Shōgun (novel)

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1st edition
AuthorJames Clavell
Cover artistEd Vebell (illustrated edition only)
CountryUnited Kingdom, United States
SeriesThe Asian Saga
GenreHistorical fiction
PublisherDelacorte Press (US) Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
Pages1152 pp (first edition, paperback)
ISBN0-440-08721-X (US) – ISBN 0-340-20316-1 (UK)
823/.914 19
LC ClassPS3553.L365 S5 1975
Preceded byfirst book of series 
Followed byTai-Pan 

Shōgun is a 1975 novel by James Clavell. It is the first novel (by internal chronology) of the author's Asian Saga. A major best-seller, by 1990 the book had sold 15 million copies worldwide. Beginning in feudal Japan some months before the critical Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Shōgun gives an account of the rise of the daimyō "Toranaga" (based upon the actual Tokugawa Ieyasu). Toranaga's rise to the shogunate is seen through the eyes of the English sailor John Blackthorne, called Anjin ("Pilot") by the Japanese, whose fictional heroics are loosely based on the historical exploits of William Adams.


Feudal Japan in 1600 is in a precarious peace. The heir to the Taiko (Regent) is too young to rule, and the most powerful five overlords of the land hold power as a Council of Regents. Portugal, with its vast sea power, and the Catholic Church mainly through the Order of the Jesuits, have gained a foothold in Japan and seek to extend their power. But Japanese society is insular and xenophobic. Guns and Europe's modern military capabilities are still a novelty and despised as a threat to Japan's traditional Samurai warrior culture.

John Blackthorne, an English pilot, serving on the Dutch warship Erasmus, is the first English pilot to reach Japan. England (and Holland) seek to disrupt Portuguese (and Catholic) relations with Japan and establish ties of their own through trade and military alliances.

Erasmus is blown ashore on the Japanese coast at the village of Anjiro during a storm. Blackthorne and the few survivors of his crew are taken captive by local samurai, Kasigi Omi, until his daimyō (feudal lord) and uncle, Kasigi Yabu, arrives. Yabu puts Blackthorne and his crew on trial as pirates, using a Jesuit priest to interpret for Blackthorne. Losing the trial, Blackthorne attacks the Jesuit, rips off his crucifix, and stamps it into the dust to show the daimyō that the priest is his enemy. The Japanese, who know only the Catholic version of Christianity, are shocked by the gesture. Yabu sentences Blackthorne and his crew to death. However, Omi, who is quickly proving himself as a clever adviser, convinces Yabu to spare them to learn more about European ways.

Omi throws the Erasmus crew into a pit to "tame" them, and tells them Lord Yabu has ordered that they pick one amongst them (other than Blackthorne) to die, so that the others may live. Blackthorne leads his crew in a futile resistance, but they are easily cowed by Omi. One of them is taken and is boiled alive, to satisfy Lord Yabu, who cruelly enjoys such spectacles.

To save his crew, Blackthorne agrees to submit to Japanese authority. He is placed in a household, with his crew held in the pit as hostages to ensure his submission. On Omi's advice, Yabu also plans to confiscate the guns and money recovered from Erasmus, but word reaches Lord Toranaga, the powerful president of the Council of Regents. Toranaga sends his commander in chief, General Toda "Iron Fist" Hiro-matsu, to take Erasmus and the crew to gain an advantage against Toranaga's main rival on the council, Ishido.

Blackthorne is given the name Anjin (Japanese for navigator or pilot) because the Japanese can't pronounce his name. Blackthorne insists on being addressed respectfully, as Omi is, and is therefore known as Anjin-san ("Honorable Pilot"). Hiro-matsu confiscates Erasmus and takes Blackthorne and Yabu back to Osaka, where the meeting of the council is taking place at Osaka castle, which is Ishido's stronghold. They travel by one of Toranaga's galleys, piloted by the Portuguese pilot Rodrigues. Blackthorne and Rodrigues find themselves in a grudging friendship, despite being required to stay at arm's length due to their national and religious enmity. Rodrigues tries to kill Blackthorne during a storm by sending him forward just as a wave breaks over the deck, but is himself swept overboard by the next wave. Blackthorne not only saves Rodrigues but safely navigates the ship to Osaka with all aboard.

At Osaka, Blackthorne is interviewed by Toranaga through the translation of the Jesuit priest Martin Alvito, who is more sophisticated and higher up in the Jesuit hierarchy, and therefore realizes the dangerous threat that Blackthorne presents. Blackthorne demands that Alvito tell Toranaga that the priest is his enemy. As an English Protestant, Blackthorne tries to turn Toranaga against the (Catholic) Jesuits. He reveals to a surprised Toranaga that the Christian faith is divided and that other European countries intend to sail the Asian waters now that the Spanish Armada (against England) has been defeated. The stunned Alvito is honor-bound to translate as Blackthorne, the sworn enemy of his country and religion tells Toranaga his full story.

