means in his control to bring him down. Ishido's downfall comes as a result of not knowing when to break the rules. His second problem is his love for Lady Ochiba, who has always loved Toranaga. Lastly, he thinks that the game for Shōgun and the game with the Jesuits are separate.

Brother Joseph

When Brother Joseph (also known as Uraga) is denied ordination, he rebels against Father Alvito. Uraga sees that the Jesuits have no intention of ordaining any Japanese and this sets him against the Catholics. He leaves Alvito's service and Toranaga gives him to Blackthorne as an aid. Fearing that Uraga will give away all their secrets, the Jesuits have him assassinated.

Lord Yabu Kasigi

Lord Yabu is overlord of Izu, which sits next to the Kwanto, where the barbarian ship is towed. Thanks to his wife, Yuriko, Yabu has a large army of samurai, and he dreams of being able to create a musket regiment. Further, he dreams of using a musket regiment to become Shōgun. "Equally dangerous as ally or enemy," Yabu is a man of contradictions incapable of sticking to an agenda unless Yuriko or Omi are there to guide him. He is willing to prove his courage or defend his honor at the drop of a hat. This rashness puts him at Black-thorne's mercy several times. Although he betrays Toranaga in the end, he more often protects him—he carries out orders regarding the Anjin-san, he sees to it that one of Toranaga's key rivals is poisoned, and he defends Toranaga with his life. He is an opportunist hoping to wind up as Shōgun, but until he does, Yuriko tells him to be Toranaga's best vassal.

Yabu enjoys the Night of the Screams given him by the boiling of Pieterzoon. The character of Yabu is an extreme character. Omi, for example, merely does his duty when he kills. Killing, on the other hand, sexually arouses Yabu—nobody else in the novel takes such pleasure. His pleasure in killing and his betrayal of Mariko make him appear the embodiment of evil, but that is to misunderstand samurai. Except for his sexual perversion, Yabu is every bit the samurai Buntaro is, but he has too much ambition. His keen knowledge of swords proves this.


Kiku is the woman that every man desires. Toranaga eventually buys her contract for pleasure and to put an end to Omi's distraction. Finding that Kiku is too much of a distraction except for a man who needs to be distracted, Toranaga gives her to Blackthorne.


The headman of the village and keeper of Blackthorne when he first arrives. He is a Christian and former samurai who now spies for Toranaga in hopes of regaining samurai status. He relays information about the villagers and the doings of Omi and Yabu.


Naga, another son of Toranaga, is not as smart as Sudaru but he is a good son. Naga is a good warrior who helps Omi with the musket regiment. Toranaga, in order to appease the Jesuits, tells him that he will convert. This infuriates him but he will do it. He is loyal to his father but he is easily provoked.

In terms of falconry, Naga is a falcon who is being flown at the wrong bait. Naga's game is combat. Situations of intrigue, as with Omi and Jozen, are too complex for Naga. Still, his father loves him for his good heart and his combat abilities.

Lady Ochiba

The mother of the heir, Yaemon, and former consort of the Taiko. She is a bitter woman who has always loved Toranaga. When Yodoko, widow of the Taiko, dies she makes a request of Ochiba that she marry Toranaga. Ochiba cannot refuse such a request and, therefore, will do everything in her power to see Toranaga victorious, such as prevent Yaemon from arriving at Osaka.

Lord Omi

Lord Omi has the brains in the Kasigi clan, and although he wants to take his Uncle Yabu's place, he bides his time. It is Omi who recognizes that the real value is in Blackthorne's head, not his ship's hold. Therefore, he persuades Yabu to keep Black-thorne alive. It is also Omi who tames Blackthorne, by pissing on his back. Omi is also the mastermind behind the musket regiment. He leads the regiment with Naga.

Omi becomes a great leader by the end of the novel, but only after several distractions are removed. He is in love with and distracted by the courtesan Kiku—Toranaga takes her away and gives her to Blackthorne. His parents are also a stumbling block. When Yabu is ordered to commit seppuku, he orders—as his death wish—that Omi's parents be killed and that Omi take charge of the clan.

Vasco Rodrigues

Although a merchant at heart, Rodrigues knows who holds the power. He will not openly defy the Jesuits and risk losing the commission to pilot the Black Ship. His attempt to drown Black-thorne fails, as does his other murder plot. Instead he is tossed overboard, but he does not die because Blackthorne makes Yabu save him. Later, Rōdrigues returns the favor by helping Blackthorne escape. Rodrigues also represents the assimilated European and a counterweight to Blackthorne's crew. He has a Japanese wife that he sincerely loves. Like Alvito, his Catholicism prevents him from total assimilation.

Jan Roper

Of the crew members, Jan Roper stands out for being a religious fanatic, a bigot, and incredibly angry. He goes far beyond Father Alvito's racism to denounce all Japanese as animals or demons.

Lady Sazuko

Toranaga's most recent consort. She might not be as brilliant as Mariko, but her convincing acting and her loyalty to her master cause everyone to face her when Toranaga and Kiritsubo switch places. It is her presence in Osaka that prevents Toranaga from attacking. After Mariko's "poem," she can leave Osaka.

Father Sebastio

The first European Blackthorne meets is Father Sebastio. He tries to present the Dutchmen as heretics and pirates who should be executed at once. Blackthorne breaks his crucifix in order to show that he views Jesuits as his enemy.

