Clavell based his characters, Toranaga and Blackthorne, on historical figures from the early 17th century -- a Samurai liege lord who rose to the rank of Shogun and a British ship's pilot who landed in Japan and over time became a Samurai himself.
An American friend has a son who has been living and studying in Japan for some years. He once expressed his frustration with the prevalent Western idea that Japanese (or all Asian, actually) culture is somehow inscrutable. It is comprehensible, he insists, if one makes the effort. As Blackthorne, the British pilot learns, it's a hellishly steep learning curve, then as now, but if you let go of preconceptions, approach it with respect and an open mind, you can begin to embrace Japan. Clavell is, I believe, a fine literary tour guide as he maneuvers his Englishman -- neither a willing nor entirely welcome visitor to the country -- through the minefield that was Samurai tradition.
Blackthorne and his ship-mates are excruciatingly bad travelers by today's standards. They assume that the "Jappos" are savage heathens, inferior in every way to Europeans, and that Japan is a small, inconsequential set of islands. Blackthorne is dumbstruck when he learns that the population of Kyushu alone exceeds that of all England and Wales. He bellows out his disbelief when he hears that the population of Japan exceeds 20 million. For heaven's sake, that's more than all of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire combined!
As an unusually intelligent ship's pilot, Blackthorne has traits and skills that appeal to Toranaga, the liege lord who decides to inculcate the Englishman into Japanese culture. Henceforth, he is known as Anjin-san (Anjin meaning pilot); over time, his displays of wits and courage inspire Toranaga to grant him the title of Samurai. Along his journey, Clavell gives us glimpses of Blackthorne's many misapprehensions and cultural missteps, as well as the sense that his mindset is gradually becoming Japanese. His greatest mentor is Mariko, the lovely, brilliant woman who accompanies and teaches him, and acts as his translator until his Japanese is at least functional. She consistently confronts his cultural arrogance and quietly takes the wind out of it.
"Lord Toranaga asked me to point out it’s unseemly to criticize without knowledge. You must remember our civilization, our culture, is thousands of years old. Three thousand of these are documented. Oh yes, we are an ancient people. As ancient as China. How many years does your culture go back? ... Our Emperor, Go-Nijo, is the one hundred and seventh of his unbroken line, Not even China can claim such a history. How many generations have your kings ruled your land?”Blackthorne rather abashedly points out that Elizabeth I, is the third in the Tudor line, and there were a few other lines before that...
Mariko-san is a bridge in many senses as she is a Christian convert, also acting as a buffer between the Protestant Blackthorne and the Portuguese Catholic clergy who are intent on trade and conversion in Japan. There are times when the Christian teachings conflict with the Samurai code of ethics and conduct. Unsurprisingly, Toranaga, the priests, and Blackthorne all wonder where Mariko's true loyalty is. Her answer, combined with the priests' refusal to ordain any of the Japanese novices, is a poignant message to missionaries: Conversion among peoples from very different cultures may be a superficial thing, indeed.
“I am only a ten-year Christian and therefore a novice, and though I believe in the Christian God, in God the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, with all my heart, our Emperor is directly descended from the gods or from God. He is divine. There are a lot of things I cannot explain or understand. But the divinity of my Emperor is without question. Yes, I am Christian, but first I am a Japanese.”
The Japanese opinions of the Christian "barbarians" are far from unanimous. Some are converts, and others propose a protectionist policy of pitching all the foreigners out. The Taiko, the former ruler, had at one time tried to negotiate with the Pope some concessions that would allow the Catholic religion to fit a bit more comfortably with Japanese values. A few of the commandments were vexing, and some more than others.
This was one of the two great reasons the Taikō would not embrace Christianity, this foolishness about divorce—and the sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The Father-Visitor sent all the way to Rome begging dispensation for Japanese about divorce. But His Holiness the Pope, in his wisdom, said no. If His Holiness had said yes, I believe the Taikō would have converted, the daimyos would be following the True Faith now, and the land would be Christian. The matter of ‘killing’ would have been unimportant because no one pays any attention to that really, Christians least of all.
Blackthorne marvels at a story of a wife's self-sacrifice to save her husband's honour, remarking that she must have loved him very much. Mariko corrects him yet again.
“Love is a Christian word, Anjin-san. Love is a Christian thought, a Christian ideal. We have no word for ‘love’ as I understand you to mean it. Duty, loyalty, honor, respect, desire, those words and thoughts are what we have, all that we need.”
Again and again, Clavell shows us the result of this staunch Japanese sense of duty. A liege lord can order a Samurai to commit seppuku, or forbid another from doing so. A wife's duty to her husband is clearly defined although secondary to her duty to their liege lord. Speaking of seppuku (more popularly known as hara-kiri, suicide by disembowelment), Clavell offers great insight into this ritual and the general indifference to violence among the Japanese. He contrasts this beautifully with their revulsion for the meat-eating Europeans. When his staff is ordered to butcher and cook a rabbit for him, Blackthorne watches them go pale, vomit or faint. Gradually, he comes to admire their diet of rice, fish, pickled vegetables, tea and, of course, sake.
Early on, the pilot learns to appreciate the Japanese bath, although he is forcibly dragged to his first one, convinced that he won't survive it. It was common knowledge in England, after all, that bathing was disastrously unhealthy. Much later, scrubbed and lounging in an immaculate house, looking at the tatami mats and shoji (rice-paper screens), he recalls his wife, Felicity, and their home. He remembers them, filthy and itching, lice-ridden and often ill, living in a squalid house with garbage strewn on the mud floor and animals roaming around picking at it. We are the barbarians, he finally realises. (Not so much has changed in the intervening 500 years. I still recall an Australian tourist, blithering drunk, with his feet in muddy trekking shoes propped up on a bar table, slurring something about 'dirty Arabs'. Can you find the barbarian in this picture?)
Finally, the fact that Nicholas recommended this book so highly surprises me almost as much as the fact James Clavell ever wrote it, and for the same reason. Nicholas was born in Penang in 1952, but his parents and their generation lived through the Japanese occupation of Malaya, and, being Chinese, received the bulk of the Japanese brutality. Clavell himself was interned in the Changi prison in Singapore during the occupation; he wrote about that experience in King Rat. It says something, I think, about the Japanese culture, that even those who have suffered at Japanese hands still find it fascinating and worthy of study.