Is James Clavell’s classic novel about Japan a worthwhile read? I used to think so. But since then, my opinion has changed entirely.
How Times Change
For many Americans, particularly of a certain age, Australian novelist James Clavell’s Shogun: A Novel of Japan was their pop culture introduction to the world of the samurai.
The novel was first published in 1975. Five years later, Paramount Television made a TV miniseries adaptation of the novel. It starred Mifune Toshiro and Richard Chamberlain. As of this writing, a remake featuring Cosmo Jarvis and Sanada Hiroyuki is in production. Suffice it to say, the novel’s popularity has been exceptionally long-lived.
When I was in high school in the early oughts, I read and enjoyed the novel myself. However, twenty years later, as a published novelist with a doctorate in Japanese history, my opinion has changed. I reread and live-tweeted my re-read as a stretch goal on my Patreon.
Reviewing the book for The New York Times in 1975, Webster Schott wrote “Clavell has a gift. It may be something that cannot be taught or earned. He breathes narrative … He writes in the oldest and grandest tradition that fiction knows”
But in my estimation in 2021, there is little to commend this book. It’s inconsistent, irresponsible, exoticizing, ahistorical, and long-winded.
What follows is my review. I read James Clavell’s Shogun so you don’t have to.
Limited Historical LegworkIn 2021, there's little to commend this book. It's inconsistent, irresponsible, exoticizing, ahistorical, and long-winded. Click To Tweet
James Clavell’s Shogun is a reimagining of the story of Will Adams. Adams was an Englishman from Kent who arrived in Japan aboard a Dutch ship in 1600. He became a hatamoto in Tokugawa service during the Tokugawa Shogunate’s very early days. He advised the early Shogunate on international affairs as well as shipbuilding.
But any similarity to real history ends there. Clavell renamed Adams to John Blackthorne, and Tokugawa Ieyasu to Toranaga Yoshi, daimyo of the Kanto and secretly the would-be shogun. After that, things only get further muddled.
Credit Where It’s Due
I must give credit where credit is due. Clavell has clearly done some research because some of the general things are correct. Samurai wear swords. There are cities by names we recognize like Edo, Osaka, Nagasaki, and even smaller towns like Mishima. The Spaniards and Portuguese had friars active in Japan during those years.
But Clavell chose not to go much further in realism. An author writing about a culture so different from their own must do a great deal of study and introspection. Clavell appears to have done none of this. The result is an inconsistent, exoticizing, and just plain incorrect depiction of life in Japan in 1600 on the eve of war. His prose rambling and veering abruptly for over 1100 pages in the Kindle edition does not help matters either.
Shogun’s sins are numerous. Where do I even begin?
A Plethora of IssuesClavell has clearly done some research because some of the general things are correct. Samurai wear swords. Click To Tweet
Clavell spent three years researching and writing this book. He had, theretofore, had a successful career in the film industry, including as a scriptwriter on The Great Escape. One would imagine the end result would be a better written, more concise, more responsible work of writing. It is not.
As a novelist myself, I struggled to stay engaged with Shogun. From the beginning, we know there is a war coming, but we never quite get there. The prose rambles on and on, and there are many abrupt shifts of POV character. I often lost track of who was narrating the story, and whether it was in the present or mid-flashback. Authors are often counseled to “kill your darlings.” We may like our own prose and want to keep everything, but we cannot. Tighter prose keeps readers engaged: quality is better than quantity.
Fundamentally, despite three years devoted to putting this book together, I believe Clavell failed in his task. In the first place, if he truly wanted to write a novel about Japan, why did he take so many liberties to the point of irresponsibility? Why did he change the names of the major characters in that period? If he wanted to write in his own original setting, he could have done so, yet this purports to be historical fiction, and he does not understand the history.
The Sins of James Clavell’s Shogun
To list Clavell’s many historic and cultural sins here would be exhausting, so I will only name a few.
He claims that Japanese castles have portcullises; they do not. Shogun depicts samurai using socket bayonets 100 years before their invention.
He hyphenates names (“Hiro-matsu”) and words (“gei-sha”) that are not supposed to be hyphenated.
He does not understand how Japanese names work. Even if Toranaga Yoshi were a daimyo’s name, one does not render it as Clavell does (Yoshi Toranaga-noh-Chikitada-noh-Minowara).
He does not understand how vassalage worked. At one point, a character talks about “ronin vassals,” which is an oxymoron.
He doesn’t understand how court rank worked, either. A character named Ogaki is a “Prince of the Seventh Rank.” Seventh Rank is a very low court rank. Appending it to “Prince” makes it sound like someone out of Gilbert and Sullivan rather than a messenger to the warrior houses.
Not Even Geographically Correct
Further, Clavell doesn’t understand the limits of imperial authority; he claims the Emperor had the authority to order seppuku. He puts overly familiar modern Japanese in the mouths of retainers addressing their overlords. As one example of the latter, Lady Kiritsubo calls Toranaga, Lord of the Kanto, “Tora-chan”.