The interview ends abruptly when Ishido enters, curious about the barbarian Blackthorne. Toranaga has Blackthorne thrown into prison as a ruse to keep him from Ishido. Blackthorne is then befriended by a Franciscan friar in the prison, who reveals further details about the Jesuit conquests and the Portuguese Black Ship, which each year takes the vast profits from the silk trade between China and Japan back to Europe. He is taught some basic Japanese and a little about their culture. Blackthorne is then taken from prison by Ishido's men, but Toranaga intervenes, capturing Blackthorne from his rival and making Ishido lose face.

In their next interview, Toranaga has the Lady Toda Mariko translate. She is a convert to Christianity, torn between her new faith and her loyalty, as a samurai, to Toranaga. During this second interview with Blackthorne, Toranaga is incredulous when Blackthorne reveals that Portugal has been granted the right to claim Japan as territory by the Pope, and how the Spanish and Portuguese are exploiting the New World in both South America and Asia in the name of spreading Catholicism.

During his stay with Toranaga at Osaka Castle, Blackthorne is attacked (unsuccessfully) by an assassin who is revealed to be a member of the secretive Amida Tong, a group of operatives who train all their lives to be the perfect weapon for one kill. After the assassin is dispatched, Toranaga summons Yabu the next day for questioning, since Hiro-matsu says Yabu would be one who would know how to hire them. Yabu is truthful (but evasive) in his answers, adding more fuel to Toranaga's distrust of him. It is also hinted that the Jesuits may have hired the assassin to kill Blackthorne, to prevent him from revealing any more of what he knows.

The Council of Regents' negotiations goes badly and Toranaga is threatened with forced seppuku by the council. To escape the verdict, and to paralyze the council (since five regents are needed for any decisions, and a new appointment seems politically unlikely), Toranaga resigns from the council. He departs the castle in the guise of his consort in a litter, leaving with a train of travelers. Blackthorne inadvertently spots the exchange and, when Ishido shows up at the gate of the castle and nearly discovers Toranaga, Blackthorne saves Toranaga by creating a diversion. In this way, he gradually gains the trust of Toranaga and enters into his service. Toranaga's party reaches the coast but their ship is blockaded by Ishido's boats. At Blackthorne's suggestion, a nearby Portuguese ship is asked to lend cannon to blast the boats clear but, in return, the Jesuits (seeing the presence of a Protestant pilot in Toranaga's confidence as a grave threat) will only offer aid to Toranaga in exchange for physical custody of Blackthorne. Toranaga agrees and the ship clears the coast. The Portuguese pilot, Rodrigues, repays his debt to Blackthorne by having him thrown overboard to swim back to Toranaga's ship. Toranaga's ship escapes by staying alongside the Portuguese ship as both pass through the gap left between the opposing boats. Toranaga and his party return to his ship, which then goes back to Anjiro.

Blackthorne slowly builds up his Japanese-language skills and gains an understanding of the Japanese people and their culture, eventually learning to respect it deeply. The Japanese, in turn, are torn over Blackthorne's presence (as he is an outsider and a leader of a disgracefully filthy and uncouth rabble), but also a formidable sailor and navigator with extensive knowledge of the world outside Japan. As such, he is both beneath their contempt and incalculably valuable. A turning point is Blackthorne's attempt at seppuku upon finding out that Yabu has threatened the peasants with death if Blackthorne does not learn Japanese within six months. In so doing, he shows his willingness to give up his life in payment for theirs, despite the Christian injunction against suicide. The Japanese prevent this attempt (as Blackthorne is worth more alive), but they also come to respect this 'barbarian' for his knowledge and attempts to assimilate to their culture. When he also rescues Toranaga in an earthquake, he is granted the status of "samurai" and hatamoto – a high-status vassal similar to a retainer, with the right of direct audience. As they spend more time together, Blackthorne comes to deeply admire both Toranaga and (specifically) Mariko, and they secretly become lovers.

There are many internal conflicts between the 'Eastern' (Japanese) and 'Western' cultures – especially to do with diet, obligations, hierarchies, loyalties, and – more particularly – the essence of 'self'. Blackthorne is also torn between his growing affection for Mariko (who is married to a powerful, abusive, and dangerous samurai, Buntaro), his increasing loyalty to Toranaga, and his desire to return to the open seas aboard his ship Erasmus to capture the 'Black Ship' – the main conduit of silk (and wealth) from China to Japan.

