Shogun (A Novel of Japan)

by James Clavell

Hardcover, 1975



After Englishman John Blackthorne is lost at sea, he awakens in a place few Europeans know of and even fewer have seen-Nippon. Thrust into the closed society that is seventeenth-century Japan, a land where the line between life and death is razor-thin, Blackthorne must negotiate not only a foreign people, with unknown customs and language, but also his own definitions of morality, truth, and freedom. As internal political strife and a clash of cultures lead to seemingly inevitable conflict, Blackthorne's loyalty and strength of character are tested by both passion and loss, and he is torn between two worlds that will each be forever changed. Powerful and engrossing, capturing both the rich pageantry and stark realities of life in feudal Japan, Sh?gun is a critically acclaimed powerhouse of a book. Heart-stopping, edge-of-your-seat action melds seamlessly with intricate historical detail and raw human emotion. Endlessly compelling, this sweeping saga captivated the world to become not only one of the best-selling novels of all time but also one of the highest-rated television miniseries, as well as inspiring a nationwide surge of interest in the culture of Japan. Shakespearean in both scope and depth, Sh?gun is, as the New York Times put it, "...not only something you read-you live it." Provocative, absorbing, and endlessly fascinating, there is only one: Sh?gun.… (more)

Library's rating


(2053 ratings; 4.3)

User reviews

LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
It wasn't far into the book before I knew I wouldn't, couldn't stop despite the novel's intimidating length of over a thousand pages. What grabbed me was the conflict here between East and West--and Clavell picked a perfect time period to highlight those differences, at the dawn of the Tokugawa
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Shogunate in 1600 only a few decades after Jesuits had established Christianity in the country but just a few decades before Japan closed itself off from the West for over two centuries. The plot centers upon John Blackthorne, the English pilot of a Dutch ship that is disabled off the coast of Japan during the time the Portuguese held a monopoly on trade.

I've read reviews complaining the depiction of the Japanese isn't always accurate; it isn't surprising Clavell, an Australian-born American citizen, might miss nuances of the different cultures he depicts, largely Japanese, (but also British, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) especially since the novel is set about 400 years in the past. (I read that, in particular, Clavell's Japanese is Babelfishian in its syntax and there are cultural anachronisms. For those who find the overall plot implausible, however, they should look up William Adams, the real English pilot and samurai upon whom Blackthorne is based.) I'm not qualified to know where Clavell might have gone astray, but at least the novel is balanced enough that both the Europeans and Japanese are portrayed as having admirable and repugnant qualities as cultures and individuals.

The prose isn't smooth. There are point of view shifts and a lot of information dumped on the reader in less than an organic way, especially in the first couple of parts. Despite that I found this an engrossing yarn. Clavell is wonderful at conveying Blackthorne's reactions to a culture so alien to him and how he's transformed by his experiences with it, part conversion, part Stockholm syndrome. At the heart of the story is a well-rendered romance, and I thought Mariko, a Christian Samurai, made both a good match and foil to Blackthorne. There was certainly plenty of intrigue, (often gory) action, and touches of humor to hold my interest and the novel did make me want to learn more about Japan and wish to read a Japanese novel or history sometime, especially about this period. (I've heard the Japanese historical novelists Shusaku Endo and Eiji Yoshikawa are good places to start.) I liked it enough I might even try Clavell's other novel of Japan, Gai-jin, a kind of sequel to this one, but dealing with the period of the Meiji Restoration and reopening of Japan to the West around 250 years later.
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LibraryThing member miyurose
If you’ve never read this, I highly recommend it. It’s definitely a major time-investment (it took me over 3 weeks to read), but well worth it. Clavell has created an intricate portrait of early 17th century Japan, from the perspective of both insiders and outsiders. And you learn almost
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immediately that the man could certainly write an action scene. I know very little about ships, but I could picture this perfectly:

He exerted all his strength as the rudder bit into the torrent. The whole ship shuddered. Then the prow began to swing with increasing velocity as the wind bore down and soon they were broadside to the sea and the wind. The storm tops’ls bellied and gamely tried to carry the weight of the ship and all the ropes took the strain, howling. The following sea towered above them and they were making way, parallel to the reef, when he saw the great wave. He shouted a warning at the men who were coming from the fo’c’sle, and hung on for his life.

