Elizabethan Englishman John Blackthorne has just shipwrecked off the coast of Japan after following sailing directions stolen from a Portuguese ship. He had hoped to sail to the island nation to help break the Jesuit/Portuguese monopoly on trade with Japan. With his crew, first welcomed by peasant villagers, he is tossed in a pit and humiliated by Yabu Kasigi, a feudal lord.
Some of Blackthorne’s men suffer torture and horrifying deaths (such as being slowly burned alive in boiling water) before one of the aides of Lord Toranaga Yoshi, the president of the Council of Regents, intervenes for political purposes. Toranaga then suggests that Lord Yabu have Portuguese captain Vasco Rodrigues transport the English sailors through high seas and storm to Osaka as a gift for Toranaga.
On the journey, Blackthorne is allowed to briefly steer the ship. One day, Captain Rodrigues goes overboard, and Blackthorne convinces Yabu to endanger his own life to save Rodrigues, given Yabu’s feudal obligations. Likewise, Lord Toranaga endures confinement in the Osaka fortress because of his obligations as one of five regents to the prince. Blackthorne is thereby caught up in what he gradually discovers is a civilization full of greater intrigue than even the Elizabethan court. He soon becomes a tool of Toranaga, who uses him to break out of the trap of his archrival, Ishido, and to fulfill his own destiny as emperor, or shgun.
Toranaga, who uses his underlings as chess pieces in his political intrigues, is quick in cleverly manipulating his pawn, Blackthorne, to exploit his knowledge of Westerners to prepare a strategy for expelling them from Japan. The first step is to break the hold of the Jesuits, including Father Alvito, as the only court translators. However, Toranaga must do so indirectly. His plan is to imprison Blackthorne in a hellhole that usually ends in prisoner crucifixion. He arranges for his protection, however. He also makes sure that Blackthorne connects with the anti-Jesuit father Domingo, who teaches Blackthorne the Japanese language and talks about Portuguese and Jesuit trade secrets. Toranaga hopes that these secrets will be passed to him by Blackthorne. When Blackthorne has learned enough, he is taken out of prison to what he expects to be death. Instead, he becomes part of the next stage in Toranaga’s plan: to gain a refined education at the hands of the lovely Lady Mariko, who agrees to teach Blackthorne a more complex understanding of the Japanese language and culture.
Blackthorne’s culture shock moves from initial delight to revulsion at practices he finds beyond the pale of human behavior. Gradually, however, he begins to accommodate himself to the new ways, such as baths and codes of honor, partly for the sake of survival and partly because he begins to understand the logic. He also begins to see his own men from a distanced and disdainful perspective. Lady Mariko is an essential part of this acculturation, for she enables Blackthorne (who falls in love with her) to see her world and to see his world through her eyes.
As he comes to admire the skill and courage of Japanese samurai and warlords, Blackthorne unknowingly becomes the “falcon” of the Japanese warlord Toranaga, who had saved his life with an ulterior motive and who tests Blackthorne’s abilities and reliability. Blackthorne, in turn, saves Toranaga’s life from Ishido’s assassins and becomes a samurai. He plays the madman to help Toranaga leave Osaka disguised, misdirects the enemy to help him reach his forces, and then accepts a deal whereby...
(The entire section is 878 words.)