Eventually, he visits the survivors of his original crew in Yedo, and is astonished at how far he has ventured from the standard 'European' way of life (which he now sees to be filthy, vulgar, and ignorant), and he is actually disgusted by them. Blackthorne's plans to attack the 'Black Ship' are also complicated by his respect and friendship for his Portuguese colleague, Rodrigues, who is now to pilot the vessel. He returns to Osaka by sea with his crew and with many samurai (granted to him by Toranaga).

In parallel with this plot, the novel also details the intense power struggle between the various war-lords, Toranaga and Ishido, and also – as a subtext – the political manoeuvring of the Protestant and Catholic powers in the Far East. There is also an internal conflict between Christian daimyōs (who are motivated in part by a desire to preserve and expand their (new) religion) and the daimyōs who oppose the Christians, as followers of foreign beliefs and representatives of the 'barbarian' cultural and fiscal influence on their society.

In the novel, Ishido is holding many family members of the other daimyōs as hostages in Osaka, referring to them as "guests". As long as he has these hostages, the other daimyōs, including Toranaga, do not dare to attack him. Unforeseen by Toranaga, a replacement regent has also been chosen. Ishido hopes to lure or force Toranaga into the castle and, when all the regents are present, obtain from them an order for Toranaga to commit seppuku. To extricate Toranaga from this situation, Mariko goes to what will be her likely death at Osaka Castle – to face down Ishido and to obtain the hostages' release.

At the castle, Mariko (in response to Toranaga's orders) defies Ishido and forces him to either dishonor himself (by admitting to holding the Samurai families as hostages) or to back down and let them leave. When Mariko tries to fulfill Toranaga's orders and to leave the castle, a battle ensues between Ishido's samurai and her escort, until she is forced to return. However, she states that since she cannot disobey an order from her liege lord, Toranaga, she is disgraced and will commit suicide. As she is about to do so, Ishido gives her the papers to leave the castle on the next day. But that night, a group of ninja that Ishido has hired, aided by Yabu, who had previously been Toranaga's vassal, slips into Toranaga's section of the castle to kidnap Mariko. However, she and Blackthorne (who accompanied her, but was not aware of Mariko's plot) and the other ladies of Toranaga's "court", escape into a locked room. As the ninja prepare to blow the door open with explosives, Mariko stands against the door and declares that this is her act of honourable suicide, and implicates Ishido "in this shameful act".

Mariko is killed by the explosion and Blackthorne is injured (temporarily losing his hearing), but Ishido is forced to let Blackthorne and all the other hostages leave the castle, seriously reducing his influence and power over them. Blackthorne then discovers that his ship has been burned, ruining his chances of attacking the Black Ship and gaining riches and also sailing home to England. However, Mariko has left him some money and Toranaga provides him with men to start building a new ship. Toranaga orders Yabu – who he learns had helped the attack in Osaka with the aim of being on the winning side – to commit seppuku for his treachery. Yabu complies, giving his own prized katana (samurai sword), which had been previously given to him by Toranaga, to Blackthorne, saying that no one else deserves the blade.

A recurring motif in the book is Toranaga engaging in falconry. He compares his various birds to his vassals and mulls over his handling of them, flinging them at targets, giving them morsels, and bringing them back to his fist, and then re-hooding them. There are other recurring themes of Eastern values, as opposed to Western values; masculine (patriarchal) values as opposed to human values, etc.

The last chapter involves Toranaga letting his prize peregrine falcon fly free, as he reveals his inner monologue: that he himself had ordered Blackthorne's ship to be burned, as a way to placate the Christian daimyōs, and to save Blackthorne's life from them, as well as to bring them to his side against Ishido. He then encourages Blackthorne to build another ship, although he will eventually have that one burned as well, as Japan – in that era – can only survive properly without Western influences. It is Blackthorne's karma (destiny) to never leave Japan; and Mariko's karma to die gloriously for her lord, and for Toranaga's own karma (and purpose) to become eventually Shogun – Supreme Military Dictator, with absolute power.

In a brief epilogue after the final Battle of Sekigahara, Ishido is captured alive (disgracefully). In reference to an old prophecy that Ishido would "die an old man with his feet firmly planted in the earth, the most famous man in the land", Toranaga has him buried up to his neck by the eta villagers, with passers-by being offered the opportunity to saw at the most famous neck in the realm with a bamboo saw. The novel states that "Ishido lingered three days and died very old".


