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June 16, 2010

Shogun Essay

The novel Shogun, by James Clavell is not just a book, but a cultural insight into a country that has flourished for over a thousand years, and is as rich, diverse and beautiful, as it is violent and cruel. The novel deals with themes and issues such as cultural acceptance, death, tradition and religion, to mention a few, and the story progresses through the eyes of numerous characters, both Japanese and European.

The setting for Shogun is Japan in the year 1600. The main characters are John Blackthorne, whose dream is to be the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, to break the monopoly the Portuguese and Spanish have on trade between Japan and China and to return home famous and wealthy; Toranaga, the most powerful lord in Japan, who’s burning desire is become the Shogun, (the supreme military dictator) and to unite the waring samurai clans under his own leadership; and the Lady Mariko, who is a Catholic convert who must decide whether to support the Church or her own county – these loyalties however, are confused when she falls in love with Blackthorne. The novel begins when Blackthorn’s ship hits a reef while trying desperately to escape a storm. Incidentally, the ship is wrecked and Blackthorne and his crew are stranded on an uncharted landmass. Over the next few days, Blackthorne discovers that he is in Nihon or Japan and that his crew is being held captive. He whiteness first had the extremes of violence akin to the Japanese, when a Samurai hacks off a man’s head for being impolite. He also realises that the Spanish and Portuguese have already discovered Japan, when he confronts a Portuguese Jesuit who accuses him of being a pirate. Throughout the course of the next few weeks, Blackthorne, either through circumstance or favour becomes separated with his crew and adopts the lifestyle of the Japanese. He becomes tangled in the politics of the land and somehow manages to become a favoured friend of Toranaga. The novel is full of power struggles and deceit, somehow Blackthorne ends up in the middle of all of this, and due to his friendship with Toranaga, gets boosted to the status of Samurai.

As the story progresses, more and more major characters are introduced, allowing the reader to see clearly how they develop. Blackthorne is a prime example of characterisation, as he probably makes the most dramatic change of all the characters. At the beginning of the novel he is a British pilot, well educated and sent out to find a safe route to the orient and break the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly on trade in the region. When he gets stranded in Japan, he adopts their way of life completely. He abandons his old habits and learns to speak their language; this change is quite remarkable because England at that time was full of filth and disease, where baths were supposed to cause disease. In comparison the Japanese however were quite civilised and had highly advanced theories regarding medicine and hygiene. He also changes again when he is asked to commit sepuku (ritual suicide). Although it is a test of his courage, he still picks up the knife and is about to use it when he is stopped before making the cut. Afterwards he reaches a state of ‘enlightenment’ and his entire outlook on life is changed. All these changes begin because of his journey to Japan, however his renaming to ‘Anjin-san’ by a samurai signalled the changes that were to follow. Blackthorne however, is not the only character who changes throughout the course of the novel. Both Marico and Toranaga change (but in more subtle ways). They both harden under the threat of war, which is continually present throughout the novel, and Marico changes due to her relationship with Blackthorne.

Just as Clavell develops intricate characters, he also develops his themes in the same way. Depending on personal interpretation, the two main themes in Shogun are power, and cultural acceptance, because it would be impossible to separate the two, as they are intertwined and often directly related to each other in the novel.

“I will be Shogun. And I have stared a dynasty.”
(Toranaga, pg 1100)

In these few words, Toranaga sums up the themes in the novel, because had it not been for Blackthorne, and his different culture, Toranaga would never have become Shogun. Clavell uses his characters to portray the themes above, and from beginning to end, the one thing that every character desires and indeed what the whole novel is based around is power. However in their desire for power, the characters are exposed to different cultures and ways of life, as is apparent in Blackthorns case. True, other themes such as love and war are present, but they are all resultants of the desire for power, or different cultures clashing.

Blackthorne would never have found Japan if it hadn’t been for his desire to discover wealth and return to England a man of status – which in 1600 meant power, or Toranaga, who above all else desired to be Shogun. Because of their desire for power, both these characters are driven together and forced to co-exist and learn from each other. A prime example of cultural difference is the way the Japanese regard sex, compared to European ideals. Blackthorne was exposed to this, and was shocked when offered a concubine. In time, and with the help of Mariko, Blackthorne developed an understanding, which then led to acceptance. Also, religion has a big part to play in the novel, as the Portuguese are trying to convert the ‘heathen’ Japanese. Many of the cultural issues raised in the novel are applicable to the world today. Such issues include: racism, suprematism, cultural acceptance, religious tolerance and a whole host of others. These issues only further the reading value of the novel.

Not only does Clavell subtly write about issues which are of importance today, he also writes in such a way as to help bring to life the characters and portray them convincingly accordingly to the era that they lived in. Clavell uses the sort of language that would have been common in the 1600s.

“Brandy. Ah, brandy! An’ if you’ve a keg to spare, I’ll be mighty favourable inclined.”
(Sailor, pg 237)

This gives the book and authentic feeling and plunges the reader into a world totally alien, yet somehow familiar. This is perhaps Clavell’s greatest talent; he creates characters that the reader can relate to. Also, because the book is written in a third person perspective, Clavell is able to switch between characters. In other words, the reader has an insight into the thoughts of not just Blackthorne, but all the main characters.

Shogun is indeed an oasis of wealth, as far the text is concerned. Clavell has written a novel that, even though based in the 1600s has themes, issues and character that are applicable to the world today. That said, Shogun is not simply a novel that one picks up and reads, but a cultural insight into a time and place that is alien in every way, yet somehow familiar.

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