Rounded Rectangle: FACT BEHIND FICTION
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A section from

‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II




Gai-Jin - James Clavell


Historical Background


In 1603 the third Shogunate (military dictatorship) was established in Japan; beginning an era of isolation for the geographically cut-off island nation. Foreign trade was limited to a small outpost in the south, religious freedom was curtailed and the already sidelined emperor was further sequestered. This period of isolation proved to be a boon in the long run for the ordinary Japanese population.


Commodore Matthew C. Perry landed on Japanese soil in 1853 after the Japanese could no longer hold off the threat of the technologically superior American navy. The Commodore imposed an unequal treaty on the Japanese in order to protect American interests that came along to open Japan once more to trade and commerce. As a virtually untapped market, Japan was very attractive to these and other businesses that had set themselves up in the orient; British, French, Dutch and Russian diplomats turned up along with numerous trading outfits to milk the market.


James Clavell’s fictional trading house - Struans is based on one of these outfits that was headquartered in Hong Kong and sped to Japan to tap the opportunity. Following the Noble House were their arch rivals - Tyler Brock and sons; their rivalry being one of the main plots of the Asian Saga.




Japan 1862.


Struans – the magnificent English trading company with a mythical aura has played host to many of Clavell’s heroes; Dirk Struan (Tai-Pan) and Ian Dunross (Noble House) being two of the ablest. Contrasting the eras of these two giants are the failures and tragedies of Struans, and the unlikely saviours that emerge from the ruins.


Gai-Jin is a narrative of the trials of the new tai-pan (supreme leader) of Struans – Malcolm Struan. Chronologically this book brings James Clavell’s other favourite dynasty – the Toragaga Shogunate’s struggles together with Struans for the first time.


Yoshi Toranaga – the direct descendant of Shogun Toranaga (Shogun, 1600) is a kingmaker in Japan. He is (1) embroiled in a vicious power struggle with his peers in the Council of Elders on one front, (2) occupied with bringing the inbred and outdated Shogunate up to speed with the rest of the world on another, and (3) saving his own skin from assassins and other imperial loyalists on the third.


The depth of Yoshi’s cunning is detailed by an enemy giving advice to a mole in Toranaga’s camp:


‘Remember, all of us here, men and women, have three hearts, one for all the world to see, one for their family, and one for themselves alone. Certain men have six hearts. Yoshi is one of these. He is your goal, the one for whom you must be the foil.’


Malcolm Struan is still a minor when he is given the title of tai-pan (supreme leader) after the untimely death of his father. Tomented by injury and self-esteem issues, Malcolm is besieged by deception at the hands of more experienced adversaries – especially Tyler Brock & Sons – sworn enemies of Struans from a lifetime ago.


Linked to Malcolm is the story of Angelique Ricaud – a beautiful French adventuress who has enamoured the entire business community in Japan with her beauty and charm, especially Malcolm. The match is opposed by Malcolm’s mother - Tess Struan, who despite her physical absence asserts influence on the entire gai-jin trading and military community in Japan. Mother and lover’s affections for Malcolm make them despise one another, and grudge the others influence over the young tai-pan.


Only then did she look at the photograph – the first of his parents that she had seen. On the back was October 17th, ’61. Last year. Culum Struan appeared much older than his years, forty-two. Tess neither old nor young, pale eyes glazing directly at Angelique, the thin line of her lips dominant.


Tess turned thirty seven this year. What will I look like when I’m her age – in nineteen years, more than twice my age today? Will I have the same hard cast to my features that shout an unloving marriage and crushing family burdens – hating her father and brothers, them hating her, both sides trying to ruin each other – that began in her case so romantically, eloping and married at sea. (p.914)


Underlying Malcolm’s story is the over-bearing influence that his mother has on him and the immense pressure that falls on his shoulders not only as a young tai-pan, but also as a survivor of a near fatal and deliberate attack. The legend of Dirk Struan – founder of Struans haunts not only Malcolm but also Ian Dunross in the book – Noble House.


The story is filled with intricate sub-plots of assassinations, political upheaval and espionage, all played out by ninjas, courtesans, generals, soldiers, imperial loyalists and power brokers. At stake is Japan itself – for the Shogunate, the Imperial Court, the colonizing English and French military’s and the trading houses whose entire foundation is built on opium dealing and gun-running.


The setting of the story is not far from the Meiji Restoration, when Emperor Meiji abolished the Shogunate and restored the monarchy. Reading about Yoshi Toranaga’s attempts to restore the Shogunate to its former glory is like waiting for a disaster. The inevitable downfall of the Shogunate is at odds with Yoshi’s own little fiefdom. As an old-school samurai who eschews overt displays of power and influence Yoshi embraces the first Toranaga Shogun’s teachings and strategy and wields even more power than the emasculated Shogun or the cornered Emperor. As an agent of the Shogun, Yoshi takes on the shishi – revolutionaries against the shogunate.