Lord Sudara

Sudara's love for his wife, Lady Genjiko, stands in marked contrast to the rest of his personality. Except when he is thinking of her, Sudara is the perfect heir to Toranaga—cold and calculating like his father.

Lady Kiritsubo Toshiko

Toranaga's number one consort is Lady Kiri. She mothers Toranaga's consorts and Mariko. She is also an information conduit for Toranaga. Mariko wins her release from Osaka.


See Father Martin Alvito


See Brother Joseph

Lord Toranaga Yoshi

He has said a thousand times that he has no desire to be Shōgun but that is exactly what Lord Toranaga Yoshi will become. Toranaga, the favorite of the Taiko when he was alive, is the Lord of the Kwanto—the wealthiest province of Japan. He is also the President of the Council of Regents. Toranaga is "the greatest falconer in the realm" and a brilliant maker of noh plays who has never lost a battle. Toranaga is a master of human character and strategy who hates to waste money or the lives of his vassals. As Father Alvito puts it, "we're all clay on the potter's wheel you spin."

Toranaga sees immediately that Blackthorne would make a good friend and advisor in all matters dealing with the outside world but not in his current state. Thus, Toranaga, amid all his other operations, makes sure that Blackthorne becomes the civilized Ajin-san. Only then can the barbarian help him become Shōgun.

Toranaga, as designer, nearly approaches the status of a god. At the height of his knowledge, when only he knows the truth of the situation, he is sequestered in the highest tower of Yedo. Knowing he is there brooding, his men fear him. At other times, he startles his closest advisers with his knowledge and his ability to predict the way people will behave. His enjoyment of prediction and knowing make Blackthorne, in all his unpredictability, special to Toranaga. In the end, all his scheming brings him the Shōgunate.

Lady Yuriko

Yabu's wife, Yuriko, guides Yabu as much as she can. By economizing, Yuriko has been able to afford more samurai for Yabu than should be possible on paper. This makes him a very desirable ally. Yuriko figures out that Toranaga is playing a game, and she tells Yabu how to use the situation to his advantage.



Clavell's Shōgun is a celebration of heroic deeds that changed the course of history for people all over the world. Heroes in this context are those figures who withstood the aggressions of Spain or bravely sailed into the unknown oceans to discover new lands, people, and riches. Such historic figures as Queen Elizabeth are thus described in glowing terms. The Portuguese of the past—those who belonged to the first Age of Exploration under Prince Henry the Navigator—are praised for braving the unknown and connecting the entire world in the minds of sailors and governments. Clavell contrasts these European heroes with Japanese notions of heroism.

In Clavell's Japan, winning money, plundering cities, and destroying weaker cultures are not considered heroic. Instead, heroism in samurai terms consists of fulfilling one's duty, being loyal, fighting bravely and well against a worthy opponent, and being a master of strategy. Thus, Yabu is a hero because he is brave and a good swordsman. Buntaro, the master archer, is renowned for his ability as master of the Tea Ceremony. Toranaga, a legend in his own time, epitomizes Sun Tzu's Art of War with his mastery of strategy as well as his accomplishments in the techniques of peace and governance.

Yet there is similarity between the two notions of heroism. To be a hero, whatever the standard, takes grit. Blackthorne's performance piloting a ship leaves spectators in awe. Lady Mariko's incredible performance at Osaka shows the heroism of great determination; she comes close to canon-ization for her deeds. Heroism can also be shown in a small person like Mura who faces the much larger Blackthorne in order to do his duty—give the barbarian a bath. And everyone respects a woman of lesser stature than Mariko, like Fujiko, who bravely defends Blackthorne's honor against Lord Omi. The comparison of heroic ideals in the novel is one of many ways Clavell encourages multicultural understanding.

Cultural Exchange

There are two levels to the theme of cultural exchange and multiculturalism in Shōgun. On the first level, the cultural clash between the Japanese and the Europeans provides a litmus test of intelligence. The smartest and most successful characters are those who both understand cultural differences and try to utilize them. The second level is for the reader. Clavell gives the reader insight into the Japanese perspective in order to facilitate cross-cultural understanding.

The many scenes of information exchange build a bridge of understanding between Blackthorne and Japan, the physical exchange matters more. When Blackthorne insults Omi by saying he will piss on him, Omi pisses on Blackthorne instead. In any situation this would be insulting. However, when Yabu asks why he did not piss in Blackthorne's face, Omi proves he is an intelligent man: "to do it in his face—well, with us, to touch a man's face is the worst of insults, neh? So I reasoned that I might have insulted him so deeply he would lose control." In this very charged moment, Omi has recognized that Blackthorne is different, but has engaged with him in a memorable, reasoned way. Yabu, on the other hand, would have ruined any future relations with Blackthorne.

Another physical means of cultural exchange occurs when Blackthorne breaks the Jesuit's crucifix. Whereas Blackthorne totally assimilates to the Japanese way of life, in return the sole change of the Japanese is an end to being dominated by the Jesuits. As a result, Clavell's decidedly prōJapanese book suggests that European culture was more elastic. That is not to say that the Japanese could change, for Mariko becomes nearly European in attitude. But in political terms, Japan chose isolation instead of openness after a very limited experience with outsiders. The Europeans, on the other hand, set out to explore the entire globe, and then fought to conquer it.