Clavell also doesn’t understand how Japanese religion works. There’s no such thing as a “Shinto nun.”
He also seems to have a grasp of Japanese that veers between surprisingly correct (Lord Yabu says “Ano mono wa nani o moshité oru?”) and hilariously garbled (“sonkei subeki umi” is rendered as Japanese for “seaworthy”). He repeatedly calls a palanquin (kago 駕籠) a kaga, and claims there is no Japanese word for “love.”
Nor does he seem to even understand Japanese geography. A character in Osaka refers to Kaga, modern Ishikawa, as “the far north,” despite having mentioned Shōnai, in Dewa Province, earlier. He has characters endlessly saying “neh” and “so sorry” to the point of being caricaturish. He claims commoners don’t have names, just descriptors.
Finally, he seems to obsess with overwrought, exotic euphemisms for sex and genitalia. Joyful Juice, Pellucid Pestle, and multiple references to stoats were just a few.
Other Issues in James Clavell’s Shogun
Shogun goes beyond simple inaccuracy. It also drips with sexism and exoticizes Japanese people, especially women. This even extends to their names; one woman’s name is “Nyan-nyan” (Meow Meow) and another’s, Hana-ichi (Clavell says this is “First Blossom” but it is “Flower One”). The women in Shogun are all depicted as or implied to be skilled at sex (“pillowing”). They are also all seemingly impressed by the size of Blackthorne’s genitals.
Meanwhile, the men, especially the samurai, are often depicted as casually cruel, cutting people down in the middle of the street and coldly ordering people to commit seppuku on the turn of a dime. Warriors did have the right to cut down commoners for real or perceived offense. However, the real Shogunate authorities frowned upon its exercise, frequently punishing samurai after the fact. It was thus not frequently invoked.
I have seen some invoke Clavell’s experience as a prisoner of war in World War II as justification or explanation for his depiction of Japanese people. Given that experience, the casual cruelty that suffuses the behavior of the men in this story is perhaps not surprising. But even if true, it doesn’t excuse Clavell. We cannot simply dismiss him as a product of his time. I myself have known American combat veterans of the Pacific War who later in life came to befriend Japanese people and appreciate Japanese culture and art.
Finally, after spending the entire story building up to a climactic battle, it never comes. Clavell simply gives us a paragraph worth of epilogue about Ishido’s defeat and execution.
Better Alternatives to James Clavell’s Shogun
Some, even a few scholars, have tried to be conciliatory about this book. A group of early 1980s scholars even penned a series of essays published collectively as Learning from Shogun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy, attempting to tease out teachable moments about the real Japan of 1600 from this fictional portrayal.
But in my opinion, there is too much noise to be worth filtering for signal, in Shogun, so my advice is not to bother. There is no shortage of work by Japanese historic novelists available in translation that would be far more worth your time.
Yoshikawa Eiji’s Musashi, which follows the life of Miyamoto Musashi and overlaps with the period Shogun purports to depict, was first published in English in 1981. Yoshikawa’s novel on Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Taikō: An Epic Novel of War and Glory in Feudal Japan, had its English language debut in 1992. Shiba Ryōtarō’s novel The Last Shogun, on Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was released in English in 2004.
There are even historic novelists whose work has appeared in English: the 19th-century author Jippensha Ikku’s Hizakurige appeared as Shank’s-Mare in 1960. There are still more.
In the introduction to Learning from Shogun, the editor says that several of the authors met with James Clavell to discuss the book. Clavell reportedly told them that “I am a storyteller, not a historian.”
In my opinion, this is a monumental and convenient abdication of responsibility. It reads like an attempt at excusing historical inaccuracy. But that doesn’t excuse exoticization, sexism, and an apparent lack of honest effort.
I am both a historian and a storyteller. And I can tell you this: it doesn’t take a doctorate in history to do due diligence when writing fiction far outside your own culture.
I look forward to the historical novels yet to be that will continue to raise that bar.
What to Read Next
- Paul Bernstein (13 September 1981). “Making of a Literary Shogun.” The New York Times. p. 46. Accessed 15 December 2021.
- James Clavell. Shogun: A Novel of Japan. (Kindle Edition) Ashland: Blackstone Publishing, 2018.
- “The Great Escape.” Internet Movie Database, Accessed 15 December 2021.
- MasterClass Staff. “What Does it Mean to Kill Your Darlings?” 7 September 2021. Accessed 15 December 2021.
- Osaka: The Merchants’ Capital of Early Modern Japan. Edited by James L. McClain and Wakita Osamu. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 139.
- Henry Smith. “Preface.” In Learning from Shogun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy, edited by Henry Smith. (The Program in Asian Studies, University of California: Santa Barbara, CA, 1980), xv.
- Conrad Totman. “Tokugawa Peasants: Win, Lose, or Draw?” pp. 457-476 Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 1986), p. 464.
- Webster Schott (22 June 1975). “Shogun“. The New York Times. p. 236. Accessed 15 December 2021.