Book Reviews James Clavell: Shogun

James Clavell: Shogun

This paperback copy of Shogun, the nineteenth impression produced in 1983, proclaims on the cover ‘six million copies in print.'  In a prefacing page, quotations from reviews, among them the New York Times Book Review: ‘I can't remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one.  It's irresistible, maybe unforgettable. Clavell has a gift.  He creates a world so enveloping you forget who and where you are.  It's not only something you read - you live it.  He writes in the oldest and grandest tradition fiction knows.'

Shogun was published in 1975 and I pick it up at the end of 2008, nostalgia for the films of a few decades ago, films by Satyajit Ray, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa.  I want to understand traditional Japanese culture and James Clavell's novel, so much more than an exciting adventure, is the way I choose to learn.  I have seen The Last Samurai and find similarities but there is so much more to a book than a film.  Shogun is a complex and insightful exploration of the Samurai tradition and Japanese culture and we learn about them alongside John Blackthorne who, through an accident, finds himself part of Japanese society.  As he goes from being a hostage, to a vassal, to a samurai, we are inducted along with him into values, codes of conduct and protocols of the culture.

Blackthorne, pilot of the ship Erasmus, which founders off the coast of Japan, is taken captive and Toranaga, a powerful Daimyo (feudal Lord, ruler of vast domains), gives him the opportunity to become a samurai (a noble, an aristocrat) in this hierarchical society stratified along class lines, with each class loyal to the one above in a stepped allegiance typical of feudal societies. The Shogun is the highest temporal authority and the Emperor, who lives in seclusion, is the spiritual head.  Interaction between human beings is highly formalised and follows set ceremonial procedures. ‘Unless the common people respect the samurai and themselves, how can the law be upheld and the realm be governed?  Then too, it's the same for everyone.  We stopped and bowed and allowed the Imperial messenger to pass, didn't we?  Everyone must be polite, neh?  Lesser daimyos have to dismount and bow to more important ones.  Ritual governs our lives, but the realm is obedient.' (828) As trust, honour, loyalty and duty have been transformed into rituals of behaviour that govern all interactions, political, economic and social, deviations from these norms are regarded as impolite, uncouth, uncivilized and are punishable by death.  As long as one observes the ceremonies and rituals, one is regarded as trustworthy and deserving of respect because the ceremonies and rituals embody the values of the society - duty, discipline and all the virtues that they imply, honour, loyalty, obedience, patience and constraint. It is assumed, therefore, that performance of the rituals is proof of one's commitment to the values that they represent.

When social behaviour is reduced to set formulas, however, interaction becomes mechanical in the same way that religious rituals turn worship into mechanical routines that make it is easy to pay lip service to rites in public and to repudiate them in private.  This is how most traditional societies are structured; a ceremonial superstructure of civilized behaviour on the surface over suppressed instinctive and natural feelings.  The focus is on the community and all individuals are expected to conform to collective values and norms.  Deviations from the norm are not tolerated and are harshly censured and punished because they challenge and threaten the coherence of the group.  In societies, where individual rights and responsibilities are recognised, impulsive, spontaneous and deviant actions do not threaten the social structure because individuals have to take personal responsibility for their actions.  In such societies, diversity of opinion and action are on the surface where they can be evaluated. Contrary to traditional belief, such freedom of expression and action strengthens the society.  Traditional societies are fragile because they do not allow individual freedom and are easily undermined by the diversity that they drive underground. A traditional society is actually a divided society, operating at two levels: the accepted public level and the private deviant level.

When honour, duty, loyalty and obedience are translated into rituals, they become perfunctory and people live their lives going through the motions of honour, duty, loyalty and obedience, and it is impossible to tell whether the rituals have meaning for them or not.  As they are not allowed to be spontaneous or impulsive, genuine feelings are suppressed and hidden under impassive mask-like faces and decorous behaviour. Living in such societies, people become master dissemblers: on the surface polite and reasonable but below, empty or filled with distrust and negative emotions that turn them to scheming, manipulation and violence. Paradoxically, in such a society where one's word is one's bond, no one's word can be taken for granted. Everyone has a secret agenda and is quite ready to manipulate others in the process of achieving her/his goal. Yabu, a powerful but lesser daimyo, constantly changes his allegiance because he cannot trust anyone and nobody trusts him.