Topics for Further Study

  • Under the Tokugawa Shōgunate, the Japanese rejected the attempt to modernize samurai techniques with guns and continued to fight with swords. During World War II, the Japanese proved they could fight very well with guns. After the war, the Japanese established a constitutional government, which prohibited them from having offensive military capabilities. What is the role of technology in war? What is the current attitude in Japan towards the use of the military and sophisticated weapons systems?
  • Research the Tea Ceremony and the art of flower arranging in Japanese culture. How do these two arts function in Clavell's novel and why is Buntaro's mastery of them so important?
  • Clavell is an advocate of Objectivism. What is this theory of social relations? Does Shōgun support this way of viewing society or not? How does the samurai code challenge Objectivism?
  • The Japanese in 1600 were intolerant of other nations and ethnicities; they preferred to exist in isolation from the world. Is it possible to behave this way today? What economic and technological developments have affected a culture's ability to remain isolated? Give specific examples.
  • Free trade, without religious or governmental interference, is championed in the novel. What do you think Clavell would say about debates over U.S. trade with China and the protests against the World Trade Organization in early 2000?


A unifying theme in Shōgun is the importance of knowledge acquisition and the ability to pass on knowledge. Two models of education are presented in the novel: those of Toranaga and Ishido. Ishido believes in learning necessary skills and insists that his samurai learn the arts of war, how to fight and follow orders. Toranaga believes that "samurai should be well versed in the arts of peace to be strong for the arts of war." Thus, his samurai are accomplished poets, swimmers, writers, and war-riors. Blackthorne's teacher, Alban Caradoc, agrees with Toranaga. He teaches Blackthorne the skills of a pilot-navigator as well as the more important lesson that "when the storm's the worst and the sea the most dreadful, that's when you need your special wits. That's what keeps you alive."

The Jesuits also use Ishido's model. They set up schools, write grammars, and teach religious values in order to maintain control. Their art of war is to split allegiances through religious indoctrination so that they maintain their monopoly on trade. Although the Jesuit dictionary comes in handy for him, Blackthorne rejects their tutelage in preference for Toranaga's star professor, Lady Mariko, whose most valuable lesson to Blackthorne is inner peace through meditation.

Those in Toranaga's camp, and Toranaga himself, are also open to learning from Blackthorne. He teaches the hornpipe dance to Toranaga and the ladies, he teaches the generals about war tactics, and he tells anyone who is interested about geography and European politics. In exchange, Black-thorne learns how to be a samurai. To do this requires mastery of two lessons: patience and transformation. Education, in the novel, is not simply the means of learning information but the process of changing and broadening one's perceptions.


Ceremony is both a theme and a structural element of the novel. In Japanese culture, ceremony governs every aspect of life, from simple greetings to important matters of diplomacy. Bowing, for example, is a frequent ceremonial occasion for expressing displeasure and disrespect for others. Toranaga utilizes ceremony to win the chess game but he also begins to change the ceremonies. One form of ceremony that governs the samurai is bushido. This is the warrior's code by which he fights and obeys his liege lord. Yabu wishes to change the code by introducing guns into warfare. When Toranaga shows disgust, Yabu replies, "a new era requires clear thinking about the meaning of honor." Unwittingly, Yabu has described Toranaga's strategy—change Japan and ready it for a new era. To do this he will bend ceremonial lines or follow them to the letter, as he does with Zataki and as he instructs Mariko to do in Osaka. Toranaga's mastery of ceremony, an art of peace, is his best weapon against Ishido.


Historical Fiction

Shōgun belongs to the genre of historical fiction. This genre of literature arose in the early nineteenth century when Sir Walter Scott wrote the first historical novel, Waverly, in 1814. Scott's novel attempts to interest readers in history by showing how historical events affect private lives and individuals. One of the greatest works of this genre is Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, which was written in the mid-nineteenth century about Russian experiences in the war with Napolean. Works of historical fiction are not always literary masterworks. Rather, historical fiction can simply be a work which is costumed by a historical setting but pays absolutely no attention to historical accuracy.

The strength of historical fiction is not in its accurate rendition of events but in its faithful portrayal of the historical moment. Thus, Shōgun's narrative is faithful to the reality of 1600—a rather barbaric Europe meets a highly civilized and war-torn Japan—even if it strays from accurate chronology. Clavell researched his subject exhaustively. For four years, he read accounts of visitors to Japan in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, as well as historical studies. He visited Japan. He fleshed out his novel by adding descriptions of the art of gardening and the tea ceremony. Some of the descriptive phrases used in the novel are actually paraphrases of the accounts he read. For example, much of what Rodrigues says about the Japanese can be found in the writings of the Jesuit Father Joao Rodrigues, who visited Japan in the late seventeenth century. This Rodrigues said the Japanese are "so crafty" they have "three hearts." Finally, the inspiration for the novel came from the story of Will Adams, who actually did shipwreck in Japan in 1600 and became a samurai.


Shōgun's narrator is a straightforward example of third-person omniscient: the narrator is all-knowing. However, the narrator has some interesting limits. For example, the positions of the Portuguese forts or other Jesuit matters are never revealed, nor are the real workings of the Council against Toranaga. In fact, the narrator only reveals information that Toranaga would have known. Toranaga has spies everywhere, and he receives detailed reports from his generals, his ladies, and Lady Mariko. Furthermore, he has orchestrated all the major events of the book as if he were the director of a noh play. The idea that Toranaga is in fact the narrator is supported by the narrative shifts throughout the novel to first person when he is alone. An example of this occurs at the end of the novel. The paragraph begins with "he thought" and ends with Toranaga saying, "this is the chance I've been waiting for." Toranaga is thus revealed as the narrator, and the book is therefore the book he has been writing to advise future generations.


