A Novel Like Shogun Can Never Be Written Today

Shogun is a masterwork of historical fiction. Set in 1600, it portrays a feudal Japan on the brink of war. With the passing of the Taiko, the Council of Regents rules the nation until the Taiko’s heir comes of age. Toranaga Yoshi, President of the Council, struggles against fellow daimyo and Regent Ishido for dominance. The Portuguese hold a monopoly on foreign trade with Japan, bringing with them Chinese silks and European guns. Accompanying them are the Jesuits, who seek to convert all of Japan to Catholicism, and have already succeeded in converting two of the five Regents. Into this simmering cauldron falls John Blackthorne, Pilot of the Erasmus, who is shipwrecked in Japan—and whose ship, and mind, could upset the delicate balance of power forever.

While the characters and events are fictional, author James Clavell draws heavy inspiration from history. For instance, Blackthorne is modelled on William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan; Toranaga is based on Tokugawa Ieyasu; while Ishido is inspired by Ishida Mitsunari. Beyond that, Clavell’s meticulous research (albeit with some errors in certain areas) brings Japan of 1600 to life.

And it is for this very reason that Shogun cannot be written today.

Honouring History

As a work of historical fiction, Shogun is in a class of its own. Clavell captures the details great and small about life in 1600. Food and fashion, religion and culture, climate and architecture, the book goes into exhaustive detail of every aspect of life in Japan, capturing a society poised on the brink of civil war.

With some notable mistakes. For example, Japanese castles are erroneously portrayed as having portcullises, socket bayonets weren’t invented until nearly nine decades later, and carrier pigeons were unknown in Japan during this period.

Regardless of these errors, virtually every little piece of cultural detail is important to the plot in some way. For example, Blackthorne, used to a diet of rich meats, hardtack, alcohol and fruit, is starved for protein and hard spirits in a nation that favours small portions of rice, vegetables, raw fish and tea. This in turn drives the plot at critical moments.

Going beyond the surface, Clavell takes pains to describe the mindset of feudal Japan, with special attention to the samurai and the daimyo. Warriors adopt a fatalistic approach to life, dedicate their lives to service, seek to resolve conflicts swiftly and violently, hold honour above all else, and are prepared to extirpate shame with seppuku without hesitation. The Japanese are portrayed as xenophobic and ultranationalist, taking pride in their own culture and scorning other nations as ‘barbarians’. The Europeans in turn view certain Japanese practices as barbaric, such as the myriad methods of execution and ritual suicide for seemingly minor offenses.

The norms and customs of Europe are also explained in painstaking detail. Religion was a cornerstone of European civilization during the time period, and so Christianity and Catholicism informs how the European characters talk, think and act. The English of 1600 viewed bathing as dangerous, and this carries over into Blackthorne’s thoughts on hygiene and disease. His changing attitudes towards bathing symbolises his degree of cultural assimilation. As the Jesuits and Portuguese traders scheme their way to riches and glory, so, too, does Blackthorne, seeking to overcome his enemies in a distant land.

The spectre of death hangs over the entire novel. Oceanic voyages of the 17th century were dangerous affairs, with countless ships and sailors lost to weather, enemy action, and disease—especially the dreaded scurvy. The life of a samurai is brilliant but brief, blooming in battle and cut down in an instant. A lapse of judgment produces immense shame that can only be redeemed in death. Japanese medical care is nonexistent: the ill and the severely injured are slain on the spot. It is a grim, dangerous world—and so the moments of beauty are all the more poignant for it.

Death is the dividing line between Japanese and Europeans. The Japanese samurai hold honour above all else, even their own lives. A samurai faced with what appears to be imminent death gives himself into the moment, often choosing to end his life on his terms. A European, motivated by Christian teachings on life and suicide, would instead rack his wits to save his life—or the lives of others. Even the Japanese Christians still hold to Japanese customs on life and death.

In contrast, modern writing injects modern attitudes in settings where such worldviews are impossible. From pop culture references to snarky banter, character roles to plot points, these views are driven by 21st-century attitudes in a world of safety, abundance and woke propaganda.

The great project of woke art is to rewrite history, because in rewriting history, the woke seek to control the future. Thus they have historical and mythological characters follow modern mindsets. Commercially-minded indie authors will only care about historical details to the extent necessary to produce the tropes and aesthetics they believe their audiences expect—and not one iota more. It is how they trained themselves to think, setting aside authenticity in pursuit of money. In both cases, they write to audiences who expect modern worldviews, and so they will deliver in spades.

Clavell highlights the intersection of religion and temporal power, for both the Japanese and the Europeans. Buddhist temples and sects participate in the many, many intrigues running through the story. A Buddhist nun works her influence behind the scenes to secure the future of her family. The Jesuits are committed to the spiritual mission of converting the world to Christ, and the worldly mission of expanding the coffers of the Church. Catholic Spain and Portugal are locked in deadly warfare with Protestant England and Netherlands, and their war threatens to spill over into Japan, a nation sitting on a powder keg.

