Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Classic fiction about Japan

No, James Clavell’s novel Shogun isn’t the latest and greatest bestseller. It isn’t trending on Twitter. Oprah isn’t talking about it.

Shogun is, however, probably the best historical novel about Japan ever written.

I remember discovering Shogun in the late 1980s, when I was learning the Japanese language and just diving into Japanese history. I was “blown away” by this book.

I’ve now read Shogun several times, to the point where I take its plotline for granted. But if you haven’t read Shogun, you owe yourself this experience.

The book is set in Japan around the year 1600. The setup is this: An English sea captain named John Blackthorne is shipwrecked on the Japanese islands.

Blackthorne struggles to learn the Japanese language (a challenge that I was going through myself at the time, as I mention above.) He becomes involved in the battle to unify Japan under a single military ruler, or shogun.

This is a novel, not a history text. Nevertheless, the late James Clavell did include a sizeable chunk of authentic (or semi-authentic) history for those readers who are interested.


The political/military plot is loosely based on the actual wars of unification that took place in Japan at that time. The character of John Blackthorne also has a basis in history. The real-life John Blackthorne was named William Adams, or Anjin Miura in Japanese.