In the last post we looked at the theme of homoeroticism in James Clavell’s Shogun and considered commonalities between the medieval Japanese and ancient Mediterraneans. In this post I want to examine the tricky relationship between treachery and loyalty in honor-shame cultures. If the reader of Shogun is struck by the imperative of loyalty to one’s liege lord, it is just as striking that so many of the novel’s characters are constantly scheming against their superiors, and backbiting each other left and right, saying one thing and thinking another. What gives?
In Learning from Shogun, Henry Smith, who doesn’t hesitate to point out Clavell’s errors when he sees them, concedes that on the point of duplicity and treachery Clavell understands the Japanese mindset quite well:
“Clavell was scarcely deviating from historical reality in his heavy reliance on the theme of duplicity to build the plot and create the driving suspense of his novel. While this undeniably perpetuates the Western stereotype of the Japanese (and other Asians) as ‘inscrutable’, one must realize that the stereotype was in full flower in the era of Shogun. Consider the advice of the pilot Rodrigues to Blackthorne: ‘Never forget Japmen’re six-faced and have three hearts. It’s a saying they have, that a man has a false heart in his mouth for all the world to see, another in his breast to show his very special friends and his family, and the real one, the true one, which is never known to anyone except himself alone’… There is little doubt that both treachery and loyalty were the central themes of sixteenth-century Japanese politics, and Clavell can scarcely be accused of exaggerating them.” (“The Struggle for the Shogunate”, pp 52-53)
Smith attributes much of Japanese duplicity and treachery to the transitional era of c. 1600, “from the utter chaos of the mid-sixteenth century to the amazingly stable and well-ordered regime of the Tokugawa shogunate a century later. It is precisely this process of transition that helps us better understand the seemingly contradictory mixture of a country which is alternatively described as in total political chaos and at the same time a paragon of law and order (p 54)”. But that’s a largely superficial answer, because the issue transcends politics. Rodrigues’ remark is a general one suggesting people conditioned more by culture than politics.
To me, the issue is pressed home most strongly in chapter 34, when Toranaga, about to invite the daimyo Yabu to be one of his vassals, asks Mariko for advice:
Toranaga: “What’s your opinion of Yabu?”
Mariko: “Yabu-san’s a violent man with no scruples whatsoever. He honors nothing but his own interests. Duty, loyalty, tradition, mean nothing to him. His mind has flashes of great cunning, even brilliance. He’s equally dangerous as an ally or enemy.”
Toranaga: “All commendable virtues. What’s to be said against him?”
On the face of it, this is rather astounding praise for a soon-to-be vassal. In a culture that values honor, duty, loyalty, and tradition above everything else, why would someone commend the precise opposite in a subordinate he needs to rely on so heavily? Toranaga is just as aware as we are (as readers) that Yabu is a backbiting shark who’s constantly itching to splash Toranaga’s head on the ground even as he’s drawn into alliance with him.
Retainers and vassals are always walking a tightrope in honor-shame cultures, keeping their lords’ interests at heart enough to not incur wrath while keeping their own interests even closer, but discreetly so as not to arouse undue suspicion, yet still enough to insure their own gains. Lords like Toranaga know the system perfectly, and as long as their subordinates mind their interests to the appropriate degree and give all due outward displays of respect, they don’t begrudge duplicity in their subjects — in fact, if they’re smart, they stand to gain a great deal by encouraging such duplicity and self-serving interests. Retainers can do a lot of dirty work for them, siphon off anger that would otherwise be directed at the lord, exploit others for profit, and other activity that carries dishonorable risk.
Looked at this way, treachery is simply the other coin side of honor-shame loyalty. One calls forth the other. Human beings are self-serving creatures, after all, and in a culture that has strong loyalist mechanisms to contravene that inclination, treachery will out in other ways — and fiercely. It makes for constantly precarious relationships: Toranaga never trusts Yabu, who indeed doesn’t get through a day without contemplating murdering or betraying him to get ahead; Omi is just as hell-bent on killing Yabu (though Yabu is oblivious to this, thinking his nephew a genuine loyalist). While lords like Toranaga of course need truly loyal retainers (like Hiro-Matsu) as their closest confidents, they also need sharks like Yabu to obtain goals otherwise out of reach. But the sharks have to be shrewd. Shrewd enough not to get caught, and shrewd enough to make everything seem loyal and honorable. In the character of Yabu, Clavell portrayed this phenomenon better than anything I’ve read in any work of literature.
Insofar as biblical parallels go, it’s difficult to light on them for the obvious reason that one doesn’t portray treachery where loyalty is expected, save in places where (shameful) treachery is the issue at hand (as in the case of Judas and Peter’s thrice denial of Jesus). And the biblical writers don’t get into the minds of their protagonists the way a modern novelist like Clavell does so well. Yet biblical specialists have been using the duplicity model to help us understand treachery in various texts. For instance, in the parable of The Dishonest Steward, we find a master commending the dishonest behavior of his own manager who cheats him, and at Antioch we see how the pillars backstabbed Paul despite the “agreement” made in Jerusalem.
In the next and final post, I’ll wrap up this series and suggest what a novel like Shogun can help teach us about biblical values.