For me, the real meat of the story isn’t all of the Japanese political intrigue (you almost need a flowchart to keep track of who is backstabbing who), or even the (somewhat predictable) love story between Blackthorne and Mariko, but Blackthorne’s transformation. In the beginning, he is an Englishman, through and through, but by the end of the story even his personal thoughts are more Japanese than English. Believe it or not, I actually wish the story had gone on a bit longer… I wanted to know Blackthorne’s story to its conclusion. Will he ever be completely happy in his new home? Will he find love? Does he survive Toranaga’s war? So many questions!
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LibraryThing member RobertDay
A kaleidoscope of Japan at the time of the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate. True, the names have been changed to allow Clavell to exercise artistic licence, but the historical personages are easily recognised.

Also true is the fact that the intimate relationship between Blackthorne and the
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Lady Mariko would not have happened like that. So it goes.

When this novel was new, many science fiction fans of my acquaintance devoured it eagerly, saying "This is a science fiction novel!" When I asked what they were talking about, they said "It's about a man coming to terms with an alien civilization", and that is true. Japanese society and culture works on completely different rules to Western society, and that has been the cause of so much pain and suffering during the 20th century. Clavell wrote this book from a position of knowledge; he had experience of the Japanese as a PoW in the Second World War, but he then went further and did his research to uncover the reasons behind what he saw. This book, and others like it, play an important part in increasing our understanding of this alien culture, no matter how much they have spin and fancies added for the entertainment of Western audiences.
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LibraryThing member neddludd
One of the best novels I've ever read. Over 1,000 pages long, and it could have used another thousand. I've read it through twice, at different times in my life. It is such a multi-layered tale. An English explorer washes up onto the coast of 17th-century Japan and is introduced to a whole new way
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of life. He becomes convinced that the Japanese way is better and learns the language, falls in love with a beautiful princess, and pleases the Shogun, Toranaga, a brilliant military and political strategist. Meanwhile, the Englishman's crew isn't having such a wonderful time. They stick to their European ways and suffer terrible penalties. One must ask, after incidents on both sides, "Who is more of a barbarian?" Also highlights European dispute between Catholics and Protestants, which manifests itself in competition between Northern Europe (Britain, Holland) and Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal). So many unforgettable characters in this epic work, so many brilliant action scenes, such a tender love story.
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LibraryThing member PMaranci
When I was a teenager my father had a heart attack. He survived, thank goodness, and is still fine these many decades later. But while he was bedridden and convalescing, our neighbors brought all sorts of books over to help him pass the time. They were mostly best-sellers of the time; books that I
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would never have read on my own, since I was a science-fiction fan.

Shogun was one of them. I'm not sure if Dad read it, but I sure did. And I've read it every six months or so, ever since.

Why? Several reasons:

1. It's incredibly readable. This is one of those amazing books that simply sucks you in and makes you live its story. Clavell had the rare gift of writing, and Shogun was his masterpiece.

2. It's really long. I'm an extremely fast reader, but even I can't get through Shogun in less than a week. And yet every time I finish it, I always wish there was more, and more...I'm lucky that I can re-read it within six months and enjoy it as much as ever.

3. It presents a fascinating and accessible take on an ancient culture. True, it may not be an entirely accurate picture of Japanese society in the 1600s (I just read an article by a scholar that sneered at the book unmercifully, although many scholars are far less negative about the book). Still, I've learned a little Japanese from the book - enough to help me understand anime a bit better - and while the culture as presented is doubtless over dramatized, I believe that it has still given me some useful insights into Japanese culture.
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LibraryThing member Radaghast
Epic is the first word that comes to mind when reviewing this novel. Shogun is over a thousand pages long. Yet amazingly Clavell kept me completely enthralled even as I read the final page. I'm not sure a book like this could be written today. Clavell takes you on a long journey, and you have to
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have the patience to follow. If you do, you will find it a more than worthy journey.

