I cannot say I had high expectations when I picked up James Clavell’s historical fiction novel “Shōgun” (1975). I’d heard family members talk endlessly about how “Shōgun” captivated the minds of people in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s with its book and miniseries. From that, I assumed it would be lackluster in today’s context, but it wasn’t. When I started “Shōgun,” it immediately stoked my imagination, seized my heart and put my life on autopilot for the next couple of weeks as I raced to the finish.
The novel threw me into the year 1600 with the story of English pilot John Blackthorne, whose ship and crew are marooned in Japan after being caught in a vicious storm. From there, it picked me up and dragged me along Blackthrone’s harrowing tale of love, loss and struggle to survive in a foreign land where there are adversaries at every turn. He’s confronted by a culture he doesn’t understand, a country he doesn’t know and a series of events out of his control. In the end, he still picks himself back up to persevere and survive.
I was persuaded to read “Shōgun” because I’d heard it was like “Game of Thrones” but instead of Westeros, it’s set in feudal Japan and sadly without dragons. Instead of wallowing in disappointment about the lack of dragons, I ended up finding a wonderful piece of literature addressing problems we still struggle with today. “Shōgun” tackles a variety of social issues such as xenophobia, prejudice and conceptions of racial superiority, while also discussing prominent political topics like the pitfalls of colonialism, the cloak and dagger nature of political maneuvering, and the dangers of isolationism.
Throughout the novel, these issues are either subtly addressed or thrust upon the reader, designed to make you ponder the subjects, to feel disgusted that these things are happening and to think whether we’ve really changed as a society. A lot of the issues confronted in “Shōgun,” such as the hazards of colonialism and rampant xenophobia, are still problems we are wrestling with today — the U.S. has an increasingly toxic attitude toward nations in the global south that are scarred from the actions of colonizers. “Shōgun” forces you to approach those issues and encourages you to listen to its lessons on becoming more aware of the world — even if it makes you uncomfortable.
There are myriad other issues addressed in “Shōgun,” such as the subjugation of women, marital abuse and matters of infidelity that are presented in thoughtful ways. Nevertheless, the novel teaches us to try to build bridges with others, find commonalities, appreciate our differences and love our shared humanity.
Blackthorne’s character is the most compelling for his persistence, bravery and sense of morality; yet, I found myself conflicted by trying to reconcile my admiration for his character with his backward logic about what he deemed to be a “barbaric” culture. At the start of the novel, Blackthorne is often aghast at aspects of the unknown Japanese culture, to which he believes it to be simply inferior to European culture. However, Blackthorne’s character arc is a treat to experience. His English identity undergoes profound changes by adopting aspects of Japanese culture not just to survive, but to bring fulfillment to his life.
There are many other character perspectives with equal depth to Blackthorne, however. Clavell’s story includes missionaries out on a “righteous” mission to spread Christianity as well as raucous Portuguese traders out for gold and glory, whose swashbuckling nature inspires a sense of adventure. There are also Japanese Lords who are eager to use the “European barbarians” to achieve their goals of conquest. While Blackthorne’s perspective was my personal favorite, these other perspectives are enthralling expansions to flesh out the world and events of the novel.
Moreover, their perspectives and insights left me stunned at the craft of unassuming characters and the ominous motivations of powerful figures. These characterizations persuaded me to love these characters — some of whom I hated at the novel’s onset. As a whole, this cast of characters becomes as close to your heart as Blackthorne, and the sense of loss is visceral when you realize anyone can be killed off at any time (like in the best seasons of “Game of Thrones”).
Aside from the gripping characters and the captivating story, one of my favorite parts of “Shōgun” is the lengths it went to demonstrate the perspectives of the Japanese and European nations. I was concerned there would be an overt bias in favoring the colonial European powers, making this a journey of “righteous” conquest and cultural superiority. Instead, Clavell brilliantly demonstrates the moral, cultural and political conditions of both the Europeans and Japanese, making it as much a glance into each other’s intricate ways of life as it is a heart-stopping political thriller. In doing so, Clavell proves the timelessness of “Shōgun,” which comes from its message designed to make you think, feel and relate to those who differ from us — something today’s society often lacks.
James Clavell’s “Shōgun” is a masterpiece that paints an intimate look at Japanese culture, in what can only be described as a love letter to the nation. Clavell brilliantly brings the worlds of East and West on a collision path that immerses us into a vibrant world filled with complex characters, intricate storytelling and beautiful, awe-inspiring attention to setting. It’s a story that forces you to stay on guard, to appreciate the characters who stitch themselves to your core and to question the ways we approach living life. “Shōgun” is a wondrous epic set in feudal Japan and it will blot out every concern of your life until you finish it.
Mammas’ article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.