Ryotaro Shiba: The Last Shogun

Shiba, Ryotaro (2004), The Last Shogun, Kodansha International
[translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter]
ISBN 978-1-56836-356-1

When Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Tokyo Bay (then Edo Bay) in in July 1853, and demanded that Japan open its ports to European tradesmen, he set in motion a process of revolution that completely transformed Japanese society and politics. Japan at that time was ruled by a military administration, the Shogunate, the rule of which was a complex interaction of bureaucratic mechanisms and a wielding of dictatorial power, a post held by one family (and its collateral family branches), the Tokugawa. The Tokugawa Shogunate’s dominion had been established by military successes, and it rested on a balance of power between the different Japanese nobles and warlords. The Japanese emperor was head of state in name only, having no military or financial power, whereas the Tokugawa were one of the country’s richest clans; its fabulous financial assets one of the main sources of the Tokugawa strength. The changes that European pressure effected led to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and to a restoration of the Emperor’s standing, albeit within a constitutional monarchy, with limits to his powers. Although Western-style democracy had not been introduced until after 1945, the so-called Meiji Restoration was significant in moving Japanese politics into modernity, abolishing an intricate feudal society for a more open, enlightened one. The period between the day Perry and his threatening ships appeared, and the day the Shogun stepped down and a new constitution was introduced, is an endlessly fascinating one; in historical studies like Conrad Totman’s eminently readable The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, for example, it proves to be an incredibly engrossing subject of modern historiography. Books like Totman’s, however, also show how obscure many aspects of the period are, how elusive certain details and motivations.

This is one of the reasons why The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, a good historical novel by Ryotaro Shiba (or Shiba Ryotaro), is such an eminently interesting read. There are a plethora of flaws in this relatively slim book, but despite all them, The Last Shogun is highly recommended if you like either historical novels or have an interest in the period. It’s author, from the evidence of this novel, would not be amiss in the company of historical novelists more common on Western bookshelves like Stefan Zweig or Hilary Mantel. Beneath the ebb and flow of its history, there’s also a mind at work with insights into his culture and past not unlike that of major thinkers as Masao Maruyama. The Last Shogun, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, was a runaway bestseller upon publication in Japan in 1967, and its author one of the most popular novelists of his day. Unlike Yasunari Kawabata, Kobo Abe or Yukio Mishima, Ryotaro Shiba is relatively little known outside of Japan, with only a handful of books translated into English. Before Carpenter’s translation in 1998, no other books have found their way onto American or British shelves, as far as I know. Since then, notable translations have included The Tatar Whirlwind, translated by Joshua Fogel and Drunk as a Lord, translated by Eileen Kato. The Last Shogun is a completely bewitching book, and an odd fiction, as well. In about 250 pages, Shiba manages to tell the story of a life spent in the heart of power, and a tragic, very brief reign, as well as the story of a country changing irreversibly, shedding its feudal skin, opening up to enlightened ideas and politics. Shiba throws names and events at us, without blinking, without long sentimental introductions.

The shifts between certain events can be brutal, as he makes no attempt to fatten up his story with unnecessary décor and small exotic subplots. If you have any experience reading low-quality books in the genre, you can almost see where writers like James A. Michener would insert flowery prose and emotive stories, but he goes beyond merely evading trashy filler in his elliptic history. At times, this spareness is tantalizing, especially since The Last Shogun is not, in fact, told without any digressions, but the small detours that do occur are precise and dense with significance and symbolism, more often than not consisting of one or two pages at most detailing a particular observation or event, and it’s almost never repeated. There is a pause, for example, when he offhandedly asks of his mistress to be ready to commit suicide when he embarks on a dangerous mission. Or gruesome moments, as when a close adviser is killed and the narrator observes that “every time a sword had penetrated the flesh, there had been a soft sound, like the sound made by hitting a rubber ball.” These moments are rare, though, especially compared to the enormous amount of history, replete with names and dates. This wealth of names and details, however, is never overwhelming for the reader, which, one assumes, is due in part both to the translator and the particular edition here. The edition helpfully contains maps, a glossary, a list of characters and a genealogy of the Tokugawa family, as well as a highly informative introduction by Frank Gibney, journalist and vice chairman of the Board of Editors at Encyclopædia Britannica, to make sure we do not get lost in the sea of the history of a country and culture that is not ours.