Clavell uses several structural elements to connect events and characters into a disciplined narrative. One structural element is chronology. The novel proceeds from the spring of 1600 to November 21, when Toranaga launches his battle plan, Crimson Sky. Along the way, flashbacks to previous events fill in the past. The novel, accordingly, is a historical account. Abetting the chronological structure are the motifs of chess and falconry. The two metaphors are used to explain how the past is mixed with the present by Toranaga as he maneuvers to become Shōgun.

Clavell's division of chapters into six books is also a structural element. Each book ends with a significant development in Blackthorne's education or Toranaga's plan. Book One establishes the situation in Japan and ends with Blackthorne saving lives. At the end of Book Two, Blackthorne is saved in return. This trading of lives ties the characters together and builds loyalty between them. In Book Three, Blackthorne dies and is reborn a samurai. From this point, Toranaga plays a larger role as he begins to implement his strategy to become Shōgun. Blackthorne's hopes to use his ship, Erasmus, in Book Four are part of Toranaga's plans, and the ship is destroyed in Book Five. Book Five also contains the climatic "poem" of Mariko, which unlocks Osaka and kills a several samurai. Book Six wraps up the loose ends and ends in Toranaga launching Crimson Sky.

A third pattern in the book is the cultural reciprocity between Toranaga and Blackthorne. The two men educate each other in the ways of the world. Toranaga takes time out of his battle plans to make sure Blackthorne is properly educated in the ways of the Japanese. In return, Blackthorne tells Toranaga about Europe. This new knowledge enables Tornaga to deal with the Jesuits and, eventually, to evict them from Japan.

Another organizing pattern concerns the characters and their love affairs, which are either reflective or codependent. The illicit love affair of Mariko and Blackthorne is matched by Omi's affair with Kiku. Both affairs must be resolved for Toranaga to win. Toranaga's light-hearted affairs with his ladies, especially Kiri, can be contrasted with the lustful courtship of Lord Zataki and Lord Ishido for Lady Ochiba. More positively, the relationships of Lord Sudara and Lady Genjiko and Rōdrigues and his wife represent the ideal of pure love. All of these structural elements interlock to form the novel.

Historical Context

Early Modern Europe

Portugal, due to the efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator, had a jump start on Europe in the race for colonies. The Pope, during the fifteenth century, further aided Portugal by repeatedly renewing its monopoly on African trade. The Spanish, who had finally unified their nation, were eager to join the race and asked the Pope where they should go. As a result, the Pope drew the Papal Line of Demarcation dividing the world between Spain and Portugal in 1493. Spain was able to make better use of its colonial efforts and soon became the most powerful nation in Europe. In 1580, Spain absorbed Portugal and all her colonial possessions. Spain's zeal for colonies and the inflationary spirals produced by the continuous influx of gold and silver from the New World soon led the superpower into decline.

The first signs of Spanish decline resulted from bad luck and obstinacy. The King of Spain, Philip II, was determined to defeat the English and Queen Elizabeth. Philip II commissioned a series of Armadas—naval assaults—against England. Each Armada was beleaguered by storm and then trounced by the faster and smaller English vessels assisted by the Dutch. The Armadas bankrupted the Spanish crown. After the Armadas failed the British and the Dutch began to steal colonies.


In 1540, after treading through papal red tape and a vote of confidence from his followers, nobleman and war veteran Ignatius of Loyola became leader of the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits vowed absolute obedience to the Pope and placed their work ahead of prayer. The group became renowned for its learning and its universities. Due to their unique governing rules and their learning, the Pope used Jesuits as emissaries to European courts and sent them to explore the world, make converts, and open up trade. Thus, Jesuits quickly took over the cause of the Catholic Church in Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

According to Church records, the Pope sent the Jesuits to take over trade in Japan because he realized that only the nōnonsense Jesuits would have a chance at success. Contact with Japan was made with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543, who brought guns, knowledge of fortifications, and the pox in exchange for money and silk. Not until the Jesuit St. Francis Xavier arrived in 1549, however, did the trade become profitable. Xavier won converts everywhere he went. In his wake, the Jesuits established schools and threatened traditional Japanese thought. Xavier died while attempting to enter China. The Jesuits took command of trade in Asia and soon had 300,000 Japanese converts to Catholicism.

Will Adams

The adventures of John Blackthorne are loosely based on the story of Will Adams. He was an English pilot who shipwrecked on the coast of Japan in 1600. By 1603, he had become a samurai and an advisor to the Tokugawa Shōgun. Adams, who changed his name to Anjin Miura, was allowed to establish a Dutch trading post. As advisor to Tokugawa, Adams enabled the removal of religion from trade. This pleased Tokugawa, who wanted to curtail the influence of European religion on the Japanese. The Dutch, therefore, came as mer-chants—without priests—and gained access to Nagasaki. The Jesuits and everyone else were barred. Just as the Jesuits feared, this enabled the persecution of Christians to flare up on several occasions over the next two centuries. Like Toranaga, Tokugawa allowed Adams to build a ship, but not wanting to return to the days of naval battles that marked the civil wars, he gave the ship away and ordered a larger one. Adams was made a samurai—the only westerner to be so honored—and a monument was erected to him at his death in 1620.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1600: Europeans rarely, if ever, take baths, thinking that it leads to illness. The Japanese, on the other hand, bathe often and prize cleanliness.

