Review: Shogun (James Clavell)

Felt like doing a book review today, based on the simple fact of observing my husband for the last week.

He’s not the worlds greatest reader. That is to say, after school was over, his primary consumption method for media switched to video games, and while he has books he likes (Dracula being one of them, hurrah!), reading just hadn’t been his thing.

Then he married me and it was only a matter of time until I thrust some Terry Pratchett down him brain stem, knowing he would love it (he did.)

Once he got back into reading for its own joy, not to mention how much faster a watch bill passes with a good book to read while doing nothing, the time came to see if there was an area of literature he might want to try, that he had not before.

With trepidation, I lifted down Shogun, by James Clavell. After doing a few curls with it, because it’s a hell of a size for a single book, I put it into his hands with three warnings.

  1. It’s long, a bit heavy and very steeped in another culture.

  2. It starts off pretty intense, be warned, but the story has all sorts of tones as you work through it.

  3. It’s one of the best, most immersive and consuming books I have ever read, and you must NOT read the end in advance, you’ll hate yourself.

I felt nervous through his entire read through, desperate for him to like it, more desperate still to have someone I could talk to about the plot. Being as ‘young’ as he is, he, of course, had no idea of the television show based on the book from years ago, no idea how the story ends.

He’s on a second read-through of the book right now, months after finishing it the first time… and he loves it, naturally.

So let me tell you a little about this treasure of a novel if you haven’t heard of it – Shogun.

The Review

As I did when reviewing Jingo, I’m going to start with the title.

Shogun – a hereditary commander-in-chief in feudal Japan. Because of the military power concentrated in his hands and the consequent weakness of the nominal head of state (the mikado or emperor), the shogun was generally the real ruler of the country until feudalism was abolished in 1867.’

As the title indicates, the book follows the progress of the Shogunate during the year 1600. While the books in itself is ‘fiction’, it is very much based on the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu, named ‘Toranaga’ in the book.

The book came out in 1975, and forms the first of Clavell’s ‘Asian trilogy’, though I admit I have not read the other two. Frankly, Shogun wraps up so well, and with such a degree of twist satisfaction, I can’t imagine trying to ‘continue’ from that. It’s perfect as it is.

Shogun is political. It is dramatic. There is war, subterfuge, racism, hatred, acceptance, love, scheming, death, honor and loss.
It is literally an epic, in which one can find elements of so many genres and something for everyone. It’s about people, being both as small minded and incredible as real life, with a genuine period of amazing history from the real world fueling it all.


The book opens with The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead.’

Remember my ranty post about the rules, and that ‘you shouldn’t open with weather’? Here’s more proof that’s complete hogwash.

Shogun starts on board the ship Erasmus, following the character we the readers will chart a course through the whole novel alongside – Pilot John Blackthorne, of England, navigating for the Dutch ship. Like Toranaga, Blackthrone is also based on a real person – sailor William Adams, cohort to Tokugawa Ieyasu.

We are treated to some very visceral descriptions as the book opens. From a storm at sea, the recounting of the risks of such voyages in those days and the deaths caused, we follow the Erasmus to land.
There, the crew find themselves in Japan, and not very welcome. A truly wrenching series of scenes follow as we meet the good, the bad, and the ugly of the story, as well as receive a slap across the face regarding how different Eastern and Western culture was at the time. (Still are today, though less likely to get people killed.)

By the time one has met Omi, Yabu, Hiro-matsu, and Rodrigues, and seen Blackthorne take the name ‘Anjin-san’ (Japanese for ‘Honorable Pilot’ as they cannot pronounce his name), we know two things – this is going to be a heck of a ride, and we want Blackthorne to overcome his situation and give some just payback to his enemies!


The plot then ranges across a vast swathe of Japan’s provinces. Through Blackthorne, we enter feudal Japan, with its rituals and code of honor, learning as he does about the stratified nature of society, the importance of samurai, and the knife’s edge the country rests on.

The old Taiko is dead, and his son too young to take over. Sworn to see the child through to adulthood to assume the role, the Council of Regents manages events in his stead, in the meantime.
President of the Council, and friend to the former Taiko, Toranaga stands in opposition to Ishido as the two ‘biggest’ voices in the room, each accusing the other of intending to take the Shogunate and rule instead of the child.

Of course ‘accusing’ is a strong word for a veritable cold war between all parties involved… until Blackthorne inadvertently heats tensions up just by arriving and revealing to the Japanese that the ‘Christianity’ brought to them by the Spanish is merely one type of the religion and that indomitable Spain just lost it’s Armada in English waters. He also informs them of just how the Spanish have plundered the new world, in the name of faith, and that the Pope has given permission for Japan to be claimed, too.

