Of Ancient Oriental Customs
Nov. 26th, 2004
James Clavell certainly had his work cut out for him when he chose to write his "Asian Saga" series of novels. Exposing the customs and culture of the ancient Orient is a daunting task for even the most qualified professional. However, to do so with an intriguing and entertaining medium is verging on impossibility. Until the last two centuries, both China and Japan remained time capsules that held within them unique societies based on radically different values and perspectives. This national seclusion in China and Japan was a direct result of the countries' trade policies and their view of foreigners. Both countries believed that their country was truly the "land of the Gods" and that all foreigners were inferior. This belief lead to laws that acted as force fields to repel Western society. Clavell's in-depth biography explains how Clavell spent part of his life as a prisoner of war in Japan (JamesClavell.net, par. 2), and thus was able to couple his experiences with his natural gift of story telling. Throughout James Clavell's novels Taipan and Shogun, Clavell cleverly intertwines the plot with beliefs and customs of ancient Hong Kong and Japan, respectively. Clavell does not merely present the oriental culture, but he incorporates all of his characters in the process of portraying the different aspects of their way of life. In doing this, Clavell is able to educate the reader without losing their interest. Throughout the two novels, Clavell stresses the importance of "face" and honour to the Oriental cultures. Early on in the novel Shogun, Clavell opens the reader's eyes to the absolute importance of honour. Honour, in Japan, came in many forms. A person of low status was always expected to honour a superior by treating them with the utmost respect. One of the most important ways to pay respect to a superior was by bowing to
them. Clavell demonstrates that this ritual of bestowing honour was extremely important when one man is purposefully disrespectful by "rise[ing] deliberately, without bowing" (Clavell, 1975, 34). The astonishing result of this disrespect is that "the [superior's] killing sword made a hissing silver arc and the man's head toppled off" (Clavell, 1975, 34). Although this seems extremely ridiculous and uncalled for, the reader realizes that if a samurai broke their code of honour, or bushido, then they had shamed themselves forever. When this occurred, their life no longer had meaning and was disposable at the will of their superiors. The dire importance of honour creeps up again in the novel when a young samurai, Usagi, dishonours himself in front of his lord, Toranaga. Usagi is present when Toranaga is conversing with his enemy, Ishido. Usagi overhears the disguised insults that Ishido is insinuating and jumps forward in preparation to kill him. In doing this he dishonours himself in two ways: by showing that he was eavesdropping on his lord's conversation, and by implying that Lord Ishido was being impolite. Toranaga's quick response is to tell the young samurai that he "[has] no honor and no self-discipline [and that he] will be crucified like a common criminal today" (Clavell, 1975, 218). Even though Toranaga knew that Ishido was insulting him, he was obliged, by their customs, to severely punish the young samurai for dishonouring himself. The punishment here was extremely grave as crucifixion was seen as the most dishonourable way to end one's life. The concept of honour in the Japanese culture re-occurs at various points in the novel and is the cause for many conflicts that further the plot of the novel. Each of these conflicts, and the repercussions that occur when characters dishonour themselves, show how being honourable was essential to living in the Japanese society.