    Today: It is normal in all industrial nations for people to bathe often. Body odor and dirtiness are disapproved of by most people.
  • 1600: Japan is a wealthy nation with a vast supply of silver and other commodities. Due to political strains, it cannot trade with China directly. Europe, except for the inflationary economy in Spain, is doing everything it can to increase its trade and gain wealth.

    Today: Japan (despite a recession in the early 1990s), Europe, and the United States are the most powerful economies in the world. They meet on a regular basis to iron out trade issues for their mutual prosperity.
  • 1600: Technology, in the form of weapons, printing, and navigation, are dynamic forces facilitating change in society. Governments are still capable of allowing technology to thrive or be stifled. European governments, who are competing among themselves, take advantage of any technological edge they can. The Japanese decide to reject the onslaught of new technologies.

    Today: Japan is one of the leading producers and users of information technologies. Both in Japan and in the West, technology has become a necessary component of economic vitality.


Shōgun is a portrait of Japan as it transitioned from feudalism to a nation-state ruled by an enlightened warlord. This moment occurs in the quarter-century of jostling for power that occurred after the end of the Ahikaga Shōgunate, which had ruled since 1336. The Ahikaga reign ended when Yoshiake, the Shōgun, lost a battle against Oda Nobunaga. Yoshiake shaved his head and became a Buddhist priest.

The civil wars that followed during the sixteenth century began to end when Oda Nobunaga, whose military strategy relied on guns, was assassinated in 1582. His ablest general, the peasant Hideyoshi Toyotomi, unified the country in 1590. With a unified Japan following him, Toyotomi invaded Korea twice: 1592–93 and 1598. He died during the second invasion and Japan withdrew from Korea. Five years of uncertainty followed his death before Ieyasu Tokugawa completed Toyotomi's attempt to make Japan one nation.

Tokugawa defeated his rivals in October 1600,-at the Battle of Sekigahara. He became Shōgun in 1603. Tokugawa insured the survival of his accomplishment by resigning in 1605 and helping his son carry on the Shōgunate. Tokugawa's Shōgunate established a peaceful kingdom for 250 years. Then the Americans, in 1853, forced the Japanese from isolation. In 1868, the emperor was restored and the reign of Shōguns ended. Under the emperor, the previously isolationist country took part in world affairs energetically. Its attempt to create an empire brought the country into World War II. Defeated by the United States in August of 1945, much of Japan came under US supervision for almost 30 years.


By the mid-1970s, Japan had regained its sovereignty. Although it would be asked to apologize for various war atrocities committed during WWII, Japan by 1975 controlled all its islands, renewed a treaty of mutual defense with the United States (1970), and rebuilt its economy into one of the top non-communist industrial economies of the world. Soon the Japanese economy would be second only to the United States. The oil crisis of the 1970s hit Japan particularly hard. The Japanese responded by creating programs to reduce Japan's dependence on foreign oil through conservation and alternative energy sources.

Critical Overview

Critics often responded to Clavell's Shōgun with begrudging admiration, as if compelled by the force of the story to take the book seriously. An early book review in the New York Times Book Review, by Webster Schott, began "I can't remember when a novel has seized my mind" like Shōgun.According to Schott, "Clavell is neither literary psychoanalyst nor philosophizing intellectual. He reports the world as he sees people—in terms of power, control, strength…. He writes in the oldest and grandest tradition that fiction knows." Common themes in later criticism of Clavell tended to focus on three themes: Clavell's brilliant storytelling, the work as a historical novel or fiction, and the work's multiculturalism. It is easy to point out the historical inaccuracies of the novel, but its entertainment value and its understanding of broader historical themes to light led most critics to forgive Clavell's manipulation of historical fact.

A reviewer in The New Yorker desperately wanted to disparage the book, going so far as to say Clavell's novel was a throwback to the "derring-do" of Errol Flynn. But the review shifted to admiration in a blink with the recognition that "Clavell does have a decided gift for storytelling, and he makes a heroic effort to provide the right atmosphere." Still, the reviewer sneered at the anachronism of modern slang in the novel given the effort to render the atmosphere with veracity.

D. J. Enright, in the New York Times, was somewhat condescending in calling Shōgun "a tourist guide to medieval Japan." Yet Enright noticed some of Clavell's achievements in the book. noting that Clavell in some ways captured a sense of Japan's literary art in his massive work. Noting that the Japanese "are masters of the miniature," he suggested that Clavell was doing them an honor by writing his novel with such massive amounts of detail—from the way to wear a sword to a description of a Tea Ceremony. Julian Barnes, in the New Statesman, also commented on Clavell's attention to minutiae, noting that "Each page" of the novel "is the length of a short story, and scarcely a one passes without some new extravagant delight." Nonetheless, Barnes also criticized Clavell's sometimes clumsy attempt to mix Elizabethan English with modern slang.

Henry Smith, an educator and historian of Japan, took an evenhanded approach. He pointed out where Clavell bent fact and discussed the numerous problems with Lady Mariko being a real person—someone of her stature in 1600 would have been sequestered, not cavorting with a barbarian. But historical accuracy, for Smith, was not nearly as important as plausibility. After all, Clavell set out to write an entertaining tale through which Westerners could learn something about Japan in 1600. Smith determines that despite the inaccuracies, Clavell succeeded in contrasting the East and West. However, Smith noted, "[Clavell] is in effect delivering a polemic against the Christian church for instilling in Western man his (in Clavell's view) distorted attitudes to sex, death, and cleanliness."

