Gai-jin Analysis

Gai-jin (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the seventh century the Japanese people came together under the temporal and spiritual leadership of the Emperor. But centralized power was difficult to sustain, and a feudal structure arose which accorded spiritual power to the Emperor while temporal power resided in the Shogun. In 1603, a new Shogun seized power, sealing Japan off from outside influences. This was the tale that James Clavell presented, with a certain amount of literary license, in SHOGUN. Meanwhile Europeans were developing significant trade connections with China. Commercial ties, supplemented by military power, forced the Ch’ing dynasty to cede the island of Hong Kong to Britain—a series of circumstances which furnished the framework for Clavell’s TAI-PAN.

Commerce must forever seek new markets, and it was inevitable that the Western powers would seek to expand into Japan. It was equally ordained that the Shogunate would decline in vitality—a process of dynastic decay which was only accelerated by the granting of trade concessions to the Western nations in 1858.

The stage was set, therefore, for confrontation between gai-jin (foreign) expansion and those Japanese determined to avoid cultural genocide and territorial partition. Thus, Malcolm Struan, Dirk (TAI-PAN) Struan’s grandson, must contend with the machinations of Toranaga Yoshi, the grandson of the Toranaga who first appeared in SHOGUN. All things are as they were then, save occasional alterations in family names, the sequence of events and sometimes the historical record itself.

Clavell is the master in the realm of historical fiction. Few indeed are those capable of bringing the past so vividly to life in its most intimate aspects, and he is unequalled in the development of complex plots and multiple characters.