On Shogun

It’s sheer coincidence, of course, that there’s a reboot of the classic tv miniseries Shōgun the semester I’m running my perennial Samurai: History, Literature, Mythology class, with the finale airing in these last weeks of class. I couldn’t have planned this if I tried. I haven’t watched it yet, myself, but fortunately I don’t have to (though I probably will before this event, just so I know what people are talking about) because some of my favorite scholars are tackling the question: https://mjha.org/event-5672414

MJHA Roundtable: Remaking Shōgun – Historians Assess
Thursday, May 2, 2024 | 7:00PM-8:30 PM ET | REGISTER FOR ZOOM https://rutgers.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJcqd-6prj0jGdEz_dQvqh6-gh5q5mW_Xa2g

Featured Panelists:

• Mary Elizabeth Berry, Class of 1944 Professor of History Emerita, University of California, Berkeley
• Eleanor Hubbard, Independent Scholar
• Morgan Pitelka, Bernard L. Herman Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
• Henry Smith, Professor of History Emeritus, Columbia University

In the wake of the latest television remake of James Clavell’s celebrated novel Shōgun, a panel of distinguished historians of early modern Japan and England will consider what the shows and novel get right and wrong about history, examine how interpretations of the story and the source material have evolved over time, and look back on nearly 50 years of teaching with (and against) Clavell’s tale of an English sailor in late Sengoku Japan.

As I said to my students when I announced this as an optional event for our class, I noted

  • Mary Elizabeth Berry is one of my favorite historians, as I’ve probably said over the course of this semester, and getting to study with her in Berkeley is still one of the highlights of my career: she’s written on Hideyoshi, most famously, but also on 15th century Kyoto and 17th century Edo publishing culture. She once said that she really respects the people who make historical dramas, because they have to commit to things being a certain way, whereas historians can always fall back on ‘well, we don’t know for sure…’
  • Morgan Pitelka is an old online history blogging friend [and longtime Frog In A Well member!], and author of the book on samurai culture that I assigned for graduate reading.
  • Henry Smith is one of those people that gets called “the dean of American Japanese Studies” because of his work at Columbia over the course of the last sixty years or so. Most immediately relevant is his work as the organizer and editor of Learning from SHOGUN: Japanese History and Western Fantasy, a teaching text based on James Clavell’s original novel published right about the same time as the 1980 TV event. http://www.columbia.edu/~hds2/learning/
  • Eleanor Hubbard, I don’t know personally, but it looks like she’s a historian of 18th century English naval history, so she has some solid qualifications to talk about the non-Japanese side of this story.

And here is the commentary that I’m sharing with the class:

It’s a good thing, probably, that I have very little memory of watching the first TV version of Shōgun before my family went to Japan, so it really didn’t affect my experience living in Nagoya. I know I read Clavell’s novel at some point after that, but very little of it made an impression, except that it felt stilted and exaggerated. I was a sci fi kid, not a historical novel kid, and mostly I figured that it was historical fiction and not to be relied on. Professionally, as a historian and a teacher, my feeling about historical fiction is still mostly that it’s usually not good history and often not very good fiction.

I am not going back to reread Clavell, or rewatch the old series, or try to keep track of the historical figures that Clavell renamed to see if I could catch mischaracterizations. Personally, I think it’s hilarious that they kept Clavell’s pseudonyms for obvious historical figures: “historical” but also somehow not responsible for the blot on the family escutcheon. [That’s a Gilbert and Sullivan “Pirates of Penzance” joke, I don’t expect anyone to get it. I mean that using non-historical names means that Clavell, and his various derivative producers, are not bound by any factual rigor] This is, as so often happens, in contrast to the marketing (and internal signals) which bangs on about the authenticity of the period language (the Japanese, anyway, not the English and certainly not the Portuguese that everyone is supposed to be speaking when they’re speaking English) and costumes and architecture. All of that is true, and it’s even true that the values the characters profess constantly and loudly did exist in the literature and culture of the period, though it’s hard to believe that there was so much conflict between them on a daily basis.