Terry Teachout focused on Clavell's literary intentions. Teachout quoted Clavell saying that his goal was to "be a bridge between East and West" though writing stories that entertain and "pass on a little information." Teachout noted that between the incredible success of his novels and the huge viewing of the television miniseries, Clavell succeeded in being a bridge. Clavell, said Teachout, "is now among the most widely read authors of the century." As Susan Crosland, using material from an interview with Clavell, notes, Clavell's position as a bridge comes honestly. After purging himself of the horror of Changi in King Rat, Clavell began an investigation into his captors' history and psychology, discovering that his former enemies shared with him a common humanity.

In Book Two of Shōgun, a phrase from Edgar Alan Poe's 1849 poem "A Dream within a Dream" appears. The poem recurs amidst the crucial scenes in Osaka castle and on the last page of the novel. These literary references led Burton R. Pollin to observe a great subtlety on the part of Clavell in terms of the novel's structure. Pollin suggested that Clavell masterfully complicated the position of Toranaga as choreographer through the use of highly charged lines from a great writer. Each time the poem is referred to, said Pollin, "we are being informed about a key" to the mystery of the overall strategy of the book. Pollin's article is the nearest a critic has come to treating Clavell's novel as serious literature.

Clavell, as many critics admit, wanted to entertain and impart information to his readers. In that he succeeded, but few critics have wanted to treat his work as a serious literary effort. The popularity of the novel has not changed that opinion.


Jeremy W. Hubbell

Hubbell is a graduate student in History at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. In the following essay, he discusses the usefulness of Clavell's insight into the historical problems of the scientific mind and the intricacies of societal adoption of technology.

A list of historical inaccuracies in Clavell's Shōgun would include the following: Will Adams, the model for Blackthorne, did not actually play such a large role in the formation of the Tokugawa Shōgunate. Though Adams did become samurai and an advisor to Tokugawa, it was not until 1603. Soap, a very expensive item in 1600 Japan, would not have been used with such abandon nor on a barbarian. Birthdays were not celebrated, thus making the climatic scene at Lady Ochiba's birthday party implausible. Ishida Mitsunari, Tokugawa's rival, was not as powerful as the fictional Ishido, and he was defeated in October of 1600. His execution was typical for the time, not the gruesome and lingering death in the novel. Lady Mariko was modeled on Hosokawa Gracia, whose husband was Tadaoki. Together, they were the most cultivated pair of the time. She was the most famous of all Christian converts, but he was not a brute. High-ranking ladies lived somewhat sequestered lives, and it is not imaginable that she would sleep with a barbarian such as Blackthorne. The Jesuits brought guns and cannons in 1543, not with Adams. In fact, naval battles played a part in the Japanese civil wars of the 1570s (one side even had ironclads with gun accompaniments). With the establishment of the Tokugawa Shōgunate, such barbaric practices ceased, and Japan did indeed isolate itself from the world rather than forge ahead with industrialism.

But what do these historical inaccuracies matter? Insight into historical periods and persons are of greater value than details. An understanding of history by a society is crucial to the formation of its future direction. Clavell, who was writing in the 1970s when Americans were getting nervous about a reascendant Japan, provides a work of cross-cultural experience which helps in that formation. Facilitating understanding of self and others is within the purview of the historian, but historians, unlike novelists, are too often uninterested in playing this role.

Simon Schama, a historian of Dutch culture, reflects on this problem in "Visualizing History." There he does not lament the limited knowledge of history held by most people but urges today's historian to be less reclusive; he suggests that historians are to blame for the widespread lack of interest in history. He writes, "if [historians] want history to have real resonance in the public world, they had better start learning how to practice their trade in the noisy bazaar of contemporary culture, in the museum … in the cyberarchive … and in the worlds of film and television." Schama also reminds us that history writing, historically, has not always been boring. In the hands of Sir Walter Scott or Thomas Carlyle, history was enjoyable to read. And in the enjoyment of reading history both the past and present are understood.

Indeed, Thomas Carlyle, in his 1829 essay "Sign of the Times," says much the same thing. He offers his contemporaries insight into their times not, as the title suggests, to be a doomsayer but to take stock of where the society is and where it is going. In doing this, he characterizes nineteenth-century Europe as a Mechanical Age where society is mechanic rather than dynamic. For Carlyle, man in a mechanical society believes that only in "Mechanical contrivances did any hope exist for him." Opposed to this is the dynamic society, which focuses on "the divine and spiritual" and refuses to calculate life in terms of "Profit and Loss." Either position alone would be extreme. Carlyle suggests that by understanding the present time and the history behind it, it is possible to form a society in between the dynamic and the mechanic. This problem is not too far from the problem faced by Clavell's Toranaga.

Clavell's Shōgun gives the historian insight into a historical moment. More specifically, Clavell provides a persuasive demonstration of the differences between three mentalities struggling for dominance. First, Toranaga continues to channel the brilliance of his nation toward a pursuit of the noble ideals of the samurai code. Father Alvito, also a brilliant mind, exerts his reason and deploys technical schemes for the furtherance of the Church. Blackthorne's mechanistic mind represents the man who will eventually triumph over the other two—the rational economic man who pursues the application of the best technique for the ultimate end, profit.

What Do I Read Next?