Many of the characters in the novel are based on their real-life counterparts:


Clavell stated that reading a sentence in his daughter's textbook that stated that "in 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai" inspired the novel.[1] Shogun was therefore based on an actual series of events involving a real sailor (William Adams) who reached Japan in 1600 and became involved with the future shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. He achieved high status, though much of the interaction between the various characters in the novel was invented. The first draft was 2,300 pages and Clavell cut it down to 1,700 with the help of his editor, German Gollob.[2]


"I can't remember when a novel has seized my mind like this one", The New York Times's Webster Schott wrote. He added, "It's almost impossible not to continue to read Shōgun once having opened it".[3]

In addition to becoming a best-seller, with more than six million copies of the novel in 14 hardcover and 38 paperback printings by 1980, Shōgun had great impact on westerners' knowledge of, and interest in, Japanese history and culture. The editor of Learning from Shōgun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy (1980) estimated that 20 to 50% of all students in American college-level courses about Japan had read the novel. He described the book as "a virtual encyclopedia of Japanese history and culture; somewhere among those half-million words, one can find a brief description of virtually everything one wanted to know about Japan", and stated that "In sheer quantity, Shōgun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War".[4] The author of James Clavell: A Critical Companion calls the novel "one of the most effective depictions of cross-cultural encounters ever written", and "Clavell's finest effort".[5]

Clavell said that Shōgun "is B.C. and A.D. It made me. I became a brand name, like Heinz Baked Beans".[6] He reported that the ruler of a Middle Eastern petrostate offered him a full oil tanker for a novel that would do for his country what Shōgun did for Japan.[7]


In 1976 Clavell hired Robert Bolt to write a screenplay.[8]

The novel was adapted as a nine-hour television miniseries in 1980, a Broadway musical, and several computer games. The television series starred Richard Chamberlain, Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Shimada, and John Rhys-Davies. It was also edited into a two-hour theatrical release, a 5-disc DVD release in 2003, and a 3-disc Blu-ray release in 2014.

There have been three computer games based on the Shōgun novel. Two text-based adventure games with sparse graphics were produced for the Amiga and PC, and marketed as James Clavell's Shōgun, by Infocom, and Shōgun by Mastertronic. A unique graphical adventure game, Shōgun, was also produced for systems including the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and IBM PC by Lee & Mathias and released by Virgin Entertainment in 1986.

On August 3, 2018, it was announced that FX would be adapting the novel into a miniseries.[9]

Related works[edit]

Clavell was not the first author to novelise the story of Will Adams; several earlier and less successful attempts exist. The first, by William Dalton, was called Will Adams, The First Englishman in Japan: A Romantic Biography (London, 1861). Dalton had never been to Japan and his book reflects romanticised Victorian British notions of the exotic Asian. Richard Blaker's The Needlewatcher (London, 1932) is the least romantic of the novels; Blaker consciously attempted to de-mythologize Adams and write a careful historical work of fiction. James Scherer's Pilot and Shōgun is less a novel than a series of incidents in Adams life. American Robert Lund wrote Daishi-san (New York, 1960). Finally Christopher Nicole's Lord of the Golden Fan was published just two years before Shōgun, in 1973. Adams is portrayed as sexually frustrated by the morals of his time and seeks freedom in the East, where he has numerous encounters. The work is considered light pornography.[4]:7–13


  1. ^ Beamon, William (15 September 1980). "Shogun: $20-Million Samurai Saga Sprang from a Single Textbook Line". Evening Independent. p. 1B. Retrieved 21 September 2012.
  2. ^ JOYCE ILLIG (9 February 1975). "Book Business: Paperback Magruder Sawed-Off Shogun Engulfed". The Washington Post. p. 200.
  3. ^ Schott, Webster (22 June 1975). "Shogun". The New York Times. p. 236. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 15 March 2018.
  4. ^ a b Smith II, Henry D., ed. (1980). Learning from Shōgun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy. University of California, Santa Barbara / The Japan Society. pp. xi–xii, 18, 151.
  5. ^ Macdonald, Gina (1996). James Clavell: A Critical Companion. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 82–83. ISBN 0313294941.
  6. ^ Allemang, John (29 November 1986). "Clavell bullies the bullies now that he's No. 1". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. p. E.3.
  7. ^ Bernstein, Paul (13 September 1981). "Making of a Literary Shogun". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 March 2018.
  8. ^ Kilday, Gregg (13 September 1976). "Mazursky: Next Stop New York". Los Angeles Times. p. d11.
  9. ^ Otterson, Joe (3 August 2018). "FX Orders Alex Garland Drama 'Devs,' Limited Series 'Shogun'". Variety. Retrieved 3 August 2018.

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