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Book Review: Gai-Jin by James Clavell

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This is the third book of James Clavell’s Asian Saga. Two years ago, I read the first book, Shogun, and a year ago, I read the second, Tai-Pan. Both were huge mammoth books, and the third installment is nothing different.

I suppose there are times in which I sort of disliked this book, but then later I realized that I only “disliked” it because I was expecting something else. But before I get into the critique, let me give you an idea what this book is about first.

This is an epic, a saga, and thus, the plot of the book cannot be easily contained by a few select words. This is a novel about Japan in 1862. As such, there are plenty of characters, and plenty of plots and sub-plots that intertwine and intermingle.

The main source of conflict is the dealings between the foreigners (gaijin) and the Japanese. The foreigners are represented by the diplomats and the traders. Of the diplomats, there are mainly the representatives of the United Kingdom and France, but the Russia, United States and Switzerland also make minor appearances. With respect to the traders, there are two big trading houses that play big roles, Struan’s and Brock’s (which were both introduced and were the main source of conflict in the previous book). Lastly, within the foreigners, there’s the pivotal role of Angelique Richaud, a Frenchwoman, and Philip Tyrer, a British translator.

In the side of the Japanese, there are actually two big factions here: the Bakufu, the legitimate Japanese federal government; and the shishi, the rebel samurai whose goal is to bring Japan back to its previous state, when the Emperor had full power.

These so far are the players. Now for the themes. One big theme in this novel is the clash of cultures. Every person, whether foreigner or Japanese, thinks that one’s culture is superior to the other. Everyone has a spirit of egocentrism, always thinking that the other person is rude and barbaric. The foreigners think that the Japanese are barbaric, and vice versa. It’s actually a mean and impressive feat that Clavell achieved here, as I find no character I like. Having grown up in several different cultures, I have learned to accept different cultures and be open-minded to others. Thus, this attitude of superiority was actually quite annoying to me as I was reading it. I think that if I find myself hating a character, it’s because the author has made it realistic enough to agitate me. And in this book, every character was quite agitating.

Another theme is sex. Believe it or not, sex features a lot in this book. There’s the issue of concubines and mistresses, geisha and courtesans. There’s also penis envy and kama sutra, but Japanese style. The Japanese are portrayed to be rather conscious of the largeness of the foreign penises, but they save face by assuring themselves that they know more about how to use it, and ridicule the foreigners by saying that they are so ignorant when it comes to sex. Somehow, at one point, I found this talk of sex to be tiring, thinking whether it is really the case that people think about sex all the time. But then I guess that is true, even in this modern age, sometimes even in the most serious affairs, we sometimes step out of our seriousness and mentally undress people in the back of our heads and enjoy a brief erotic moment.

Intrigue is heavy in this book. In fact, this book breathes of intrigue. People whisper information to one another, and people play mind games to the umpteenth degree. I cannot narrate all of the different intriguing details here, and still do justice to the book. You just have to read it for yourself.

I liked the fact that this book is big enough that there’s something that anyone will like. There’s military action; there’s diplomatic espionage; there’s even a psychological thriller. All in a thousand-page historical novel. Perhaps it is the quintessential saga.

What I didn’t like is that there are too many things going on, but then, come to think of it, it’s not a run-of-the-mill novel. It is a saga, so there should be too many things going on. I guess I just didn’t like the fact that at times, I find myself forgetting about some detail that was written a few hundred pages back, and gets picked up again later. There are just too many people and stories to keep track of.

Overall, it’s a saga, and it delivered. This book packs a mean punch. And for fans of historical fiction, this is fiction based on historical events. I may have some complaints, and this book isn’t perfect, but it’s close. I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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About Jeruen Dery

  • Glenn Contrarian

    James Clavell is my favorite author, and Tai-Pan is my favorite book – even more so than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It’s probably because I identify so much with the main character Dirk Struan – I mean, I’m not nearly so full of testosterone and I certainly am not rich or powerful…but it’s the cultural differences and similarities and a few especially embarrassing misunderstandings (I’m surprised I didn’t wind up dead in a ditch) described in the book that in many ways mirror my own experiences in the Far East. I also liked Clavell’s efforts to show the importance of honor and noblesse oblige among friends and even among enemies…and even though such concepts are seen differently by different cultures, they’re still every bit as important – and not necessarily bettor or worse than the classical English sense of honor.

