When James Clavell picked up one of his nine-year-old daughter's school books one afternoon in London, he came upon an intriguing bit of history. He read the following sentence from the text: "In 1600, an English
man went to Japan and became a Samurai" (1). Fascinated by the story, Clavell began to read everything he could find about this historical figure, Will Adams. For his research, Clavell had to make several trips to Vatican and Japan. And as for his final
result, Clavell produced a 800+ page novel which became his third novel, Shogun. Since its initial publication in 1975, Shogun remained in a bestseller list for 32 weeks. Since then, fifteen million copies of Shogun were sold worldwide by 1990. A seve
ral adaptations of the book were made, including a highly successful five-part NBC miniseries in 1980 and a Broadway musical in 1990. Even to this date, Shogun undoubtedly is one of the most widely read books of the 20th century.
One of the critical success factors of Shogun can be attributed to its remarkable narrative that keeps readers turning hundreds of pages of the book. Almost all the critics acknowledged Clavell's gift of storytelling. Webster Schott in the New York Tim
es Book Review praised, "Clavell has a gift?It may be something that cannot be taught or earned. He breathes narrative. It's almost impossible not to continue to read Shogun once having opened it" (2). Even Clavell said of himself, "I'm not a novelist,
I'm a storyteller." Some critics attempted to explain Clavell's gift of storytelling by looking at Clavell's unusual background as a writer. Before Clavell became a full time writer, he had worked in the movie business where he scripted, directed an
d produced several famous films during the 50s and 60s. During this time, Clavell seemed to have successfully developed his talent in carefully constructing movie scenes that are skillfully developed so that the story would flow naturally from one scene
to the another. This is evident in Shogun where the story is led by a scene in each chapter that keeps on alluding to the next chapter, and the next and so on. Because of Clavell's skillfully crafted narrative in each chapter, it is no wonder that the r
eaders would want to keep reading the next chapter until the book is finished. Washington Post Book World's Bruce Cook stated, "Scene after scene is given, conversation after conversation reported, with the point not merely of advancing the narrative (wh
ich does somehow grind inexorably forward), but also of imparting to us the peculiar flavor of life in feudal Japan" (3).
One cannot forget the extraordinary amount of research Clavell had to go through in effort to produce the accurate world of Shogun. Many critics marveled at Clavell's ability to research. The New York Review of Books's D.J. Enright said of Shogun that
it "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" (4). Even though Clavell did not see himself as a Japanese scholar, he acknowledged that he had to research e
verything about Japan from Zen Buddhism to eating utensils. In order to find about the Jesuits at the time of Shogun, Clavell also had to make several trips to Vatican (5). His efforts seemed to have paid off. Because of his attention to the smallest d
etails in his book, Clavell was able to transport the readers back into the time of 17th Century Japan and let them live through the story. Schott comments, "Clavell creates a world: people, customs, settings, needs and desires all become so enveloping t
hat you forget who and where you are" (6)
Another reason for Shogun's popularity may be for its highly exotic subject matter. Since the 1931 publication of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, the first best selling novel about the Chinese culture by an American, none of the Western writers had attemp
ted to fully research and write about the Far Eastern culture in such a detail. Furthermore, during the 1970s, globalization was occurring in the business world where new technologies now enabled fast traveling and communication methods across the globe.
As Americans came in contact with more and more foreign cultures around the world, curiosity blossomed and American readers were more than ready to read a story about a foreign place with strange customs. A story about an adventure of an English sailor
who gets shipwrecked in medieval Japan came in for a perfect timing for American readers to satisfy their curiosities. From the above-mentioned review, New York Times Book Review's Schott offered further praise for Clavell: "James Clavell does more tha
n entertain. He transports us into worlds we've not known, stimulating, educating, questioning almost simultaneously" (4)
The growing interest in Japanese culture among the Americans can be no exception as a contributing factor for Shogun's success in the later years. With the advent of imported Japanese products such as cars and electronic equipment taking over the Americ
an market in the late 1970s, U.S. businesses were starting to have a hard time when competing with the Japanese companies. As a result, many layoffs occurred in several manufacturing sectors and many people began to put the blame on the Japanese. Meanwh
ile, many others who still had the image of Japan devastated in the aftermath of the Second World War wondered how the small island without any natural resources could have developed so rapidly to become one of the America's fiercest competitors. Busine
ss leaders who were anxious to successfully compete with the Japanese decided to send their executives to find out exactly what made the Japanese businesses advantageous over the American businesses. Most of those who came back from Japan reported that c
ertain Japanese business concepts and philosophies such as Just-In-Time inventory system were different and generally favorable in efficiently managing businesses. While Americans studied and tried to adopt the Japanese way of thinking and doing business
, interest in Japanese culture developed. By this time, Shogun was out in the market, ready to feed the hungry imagination of American audience. With the help of the book, an American version of the Japanese culture was instantaneously formed.
The NBC's airing of the Shogun's thirteen-hour miniseries in September 1980 gave another boost in its sales figure after five years from its initial publication. Directed and produced by the author, the miniseries not only helped in promoting the book
sales but it also was a spectacular success that had a tremendous impact in American culture. Newsweek reported that "[Shogun] rang up ratings second only to those of "Roots" with nearly 75 million people watching each episode." It also added that, "Th
e epic about medieval Japan also set off a wave of Shogun chic. Bars sold out their supplies of sake, boutiques reported runs on kimonos. Some Japanese restaurants quickly added Shogun specials to their menus, or turned over private dining rooms to Shogun
watching parties. Pop-cultural trendies began sprinkling their conversation with words like arigato (thank you) and wakarimasu (I understand)" (5). On the morning after the first episode, a San Francisco bookstore received orders for 1,000 copies of Sho
gun. With this anticipation in mind, Dell publishing company, which had sold 3.5 million copies of the paperback version of Shogun since 1976, published 3.1 million copies of a television tie-in edition beforehand (6).
In commenting what he wants his books to accomplish in the future, Clavell stated that, "? my concern is with the people who read my books for pleasure. Hopefully, I can give them pleasure; hopefully, I can entertain them; hopefully, I can pass on a litt
le information which I find interesting. And hopefully-perhaps-I can be a bridge between East and West" (7). Clavell exactly did that with his Shogun. With his best selling novel, Clavell entertained many readers with his remarkable narrative and passed
on lots of interesting information about the exotic world of Japan in 17th Century to those Americans who were unfamiliar with the Japanese culture. And his tremendous influence on the American popular culture, Clavell indeed became the bridge between th
e East and the West.
(1) Gorney, Cynthia. The Washington Post. February 4, 1979.
(2) Schott, Webster. The New York Times Book Review. June 22, 1975.
(3) Cook, Bruce. The Washington Post Book World. July 13, 1975.
(4) Enright, D.J. The New York Review of Books. September 18, 1975.
(5) Unger, Arthur. How Japanese can a Westerner Feel? The Christian Science Monitor. September 15, 1980.
(6) Schott, Webster. Ibid.
(8) Samurai Night Fever. Newsweek. September 29, 1980. p.51.
(9) Walters, Ray. Paperback Talk. The New York Times. p. 43.
(10) Teachout, Terry. James Clavell, Storyteller. National Review. November 12, 1982.