Shogun tells the story of an English sailor who comes to Japan a barbarian. By the end of the story, he has been civilized by the Japanese. He has even become a samurai. This illustrates one of the major points of the book. From the perspective of the Japanese, their first encounters with the West showed them we lacked civility. We had no standards of hygiene. We lacked the order of their feudal system. We had no concept of honor nor the willingness to kill ourselves and others to maintain that honor. We were childish in our views of sex and love. Etc.

On the other hand, we see the English perspective just as clearly. The samurai are brutal, oppressive to the lower classes and obsessed with death. They are so consumed with pride they fail to see the real threat the West poses. They are intolerant of religions that differ from their own. Etc.

You see clearly the flaws and strengths of each culture and the interaction between them that results seems realistic. It is a sharp clash. But you also realize at the end of the day, each character is the same: Human.

Clavell does his historical homework here, to justify all of this. But does the actual story hold together? In my view, that is it's true strength, even more than the clash of cultures. The English ship pilot Blackthorne feels as real as the Japanese samurai woman Mariko. It is amazing how a man in the 20th century can put himself in the mind of people who lived in different cultures, were not of his gender and lived so many years ago. Clavell does this, and then some. The story line itself is equally engaging. The struggle for power in Japan, the struggle between Christianity and traditional Japanese religion, and the struggle of each characters internal problems all keep you reading.

This alone makes this novel worth it. But there is an added element. Clavell based this all on real events. Of course, he changed many things, but after you are finished reading Shogun, look at the real historical figures this story was based on and you will find a tale just as interesting as the novel.
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LibraryThing member salol
This book can only be described in one word: epic. Without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read. I literally could not stop reading this book once I started. I was up until 3 or 4 in the morning every night reading, and I read through every meal. This book has been classified as a romance
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by some, but trying to describe this book with one genre doesn't do it justice. There is so much political intrigue, drama, personal turmoil, strife... It really gives you a good perspective on life in the 1600's in Japan as compared to life in that time in Europe.
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LibraryThing member BryanThomasS
What Michener did for Western American history in Centennial, Clavell does for Japan. I love the book. It's even richer than the miniseries, which is also good. Truly a monumental read you'll never forget. An investment of time due to size but well worth it. One of the best books I've ever read and
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Clavell's best.
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LibraryThing member JHemlock
Overall this is an incredible story. Even it takes 1300 pages for the author to tell us that all Toranaga wanted was a friend. Great history blended with heated emotions, loss, betrayal and lots of daring do.
LibraryThing member Piratenin
I enjoyed Shogun massively. It was a book that once I started to read I couldn't put it down, and for such an epic novel, this struck me as impressive. I never felt that plot lagged, it was quick paced and thoughtful, dealing well with a clash of powerful cultures. I enjoyed reading about all of
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the characters, and felt that they all developed in an interesting and believable way throughout the novel. It was a wonderful story, and although I am not sure how historically accurate it is, it has made me want to know more about Japanese history. All in all the novel captures a feeling of wonder and repusion from both sides discovering each others cultures and this is what makes it an excellent story.
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LibraryThing member memccauley6
When Englishman John Blackthorne crash-lands in Japan in 1600, it is such a foreign culture he may as well have landed on Mars. Simply the best first-contact story I have ever read, it is full of fascinating cultural details. This book has it all: Love, war, faith, passion, revenge, friendship,
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honor, sword fights, ninjas, treasure… Normally, it would be easy to complain that a book of this length needed to be edited, but there aren’t any unnecessary scenes, each propels the plot forward or reveals more about the characters. Deserves 6 stars.
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LibraryThing member ckoller
Tremendous story. I can't believe how complex and intricate it was. It was a great great book.
LibraryThing member GirlFromIpanema
I already bought three copies of this book. A paperback back in 1980 after the mini series was shown (or before?), another fell into my lap and was quickly bookcrossed by placing it in a hut in the Japanese Garden and now I found a nice hardcover edition for a mere 1€. I will, however, not stop
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buying copies and giving them away! I love this book for its wonderfully complex and rich story and characters. Like the mini series, I can read this one over and over again.
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LibraryThing member marfita
Someone recommended this to me when I was in graduate school, but I didn't pick it up, actually, until several years after I was thrown out (I am not a scholar). "You'd enjoy it!" he insisted. I looked at it one day. It was 4 pages short of 1,200. Faugh! Once I started it, though, I could not stop.
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It took me six days (and this was while I was working at the convent of Sister Mary William Hilton) and I read it on the sly, taking loooong bathroom breaks. By the end of it I was convinced that I was fluent in Japanese. Shortly afterwards I came across a book that had the history behind the English anjin-san who never left Japan. And I thought Clavell had made the whole thing up! Well, he added about 1,160 pages of damned good filler. I also watched the Richard Chamberlin mini-series of same and I recall being reasonably impressed with how well they did it. Of course, I still wonder what about me made that guy (whose face I recall but not his name) think I'd really like this book. I think this book is so great that I buy cheap copies of it whenever I can (25 to 50 cents! Quelle bargain!) to give to people I think need to read it.
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LibraryThing member DRFP
I first read this book in my mid-teens and thoroughly loved it. These days I tend to read slightly more "serious" authors but I can't deny that this book remains one of my favourites.

