Japan 1600. After years under military dictatorship, Japan is in political turmoil. The death of the dictator Nakamura leaves a power vacuum. A council of regents rule the land in the name of the Nakamura’s son and appointed heir. The council intends to hold on to power by maintaining the status quo. One of the five regents – Toranaga has other plans. Toranaga was at the forefront of previous wars in the former Shogunates and is viewed as a potential threat to the Council, mainly because Toranaga is the only regent capable of being Shogun on account of his political and martial experience. Toranaga however swears allegiance to the Council. Toranaga however soon realizes that he is slowly but surely being pushed into a corner by the Council.
John Blackthorne - pilot of Dutch trading vessel Eramus, finds himself shipwrecked in Japan in the middle of this political flux, and eventually as a prisoner of regional Samurai chiefs who are aligned loosely with Toranaga. Adapting to his captor’s way of thinking, Blackthorne maneuvers himself into an advantageous position initially using the arms and ammunitions cargo onboard his vessel as a bargaining tool. Subsequently he works his way into Toranaga’s favour, piquing the warlord’s curiosity about European politics, ship-building and the cargo of arms.
Toranaga struggles with his adversaries for political power in the background of Japan’s unforgiving culture. Wily Toranaga patiently places himself in advantageous positions and manipulates adversary and advisor alike. However fickle loyalties play havoc with his plans, and the presence of the Englishman Blackthorne and his cargo of arms add a chaotic element in the mix.
Blackthorne finds himself fascinated with all the strange ways of the Japanese. He must come to terms with a way of life which is at odds with almost everything he holds true and at the same time juggle between keeping his head on his shoulders and bowels intact. He plays his hands well, but not perfectly in light of Japanese customs and politeness. Complicating the situation is Blackthorne’s affection for Mariko – a woman married to the son of Toranaga’s most ruthless warlord. Mariko becomes Blackthorne's translator is entrusted with guiding Blackthorne into the Japanese way of life as he becomes politically more important to the opposing Japanese factions.
Shogun is set in the time of fierce Empire-building by European nations before England had established naval mastery. A the time England was aligned with Holland but at odds with Catholic Spain and Portugal. This conflict is played out the novel between Protestant Blackthorne and Jesuit priests and pilots who have settled themselves in Japan years before Blackthorne arrives.
The novel spans a period of six months before the end of the era of he Warring States in feudal Japan.
James Clavell has styled most characters after historical characters. William Adams – the first Englishman in Japan is the inspiration for Blackthorne, while Tokugawa Ieyasu is Toranaga’s model.
William Adams is often referred to the first Englishman in Japan, or as the Englishman who went to Japan in the year 1600 and became a Samurai.
Adams piloted a Dutch vessel – De Liefde and was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan. Adams met Ieyasu Tokugawa and was asked about European politics, religion and navigation. He was an advisor to Tokugawa but his true standing can only be speculated. Being foremost a businessman he resolved his earlier disputes with the Jesuits in favour of commercial dealings with them. He was known in Japan as Anjin-Sama or the pilot and subsequently took the surname of the town he based him self in – Miura. He died in 1620 leaving a Japanese wife and their two children, and a wife and daughter in England. Adams never left Japan.
Much more information is forthcoming on Toranaga’s inspiration Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose dynasty’s reign of the Shogunate lasted over 250 years and brought forward sweeping changes to Japan’s social and commercial fabric. As a general of the former Warlord-dictator Hideyoshi, Tokugawa had deep insight into and vast experience in Japan’s martial culture. His ascension to Shogun marked the end of a long period of civil warfare and unrest in Japan. His rule also ushered in a period of isolation from most of the world with virtually all foreigners being banished from Japan and foreign travel for Japanese being banned.