    Another part of Clavell’s books with which I strongly identify is the struggle to overcome racial prejudice, because I grew up racist and then – like Clavell’s characters – spent time in the Far East and found out not only that people really are the same everywhere…and that sometimes we Westerners really are the barbarians.

    I guess you could say Clavell’s books let me know that people have for many years been learning the same lessons that I did, that I wasn’t alone on my journey.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Jeruen –

    I read your blog and that’s pretty interesting – my wife and sons are in Quezon City right now. My youngest son is registering for 4th-year high-school (he went there last year and liked school in the PI better than in the states), and my oldest just got his MBA and should be teaching at a university there soon…and once things are settled here stateside (I think it will be another 18 months or so), my wife and I will retire there.

    One of the major lessons I learned in my travels in my time in the Navy is that no, one does NOT have to live in America to live a happy life. In fact, it seems to me that the people in the PI tend to laugh and smile more than here in America. That, and there’s some truly nice places there. If we ever have the money, we’ll move to Taguig (it’s nicer than any part of any city I know of in Washington or Oregon)…but neither my wife nor myself want to live too far away from the family in Sampaloc.

    You know the nice places there better than I do – but it certainly has its share of problems. One of the BC conservatives asked me why I would ever want to live in the Philippines instead of America…so I wrote this article in reply. The first part of the article is quite depressing…but I think you’ll strongly agree with the last couple pages.

  • Hello Glenn,

    Thanks for the comments. What a coincidence that you have family here in the Philippines! I read your article, and yes, there are times when I think that living in third-world countries sometimes gives benefits that living elsewhere doesn’t.

    My father is a diplomat, which is the main reason why my childhood is this patched up experience of living in various places around the world. My school transcript is so complicated, a combination of forms from various different schools from various different countries. Perhaps this is the main force behind me thinking that me and my culture isn’t superior, that there are other ways of thinking out there, and it would be worth learning about them.

    I’ve been living in Buffalo, NY since 2005. I do admit that living in the United States is easier than living here in the Philippines. And yet there are problems that living in the USA brings too. These sometimes makes me think that if I can avoid it, I would find another place to settle down, if I can. The fact that the USA is rather too conservative for me, the fact that people such as Sarah Palin has the power to exert political pressure, the fact that people burn Qurans and ban mosques from being built, the fact that same-sex marriage is still not permitted at the federal level, these are just some of the things that make me think twice with respect to whether I should settle in the USA or not.

    At this time, I am only in the USA to get my doctorate. After that, it’s open. I’ll cross the bridge when I get there.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Buffalo! Brrrrr!

    My wife much prefers the cooler weather here in Washington state…while I love hot weather, always have.

    I agree that America’s too conservative by half – they’d be shocked by how well-accepted bakla are in the Philippines. And I can imagine what would happen if someone decided to burn a Qu’ran in Manila…but people there would not do that! They are more sensible, more pragmatic, whereas it seems that people here tend to be so dogmatic in their political beliefs.

    But I’ve got a quick story about my first public encounter with a bakla. I was in the SM mall in Sampaloc and I went to the CR. While I was relieving myself, the guy in the urinal stall next to mine leaned over to look at…well, you know what I mean. I wasn’t offended at all – I just chuckled a little bit because I knew that it was just a part of the local culture. Besides, the guy was curious – there just aren’t that many white guys in Sampaloc!

    Last year when I was stateside my wife and I had invited a good friend of ours (retired Navy like me) and his wife and their son and daughter-in-law over to dinner. After dinner I told them about the encounter at SM, and the wives and I all laughed about it. My friend also chuckled but was obviously a little uncomfortable at the concept, and his son didn’t laugh at all – he was shocked and said that he didn’t think he’d ever go to the PI after hearing that!

    Well, I’m liberal and my friend and his son are strongly conservative…so I guess their reactions were to be expected.