Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Train Reading - Shogun: William Adams, Ieyasu and the rise and fall of the Shogunate

One of my favourite books was James Clavell's Shogun. I say was because I haven't read it for many years. I must buy another copy. I suspect that I would still enjoy it.

I mention it now because yesterday I plucked another book that I hadn't read of the shelves for my train reading, Richard Storry's A History of Modern Japan (Pelican, 1960). There  I found reference to the remarkable story of William Adams, the real person on whom Clavell based his hero on Shogun.

I hadn't known that Clavell's English sailor John Blackthorne was based on a real person, nor what a remarkable life William Adams had had. I leave it to you to read the Wikipedia entry (link above) to see what I mean.

I chose to read Storry's book as a break from the constant swirl of current events. I knew a little of Japanese history, but had not expected it to be so interesting, nor to have so many resonances to current events.

Shipwrecked in Japan, Adams became involved with Tokugawa Ieyasu, a figure of considerable power who founded the Tougawa Shogunate that controlled Japan until the forced reopening of the country to external influences by Commodore Mathew Perry and others.

In Shogun, Clavell presents Ieyasu (Toranaga) as the man who turned Japan inward to preserve culture and power from the encroaching Euopeans. That's not quite true. It is clear from Adam's story that Japanese external outreach continued. Indeed, Storry muses on what might have happened if Japan had continued open. Would there have been an earlier Japanese empire in Asia and the Pacific?

What is true is that the Tougawa Shogunate would turn inwards, largely it seems as a way of preserving its own power. The structures and culture created influence Japan to this day.

I said Commodore Perry and others forced the reopening of Japan. By the time Perry arrived in Japan in 1852, the Russian Empire was advancing in the North while the British were becoming the dominant Pacific maritime power. Indeed, Perry's visit was connected with the rivalry between the US and the British Empire and with the desire of some in the US to extend US influence across the Pacific. The only question in the Japanese case was the pattern of opening, for opening was inevitable.

The Shogunate fell in the shock of opening, with reform forces centered around the Japanese Imperial court triumphing. Japan turned to modernisation with a vengeance. The rest, as they say, is history.  


Thomas said...

History indeed! I just this week finished our year 11 Modern History topic on this. The students always find it fascinating at the rapidity of Japanese modernisation under Meiji - some 300 years completed in 30! The struggle for power (both in Asia and within the internal structures of Japan) that follows is equally fascinating.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Thomas. I can see that it would be a good topic to teach. I found the later power struggles a tad depressing because we know that it will lead to war.