Shogun is a romance, not a history. It needs a conflict of values to resolve, rather than a conflict of political economics or tactics. So the first part of the story is laying out the values and institutions that must come into conflict to frustrate the heroes. The second part of the story is the playing out of those conflicts and the various attempts to circumvent those strictures. The finale is the triumphal application of those values to the forces that block resolution, a reconciliation of culture with sentiment. That’s because it is, in classical terms, a comedy in which the heroes achieve success (but a modern one in which some do not survive and everyone is a little sad) rather than a tragedy in which the conflict of values and emotions is unresolvable and failure is inevitable. Clavell was not trying to tell the history of the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or even to educate about the culture and values of Japan. Clavell was trying to set up a conflict in which his characters could strive, rise and fall, and give his readers an experience of adventure and emotional catharsis. This is why I don’t use historical fiction in my teaching, or enjoy it much outside of teaching.

For most of the other historical commentary, I’ll defer to Learning from SHOGUN and the roundtable Thursday night. The only thing I’ll say about the 2024 production is that the incessant use of shiny metallics in the clothing is very dramatic and probably not period authentic, and the opening credits remind me of nothing more than a Marvel cinematic universe series.

Anyone else out there have thoughts?


  1. Lucky for me, I have Modern Japan in Fall (if it makes) so I will have not have to deal with this right off.

    For what it is worth, I have not seen the new version, and I am pretty sure I saw all of the old version. I did read the book. It was not bad. I have seen people on-line saying that it is a white savoir story. I assume they have not read it. The Will Adams character is Dr. Watson, who is there to have things explained to him so that the reader will understand a story that is (as I heard somewhere, but am not sure the dates work) ripped off from Eiji Yoshikawa’s Taiko. I recall a lot of Orientalist stuff, but at least the political bits are good enough that you could use it to talk about things. Well, if the book was not 10,000 pages long.

    I do use historical fiction in my teaching, or at least Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace in my freshman non-majors course, since it traces the history of Asia through a Burmese/Indian family, and since it is widely taught kids can pass all the on-line quizzes without reading the book, and those who do will enjoy it and sometimes we can talk about how the author (a person from India) is working through his thoughts about the national past through the book. Not sure Shogun works as well for that.

    Also, since it is James Brown’s birthday, I will mention that at least for me, there is no longer any point in using his noodle ad
    to talk about the connection between Japanese and Western culture. Three years since anyone had a clue who he was.

  2. “I have seen people on-line saying that it is a white savoir story. I assume they have not read it.”

    The 1980 miniseries was more like that than the book, for sure. The current version leaned even harder into the ‘Europeans are the real barbarians: smell them’ stuff than even the older one.

    I don’t mind fiction written by insiders, as long as it’s mostly focused on the contemporary. You can talk about meaningful stuff without having to pass through filter after filter. But straight-up historical drama by non-Japanese is just unusable, as far as teaching is concerned.

  3. But straight-up historical drama by non-Japanese is just unusable, as far as teaching is concerned.

    I would love to do a Barry Hughart or Robert Van Gulik class, but I don’t think I have the nerve.

  4. Oh, yeah, or even James Clavell, who worked through a huge swath of East Asian history. I’m a little fascinated by the way exotic historical fiction (for lack of a better term) handles historical change and events, but how to teach this without falling into a bottomless pit of fact-checking?

  5. P.S. I was reminded during the roundtable (https://youtu.be/w9s3D4HXlU8): while the depiction of “Toranaga” aka Tokugawa Ieyasu is of an ambitious man but one who is basically loyal to Hideyoshi’s child heir, beset upon by enemies who mostly hate him for no good reason, that only works up to Sekigahara in 1603. Any history after that would have to contend with the fact that Ieyasu took power for himself, relegated the Toyotomi to their Osaka territories, and eventually initiated a full-bore war against them at the first opportunity, obliterating the family in 1615.

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