Shogun Summary

James Clavell


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Shogun Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Shogun by James Clavell.

Shogun is a novel written by British-American author James Clavell, published in 1975. The book is the third (in order of publication date) in Clavell’s Asian Saga, a series of six stand-alone novels detailing the exploits of Europeans in Asia. Shogun was a bestseller, with 15 million copies sold worldwide by 1990. The book has been adapted into a mini-series, a Broadway musical, and three computer games. The novel details the rise of Yoshi Toranaga, President of the Japanese Council of Regents in the year 1600 to Supreme Military Dictator, or Shogun, through the eyes of John Blackthorne, a European navigator on board an East India Company-owned ship and the first English pilot to reach Japan. Loosely based on the true story of English navigator William Adams and Japan’s first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, this richly detailed work of historical fiction examines relations and cultural differences between the East and the West from an orientalist perspective during the age of European exploration.

The novel takes place a year after the death of the Taiko, or the Lord Protector, of Japan. The Taiko’s will ordered that a Council of Regents take over government until his young son is old enough to rule. Two council members– Toranaga and Ishido– compete for dominance. Both men believe that their futures may depend on how successfully they are able to leverage the military knowledge of the Westerners who enter their sphere– even though, culturally, they regard Europeans as “barbarians.”  John Blackthorne and his crew aboard the Dutch warship Erasmus travel to Japan planning to dismantle existing ties between the Japanese and the Portuguese Catholics and forge a new relationship between Japan and Protestant Europe.

Initially, the crew is not well received by Japanese feudal lords in Anjiro and are tried and convicted as pirates and threatened with torture and eventual execution. Ultimately the crew (except for one, who is boiled alive to appease a murderous daimyo) are spared by shrewd samurai who see value in learning more about European ways. The Erasmus and its crew are taken under control by General Hiro-matsu under Toranaga’s orders. Blackthorne is taken to Osaka to be interviewed by Toranaga through a Jesuit Priest who serves as a translator. Blackthorne reveals to a surprised Toranaga that the Christian faith is separated into different sects and attempts to convince him that the Catholics, including the priest, are his enemies. Ishido, it turns out, is also after the advantage consulting with an Englishman could provide and so to keep Ishido from finding him, Toranaga has Blackthorne put in prison. While in prison, Blackthorne befriends a Franciscan monk who teaches him a bit about Japanese history, culture, and language.

Following an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt by Ishido, Blackthorne is interviewed a second time by Toranaga. This time Lady Mariko, a Christian convert and samurai pledged to Toranaga, translates. Blackthorne reveals to Toranaga that the Pope has granted Portugal the right to claim Japan as a territory as part of an effort by Catholic European nations to spread their religion. Later, during Blackthorne’s stay in Osaka, he is nearly killed by a member of an elite team of assassins. Investigations reveal that the assassins may have been hired by Jesuits seeking to silence Blackthorne. The balance of power within the Council of Regents tips out of his favor and so Toranaga is forced to resign and flee Osaka to escape the Council’s command that he commit ritual suicide. Blackthorne, now known as Anjin-san (honorable pilot), assists Toranaga with his escape and in doing so enters into his service.

Toranaga and his retinue return to Anjiro where Blackthorne continues to improve his Japanese and assimilate further into the culture. Blackthorne and the local leaders eventually come to a place of mutual respect; he is granted samurai status and begins an affair with Mariko. Blackthorne develops a plan to reunite with the Erasmus and his crew and use them to attack and capture The Black Ship, which delivers silk from China to Japan. He hopes that he will be able to use the riches from the Black Ship to aid him in his return trip to England. Before undertaking this, however, Blackthorne and Mariko, under orders from Toranaga, travel to Osaka castle. Unbeknownst to Blackthorne, Mariko has a mission there to force Ishido to release the families of other daimyos whom he has been holding hostage– preventing Toronaga and other lords from launching an attack against him. Ultimately, Ishido is forced to release his hostages; however, Mariko is killed in the process.

Upon his return to Anjiro, Blackthorne finds that his ship has been burned. Without the Erasmus, he will be unable to capture the Black Ship. Using the money Mariko left him after her death and the men Toranaga has granted him, Blackthorne begins the construction of a new ship. However, in the last chapter the reader is let in on Toranaga’s internal monologue and it is revealed that he actually ordered the burning of Blackthorne’s ship and will likely do the same with this next one, even though he gave permission for Blackthorne to build it. Toranaga does not want Blackthorne to ever leave Japan because, if he were to return to England and share his new knowledge of Japanese culture, the West might become more successful in influencing Japan in the future. In a brief epilogue, following a final battle, Toranaga’s shogunate is established and Ishido is subjected to a slow, painful death.

Shogun, was extremely well received by critics and academics following its release. It is estimated that somewhere between 20% and 50% of American college students taking courses on Japan have read the book. In his 1975 review of the novel for The New York Times, Webster Schott wrote, “it’s impossible not to continue to read ‘Shogun’ once having opened it. Yet it’s not only something that you read– you live it.”