In the last post we looked at the theme of death in James Clavell’s Shogun, particularly suicide and martyrdom, and teased out commonalities between Japan and the Mediterranean area. Now let’s consider love. To what degree does this “alien” emotion in medieval Japan parallel the views of early Jews and Christians?
The love affair between John Blackthorne and Toda Mariko is one of the most memorable in modern literature. But it takes Mariko a long time to understand and experience love. Early in the novel (chapter 23) she explains to Blackthorne:
“Love is a Christian word, Anjin-san. Love is a Christian thought, a Christian ideal. We have no word for ‘love’ as I understand you to mean it. Duty, loyalty, honor, respect, desire, those words and thoughts are what we have, all that we need.”
In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith critiques what Clavell (through Mariko) ascribes to the Japanese:
“If all Mariko means is spontaneous affection, as she seems to, then she is dead wrong, for simple love was one of the most ancient themes in Japanese literature and could be expressed with a rich vocabulary: the Japanese ‘have no word for love’ only in the sense that they have many, many words for love. Nor should the unsuspecting reader be lulled into thinking that the Japanese in 1600 AD, or at any other time in their history, were incapable of falling in love without instruction from abroad.” (“Consorts and Courtesans: The Women of Shogun“, p 106)
Yet Smith acknowledges in the same breath that “the rise of the samurai class and its concern with duty, loyalty, and the subjugation of personal emotions helps explain the decline in the status of love in medieval Japan” (p 107). There seems to be something about a code of honor-shame that represses feelings of affection, and in such contexts “love” carries a different emphasis.
In fact, Context Group members tell us that the biblical understanding of love is precisely about duty and attachment to a group or person: “there may or may not be affection, but it is the inward feeling of attachment, along with the outward behavior bound up with such attachment, that love entails” (Malina and Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, p 376). That’s pretty close to what Mariko describes to Blackthorne, though she eschews the actual word “love”. According to Malina and Pilch, Paul’s famous triad in I Cor 13:13, “faith, hope, and love”, is best translated as “personal loyalty, enduring trust in another, and attachment to another or others” (ibid). By the same token, “hate” involves dis-attachment, non-attachment, or indifference. There may or may not be feelings of repulsion, but severing ties and duties to some group or person is what it’s really about. Thus Jesus’ command to hate families (directed at his closest disciples) is seen to be synonymous with “leaving everything” — leaving one’s home and attaching oneself to Jesus and other disciples instead — not necessarily accompanied by feelings of ill will.
My sense is that we should accept affection (the emotion we usually associate with love) as a universal phenomenon, but that it takes a back seat in honor-shame cultures, in favor of duty and loyalty. In that sense, I think Clavell gets it right through Mariko more than Smith allows. Yet there is an irony in her claim that “love [affection] is a Christian word”. As we just saw, affection wasn’t for the early Christians any more than the medieval Japanese. As with the theme of death, the question of love owes more to cultural values than religious ethics. For all the ways in which “Christianity” serves as a foil in Clavell’s narrative, the precise foil is Anglo-European Christianity. Ancient (biblical) Christianity was more aligned with medieval Bushido than Clavell ever realized. Or at least in general terms: samurai obviously didn’t go so far as to “love” and enjoy solidarity with their enemies.
In the next post we’ll address the theme of homoeroticism.