Shogun: A Novel of Japan
The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan
It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make men better be…
But perhaps Ben Jonson’s judgment doesn’t apply to books. At all events, here are two that bear witness to their authors’ sheer pertinacity, dedication, and stamina—qualities which, the books themselves seem otherwise to imply, are not commonly to be found in Occidentals.
James Clavell’s barn-storming (or castle-storming) epic is set in the year 1600 and concerns an English seaman, John Blackthorne, cast up on an alien shore, who throws in his lot (and his technical know-how) with the Japanese warlord Toranaga—and also with the beautiful Mariko-san, in whose breast traditional native values co-exist with adopted Catholicism. The novel testifies to an immense amount of historical and cultural research, and in one aspect could be said to be a tourist guide to medieval Japan: plainly it is based on Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory over his rivals and the inauguration of Tokugawa rule, which lasted for the next two and a half centuries—and more specifically on the true story of Will Adams, the tempest-tossed Elizabethan sailor who became Ieyasu’s tutor in mathematics and adviser on ship-building and foreign relations.
Mr. Clavell certainly makes the most (if not rather too much) of the exciting time he has chosen. In an interview printed in the Literary Guild magazine he is reported as having said that the period in question was one “that really worked. It was the King Arthur era of Japan—the big time.” An interesting statement. By Mr. Clavell’s own account it was a considerably bigger time than that of little King Arthur and his handful of worried knights, and in some ways closer to the big time of the czars of the Chicago underworld. We note, also, the curious echo of Lincoln Steffens: “I have seen the future, and it works,” though fortunately (or so in my cowardly way I feel) what Mr. Clavell has seen is the past.
Alongside this statement of the author’s we may place a reviewer’s accurate summary of Shogun. “The novel begins on a note of maelstrom-and-tempest…and teems for about 900 pages”—in which case I have been fobbed off with the abridged edition—“of relentless lopped heads, severed torsos, assassins, intrigue, war, tragic love, over-refined sex, excrement, torture, high honor, ritual suicide, hot baths and breathless haikus….” To this catalogue of attractions may be added earthquakes, grasping Jesuits, a touch of Zen mysticism (drinking tea from an empty cup), drunkenness, judo and karate and garotting, infanticide, eta (the outcasts who do the “unclean” jobs like curing leather), courtesans and scrubbers, and crucifixion (“one of the few imports from the West that the authorities accepted with undiluted enthusiasm,” remarks Ivan Morris in connection with the persecution of Japanese Christians in the early years of Tokugawa government)….
A crowded canvas, as they say. But does the book really have to be as crowded, as long, as it is? “You must remember our civilization, our culture, is thousands of years old,” the didactic Mariko-san informs her barbarian pupil, Pilot Blackthorne. And Mr. Clavell studs his narrative with potted accounts of it all. “What’s a daimyo?” “A feudal lord.” “And samurai?” “Warriors—soldiers—members of the warrior caste,” the priest replies “with growing irritation,” though this is only page 18. In backward glances at the land of the setting sun, Queen Elizabeth I gets a brief mention: “Blackthorne was filled with wonder, and deep filial love, when he thought of Elizabeth. For forty years she’s battled with the world”; and so does Shakespeare: “I like him better than Ben Jonson or Marlowe,” Blackthorne tells Mariko-san, bravely but unsuccessfully striving to keep his cultural end up.
But mostly we are kept engaged with informative tidbits on Zen Buddhism (“self-disciplining; it relied heavily on self-help and meditation to find Enlightenment”); bushido (“the Way of the Warrior, which bound samurai to fight with honor, to live with honor, and to die with honor”); seppuku, “sometimes called hara-kiri,” and how to perform it in perfect taste; tai-fun (“they’re huge winds—the worst storms you’ve ever seen,” page 104, and on page 750, in case it hasn’t sunk in, “You understand ‘tai-fun‘?” “Yes.” “Ah, so sorry”); a long, tedious description of cha-no-yu (like sex, the tea-ceremony is not really a spectator sport); the famous hot bath (and the culture shock suffered by Pilot Blackthorne, a typical Britisher, who expects to wash all over on two occasions only: before marrying and after dying); and geisha and how they came about (“I believe two classes of Ladies should be created. First, courtesans, as always—amusing, happy, physical. Second, a new class, perhaps gei-sha could describe them: Art Persons—persons dedicated solely to art”). Another historic occasion in which we participate is the conception of the Yoshiwara: “Arrangements for the Guild of Courtesans progress satisfactorily and rules and regulations are being drawn up for your approval….” And so the story drags its pedagogic length along.