I think this book is Clavell's best because of the historical facts that it is based upon (otherwise the book would
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be completely unbelieveable). As ever with Clavell's novels I (still) find Shogun a wonderfully easy book to read and could happily spend all day caught in its story.

It's no Crime And Punishment but Shogun is still a great read, that's tremendously entertaining, and ultimately, at the end of the day, that's all that mattters.
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LibraryThing member santhony
James Clavell's series of novels on Japan and China are the finest pieces of historical fiction ever produced. Beginning with the epic Shogun, Clavell follows the narrative through Tai-Pan, Gai-Jin, Noble House and ultimately the loosely related King Rat and Whirlwind. A perfect example of how
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reading for enjoyment and reading for educational purposes can be combined seamlessly.
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LibraryThing member fuzzi
What can I say about this book?

First, it is SO much better than the miniseries made in the 1980s, although that wasn't too bad.

Secondly, the society, the people are fascinating. Even those characters who you think are horrible turn out to have other sides to their can't assume
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anything by your first impressions.

It's a big book, with violence and other 'adult' situations that do not distract from the story, nor do they glorify those situations...they just ARE.

I've read this book in its entirety several times since I first picked it up, about 1980, and I have learned not to pick it up just to refresh my memory about a certain passage, because I wind up reading the whole thing again!

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member julsitos2
Deserves more than 5 stars. Despite its 1200+ pages, the story is quite short. The characters are endearing and the plot deliciously complex. A veritable saga!
LibraryThing member furriebarry
An interesting plot marred by POV shifts, strange chapter structures and poor characterisation. Also contains a huge info dump for the first 150 pages. A let down.
LibraryThing member joeydag
I stayed home from work after having stayed up all night reading this and finished it that day.
LibraryThing member JackieP
Most books of over a thousand pages generally have a lot of boring 'filler' sequences. Not this one - the action is non-stop.

This novel is breathtaking, a classic epic that everyone should read. Clavell writes with an enormous amount of skill, his tale weaved cleverly with both wit and grace
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throughout. Japanese history and culture is portrayed through the eyes of an Englishmen in the 17th century, whom ultimately adopts their lifestyle as preferrable to his own. We go through this journey with him step by step, via both tragedy and triumph, each stage an absolute joy to read.

One of the best books I've ever read, I'm sure I'll read this book again and again.

