Background: I'm reading Shogun, and enjoying it enormously, but the portrayal of the samurai, their families, and their subordinates as authoritarian and death-obsessed has been setting off warning bells.

It seems likely to me that Clavell has an interest in playing up the exotic and "oriental" aspects of Japanese culture to keep with his theme of cultural clash. I'm also skeptical about the sustainability of putting whole villages to the sword over trivial offenses, the likelihood that so many of the Japanese characters would be eager to commit seppuku, and the suggestion that the samurai would have been totally baffled by the Christian commitment to love and value all human life.

To be clear, I'm not looking to smear Clavell-- he intersperses the above elements with more positive depictions of the samurai, harsh criticisms of the Europeans, and a good dose of universal realpolitik to boot. I'm also interested in the theme of cultural conflict, and think it's both real and valid. But I'm also aware that so called east-west divisions are often simplified or overstated.

Question: How accurate is the portrayal of fatalistic samurai culture in Shogun?

  • 5
    Remember as well that James Clavell was a POW in a Japanese-run internment camp.
    – Shimon bM
    Aug 4, 2017 at 6:16
  • Maybe it worth to clarify if we compare Clavell to historical samurai or about the image of samurai that the Japanese themselves use in their stories.
    – Greg
    Aug 4, 2017 at 9:57

1 Answer 1


From what I've read, Clavell's portrayal of the Samurai culture in Japan is not too far from the reality.

For example, this guidance from Uesugi Kenshin (1530-1578):

Fate is in Heaven, the armour is on the breast, success is with the legs. Go to the battlefield firmly confident of victory, and you will come home with no wounds whatever. Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death. When you leave the house determined not to see it again you will come home safely; when you have any thought of returning you will not return. You may not be in the wrong to think that the world is always subject to change, but the warrior must not entertain this way of thinking, for his fate is always determined.

I'd say that, to modern eyes, that would appear as "authoritarian and death-obsessed".

As for the fatalistic approach of the Samurai, in The Making of Modern Japan, Marius Jansen observes that:

The Samurai was supposed to have a fatalistic preparedness to redeem his name and honour by the excruciatingly painful self-immolation of seppuku or, more vulgarly, "hara-kiri" to which his lord might sentence him.

Failure to carry out the order would result in the loss of name and honor, not just for the Samurai, but also for his family.

The early seventeenth-century primer of Samurai morality, Hagakure, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo provides an excellent introduction to the Samurai value system.

  • 1
    It is interesting that this idea of dying due to fear of death is found in other warrior cultures and I wonder if there is something to that.
    – Jeff
    Aug 4, 2017 at 1:21

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