Also contributing to the mileage clocked up is Mr. Clavell’s occasional device of rendering Japanese speech first in romanized form (generally but not always correct) and then in English. The problem faced by the novelist dealing with a foreign dramatis personae is especially acute in his case. A Portuguese sailor talks like this: “You can never tell with a samurai. They’re as dangerous as a pissed priest with a candle in his arse sitting on a half-full powder keg,” while an uncouth bosun. also Portuguese, propositions the Lady Mariko with “You want a quickie?” The indigenous nobility get their share of robust man-talk—“We’ve shit too many times in the same pot to want to piss on our own feet,” says one tricky daimyo to another—but they have their moments of more exalted phraseology too, including the odd breathless haiku.
All this is very colorful, and serves to differentiate linguistically between the races and the classes, though surely the insistent use of “so sorry” for “gomen nasai” is a sad lapse in tact. Most engaging, because of the poeticisms involved, are Mr. Clavell’s dealings, by current standards notably restrained, with sex—in this case the refined, native variety. “The Cloudburst feeling is so unearthly and godlike. Isn’t it?… This about the Cloudburst and the Clouds and the Rain or the Fire and the Torrent, as we sometimes call it, is very Japanese,” Mariko-san tells the lucky Britisher: “Very important to be Japanese in pillow things, neh?” Blackthorne is more than ready to agree with her, finding these pillow things a considerable advance on “rutting like a pair of stoats in the hay” with his lawfully wedded Felicity back home in smelly Chatham. Incidentally, the Clouds and the Rain should not be confused with “Divine Wind” (Shimpu), a different euphemism which we shall encounter in Ivan Morris’s chapter on the kamikaze fighters of 1944-1945.
One has to admire the creativity James Clavell exhibits, whether the subject is Jesuits intriguing or samurai urinating, creativity which has nothing to do with “art,” neither transcending it nor the opposite, but simply belonging to a world of different values. Yet, taking it as entertainment of a lurid while busily “instructive” nature, one wonders if it doesn’t suffer from its author’s touching desire à la Thomas Mann to be meticulous and exhaustive. (Even disregarding the big difference: with Mann you have to bring something to the feast: here, you simply take away.) Or is it only readers who don’t want this sort of thing who will reckon there is too much of it? Possibly it was uneasiness on this score which led the publishers to adduce Dr. Johnson’s definition of epic (Life of Milton): “An epic undertakes to teach the most important truths by the most pleasing precepts, and therefore relates some great event in the most affecting manner….” Understandably they leave out the bit about the writer’s obligation to “improve and exalt” what he takes from history “by a nobler art.” Rather less pleasingly innocent is a comment from another source, to the effect that Mr. Clavell “makes comprehensible the savage, beautiful, death-filled code of the samurai.”
Vigor without taste is not a phrase one would think of applying to Ivan Morris, the indefatigable interpreter of East to West. Yet The Nobility of Failure is not an utterly different kettle of sashimi. It is a compilation that owes much to the late Yukio Mishima, to whose memory it is dedicated, and perhaps not only to Mishima’s suggestion that (in Ivan Morris’s words) “my admiration for the beauty of Japanese Court culture and the tranquil world of Genji might have obscured the harsher, more tragic side of his country.” Professor Morris opens this set of ten “case studies” of noble failure with a fourth-century folk hero who started his career by murdering his twin brother in a privy: however, “Yamato Takeru’s status as the great romantic hero of the legendary period is confirmed by his love of poetry, the indispensable art for men and women of sensibility throughout Japanese culture.” But, not unexpectedly, his “perfect exemplar of heroic failure” is the twelfth-century Minamoto no Yoshitsune, instrumental in the defeat of the Taira clan, and later hounded by his jealous half-brother, Yoritomo, and forced to commit harakiri at the age of thirty—so perfect an exemplar of Japanese pathos that, says Professor Morris, “if he had not actually existed, the Japanese might have been obliged to invent him.”
