“First the priests arrive. Then the conquistadores.” ~ James Clavell, Shōgun
“it’s a saying they have, that a man has a false heart in his mouth for the world to see, another in his breast to show to his special friends and family, and the real one, the secret one, which is never known to anyone except to himself alone, hidden only God knows.” ~ James Clavell, Shōgun
Shōgun is a story of clashing cultures. It takes place in the early 17th century Japan.
The mini-series came out in 1980 with production values that were very high. It was the era of the big budget retellings of best selling and classic books. The cinematography of these mini-series was spectacular, the stories compelling as well as educational. Richard Chamberlain was the king of a succession of them. Every few months, audiences got to travel to exotic places, and learn something about different cultures and/or time periods. One of my favorites of this golden age the mini-series was the story of John Blackthorne played to perfection, in my estimation, by Chamberlain. The series also uses the talents of many famous and accomplished Japanese actors, the great Toshirō Mifune among them. You may have seen him in Seven Samurai, which was the inspiration for the western, The Magnificent Seven.
The kinds of stories that attract me the most are ones in which the main character goes on an awakening journey. The character of Blackthorne is based on the historical figure Sir William Adams, who surprisingly, even to this day has a neighborhood somewhere in Japan, named after him.
In the fictional story, Blackthorne is the English Pilot-Major of the Dutch ship Erasmus. It’s the first Dutch ship to breach the secrets of the Straits of Magellan. They have pirated Spanish navigational charts, which can get them killed if that’s discovered. Their goal is to get to Asia to take part in plundering the previously unknown lands that have made the Spanish and Portuguese so wealthy. It’s a dangerous mission, not only crossing so much ocean, but if and when they reach “The Japans”, they have no idea if they will be able to get around the Portuguese to negotiate with the inhabitants.
Unfortunately, they are shipwrecked on the the Japanese coast. Many crew members are killed, and their Captain-General is gravely ill. Blackthorne must become their spokesperson. But the Portuguese priests have a foothold and Blackthorne is protestant. He does not trust the Catholic priests to translate his words accurately. This complicates matters, as does the fact that the Japanese are not interested in the rivalries of these intruders. Even though the Portuguese have a foothold, it is a precarious one. After some painful lessons Blackthorne must endure about what the Japanese consider polite behavior, he is tentatively taken under the wing of the powerful, Lord Toranaga.
Both the book and the series do a great job of juxtaposing the European cultures with the Japanese. Each group have fundamentally different ways of viewing the world. This is even true for the Portuguese and Blackthorne. But what makes him different from all the other Europeans is that he’s willing to not only learn about Japanese culture and customs but he begins to embrace their way of life.
After months of separation, he is reunited with his shipmates and how much his world view has changed becomes painfully apparent to them both. He can barely stand to be near them. He’s become used to bathing every day, while his European associates stand by their fear of bathing as unhealthy. Blackthorne’s palate has changed as well, he can no longer tolerate the food and drink he used to enjoy, and he finds that his life philosophy has also been substantially changed. For one thing, each person in Japanese society has a specific purpose. For the most part, the Japanese people don’t question this. To play one’s role is to support one’s family honor, and the honor of their Lord. Doing something for individual gain is a foreign concept to the Japanese. Lord Toranaga may be in a power struggle with Lord Ishido, but he is not doing it for personal gain, at least not on the surface. He’s struggling to protect the Emperor, who is just a child, from the unscrupulous Ishido. And that is a much more noble purpose than the power struggle between the Portuguese and Dutch.
Shōgun is one of only a very few books I have read more than once. There is something I find appealing about the Japanese philosophy: There is only now, to give one’s life for others is the highest gift one can give, and to be content with one’s place in the grand scheme of things makes life simpler. It’s not that the Japanese characters don’t suffer, they do. Some are even ambitious for personal power. And to our Western way of thinking, some of their interactions were barbaric. But I love the fact that we get a chance to compare the Eastern and Western way of operating in the world. In the end the Western drive for conquest and riches is much less appealing than the harmony in all things sought by the Japanese characters. At least I found it so.
In the last few decades, we Westerners have begun to embrace many Eastern spiritual practices. I think this is a good thing since their goal is to achieve inner peace. I know I can use a lot more peace and much less hectic rushing around in my own life. Watching and reading Shōgun was my introduction to Eastern philosophy leading me to read the Tao Te Ching, and other such books. In my case, James Clavell, a writer of fiction, wove such a compelling story that I researched his source material and began a new tangent of spiritual exploration. I hope to be as accomplished a writer one day and influence some reader’s thinking in such a profound way.
Thanks for reading, liking and commenting. Have a restful weekend.
Lucinda Sage-Midgorden © 2018
Lucinda is the author of The Space Between Time, an award finalist in the “Fiction: Fantasy” category of the 2017 Best Book Awards. It’s a historical, time-travel, magical realism, women’s novel, and is available in all ebook formats at Smashwords, or you can find the ebook at iBooks or Barnes and Noble. I you prefer a physical copy, you can find a print-on-demand version at Amazon. To join her email list, click here. She will never sell the names on her list.