You might miss it being so entertained, but Shogun serves a didactic purpose: to educate us about honor-shame cultures through the lens of medieval Japan. The problem comes with Clavell’s repeated contrasts between “Japanese” and “Christians” (the appropriate contrast is between Japanese and Europeans), since Christianity is the product of an honor-shame world, the ancient Mediterranean, originally upholding values which find curious parallels in samurai-dominated Japan.
I chose the themes of suicide, duty (“love”), homoeroticism, and treachery, because I believe they hit the western reader of Shogun most strongly as “alien” in the context of the narrative. Samurai were ever-ready to die for the sake of honor, and kill themselves at the whim of a superior; they didn’t experience love, at least not primarily as affection, rather a strong sense of duty and attachment; they had very accepting attitudes about sex, both hetero and homo; and they often matched loyalty with as much duplicity and treachery, making dangerous allies.
We saw how these values worked in the ancient Mediterranean. Martyrdom was highly esteemed, influenced in various degrees by the pagan noble death theme; and assisted suicide was an acceptable practice in the Greco-Roman world. Love was primarily about duty. Homosexuality was normal and widespread, though there were taboos against it in Israelite tradition for reasons pertaining to idolatry. And as in all collectivist cultures, duplicity, hypocrisy, and treachery were simply expected, since truth had more to do with appearance than reality, and an individual’s publicly defined self had to match what others expected instead of what he or she really wanted.
That the bible became co-opted by cultures in which the above values are foreign intrusions is one of history’s greatest ironies. Western laws come down mighty hard against suicide — even in Sweden, where assisted suicide isn’t proscribed, assisters have been charged with manslaughter. Martyrdom tends to be associated with fanaticism. Many of us are frightened of death, and we have a remarkably diluted experience of it. The bodies of our relatives are taken straight off to mortuaries and then to the cemetery or crematorium, unlike the “primitive” custom of keeping deceased bodies at home for a few days prior to burial; on the other hand, we are bombarded with images of death on TV/video-screen, whereby death becomes trivialized. Love is a romantic ideal, and again, the way it’s portrayed on TV and film accentuates our affectionate inclinations. It’s true that we’ve become more tolerant of homosexuality, but between consenting adults, and out of commendable crusades against bigotry. The mentor-warrior model has faded from the human scene. And finally, while Americans and Europeans can boast as many hypocrites and backbiters to be found anywhere, our role models at least teach us that treachery and duplicity are wrong and should be transcended whenever possible. I’m certainly not faulting western attitudes here, only underscoring how they clash, either explicitly or implicitly, with the biblical principles used to justify them.
Shogun remains one of the most engaging novels of all time, and almost two decades after first reading it, I still say it’s the best which brings to life an honor-shame culture. Clavell gets inside the minds of his characters to the extent that we begin adopting their views despite ourselves, just as John Blackthorne did.