This requires a degree of nuance that postmodernism is incapable of portraying. Modern writers invariably portray religions as silly superstitions or vehicles of oppression, or otherwise attempt to downplay the influence of religion in feudal times. In an era when religion was the bedrock for public and private life, such a portrayal would do a massive disservice to the story.

In one notable scene, translator Toda Mariko explains Japanese sexual norms and customs to Blackthorne, especially their open, accepting attitude towards homosexuality. Blackthorne is so utterly repulsed he nearly gives grievous offense to the Japanese around him… but he doesn’t try to force them to see things his way.

This is exactly how a Christian English merchant-privateer of 1600 would react to such casual discussions of homosexuality and flagrant sexual activity. A modern writer would instead portray Blackthorne as either accepting Japanese culture as superior, or to show him as a closed-minded prude hellbent on imposing his religion on a foreign culture.

Special attention should be paid to the status of women in Shogun. As Lady Toda points out, it is shameful for samurai men to handle money. They are expected to devote their entire being to their lords. The way of the horse and bow take precedence over all else. Thus, their wives run the household. They manage the finances, organise the servants, raise the next generation of warriors, and advise their husbands on matters of strategy, politics, and statecraft. Women may also rise to positions of prominence, such as Lady Toda, who serves as translator and unofficial cultural liaison.

Samurai women are expected to be able to defend themselves, and some are trained in sword and spear. Yet under ordinary circumstances they do not go to war, nor do they need to. That’s what the samurai men are for. The men wield hard power, while the women exercise soft power. These complementary roles encapsulate samurai culture of 1600.

A modern writer would refuse to show this. They would instead depict Strong Female Characters cleaving through armies of samurai by the hundreds and thousands on the battlefield, like every Strong Female Character everywhere else in pop culture. Never mind that this is both inaccurate and impossible for 17th-century warfare. After a century and a half of constant warfare, samurai families would be keenly aware of the need for many strong sons to continue the bloodline and wage war against their enemies. Routinely throwing women into the meatgrinder of war guarantees only that ancient bloodlines will be wiped out and a pragmatic enemy clan will triumph after a generation or two. Such creators write in the service of the narrative, and the narrative overrides all.

Modern writers would go one step further and demand diversity in a setting where diversity cannot exist. The infamous article Where Are The Black People in ‘Shogun’? highlights this attitude. It doesn’t matter that Japan of 1600 was isolationist and permitted only the Portuguese in their territory. Modern writers will find a way to force diversity into that setting. Case in point, modern culture is now attempting to recast Yasuke, an African slave whose sole purpose was to be a living status symbol for Oda Nobunaga, into a hero of ancient Japan.

Clavell honours history in his work. Modern writers subvert it by injecting woke propaganda into their stories. A modern writer would never embark on a work as grand as Shogun, except as a means to spread woke propaganda to an unwitting audience.

Clash of Civilisations

Shogun depicts a multi-axial clash of civilisations. Isolationist militant Japan on the brink of war versus imperialist mercantile Europe. Catholic Spain and Portugal versus Protestant England and Netherlands. Japanese Buddhism and Shinto versus Western Christianity. Major narrative threads involve John Blackthorne grappling with Japanese culture, the Japanese struggling to understand Blackthorne’s ways, and the Jesuits and Portuguese manipulating everyone for their ends.

To create an authentic portrayal of such a conflict, understanding, appreciating and contrasting these different cultures is paramount. It demands a recognition that peoples, customs and nations are fundamentally different, and that these differences are grounds for conflicts and conflagrations.

Beyond just painting one side as evil and another as good, Clavell brings out the good, bad and ugly of every civilisation, seen through the eyes of outsiders. The Japanese treat Blackthorne as a barbarian, and yet he willingly risks himself to save the lives of his crew and allies. Blackthorne admires some aspects of Japanese culture, especially the cleanliness and orderliness of their streets, yet he can’t fathom their obsession with death. The Jesuits plot to convert the entire world to Catholicism and destroy the Protestant heretics, yet they also run schools and hospitals, at a time when education was only for the upper classes and healthcare woefully primitive. While there are out-and-out villains in the story, every major character possesses different shades of nobility and iniquity, every thought and deed propelled by the complex dynamics arising from ancient customs meeting foreign ways.

Early in the novel, a minor character warns Blackthorne that the Japanese have three hearts: one they show to the outside world, one they show only to their family and closest friends, and one they show only to themselves. This titbit influences every single scene that features a Japanese character.

A Japanese character may outwardly say one thing to his lord and outsiders. He may say another thing to his confidants. But the third person omniscient narrator reveals his true thoughts. These three hearts contradict each other, forcing other characters to read the situation more carefully, and the reader to guess what is truly going on. This mass of contradictions create an undercurrent of tension and suspense cutting through even the most innocuous of conversations. Only in action do you see their innermost hearts.