Fact Behind Fiction


According to


Wikipedia says that the fictional trading company – Struans is based on Hong-Kong based conglomerate Jardine-Matheson, whose history mirrors that of Struans. Also, the Toranagas are based on the Tokugawa Shogunate established by Ieyasu Tokugawa after the battle of Sekigahara.


The two main characters – Malcolm Struan and Yoshi Toranaga are based on real people. Malcolm’s character is said to be based on Jardine-Matheson tai-pan William Keswick, who established Jardine-Matheson’s Japan office in Yokohama. Yoshi Toranaga is based on Tokugawa Yoshinobu – the 15th and last Shogun of the Tokugawa. In 1867 Yoshinobu stepped down and returned power to Emperor Meiji.


Historical Background and the Book as a reflection of Japanese Society


The Tokugawa Shogunate lasted for around two and a half centuries, a period that came to be known as the ‘great peace’. The entire country was united after centuries of anarchy and fragmentation. Needless to say martial skill suffered during the ‘great peace’. Samurai seldom saw battle and spent most of their time in castle towns with ceremonial weapons, armour and functions. Bushido went from being an art that was practiced and lived, to a science that was studied and praised.


After the Battle of Sekigahara in the beginning of the seventeenth century Ieyasu Tokugawa was the only remaining general of consequence in Japan. Though the emperor was the ruler of Japan, his power was purely nominal. Ieyasu promised the emperor and his family financial backing and assumed for himself the title of ‘Shogun’ or military dictator. Thus was established the Tokugawa Shogunate.


Ieyasu Tokugawa – a brilliant strategist immediately put into place systems which ensured that his family’s position was ensured while keeping all his subjects in control through the practice of ‘keeping hostages’. Ties were established through intermarriage and business. The lords and samurai were encouraged to spend lavishly so that they would remain in debt and would become accustomed to a life of luxury, always easily intimidated by the military dictatorship whenever required.


This strategy is reflected while Yoshi Toragana reads the first Toranaga Shogun’s legacy:


‘At the same time,’ he wrote in his Legacy, a private document for selected descentdants, ‘ following Shoguns are ordered to encourage all daimyos to build extravagantly, to live elegantly, to dress opulently and entertain lavishly, to quicker to divest them of their fief’s yearly revenue of koku which, by correct immutable custom belongs only to the daimyo concerned. In this way all will soon become debt ridden, ever more dependant on u s and, more important, without teeth – while we continue to be thrifty and eschew extravagance.’ (p.106)


The Tokugawa kept a firm grip on the nation, but were nevertheless blindsided and power slipped away. The profits generated by the extravagant spending of the daimyos (lords) remained in the hands of artisans, peasants and merchants because tax collections remained unchanged for the entire duration of the Shogunate. The samurai – whose purpose was duty to the master, had always held merchants in low esteem. Indeed in Japan’s stratified society merchants were the lowest class below artisans and peasants. Artisans and peasants on the other hand were subject to immediate decapitation at the hands of samurai for any real or notional slight. By the nineteenth century however, the samurai were in deep financial trouble; they were purely consumers without any productive function in society. Inevitably they had to give up their honourable retainership and take up any job that was available to feed their families.


Akimoto hesitated . ‘I heard from my father.’ He began haltingly but soon the words were pouring out. ‘A letter came through the mama-san at Kanagawa… there’s famine in the village, in the whole area, your family is hurting too, so sorry to tell you. Two of my little cousins have died. Three of my uncles gave up samurai class and their swords – they sold them as part payment for debts to the money lender, swords that were used in Sekigahara – to become fishermen, at least they are working the nets for boat owners, dawn to dusk, to get a little cash! (p.807)


It was the flexible Japanese population that prospered. With exposure to the west through the merchant ships that brought international trade to Japanese shores, the merchants, artisans and citizens that adopted a relatively more materialistic view made money and gave employment increasing productivity.


Hiraga sighed. He had noticed that anything to do with ‘business’ immediately got gai-jin attention. Poetry, not at all, calligraphy nothing, sword-forging a little, politics, yes, but only as it affected trade, but an opportunity to sell something for a profit – anything, a ship or a canon or cup or knife or length of silk – brought instant results. They’re worse than rice dealers! Their food is money.


References and Further Reading


1. The New Penguin History of the World – J.M. Roberts

2.        The Third Shogunate - A exclusive


All Copyrights reserved by the Author/Publisher of the book.




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Tokugawa Ieyasu established Japan’s third shogunate in 1603. His success was due also to two previous warlords who ruled Japan prior to him.

(Image: Wikipedia)

Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the American Navy.

(Image: Wikipedia)

A Yokohama foreign traders market illustration

(Image: Wikipedia)

Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913), an old-school samurai and a dangerous and cunning adversary; he was the model for the character of Yoshi Toranaga

(Image: Wikipedia)

Illustration of the Namamugi Incident (1862); unprovoked samurai attacked a party of foreigners leading to a confrontation between diplomats and militaries.

Malcolm Struan’s injuries were as a result of this attack.

(Image: Wikipedia)

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