Karma, neh?
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LibraryThing member renardkitsune
I thought this book was fantastic. I spent a year in Japan and never got the insight into Japanese character and customs the way I did from this book. While I was there I felt like I was surrounded by unquestioning obedience to authority and unthinking following of traditions, but it's really all
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based on trust--trust in the people above you/that came before you, and trust that obeisance will help maintain your Wa--your balance and harmony. I love that the book is from a foreigner to Japan’s point of view. At first, he is very critical of the Japanese customs, but comes to accept and even appreciate them. This helps the reader--(remember this was first printed in 1975) who might be baffled by the Japanese customs--learn about them with the main character. The descriptions of Japanese society, of the daily life and important rituals is very interesting, and it adds depth to the book. The conflict between the Catholics and Protestants gives the story another dimension and giving the Catholic characters chapters from their point of view makes them sympathetic characters. Everyone has a story to tell. I also like that Clavell has romance in his novel, but it doesn’t detract from or overtake the rest of the storyline. Clavell does a good job of interweaving numerous stories and characters without the reader getting confused, and I love that by the end we realize that the foreigner, with his foreign ideals of independence, is just a pawn in the game that is being played for the shogunate.
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LibraryThing member ursula
Shogun is an epic: a huge cast of characters, a historical setting, a sweeping picture of landscapes and cultures, smaller stories caught up in larger ones, everything you could really expect from the word "epic." It takes place in 1600, when Englishman John Blackthorne and the remains of his Dutch
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crew come ashore in Japan. They are the first non-Spanish, non-Portuguese Westerners to arrive in that country, and they get a less-than-friendly welcome. Drama, political intrigue, romance, cultural misunderstandings, violence, and secret plots ensue for the next thousand-plus pages.

I guess it's inevitable with a book over a thousand pages long, but I was bored a fair amount of the time. The characters are clearly drawn, so it's pretty easy to keep them straight most of the time. Even so, with many layers of intrigue and lies told to different people to manipulate them in different ways, you're bound to get lost occasionally. Before too long, though, the cast is shortened by someone getting their head lopped off or committing seppuku, so don't despair.

Recommended for: people who watch a lot of anime, people who find sword violence less objectionable than gun violence, fans of Machiavelli.

Quote: "The peasant soldier who became a samurai and then a general and then the greatest general and finally the Taiko, the absolute Lord Protector of Japan, is dead a year and his seven-year-old son is far too young to inherit supreme power. So the boy, like us, is in pawn. Between the giants. And war is inevitable."
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LibraryThing member evanplaice
Unbelievably good read. Hard not to fall in love with. Contains enough detail and depth of character that I found it hard to believe it was fiction. Of all the historical fiction I've read, this book is the best in terms of really feeling there in the moment. Despite the length, I finished it in 2
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days and I can honestly say that my re-entrance to reality felt almost foreign. It wouldn't do justice to say that I love this novel.
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LibraryThing member mattries37315
The first Englishman to visit Japan arrives just was the delicate socio-political balance left is at a tipping point between stability or never-ending war. Shogun by James Clavell follows the story of John Blackthorne who must adapt to an alien culture whilst his protector Yoshi Toranaga navigates
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the late Sengoku era of Japanese politics to survive.

Clavell’s fictionalized account of the first Englishman’s arrival just before the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate is a political thriller disguised behind a man in a foreign nation story. The 1200+ page novel is an engaging read though parts throughout are repetitive—Blackthorne’s internal thoughts obsessing about the Black Ship being the main culprit—that make me thankful that Clavell cut over a third of the original during the editing process. While I enjoyed the sight into Japanese culture and the political intrigue throughout the book, the history enthusiast in me disliked Clavell’s decision to renaming historical individuals because every time I saw Toranaga I kept thinking Tokugawa Ieyasu, Ishido was Ishida Mitsunari, the Taiko was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Goroda was Oda Nobunaga, etc. to the point that I got a tad frustrated because I mixed the historical name with the fictionalized name. Yet Clavell’s overall writing was able to bring me back to the historical novel.

Shogun is a fantastic historical novel of an Englishman’s arrival in late Sengoku era Japan that brings the culture to the fore and the political intrigue twisted throughout a nice highlight.
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