SHOGUN (Book Review) – AN EPIC TALE OF FEUDAL JAPAN

Shogun is a 1975 novel written by James Clavell. The book is set in feudal Japan, a Japan torn by strife between different Samurai factions, months before the critical battle of Sekigahara in 1600 AD which ushered in the age of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The tale is told through the eyes of an English sailor called John Blackthorne, who washes up on the shore of Japan and gets embroiled in the internal politics of Japan and influences Tokugawa Ieyasu (called Toranaga in the novel) in his strategy to become Shogun of all Japan.

The plot involves several characters with different names who participated in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rise to power and those he vanquished. Some of the major characters from the book and their real life counterparts include:

Yoshi Toranaga – Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616)
Yoshi Sudara – Tokugawa Hidetada (1579–1632)
Yoshi Naga – Matsudaira Tadayoshi (1580–1607)
Ishido – Ishida Mitsunari (1561–1600)
Ochiba – Yodo-dono (1569–1615)
Yaemon – Toyotomi Hideyori (1593–1615)
John Blackthorne – Miura Anjin/William Adams (1564–1620)
Toda Mariko – Hosokawa Gracia (1563–1600)
Toda Hiro-matsu “Iron Fist” – Hosokawa Fujitaka (1534–1610)
Toda Buntaro – Hosokawa Tadaoki (1563–1646)
Kashigi Yabu – Honda Masanobu (1538–1616)
Kashigi Omi – Honda Masazumi (1566–1637)
Goroda – Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582)
Nakamura – Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598)

The plot is highly intricate and not only does the book have all the ingredients for a fast-paced thriller, it involves aspects like war, romance, sex, intrigue, betrayal and legacies. A book which covers the most fascinating aspects of Japan including Ninjas, Samurais, Ronin, the Samurai code of Bushido, Seppuku or ritual suicide, Geishas and cultural aspects such as the Japanese tea ceremony. The book works as it does not indulge in the typical white savior narrative as many other Western novels and movies end up doing. Here Blackthorne is the savage, who has landed on a land far-away and unknown to the English and the Dutch, though the Portuguese control the trade to Japan. Blackthorne, though initially despising the Japanese for their seemingly barbaric culture, grows to understand Bushido and how to think as a Japanese.

The novel is highly effective in providing a deep insight into Japanese culture without becoming a historical research project. It has an adventurous vibe to it, that makes for a scintillating read. Shogun is a book which once you pick up, can’t be put down until you finish. Shogun also is a book which will appeal to feminists with a strong female Samurai in the form of Toda Mariko-san, who serves as Blackthorne’s love interest and Toranaga’s most prized “falcon” who allows Toranaga to take power.

The book also corrects misconceptions about Japan held by many, in terms of understanding Bushido, Seppuku, the culture of loyalty to the leader and honor and most importantly “Karma” – an Indian word, adopted by the Buddhists and ultimately Japanese. It shows Japan as a land, ravaged by the cruel mother Earth in the form of typhoons and earthquakes and how it came to shape the mindset involving easy acceptance of death. It gives us a look into the Shinobi sect and the popular Ninjas. A fascinating Ninja v. Samurai battle at the end of the book serves as a mouth-watering treat for action enthusiasts. The romance between Blackthorne and Mariko would be loved by all romance-enthusiasts. The political intrigue would be a fascinating read for any political studies enthusiasts.

JAY’S VERDICT

Order Shogun if you have not read it, today. You will not be disappointed. It is a cross-cultural treat that promises something for everyone.

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