  • The challenges of adapting Clavell's novel to film are documented in a 1980 book, The Making of James Clavell's 'Shōgun.' The book furthers understanding of the novel by explaining the decisions made during filming.
  • Henry Smith edited a book in 1980, which helps clarify the relation of the novel to the understanding of Japanese history. Learning from 'Shogun': Japanese History and Western Fantasy, shows how Clavell unmasks the myths that the West has of Japan and clarifies the history Clavell fictionalizes.
  • King Rat (1962) is based on Clavell's experiences in the death camp Changi. The story records one day in the life of an American prisoner of war, Peter Marlowe.
  • In 1963, an increasingly successful Clavell returned to his boyhood haunts in Hong Kong to research his next book. Published in 1966, Tai-Pan tells the tale of Hong Kong's strange establishment as one of the most successful centers of trade in the world through the fictional character Dirk Struan's attempt to build a trading dynasty. An apparently poor booty of the Opium Wars for the British, Hong Kong blossomed almost immediately after its founding in 1841 to profit from a third of all imports into China.
  • Published in 1993, Gai-Jin is Clavell's story of Japan in 1862, when it came out of isolation. The novel picks up where Tai-Pan leaves off. In this novel, a descendant of Shōgun's Toranaga reviews the history of 1600 for clues on how to deal with foreigners, the establishment of Hong Kong, and trade in the 1860s.
  • Gina Macdonald's James Clavell: A Critical Companion (1988) provides a guide to Clavell's novels. Macdonald gives an in-depth biography and places Clavell within the literary tradition of adventure writers like Daniel Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson. She then devotes a chapter to each of Clavell's novels.
  • First published in 1719, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe follows its hero as he confronts other cultures and uses his technical abilities in ways remarkably similar to John Blackthorne.
  • The Japanese noh play has been warmly embraced in the West, with such notable writers as William Butler Yeats and Bertolt Brecht writing their own. This form of drama began in the fourteenth century with the family of Kanzea. Nobuko Albery has fictionalized the struggle to establish one of Japan's most cherished art forms in her 1986 novel The House Of Kanzea: Saga of Fourteenth Century Japan.
  • Clavell's Toranaga is based on Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose final victory in 1600 established the Tokugawa Shōgunate as ruler of Japan for 250 years. In 1988, Conrad Totman published a biography of this historical figure, Tokugawa Ieyasu: Shogun. Although written by a Westerner, the work is an honest treatment of one of the great leaders in Japanese history.
  • James A. Michener, an admitted fan of Clavell, wrote several novels about Japan. One of them, Sayonara (1990), tells the story of Major Lloyd Gruver, who is stationed in Japan during WWII. Gruver falls in love with a Japanese woman and encounters great difficulty as a result.

Putting these three minds together in a struggle illuminates a historical problem for the technological historian seeking an explanation for industrialization. Why did industrialization take off in Europe in the seventeenth century, and why was it victorious? The key component to understanding the rise of industrialization is noticing the increasing tendency amongst people to value the exclusively rational mind. For example, Blackthorne repeatedly pulls back from being overwhelmed by a scene or by the confusion of a moment. Faced with the incredible spectacle of Osaka he struggles to force his mind to rationalize what he observes. Blackthorne repeatedly says to himself, "Concentrate. Look for clues." Again and again, Blackthorne is the empirical scientist taking stock of details and gathering information. It is his presence of mind and search for details that always allows him to see the right thing—like Toranaga switching with Kiri.

Blackthorne developed this mental technique out of his training as a pilot, where alertness and attention to detail could mean life or death. But his ability to adapt this as a technique of survival is a sign of a mechanistic mind. Such a mind is essential to the world of industry, which requires the adaptation of ideas to reality in order to work more efficiently.

Complicating the notion of the mechanical mind is Father Alvito, representative of the Jesuits, who has a mind just as capable as Blackthorne. Jacques Ellul, writing in The Technological Society, says that the Jesuit mind was trained to work like Blackthorne's; they had "a precise view of technical possibilities, the will to attain certain ends, application in all areas, and adherence of the whole of society to a conspicuous technical objective." The objective of the Jesuits, however, was dynamic—to borrow Carlyle's term—not mechanic. The Jesuits aimed to please the Pope and to please God. They were interested in rendering technique—and eventually machinery—into existence not for the sake of creating the most efficient systems but for the Church.

Toranaga is similar to Father Alvito. He, more than anyone, knows what is technically possible. Yet he is locked into conserving his society's samurai code and stopping its advancement of technology. The samurai were so well-trained that had Toranaga pursued Yabu's plan of making a mechanized army of samurai, he would have had a truly awesome military. However, Toranaga preferred to maintain his dynamic society and bring to fruition the development of the samurai's art.

Clavell's novel gives us a means of seeing these three minds interact, demonstrating that the scientific mind is not "natural" but comes into being through a historical process that involved collision with other cultures. First, there are the Jesuits, whose technology and ability was a huge breakthrough in terms of European institutions. The only thing preventing the Jesuits from being a stock trading corporation was its vows. Second, there is the pilot, Blackthorne, who employs his to claim power over a situation. Clavell consistently shows how Blackthorne forces himself to focus on the situation rather than give into fatigue, fear, or overwhelming novelty. Because Blackthorne can do this, he will survive all his crewmembers. Vinck, for one, loses his mind because he had not sufficiently developed his mind—he dies, like a computer dividing by zero, because he cannot compute the loss of Erasmus. The type of mind that Blackthorne exhibits will become the ideal for the Europeans. Lastly, Toranaga could have industrialized Japan and thus joined the colonial race by leaping ahead of Europe but he did not. He saw that the Europeans, for all their technical gadgets and apti-tude, were hampered by money. Alternatively, Japan—purged of outside influence—possessed ample opportunity for self-perfection within its very technical samurai code.

