An Analysis of Shogun by James Clavell

James Maresq Clavell wrote a lot of novels about East. Several years spent in a Japanese death camp gave him an opportunity to learn the history, culture and traditions of this country from inside. In his books, Clavell builds a bridge between East and West, joining together two different civilizations, two different ways of thinking. Shogun is a first part of the Asian Saga. The novel is written in a form of historical fiction and both, readers who appreciate adventurous and action novel and those, who like history, will find it useful and interesting reading. Shogun is a story about an English pilot from the ship named Erasmus, who has to go into a dangerous sale in order to break the Portuguese monopoly on the trade with Japan. The story is a mixture of war, death, trade conflicts, love, passion and beautiful descriptions, which interlace in skillful story lines and make the reader interested till the end of the novel. Clavell possesses a perfect knowledge of Oriental history, culture, traditions and way of thinking and that makes him able to recreate the atmosphere of early 17th century Japan. The novel described feudal Japan and the raise of Tokugawa leyasu to the Shogunate. The novel is based on real historical events and some characters of the novel are real historical personalities. The historical background of the story is diluted by imaginary events and characters, which add adventurousness and zest to the story. The story is told by the English captain of the Dutch ship John Blackthorne and the readers see the events trough his perception. The ship piloted by John is captured by Japanese army and Blackthorne and his team are kept in the pit for several days guarded by samurais. Finally, one of the samurais takes John to his daimyo’s household. Blackthorne gets to the service of mighty lord Toranaga, who rules vast Kanto plain. Toranaga fights with another big feudal lord Ishido and Christian invaders. Toranaga’s aim is to become Shogun – the military ruler of the country. Shogun, or supreme commander, is a powerful governor who obeys nobody but the Emperor. Serving for Toranaga, John falls in love with Mariko, Japanese women converted to Christianity. John’s name is changed to Anjin-san as his name is difficult for Japanese pronunciation. Years spent in Japan give Blackthorne deep understanding of Japanese culture and mentality. The more he learns about this country the more he respects its rich history, great traditions and culture. Japanese people also change their attitude to “barbarian” and finally treat him like equal and give he the status of samurai and hatamoto. John’s attempt to make seppuku – a ritual suicide – becomes the culmination of his acceptance of Japanese way of life. John is torn to parts by his love to Mariko, who’s marred a might samurai, his growing respect and loyalty to lord Toranaga and his desire to come back to his ship and continue haunting Portuguese vessel. When Blackthorn finally finds survivals from his crew and comes back to European way of life he gets greatly surprised by the difference between European and Oriental lifestyles. He finds Japanese culture and way of life to be far more attractive than the life he has led before.

The book is filled in with spirit of Japan. The author shows a skillful ability to show small episodes and descriptions, which characterize this country and give the reader better understanding not only of the events, but also characters described. The novel describes reality the way Japanese people see and perceive it. Blossoming trees, bamboo sprouts, mountains and other landscapes often missed by Western people give us insight into to the way Oriental people see the world and perceive the reality. The book gives us also insight into ethical, moral and religious views of the Japanese people and these views are quite different from those of Western men. The author managed to reproduce not only events and historical facts but also the spirit of the epoch and the country. We uncover a lot of peculiarities of Japanese lifestyle strange to us. Such Oriental principles as Bushido, Zen and Codex of Samurai behavior open another reality for the readers. The system of relations between ruling class and other people and special place of samurais in the social structure give the reader insight into the social structure of 16-17th centuries Japan. The readers can be misled by the mixture of obedience to law and political chaos described in the book. It’s necessary to keep in mind the complexity of the period described as it depicts the difficult time of transition from chaos and disorder of the middle of 16th century to stable regime of Tokugawa Shogunate and the book is a description of this transitional period. From the very first line of the book the readers can see the difference between the world the main character has left and the world he has arrived. In the beginning of the book Anjiro villager is killed only for not showing proper respect to samurai. The episode doesn’t aim to describe the self-willing samurai but the strictness of bushido rules, which are obligatory for everybody. At the same time such and actions don’t mean that samurai could do whatever they wanted. Moreover, samurais were the examples for other people and presented the model of proper behavior and were severely punished for breaking the laws. The book describes difficult times of war and severe confrontation but still the reader becomes astonished by the low value of human life. Only reading the book it becomes evident that it’s not human life, which has no value but moral and ethical principles, which value more than human life. It can be difficult for modern reader to perceive the fact that dignity and honor can value more than human life. Seppuku and hara-kiri are usual practices in the time described in the book. The book contains a lot of Zen scenes, stories and depictions, which can be missed by Western readers not familiar with this tradition. Zen is an integral part of Japanese life and it’s a tremendous mixture of religion, philosophy and spontaneous art. At the same time if you ask any Zen teacher about them, he will tell you that Zen is nothing of mentioned above. People born in Japan or any other Oriental country are brought up in the spirit of Zen and understand it without extra worlds and explanations. One of the most interesting characters of the book, Tokugawa says, “Now sleep. Karma is karma. Be thou of Zen. Remember, in tranquility, that the Absolute, the Tao, is within thee, that no priest or cult or dogma or book or saying or teaching or teacher stands between Thou and It.” (Clavell, p. 622). The book describes Tokugawa like the defender of traditional religious and strong upholder of truth and just. Despite these facts contradict to real historical events to some extend they still show the Japanese tradition of educated and conscious rulers, who becomes an example for all other citizens. The novel contains a lot of other Zen allusions. The book describes the scene where one man shots two arrows. The first arrow hits the target in the dark and the second one splits the first arrow. Old Zen saying gives such a comment to this episode “one arrow hits one target and two arrows are more than enough”. The story of shooting two arrows, described in the book is an old Zen story, which describes old dispute between two Zen masters about the essence of Zen. There is a number of other Zen stories included in the book. They add special coloring to the story and give better understanding of the events described as understanding of Japanese way of life and way of thinking is impossible without the understanding the main principles, which form religious, social and political life of people. Zen is one of such principles and that is why elements of Zen included in the book and Zen doctrines, practiced by the characters create an organic picture and help to deliver the author’s message.


1. “Shogun” by James Clavell, 1975.
2. Cooper, M. They came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640, Thames and Hudson, 1965.

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