Shogun, James Clavell



Asian Saga #3

English: Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua at UFC Fan Expo

English: Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua at UFC Fan Expo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Author: James Clavell

First Edition: 1975

Original language: English


It is 1598 and John Blackthorne is the English pilot of the Dutch vessel, Erasmus.  Running from enemies in South American waters, Blackthorne becomes the first English pilot to reach Japan after a seemingly hopeless two-year voyage across the Pacific.

Japan is in the midst of an epic power struggle among warring overlords and under the influence of the Portuguese priests who control the vital Japanese silk trade with China.  Marooned and completely disoriented in the unknown land, Blackthorne and what is left of his crew are taken prisoner by the local warlord (daimyo), Kasigi Yabu.  Valuable as a pilot and as one of the only Europeans in Asia that is not Portuguese, Blackthorne soon comes to the attention Toranaga, Yabu’s overlord.

Initially, Blackthorne has a difficult time understanding a new people and culture that are completely alien to what he knows.  However, as he begins to accept his fate and plan for his return to what he knows, Blackthorne becomes embroiled in a larger-than-life story of war, power, philosophy, religion, love, and the meaning of life and honor.


Isn’t a man but a blossom taken by the wind, and only the mountains and the sea and the stars and this Land of the Gods real and everlasting?”

“she ruled his house with a silken lash.”

“to think bad thoughts is really the easiest thing in the world.  If you leave your mind to itself it will spiral you down into ever-increasing unhappiness.  To think good thoughts, however, requires effort.  This is one of the things that discipline -training- is about.  So train your mind to dwell on sweet perfumes, the touch of this silk, tender raindrops against the shoji, the curve of this flower arrangement, the tranquility of dawn.  Then, at length, you won’t have to make such a great effort…”

“Speaking Spanish makes me want to wretch, even though you can swear better in it than any language.”

“You’re a woman and you must treat him like any man if he is to be controlled: Flatter him and agree with him and honey him.  You forget your weapons.”

“We have a saying that time has no single measure, that time can be like frost or lightning or a tear or siege or storm or sunset, or even like a rock.”

“Isn’t it only through laughter that we become one with the gods and thus can endure life and can overcome all the horror and waste and suffering here on earth?’

“Isn’t it only through laughter we can stay human?”

“And the bath, as Mariko had explained it many times, ‘Is not merely for cleaning the skin.  The bath is a gift from God or the gods, a god-bequeathed pleasure to be enjoyed and treated as such.”

“How baffling it was that even the most cunning and clever people would frequently see only what they wanted to see, and would rarely look beyond the thinnest of facades.  Or they would ignore reality, dismissing it as façade.”

“Only by living at the edge of death can you understand the indescribable joy of life.”


This book is probably going into my all-time top ten- top 20 at least.  I remember watching the Richard Chamberlain miniseries as a kid in Colombia.  It was dubbed in Spanish… You haven’t seen Chamberlain until you’ve seen him in Spanish.

Even though it was over 1200 pages, this novel was really not long or drawn out.  While I felt that longer books like Wolf Hall or Fall of Giants could have been shortened considerably and rambled quite a bit, this book could have been made longer!  Instead of rambling, it was lyrical.  It painted the landscape and culture so vividly that I felt like I was there with the Anjin-san- not bored and skipping paragraphs like with the aforementioned novels.

I loved the way Blackthorne resists the culture at first but can’t help but adopt the Japanese’s cleanliness, eating, philosophy and other customs.  His transformation is gradual and subtle, but marked.  You can see it as he begins to use “neh?” even when he is thinking to himself or talking to his comrades after he finds them in the eta village.

He begins to enjoy bathing regularly, wearing kimonos, eating rice and no meat.  Pretty soon he understands the Japanese and samurai way of life and not only imitates them, but adopts their culture as his own.  He even begins to see Europeans as barbaric and uncivilized.  At one point he worries about whether his wife and home will repulse him when he returns, and his shipmates embarrass and disgust him.

There are wonderful scenes of war, love, tradition, and even humor.  I enjoyed a scene where Blackthorne tries to cook meat for the members of his household, which horrifies all of them.  Another scene that I loved was the traditional tea ceremony between Mariko and her husband, Buntaro.

Clavell describes Japanese culture in a way that does not bore the reader.  I learned a lot reading this novel.  For one, I didn’t know that women were samurai as well, and that many women belonging to the upper class were trained in fighting and to use weapons. has a fantastic page on samurai women.  I was also surprised to learn that women in Japan had more freedom in certain areas than did women in Europe at the time.  Apparently even though men were allowed one wife and several consorts, women had to agree to the union and were allowed to divorce their husbands.  Women were also allowed to own property and handle their own money.  It also appears that a samurai’s wife handled all of the family resources, paid bills, etc.

I liked the discussion of several Japanese traditions and customs, like the belief that a soul was reborn into another living being 40 days after the person’s death, or that a baby did not become a full human until 30 days after birth, when its karma was set.  Clavell also talks about the traditional Japanese courtesans and how in the beginning of the 1600s there were designated “pleasure quarters” in cities.

A great book that should not dissuade any reader because of its 1200 pages!  I promise, you’ll love it.

Can’t wait to read it? Shogun

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