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Gai-jin - An unworthy end to a great career.
on September 10, 1997
I was captivated by Shogun, and it sparked what has come to be a life-long fascination and study of Japan. As I learned, I recognized that Clavell's characterization of Japanese culture and this particular period in Japanese history was not entirely accurate. But he was telling a story for Western audiences, and it was an historical novel, not a history. Had he not taken artistic license, perhaps I would not have been so entranced.
The opening of Japan is one of the country's most fascinating periods, when centuries of tradition were turned topsy-turvy and the way of life was wrenched into the Modern Age almost overnight. I eagerly awaited Gai-Jin and Clavell's interpretation.
Perhaps he was old and forgetful, perhaps he was too sick, or maybe he was so important a writer that no one dared tell him, "Jim, you need to do more research before you publish this -- your Japanese characters are using Chinese(? - anyway, not Japanese) words, and phonemes that aren't even in the Japanese language. You've given men's names to women, and bonze (Buddhist priest) names to young men who haven't retired to the priesthood, and your leading Japanese character only has half a name." (Yoshi is a sometimes a modern nickname, but for a "full" given name like Yoshinobu, Yoshitada or Yoshi-e. No samurai or noble would have ever used a half-name in a formal introduction.) As I read further, I found that the mistakes weren't just in the details, but even in the fundamental characterizations of the factions and forces that were struggling within Japan about what to do with the foreigners on their shores.
Historical fiction has constraints that other forms of fiction do not, and writers who choose the genre have a responsibility to their readers to provide a well-researched framework in which to cast their story. To the best of my knowledge, Clavell did this in the other books of his Asian saga, but when it came to Gai-Jin, he apparently couldn't be bothered. I felt cheated, and did something I have never done before: halfway through, I threw the hardcover book in the garbage.