Toranaga is not slow to realize just how important the changes in the western world could be for his homeland, nor how valuable the knowledge held by Blackthorne could be. That his ship arrived on Toranaga’s soil and carries a lot of guns becomes another facet of interest, ensuring that Blackthorne’s journey will be anything but tame or normal. When Blackthorne finds out about the Black Ship, with its trade wealth, he too has his own interests to seek.

After saving Toranaga’s life for the first time, the two men become inextricably entwined, and we watch Toranaga through Blackthorne’s eyes, as he seeks to resolve Japan’s troubles in a changing world, and Blackthorne plans to take the Black Ship and go home a rich man.


Toranaga forms the tent pole around which all else hangs for this story. Based on a real-world general of incredible talent and fame, Toranaga lives up to the reputation of his real-life counterpart. Clever, canny, able to make tough choices, he is portrayed as hard and cold and efficient, but the inner monologues we see of him are incredibly ‘real’, to the point one aches and cheers for him throughout the story, and marvels at his abilities.

If we had followed him alone, the book would not have worked, but seeing him as we do mostly through others, Toranaga is an impressive and admirable man. At times the antagonist, at others a strong protagonist, we never truly know his goals, only his drive.

Blackthorne of course carries the story for us. He makes a great main character, and not just because he is believable and likable. While we always understand his motivation and feel his frustrations, his lack of knowledge is honestly his best feature as the main character.

He knows nothing of the culture, or even the language, of the land he arrives in, so he must learn. As he learns, so do we and thus does a Western audience get some deep insight into Eastern tradition. I learned my first lines of Japanese from this work, as will anyone else who reads it.

More, it is impossible not to feel a deep joy as the story winds on and Blackthorne learns to operate inside of Japan’s structure, rather than against it. When we see him reunite with his crew, much later on, we see the stark contrast between who he was, and who he has become. I challenge anyone not to feel the poignancy of that moment, the ambivalence of joy for who he now his, against what has been lost.

John Blackthorne carries this work and is one of the best-written men I have seen in literature.

Mariko forms the third backbone to the story. She is wife to the Samurai Buntaro and a Samurai in her own right. Smart, eloquent, charming, she is a loyal servant to her Lord Toranaga, and we meet her when she is tasked with teaching Blackthorne to speak Japanese. Thus, she becomes our teacher too.
Ostensibly she seems there merely to offer mentorship and insight into Eastern culture, but her role becomes so much more as the story moves on. Despite the masculine culture of feudal Japan, especially in comparison to modern day ideals, Mariko shows us the strength and power of a woman, and that gender holds no sway over loyalty, honor, intellect or duty. She shines throughout the book and puts a lovely face to the religious undertones and struggles of the work.

Shogun is a book about characters, and I could go on for hours about them each. Yabu, with his sadism and rat-like cunning, whose closing moments in the story still make me like him despite it all. Omi, whose pragmatism at books end is so very Japanese, I feel proud of him. Ishido, who forms a compelling antagonist on a grand scale. Rodrigues, crass and dirty yet also honorable and a good man… to a point. The poor Franciscan Monk. The Captain of the black ship.

Of course, Japan itself is also a character in this story. And probably the best one of all. Clavell does an excellent job of showing us the beauty of the land, and its moods, as well as the concerns of its people. I can’t imagine reading this book and somehow not wanting to see the country with one’s own eyes.

Experience of Reading

Shogun is a must read, in my opinion.

This is simply because it’s a ‘complete’ book. You will find yourself in old Japan, on board ships, and inside castles, rooting for your heroes and gasping along with the revelations and twists.

The story takes it time and makes full use of its 1152 pages. You will know more about Japan than you ever intended to by the end and likely enjoyed the learning.

Shogun was born from the author reading a single sentence in a textbook and expanding it. ‘In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai.’

From this, Clavell brings us the struggle for dominance and unity between Japan’s lords and rulers.
We also get to see the struggle of Catholicism vs the Protestants.
We see the inference of the West, the reticense and pride of the East, the arrogance of all involved.
We learn of the Black ship, the riches plundered around the globe in the name of expanding Catholicism.
We learn of the changing nature of the world, the rise and fall of mighty powers and Empires.
We learn of love, and its complications.
We see the beauty of a falcon in flight.

The story, whether the real one or Shogun itself, is so compelling it has made it into many other forms of media.
There was the tv show of the tale, at least two early computer games based on it, not to mention the recent well-received ‘Nioh’, which adapted William Adam’s story with a significantly fantastical twist.
Some are better than others, but the variety of media and story surrounding Japan in 1600 proves, if nothing else, the appeal of the time and its events. Personally, I think Clavell’s written work depicts it best.

If none of this appeals to you, you probably won’t like Shogun. But if it does, in any capacity, and you enjoy a damn good read, well written…

Well. It must be your karma to read the book already, neh?

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