The idea that Europe's only contribution to the world was its trove of machines or its obsession with technical thinking is not Clavell's invention. In Sir Thomas More's Utopia of 1517, the author presents a perfect society, and these people provide Europe with an ideal societal model. In return, the only thing of value Europe can offer is the printing press. Clavell's Shōgun has a similar paradigm. The highly advanced civilization of the Japanese views Europe as useless except for its few technological advances. In terms of daily refinement and culture, the barbarians, well, stink. But their ships and their weapons—muskets, fortifications, cannon, fire arrows, and soldier formations—must be reckoned with. The historian's problem grows worse: must a society be either dynamic or mechanic? This was Carlyle's question of 1829, and we made much progress with it since.

Clavell's fictionalization of the founding of the Tokugawa Shōgunate is not historically accurate, as any glance at a history of Japan will confirm. However, as a piece of historical fiction, Clavell could be ranked with the nineteenth-century novelists whose purpose was to bring the past alive. For the historian, this is an effort that, like the guns of the barbarians, must be considered and used. The historical issues so crucial to the age of European imperialism, and the geometry of war as well as the decline of religion and the philosophy surrounding technology, are all present in Shōgun. Clavell's historical accuracy lies there—discerning the issues of a particular epoch.

Clavell's novel must also be seen in the context of the mid-1970s. Without trying to call attention to itself, the success of the Japanese economy reminds the West that its industrial dominance is about to be questioned. As in the novel, the East conquers the man from the West and domesticates him quite happily.

Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000.

Henry Smith

An American educator and historian, Smith has written widely on Japanese history and was the editor of Learning from "Shōgun": Japanese History and Western Fantasy (1980). In the following essay, Smith relates Clavell's sources and manipulation of Japanese culture and history in Shōgun.

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Source: Henry Smith, "Reading James Clavell's Sho-gun," in History Today, Vol. 31, October, 1981, pp. 39-42.


Barnes, Julian, review, in New Statesman, November 21, 1975, p. 650.

Carlyle, Thomas, "Sign of the Times," in London Magazine, 1829.

Crosland, Susan, "Maybe I'm James Clavell," in The Sunday Times, London, November 2, 1986, pp. 41, 43-4.

Ellul, Jacques, The Technological Society, Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.

Enright, D.J., review, in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, July 28, 1975, p. 5.

Interview, in the Guardian, October 4, 1975.

More, Thomas, Utopia, Wordsworth Editions, 1998.

Pollin, Burton R., "Poe in Clavell's Shōgun: A Novel of Japan," in Poe Studies, Vol. 16, 1983, p. 13.

Review, The New Yorker, September 18, 1975, pp. 44-5.

Schama, Simon, "Visualizing History," in Culturefront, Vol. 7, No. 1.

Schott, Webster, review, in The New York Times Book Review, June 22, 1975, p. 5.

Smith, Henry, "Reading James Clavell's Shōgun," in History Today, Vol. 31, October, 1981, pp. 39-42.

Teachout, Terry, "James Clavell, Storyteller," in National Review, Vol. XXXIV, 1982, pp. 1420-22.

For Further Study

Alden, Dauril, The Making of an Enterprise: The Society of Jesus in Portugal, Its Empire, and eyond: 1540–1750, Stanford University Press, 1996.

Dauril Alden's The Making of an Enterprise tells how the Jesuits were instrumental in the consolidation of the Portuguese Empire. First for Portugal and then for the Spanish, the Jesuits perfected the technique of colonial exploitation to the benefit of the investors and the Church.

Rand, Ayn, Atlas Shrugged, Plume, 1999.

Clavell believed in the philosophy of Objectivism. This philosophy was codified by Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, originally published in 1957, as a theory holding that all individuals operate out of self-interest. This theory is explicated in the story of Dagny Taggart's encounter with a libertarian group seeking an end to government regulation.

Roberson, John R., Japan Meets the World: The Birth of a Superpower, Millbrook Press, 1998.

Roberson details the Japan's interaction with the world from the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543 to the Nagano Olympic Games. Roberson focuses on the internal politics of those 400 years as Japan made decisions about how to deal with the rest of the world.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, edited by James Clavell and translated by Thomas Cleary, Delcorte Press, 1983.

Sun Tzu's 2,000-year-old classic contains the philosophy of the warrior, such as "To win without fighting is best." Although written for the Chinese warrior, Sun Tzu's book has been used by warriors of all nations and has recently found a readership amongst businessmen.

Tames, Richard, Servant of the Shōgun: Being the True Story of William Adams, Pilot and Samurai, the First Englishman in Japan, St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Tames's biography of William Adams gives the full story of the English pilot who shipwrecked off the coast of Japan in 1600. Adams eventually became a samurai and married a Japanese woman. Although he went on a few trading expeditions, he lived out his life as advisor to the Tokugawa Shōgun until he died in 1620.

Tracy, James D., The Political Economy of Merchant Empires: State Power and World Trade, 1350–1750, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Tracy presents an in-depth analysis of the role played by merchants and their shipping expeditions in early modern state formations in Europe.