The Yoshitsune story has provided the Japanese with favorite reading matter at all levels, with rich subjects for artists, and with plots for No and Kabuki plays—including that locus classicus of divided loyalties when Benkei, the warrior priest, is forced to beat his fugitive master Yoshitsune (disguised as a porter) in order to pass through Yoritomo’s barrier at the port of Ataka. The officer in charge recognizes Yoshitsune and, though loyal to Yoritomo, is so moved by Benkei’s anguished measures that he lets the party through. Even so, it is legitimate to point out that the general who begins by winning and ends by losing is not uncommon, nor is bitter rivalry between half-brothers, and that Professor Morris’s “heroic parabola,” the rise and fall of great men, or what in Pilot Blackthorne’s part of the world was called the wheel of Fortune, has formed the basis of much Western literature over the centuries.
The uprising led by Amakusa Shiro, “the Japanese Messiah,” against religious persecution and poverty in 1637 not only ended “in unmitigated failure,” with tens of thousands dead, but was followed by the final suppression of Christianity in Japan. The revolt led by the Confucian scholar Oshio Heihachiro in 1837 on behalf of the starving townspeople of Osaka “was an unmitigated fiasco,” the participants being hunted down “and their lives brought to an end in various painful ways.”
And Professor Morris brings us into the twentieth century in his final chapter: a consideration of the kamikaze fighters, a phenomenon (as he makes clear) more significant spiritually than militarily. Thus, an officer in a suicide-torpedo unit explains to a young volunteer that “a nation had to suffer and be purified every few generations, so that it could become stronger by having its impurities removed.” And a young pilot writes before his final sortie: “We were bubbling with eagerness. Shinkai and I swore to each other we would sink the largest ships we could find. I thought of my age, nineteen, and of the saying, ‘To die while people still lament your death; to die while you are pure and fresh; this is truly Bushido.’ Yes, I was following the way of the samurai.” Pathetic, yes, but when Rupert Brooke talked like that, we dismissed it as sentimental and even pernicious rot—and at least he didn’t suggest that, in the event of failing to die in battle, you should take steps to kill yourself.
If we take it as segments of Japanese history, presented with Ivan Morris’s customary authority and stylishness, there can be no objection to this book: or only to the overload of notes perhaps, for surely the layman will not want this heavy apparatus (it adds 150 pages to the book) or the specialist need it? Yet the admiration which one is invited to feel for these expensive losers prompts the reflection that, noble failure or ignoble success, the accompanying slaughter is very much the same—and much of it among those innocents whose only ideal is to survive decently. Another reflection prompted by both of the books under review, and by others, is that what the West has learned about the Japanese in recent decades is largely confined to the abnormally good or the abnormally evil, to the superhuman or the inhuman. Of the merely human, neither great monsters nor great heroes, we have heard little: they remain, indeed, a silent majority. And that is a pity, for they are truly interesting.
“It must be terrible to be born barbarian—terrible,” comments one of those savage, beautiful, death-filled samurai in Shogun apropos of Blackthorne’s brutish inability to grasp the philosophy of the tea-ceremony. It may be the case that Western civilization is going down the drain, helped on vigorously by its own hard-earned virtues as much as by its vices. But if so, is there any need to kowtow on the way down? Would you honestly like to be born a samurai, a geisha, a Japanese Messiah, or a kamikaze pilot—let alone one of those innocent by-standing peasants whose heads were lopped off to try a noble’s sword?
A last thought. The Japanese, let’s remember, are masters of the miniature, believing (like Ben Jonson) that “In small proportions we just beauties see,” and an old haiku comes to mind.
O lonely pine-tree
Spare a little of your bark For my love poem…
Painstaking also takes paper, and between them these two books must have accounted for a small forest.