This book is ostensibly the story of John Blackthorne, an Englishman piloting of a Dutch sailing ship which is attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1600. Their ship runs aground before a storm in a village on the east coast of Japan, and from there Blackthorne and the rest of the Dutch crew are quickly caught up in the fractious, Byzantine politics of feudal Japan.
I say that the book is “ostensibly” about Blackthorne, because while the book begins with his POV and follows most of his adventures, the center of the story and the driver of the plot is Toranaga, the Japanese daimyo who takes Blackthorne into his care and implicates him into his drive to become Shogun, the supreme military leader of japan.
The character of Toranaga is a masterful creation: a political genius, a master of the double- and triple-cross, always a step ahead of his rivals, playing the chess game of Japanese feudal politics with awe-inspiring brilliance. At the beginning of the novel he faces a political crisis as the other leading daimyos of Japan correctly see him as the greatest threat, and have banded together to eliminate him or drive him to seppuku. As the novel progresses things apparently go from bad to worse as Toranaga’s enemies multiply and his resources dwindle—yet he repeatedly escapes from apparently invincible traps and turns disasters into victories. At the same time, Clavell paints Toranaga as an enlightened, humanistic, and sympathetic ruler, the sort of man who deserves to establish a dynasty lasting centuries.
While Toranaga is undoubtedly the book’s center, the numerous secondary characters fill out Clavell’s depiction of feudal Japan. Blackthorne advises Toranaga in the use of muskets, providing a crucial element in his military plans, all the while pursuing a doomed romance with the Lady Mariko Toda. We meet a variety of other Japanese nobles, Toranaga’s allies and enemies, who are variously craven, cruel, and courageous. Other characters include Japanese peasants and courtesans, Portuguese traders and sailors, and Jesuit missionaries working to preserve the Church and its lucrative trade routes. The resulting tapestry, involving religious and political rivalries stretching across Europe, Asia, and the Americas, is extremely complex, but is introduced in a way that makes it easy to understand and follow.
Of course, my biggest question after finishing such an enormous historical epic is How accurate is all of this? After doing a little bit of research, I’m pleased to say that the book generally seems to hold up. Toranaga is based pretty closely on Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate that lasted until the mid-19th century. The story of John Blackthorne is based on the life of William Adams. Clavell’s telling certains contains its embellishments and anachronisms, but the core narrative is historical, and the depiction of feudal Japan seems to be remarkably accurate.
If you’re looking for a long (and I do mean long) immersive read, or a friendly way to introduce yourself to a crucial time in Japanese history, I recommend this highly.