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Shogun and the Universal Truths of Fusionism

By Matthew Malec

The recently concluded mini-series, Shogun, based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel, is a sprawling epic with beautiful camerawork and excellent acting. Shogun is more than a great work about 17th-century Japan, however. It draws attention to truths that are just as relevant today as they were halfway across the world more than 400 years ago. For a society to be maximally conducive to human flourishing, it must balance individualism and collectivism. Getting this balance right has results in a respect for human rights, a strong civil society, and a healthy state. A proper balance also prevents amoral Machiavellians from hijacking political power. 

Enter the world of Shogun. When English Captain John Blackthorne arrives on the beaches of Japan in the 1600sCo, he is a typical anti-hero: Not morally upright, but daring, gritty, and fun to root for. He is also in over his head trying to navigate Japanese honor culture. On several occasions, Blackthorne’s tendency toward irreverence and disrespect nearly gets him killed. It seems clear that the captain would be better suited for the untamed American West than hierarchical Japan.

On top of his general disdain for a culture he sees as overly rigid and formal, Blackthorne is singularly focused on getting back to his ship and continuing his war against the (Catholic) Portuguese. What he fails to understand is that he cannot do this alone, and nobody wants to help him. He is an atomized individual, hopelessly drifting and subject to the whims of others. The Portuguese want him killed, and the Japanese want to use him, both for his political value and his powerful English cannons. When the powerful Lord Yoshii Toranaga tells Blackthorne his war against the Portuguese is pointless, Blackthorne replies “Unless I win.” His determination is commendable, but no one wins a war alone. Blackthorne finds peace only after embracing his situation and forming genuine bonds with the Japanese.

Those on the right who cherish individual liberty can learn from Blackthorne. First, it is impossible to achieve a large-scale victory alone. Success comes through working in established institutions and building coalitions. It’s true that the federal government is bloated, and our fiscal situation is dire due to irresponsible spending. Yet, Rand Paul’s rants about the issue in the halls of Congress aren’t solving the problem. Paul’s convictions are sincere, but there is little appetite for his political vision. He (and other libertarian-conservatives) need to make allies and grab incremental victories where possible.

Eventually, Blackthorne embraces Japanese traditions. He practices bowing and learns to be appropriately respect those with more status. He even uses Japanese customs to achieve his goals, threatening to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) if Lord Toranaga does not stop killing his people. Even the savvy Toranaga backs down to ensure his prized admiral survives to build a fleet.

When John Blackthorne was an isolated Englishman, he had no chance of surviving in the long-term, never mind thriving. But by operating within the established political system, and striking a balance between obedience and boldness, he was able to flourish. In the series finale, Toranaga again asks him about his war with the Portuguese, but Blackthorne has moved on, calling it a small war. Only by letting go of England and its war was Blackthorne able to join the Japanese community and find fulfillment.

However, none of this is to say that Japanese honor culture is not without excesses, or that Japan would not have benefited from more respect for individual rights. In one of the very first scenes, Toranaga is insulted by his enemies, and one of his men speaks out to defend him. No blood is shed, but punishment is doled out to the man and his infant son. He is forced to kill his child and then himself, leaving behind a young widow. There is no conception of individual responsibility. Dishonorable actions result in devastation for one’s entire house, and death even those who are completely innocent.

An even deeper problem with society being so communal is that well-intentioned people can be exploited by the selfish, and Toranaga is the master of this exploitation. In early episodes, Toranaga appears to be an honorable lord being persecuted for political reasons, and while his enemies are no saints, they are entirely justified in suspecting he has an appetite for power. Toranaga has his eyes on displacing the true royal line and becoming shogun, seizing absolute power for himself.

Toranaga manipulates his way to the top by exploiting honor culture and using people’s loyalty to further his goals, even if it means death for his closest friends. Lord Hiromatsu, Toranaga’s loyal second-in-command, committed seppuku when it appeared Toranaga was going to surrender as part of a ruse designed to make Toranaga’s surrender appear sincere. Hiromatsu actively supported a plan that led to his death out of loyalty to his lord. On the one hand, this is noble and honorable. On the other, it is senseless, and any society that condones it is essentially giving its highest lords a blank check to use people as cannon fodder. In this case, it also doesn’t work. Neither Toranaga’s enemies nor the Portuguese believe he is actually surrendering. Hiromatsu is an excellent servant, but he ultimately dies for nothing, even from a utilitarian perspective.

Toranaga pulls the same move again a few episodes later, and this time it does swing the conflict in his favor. This time, he chooses Lady Mariko as his sacrifice. Mariko is the disgraced daughter of Akeshi Jinsai, who murdered Japan’s ruler, about the lowest act one could commit in a society with such strong deference to those of high status. Afterward, Mariko’s whole family was killed, she was only spared because she was recently married. But her marriage is an unfulfilling one to a military hard man, and she often talks about wanting to die.

