Book 127: "Shogun" by James Clavell
Author: James Clavell
Genre: Historical Fiction
Read In: Nook ePub
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
This book has been on my "to read" list since I was a teenager. My parents have always raved about it. At 1140 (-ish, depending on publisher/format) pages, this book is a little bit of an undertaking. It's also very in-depth and slightly complicated.
The book is set in Japan in the late 1400s to early 1500s, approximately the same time as the Medieval era of Europe and the Spanish Inquisition (which is mentioned in the book). It tells a story of a Dutch ship, piloted by an Englishman, who are shipwrecked on Japan in an attempt to find the Asias (meaning, primarily China and India). The pilot's name is John Blackthorne and he is one of the main character's of the book. One of the many things I really enjoyed about this book is that there are multiple main characters that are followed. There is not a single character that is not fully developed. The reader is allowed a glimpse of understanding into most of the character's lives and perspectives. This is a book that has everything; love, politics, war, friendship, conspiracy, and some religion/philosophy.
The real reason I enjoyed this book was the glimpse it gives the reader of how old and rich Japanese culture was/is. By primarily using a western perspective, Clavell is able to easily explain and help the reader understand their culture. Clavell is also a genius at character growth. The reader grows with Blackthorne and you don't notice until, towards the end of the novel, you're reintroduced to his remaining European crew members. It is with this reintroduction that you realize how vulgar and appalling their behavior is- even though they are the characters that show the lease amount of growth throughout the novel. I also really enjoyed that Clavell showed how important and valued women were in the society, at least Samurai women. He showed that the women were smart and often the ones with valuable information. They were valued by any Samurai man that wanted to be successful. It is shown in this quote, spoken by a woman in the book, but backed up by male characters using the women's information and often thinking about how clever and valuable they are:
"'How do you find out these things Gyoko-san?' 'Men need to whisper secrets, lady.That's what makes them different from us--they need to share secrets, but we women only reveal them to gain an advantage. With a little silver and a ready ear-- and I have both--it's all so easy. Yes. Men need to share secrets. That's why we're superior to them and they'll always be in our power.'"
When I read well-researched stories like this, it makes me think two things. The first, it reminds me how young all of Western civilization is compared to Chinese and Japanese civilizations. While the west was still learning basic tools and weaponry, barely founding cities, Asia had booming metropolises with ingrained legal systems and cultural rules guiding them. They had medinical practices we wouldn't learn for hundreds of years. They were clean and adapted to their enviornments. The second thing I always think, is how little I know of these cultures. I really need to learn more about them. There is a whole side of the world that our history studies, in general, fail to explore. I wish I knew more, every time.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I loved the in-depth characters and culture. The complicated plot was very interesting and granted the reader even more insight. I enjoyed the use of Japanese within the novel to the extent that by the end there were phrases written in Japanese that no longer needed to be translated to English. This novel was very well-written and interesting. If you have any interest in Japanese history or even just a good, complex story, I highly recommend you read it.