With the ritualization of values, true loyalty goes underground and is not openly expressed. Listen, Sire, please excuse me, but this time I disobey.  With pride.  This time I betray you.  Now I'm going to co-opt your son and heir, the Lord Sudara, and his wife, the Lady Genjiko, and together we'll order Crimson Sky when the rains cease, and then the war begins.  And until the last man in the Kwanto dies, facing the enemy, I'll hold you safe in Yedo, whatever you say, whatever the cost.  (835).  These are the private thoughts of Hiro-matsu, General-in-Chief to Toranaga. He believes that he is acting in defiance of his liege lord Toranaga.  He does not realise that Toranaga's obedient submission to the enemy is an act, part of the ritual process that claims obedience and loyalty.  It does not, therefore, reflect Toranaga's genuine intentions.  The paradoxical assertions in Hiro-matsu's thoughts indicate a confusion of values that comes from living what is essentially a double life. The ritualization of values makes it impossible to know the truth. Consequently, people are constantly engaged in interpretation and in second-guessing, constantly alert, spying on one other, looking for the slightest clues to real intentions. 

The Jesuits, who have infiltrated Japanese society, fit in very well because they too live lives of ritualised values and their true natures likewise lie undercover in intrigue, greed, manipulation and the desire to control.  They don't tell us, their converts, what they truly believe, Anjin-san.  Or even themselves most times.  They are trained to have secrets, to welcome them, but never to reveal them.  In that way they are very Japanese. (992)

The Japanese society of Shogun reflects its origins in an earthquake-ridden country where the land appears solid and tranquil, then suddenly shudders violently or cracks open to swallow up whatever is on the surface.  Similarly, the smooth facade of the society covers over intrigue and conspiracy that must eventually tear it apart. Preparation for war is the major pre-occupation of the novel and its events are a series of tremors leading towards the major event.  Constant reference is made to a strategy, code-named Crimson Sky: an attack, like an earthquake, that is sudden, violent and devastating.  And death is accepted as karma. ‘So sorry, he's not like us, not civilized like us, poor man.  His nirvana is life not death.' (1227)  They believe that an honourable death is the fulfilment of one's existence.  ‘Oh, Anjin-san, one day perhaps we'll even get you to like raw fish and then you'll be on the road to nirvana - the Place of Perfect Peace.'  (1235)

In other cultures, people fear death, are unwilling to acknowledge it and try their best to evade it, but the characters in the novel, for whom the transience of life is an accepted condition of existence, is karma, constantly beg permission to commit suicide, seppuku.  When they believe that they have breached accepted norms of behaviour, by choice or inadvertently, they offer to give up their lives even for the slightest transgression. The samurai sword, which is swift, unexpected and deadly, often summarily dispatches those who are disobedient or show disrespect.  When individuals are not allowed to commit seppuku, they feel that they have forfeited the right to the honour of dying, the right to an honourable death.

The novel ends with the following sentences, I did not choose to be what I am.  It is my karma. (1243) And that apparently absolves one from all responsibility for one's actions. And it is this attitude that makes possible the Machiavellian manipulation that is the ethos of the society depicted in the novel.

Unlike most traditional societies where sex and sexuality are only for purposes of childrearing and not for pleasure, the novel describes a subculture of sex and sexuality that accepts sex as normal and as essential as food. Masturbation and sodomy don't bear any stigma, and, what in other societies is referred to as homosexuality and condemned, is normal practice and like all sex, is considered an aid to good health.  What other societies refer to as prostitutes, in this society are The Ladies of the Willow who are honoured for their role in the society and their ingenuity in providing pleasure.  They use a range of equipment to aid men get the maximum pleasure from intercourse.  In this early seventeenth century society, men were allowed to divorce their wives and wives could obtain divorce through the intercession of a daimyo.  A man had one wife who was strictly for childbearing and in addition any number of consorts who were both for pleasure and the production of offspring.

Despite the liberal attitude to sex and sexuality, this society, like most societies, subjects women to the will of men but, as in all cultures, enterprising women find ways of overcoming strict social restrictions and the novel shows women as wise, humane and supremely heroic.  And it is a woman, Marico, driven by her secret mission, obedient to the norms of her society, yet superbly courageous and pure, who achieves nirvana, complete fulfilment and is the hero of the book.

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