James Clavell’s historical adventure novels are studies of Western and Eastern minds in conflict over power, trade, and politics. Shgun fits this pattern as well. However, Shgun goes a step further because of the special circumstances that led Clavell to write the novel.
Shgun is the product of Clavell’s attempt to come to terms with terrible nightmares produced by the post-traumatic stress syndrome he experienced after surviving the horrors of a Japanese prisoner-of-war (POW) camp at Changi near Singapore, where only one in fifteen (10,000 of 150,000) prisoners survived. On the advice of his wife, he had forced himself to visit Japan and revisit the culture that had treated him and his fellow prisoners so inhumanely and to see if by reevaluating a culture and a people, he could put to rest the past that haunted him. Shgun was the end result of this journey. As a consequence, Clavell seeks to do for his readers what he had sought for himself: discover the virtues of an “alien” people and make readers experience the extreme acculturation of one person—John Blackthorne. Clavell had Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) in mind as he captured Blackthorne’s psychological acculturation and immersion.
The novel is based loosely on real events: English captain William Adams did journey to Japan in the early seventeenth century, and his stay was manipulated by Ieyusu Tokugawa, a Japanese warlord, as a ploy against the Jesuits. However, Clavell added fictional events to make his plot serve his purposes. His strong stance against the clergy emerged because of his experiences at the POW camp. In Shgun, the clergy he attacks as selfish, manipulative, and hypocritical are the Jesuits. As a POW, he also faced a Japanese sense of superiority that was expressed in their cruel treatment of outsiders and of those low on the class scale as subhuman, objects to be toyed with sadistically. Clavell aptly represents this cruelty in the...
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