It must have been slightly different for Japanese readers. The Last Shogun, originally serialized in a newspaper, was one of many successful books by the author about the period, and his long and prolific work has created a sense of trust and respect in the Japanese reading public. Indeed, his gluttonous reading habits and his endless curiosity had helped unearth and popularize historical figures not well known before they became a subject of one of Ryotaro Shiba’s novels. This respect explains the utter lack of references, footnotes or historiographical defensiveness. Shiba spins his tale, assailing his readers with what he proposes to be facts and is done with it. It’s not a romance, it’s pretty serious about is history and yet Shiba is so confident he refrains from all explanation and commentary, giving us sometimes little more than the bare details. However, as readers of the translation, we don’t really know exactly how bare the details were in the original, since Carpenter is pretty cavalier about staying close to the text and prides herself in her “Translator’s Note” on having “slipped in a bit of explanation” “here and there”, or, indeed, on “having done a bit of trimming as seemed necessary”. This is, I shit you not, the full extent of her explanations of the changes she made to the text. There are no footnotes by her, either, pointing out changes, or explaining what would have made the “trimming” seem “necessary”, or how much “here and there” or “a bit” really is. It’s the sort of thing that usually makes me put away a book unread, and as a reader, I can’t help wondering how much editoring Carpenter has done. How much does this book still resemble the book Shiba wrote? Is this book better or worse than the original? The fact that the language is the single worst aspect about the book, musically wooden and lexically uninventive, does not bode well for Carpenter’s competence in making these cuts and additions. But in cases like this, we have to take the good with the bad, and state the obvious: we can complain all we want about Carpenter’s meddling and her cavalier explanations (or lack thereof), but the fact is, without Carpenter’s efforts, I wouldn’t have been able to read this book at all. To be honest: I wouldn’t even know its author had ever existed, and my life and my shelves would be poorer for it. There is an invaluable service that translators provide, yet one hopes that some of them would be more careful and considered about it.

The Last Shogun, readable despite or because of Carpenter’s meddling (either could be true) spends less time with momentous events like the devastating battles that marked the death of the Shogunate’s and forced the Shogun to leave Japanese politics altogether, than it spends with his youth, and the turning points in his life. The Yoshinobu that Shiba describes to us is a true polymath, incredibly gifted at intellectual tasks as well as at sports and artisanry and craft. Shiba largely skips battles and fights and focuses instead on rhetorical battles, showing us a man who will forgo a fight and try and engage his enemies in a discussion instead. Yoshinobu, whose office represented the height of Japanese feudalism, is painted by Shiba as an enlightened ruler, for all intents and purposes a precursor of the Meiji era. The word meiji appears to mean something like “enlightened government” and Shiba’s Yoshinobu is the epitome of the enlightened ruler as so many philosophers envisioned him. Few studies of the period focus as intensely upon Yoshinobu as Shiba does in his novel, and so the depiction of Yoshinobu seems a bit fanciful, less a realistic portrait of a historical character, as Shiba’s idealized version of him. In the characterization of Yoshinobu we find a powerful cocktail of positive and negative traits that perfectly explain some of the obscure points I mention earlier. Yoshinobu’s fear of being branded a traitor and his obsession with the reading and writing of history serves, for example, as an explanation for the lack of military resolve that the administration showed at the time, the lack of military forcefulness, which Totman is a bit puzzled about. However, these ‘explanations’ are not, strictly speaking, about historical accuracy. Instead, Shiba took pains to create a narrative for modern Japanese history that established a continuity from the Tokugawa Shogunate to post-WWII Japan. History, for Shiba, is not just an accumulation of facts and factoids, it’s about understanding the foundations of contemporary society in the dark recesses of the past, as any good historical novel does, really.

Sometimes, reading a book like The Last Shogun makes one worry about knowing too little about Asian and especially Japanese literary traditions, because one feels that Shiba makes use of a mixture of traditional phrasings or descriptions, and individual ones. This feeling stems from the fact that Shiba’s ideal, pacifist, pro-Enlightenment narrative reads very different from other descriptions of Yoshinobu that keep praising him effusively in an almost unmediated fashion. Part of the book read less like a novel and more like formulaic praise for an Emperor, dictator etc. by a loyal subject, the kind of rote praise that we have, most recently, heard from the coach of the North Korean side at this year’s World Cup. It doesn’t really add content, but what it does is add texture. Whatever the tradition or Shiba’s reasons for including it, one of the effects is that the stiff, ritual nature of Yoshinobu’s time feels real and palpable for the reader. This is a period, after all, that is very far from ours, its customs often strange and alien. We don’t immediately understand the extent of the breach of protocol that allowing a council of advisers to smoke and eat sweets in the presence of the Shogun, for example, entails. The book (and Carpenter) refrain from explaining or telling us; neither do they offer us human interest stories to make the culture and its strictures more relatable to the modern reader. Shiba expects us to go with it, to understand it, if not the exact reason for the ritual, then the bare fact of it, the restricted and tightly woven nature of political and private acts. The frequent, odd praise is an excellent stylistic tool to achieve this. We don’t feel the restrictiveness as an alien, invasive force on our sense of privacy, this is not Arthur Golden nor James Clavell, after all, but we have a vivid sense of it, a sense that helps us understand, but that doesn’t evoke negative feelings or exoticist sentiments. It’s hard to describe, but the effect is interesting and helps balance the incredibly wooden writing which is the main problem of the book.