While some might see her sacrifice as empowering, this is not what human flourishing looks like. She achieves her twofold goals of serving her lord and an honorable death, but she only craves death because her society failed her. She has no family, is stuck in a dead-end marriage, and has no real purpose. Thus, it is unsurprising to see her fall for Blackthorne, an exciting man who makes her feel alive and treats her like a person. To him, she is an individual with thoughts and feelings, not just a cog to be used or the last vestige of a disgraced family.

Toranaga’s triumph is not one of a virtuous ruler leading Japan to greatness. He is shrewd, but his victory comes at an immense cost. In addition to Hiromatsu and Mariko, his own son dies a pointless death (though Toranaga did not orchestrate that one), and while mourning his son and Hiromatu, he says “You have earned me some time. I will not waste it.” Toranaga is a cold-hearted Machiavellian, but honor culture makes it virtually impossible to question him, no matter how unscrupulous his leadership is. It is also worth noting that Shogun is historical fiction, and while the show ends before Toranaga displaces the true heir that he purports to be protecting, in history, he is not only amoral, but a traitor.

Toranaga exposes the dangers of blind loyalty to one man, and conservatives must be careful to avoid this same trap. Regardless of what one thinks about Donald Trump, he has inspired blind loyalty unlike any other Republican leader. Even if Trump has many great policies, this is dangerous and can lead to a lack of principle, or being surrounded by flatterers who obfuscate the truth. And while Trump may be the man of the moment, he likely won’t be the last charismatic populist Republican. And even if one comes along with more tact and virtue, conservatives should not blindly follow this person.

One of conservatism’s great virtues is that it understands that human nature is flawed and no one is infallible. Plans that come from the top down should be debated and even viewed skeptically. At its best, conservatism starts with the family, then builds out to civil society, and only then to a limited government that gives these smaller units the space they need to thrive. There is no (earthly) savior lying in wait. Whether coming from populists or post-liberals, we should be wary of any calls for regime change or working outside of the constitutional system that has served us well for nearly 250 years. When conservatism loses its skepticism and begins to look toward utopia, it has already lost.

The only answer to the challenges conservatism faces is a revitalized fusionism that focuses on limiting government and objective morality while working within our constitutional framework. Fusionists must cling tight to first principles, including distrust of human nature, and maintaining the ever-precarious balance between respecting individual rights and ensuring people have the communities they need for true fulfillment. If we do not step up, something else will fill the void, and it may well be a Toranaga-esque figure with little respect for rights and a thirst for power.

Shogun also offers one final lesson to conservatives. Throughout the show, Christianity looms in the background. The Catholic Portuguese are constantly out to get Blackthorne, labeling him a heretic and a pirate. Whether they really believe he is a heretic or not, they are clearly more concerned about him for political reasons than theological ones. For them, religion is little more than a prop, a view also prevalent in today’s secular age. Donald Trump is selling Bibles for $60, and some national conservatives look to figures like Victor Orban or even Vladimir Putin for inspiration about how to respond to the West’s decadence. But to say that Hungary and Russia are Christian nations is simply wrong. By any measure, Hungary is far less religious than the United States. Only 17% of Hungarians attend worship services monthly, and only 14% say religion is very important in their lives, low numbers even for Europe. Orban may call Hungary a Christian country, but his claim is untrue. He effectively promotes cultural conservatism through religious language, but Hungary is lacking in true faith. Russia is even worse. The Russian Orthodox Church is just another arm of Putin’s propaganda apparatus, calling the invasion of Ukraine a “Holy War.” Unsurprisingly, this has not drawn Russians to the pews, with just six percent of them attending church several times per month, including just 43% of those who call themselves believers.

This concept can be seen in America as well, with 30% of Evangelicals saying that Jesus is not God. Evangelical is taking on a connotation distinct from Christianity, one that tends to be associated with political conservatism. Healthy Christianity cannot be politicized in this way. In lieu of genuine revival, Christians need to preach the Gospel refuse temptations to bend it to politics. Strong religious institutions are a vital part of civil society, distinct from the political realm. When the lines become too blurred, politics becomes existential, intolerance increases, and religion becomes watered down, just like it is for the Portuguese.

Another virtue of conservatism is its respect for the past and awareness of how much we can learn from it. Japan in 1600 and modern America are incredibly different societies, and yet so much of politics remains the same. Fusionism represents America’s best hope for a conservative revival because it holds the most universal truths. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 states, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” 

Matthew Malec is a Research Assistant at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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