By contrast, the Europeans are (mostly) portrayed as direct and straightforward. In that regard, they are like samurai at war. Which is not to say that they are incapable of deception and intelligence of their own. By Japanese standards, they are uncouth and uncivilized—perceptions they use to their advantage when it suits them best.

Clavell does a magnificent job portraying these different cultures and characters, and juggling the conflicts between them. More so since the major characters find much they admire in those they plot to subjugate or destroy. Accomplishing this requires a firm grasp of wildly different cultural norms, customs and values.

Modern writers don’t care for this level of nuance. They don’t even care about differences between cultures. To them, everywhere is New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle. In their works, everyone talks, thinks and acts like an American. Any cultural differences are shallow at best, without any major impact on the story, on character dynamics, or on anything else. In the hands of a modern writer, an allegedly Japanese character may wear a Japanese name and don a kimono, but she talks, thinks and acts like an American airlifted from New York.

This is ridiculous. A culture forever chasing nostalgia and eternal youth cannot give rise to poetry and artwork that celebrates and eulogises the ephemeral present. A culture that sneers at religion cannot produce a society where religion shapes every aspect of life. A culture that mocks authority cannot produce a traditional, rule-bound hierarchy.

You cannot have Japan without Japanese culture. Yet Modern writers attempt to build a Japan, China, Korea, India, or everywhere else, from a bedrock of postmodern, postnational, postcultural, posthuman ideology, sprinkled with superficial shavings. This cultural appropriation serves only to highlight the creators’ deliberate ignorance as they attempt to impose their worldview everywhere in the world.


Influenced by Joss Whedon, modern writers love to inject snark, subversion and irony into their stories. Yet this approach poisons the prose, softening emotional impact, blunting suspense, and irritating readers.

In Shogun, every character plays their role with utmost sincerity. Every negotiation is a battle of wits and lies, with everyone attempting to gain an advantage over everyone else. Every battle is a life-or-death struggle, to be decided in a single stroke. Every emotional beat is drawn out to the fullest, without authorial interjections to tell you how you should feel.

Injecting snark, irony or witticisms would ruin the story. Such things are products of the 21st century, and have no place in the 17th century. Especially since modern Western snark would be intolerable in 1600 Japan. In the opening chapters of the book, a peasant is summarily beheaded for failing to display sufficient respect to a samurai. In a setting where a careless word can condemn an entire bloodline to undignified and excruciating deaths, a person who snarks off to a samurai would be extremely fortunate if he were merely executed on the spot. The exceedingly rare instances of snark serve to underscore the tension of the scene, rather than defuse it.

Modern writers can’t have sincerity in their works. Their way is to cultivate a disaffected coolness, to pretend they are too smart and too cool to be influenced by things around them. Yet this very smartness and coolness sabotages the story, watering down moments of emotional intensity at precisely the moment when they must be elevated to a fever pitch.

This attitude is the exact opposite of the Zen Buddhism practiced by the Japanese characters—even the nominally Catholic ones. In recognition of the impermanence of all things, they strive to be fully present in the moment, to see things exactly as they are, to appreciate beauty and ugliness in equal measure. This attitude demands engagement with the present, not disaffection, a profoundly anti-modern approach to life, an approach centred in mindfulness and awareness.

Anti-sincerity is the hallmark of modern writing. For thirty years, snark and irony has poisoned everything that comes out of Big Publishing and Hollywood, and more than a number of indies besides. We have reached the point where it is extremely difficult to find sincere writing from any Western author that began his career in the last ten years. Far from engaging the audience, snark and irony represents a dumbing down, of telling the reader what to think and feel instead of trusting him to immerse himself in the scene.

Older writers understood this. Newer ones refuse to.

A Special Kind of Author

James Clavell is a giant of a foregone age. Today’s world will not support anyone like him.

Big Publishing pushes woke ideology uber alles. Big name indie authors flood the market with written-to-market fiction built upon tropes and postmodern culture. Neither of these worldviews will birth, never mind support, a work that places historical authenticity as its paramount feature.

The sweep and scope of Shogun works against it as well. At 1700 pages in length, it demands patience, concentration and stamina that few readers in the modern era actively cultivate. Few writers would write such a massive tome, fewer would dare take a chance on it. An indie author might instead break up the story in a series of smaller, manageable books—but devotees of the cult of write to market would only work on it if and only if historical fiction becomes an emerging trend, and they would not hesitate to poison the story with modern-day tropes and attitudes if they think it will make them an extra buck. Such authors will willingly sacrifice authenticity on the altar of profit, and so undermine the very foundations of the genre.

Today, it takes a very special kind of author to write a novel like Shogun. An indie author, not beholden to Big Corporations. An artist, even an autist, who chases enduring truth over a quick buck. A historian who seeks to represent things as they were, not inject present-day propaganda into the past.

There may even be authors like that out there today. But until and unless society changes, until and unless they get the support they need, they will never receive the recognition they deserve.

And we will never see such a celebrated masterwork again.

I’m no Clavell, but I try to portray cultures authentically in my own work.





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