Not reading Japanese, it’s impossible to say whose fault it is, but the writing reads very translated, stiff, sometimes extremely awkward. Given the fact that Shiba was a popular novelist, one is tempted to assume that the fault is with the translator and her lack of writing skills in English, but it’s really too close to call. The result, however, hampers the reading of The Last Shogun, making it less evocative and sumptuous than it could be. This is a problem, because the book clearly banks on being a popular novel more than a literary masterpiece. The structure of the book is conventional and simple, completely chronological. The narrator is an omniscient third person narrator, moving the story along, contextualizing events and explaining Yoshinobu’s motivations. This is so simple, it feels almost rote, and depends for success in part on the language. The writing is never quite really terrible, and might not even have been as remarkable for its problems in an aesthetically more ambitious book. But in as simply structured a novel as this, the stiff style sticks out like a sore thumb. The complexities of the book are not aesthetic, they are political. As mentioned, Ryotaro Shiba writes in the tradition of such luminaries as Stefan Zweig, the Austrian writer who specialized in fictional biographies. Zweig was a highly political, strongly engaged writer who viewed the encroaching political darkness in Europe with great concern. An unwavering pacifist, he stood for the idea of an enlightened Europe, a Europe of thinkers, writers and artists, and took his own life when the horrors of WWII appeared to swallow the whole world. Shiba is just that kind of writer, and his depiction of Yoshinobu as a ruler with the heart in the right place (but the head firmly caught in feudal ideals), a pivotal figure who overcame his own inhibitions, his own flawed perceptions to sacrifice his political career and even his family fortune in order to allow modern Japan to rise from the war-torn feudal kingdom that was rife with intrigue and strife.

There is much to admire in the novel, despite its faults. There is the precision and spareness of its telling, the clear eye for salient detail, and, paradoxically, it helps us understand modern day Japan more than it helps us understand Meiji-era Japan. Like Zweig or fellow historians like Theodor Mommsen, the titan of German Wilhelminian historians, Shiba is concerned with the tensions in his own society just as much or more than with the subject he describes. The conflicts between pro-Western and nationalist warlords, between proponents of monarchical, military or democratic rule, between different religious sects and directions, all this were just as prominent concerns in Shiba’s time as in Yoshinobu’s. Reading The Last Shogun, I had to think of the fascinating books of Masao Maruyama, who was also concerned with the transformation of Japan into its present state. Yoshinobu, as Shiba depicts him, was not afraid to seem weak, to go against consensus and to change his opinion if history changed around him. In many ways, he is the ideal man (and Shiba, in this book at least, is extremely androcentric, another flaw of the book). His weaknesses, as his blind elitism, are pointed out by the narrator in order to show us how far Japan has progressed. The result is admirable, sweeping and very much worth reading. This book is not a masterpiece, but one is glad to have read it. I think we all have white spots in our reading of history and its narratives. I know I do. Empathy and grievously exotic narratives just don’t cut it, often enough, but writers like Ryotaro Shiba, and books like this one can help us fill them, not with knowledge but with a deeply felt, and brilliantly conveyed understanding about the fundamental soundness of human beings and our innate capacity to change the world into a better place. It’s a tragic book about a Shogun who reigned only two years and then resigned and disappeared from the public eye until he died in self-chosen seclusion. While The Last Shogun seems in part a defense of modern Japan against monarchist loyalists and nationalists, it is also a call not to ignore historical change, but to be a part of it. That it does this without declaiming its message from the rooftops, without turning into a cheap political pamphlet is yet another reason that The Last Shogun is such a readable and recommendable book. Yes, it’s a bit slight, yes it’s an easy and conventional read, but see if I care.

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9 thoughts on “Ryotaro Shiba: The Last Shogun

  1. Pingback: Ryotaro Shiba: The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu - World Literature Forum

  2. Yes I have read Beasley’s book, twice. I have also read Marius Jansen’s excellent book on Sakamoto Ryomo and several other books about the Bakumatsu period.

  3. After reading your review, I now want to buy this as a present for a Japan-obsessed friend. (And then borrow it from him. ^_^)

  4. I’ve just placed the order! Needless to say, I couldn’t help ordering a few more books besides this one, ‘Les Bienveillantes’ among them. Did you read it? I keep wondering if it wouldn’t have been wiser just to borrow it from the library…

  5. Thank you for your in-depth review. Your review itself is an interesting read! One thing I took away after reading ‘The Last Shogun’ is the innate wisdom to do what is right. Yoshinobu gave up power because he decided its the best for Japan at that time. No one on this planet today will relinquish power for anything. That is, its so very hard to lose everything voluntarily that makes one who they are in society for the betterment of ones community. Thank you for your many insightful book reviews … my new hobby – reading and collecting books!

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