Literature / Asian Saga
The Asian Saga is a series of novels by James Clavell, set in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Iran over a period from 1600 to 1979. The novels don't form a single continuous story, but are linked together by recurring characters, and their descendants, and a theme of examining interactions between Asian peoples and Westerners.
The novels, in chronological order, are:
- 1600, Japan: Shogun (1975)
- 1841, Hong Kong: Tai-Pan (1966)
- 1862, Japan: Gai-Jin (1993)
- 1945, Singapore: King Rat (1962)
- 1963, Hong Kong: Noble House (1981)
- 1979, Iran: Whirlwind (1986)
, King Rat
and Noble House
have been adapted for film and television (with the Shogun
miniseries/film starring Toshiro Mifune
being the best known adaptation), and Shogun
was also adapted as an Infocom
computer game and a Broadway musical. Also there was a strategy game based on Tai-Pan
for many platforms, including ZX Spectrum.
This series provides examples of:
- Adaptational Villainy: Linc Bartlett in the 1988 miniseries. In the book he's popular with everyone due to his immense charm and charisma, business savvy and personal bravery. In the miniseries he's a lot less scrupulous, perfectly willing to throw Dunross to the wolves to further his own position. Most notably he seriously considers yanking Dunross' funding for the Superfoods takeover (something that will financially destroy him), something that in the book he only said to test Casey's commitment to Dunross.
- Affably Evil:
- Quillian Gornt from Noble House is a primary antagonist, and yet somewhat charming in his own way - he's a son of a bitch, but he also has quite a way with women. In fact, after he drowns (between Noble House and Whirlwind), Ian Dunross retires from being Tai-Pan of the Noble House because life is just too boring without his archrival there to compete with.
- His ancestor who founded the Gornt company is a big character in Gai-Jin, and while he isn't exactly evil, he wastes no time in trying to get Malcolm Struan's widow to jump in bed with him. Even though he founds the company which becomes the Noble House's enemy, you can't help but like him, if for no other reason than he has balls.
- Artistic License – History: Evidently, when Blackthorne was horrified and enraged by a Dutch shipmate being boiled alive, no one bothered to tell him that it had been a legal death sentence back home in Tudor England for over 50 years.
- Author Avatar: Peter in King Rat and Noble House is based on Clavell himself.
- Badass: Too many examples to list, but from Whirlwind the Finnish pilot Yokkonen who fends off a mob of protestors with a fire axe, punches his way through a road block, convinces his captors to follow him in storming a fortified compound and rescuing his wife. Also, the one commando who liberates the prison camp in King Rat.
- Shogun makes this clear: you have to be this in order to be a samurai.
- The Bad Guy Wins: One possible interpretation of Shogun, depending on whether you consider Toranaga to be the bad guy or not. He is unquestionably power-hungry, ruthless, manipulative and has no regard for keeping solemn promises he made in the past, but his combination of genuinely caring for certain people coupled with being an all-round Magnificent Bastard of the highest order makes the reader more likely to overlook his bad aspects. It doesn't change the fact that he is arguably the darker shade of gray in the Gray and Gray Morality of the book.
- Bed Trick: Shogun features a double-reverse version: after a drunken party, protagonist Blackthorne is visited in the dark by a woman he assumes to be his interpreter Mariko. Next morning, he learns from Mariko that it was in fact one of the maids. However, we later learn that it was in fact Mariko, who took the place of the maid, but didn't want him to know about it.
- Benevolent Boss: Dirk Struan of Tai-Pan knows all too well what conditions on ships are normally like, so he makes sure to pay wages on the day, in silver, and equips his ships with the best of everything. Sailors fight for the chance to work aboard one of his ships.
- Berserk Button: In Shogun, asking whether or implying that Toranaga wants the Shogunate for himself is the only thing that consistently gets an emotional reaction out of him. That being said...
- Bilingual Backfire: Played with in Shogun. Blackthorne and Mariko speak to each other in Latin when they don't want to be understood by Japanese or Portuguese speakers. Unfortunately, some enemy samurai are Catholic, and they also speak Latin. Blackthorne figures out who was eavesdropping by reciting a prayer and waiting for an "Amen".
- Blatant Lies: Toranaga resents any implication that he wants to be Shogun. Going as far as saying "Who cares about titles, power is what matters" to an envoy. They both know perfectly well that in Japan titles, even when completely removed from any real decision-making, are still potentially very important. Eventually when the Emperor is made to ask Toranaga to be his shogun, he "reluctantly accepts".
- Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": A mild, item-related example: In Shogun, Clavell insisted on calling the Kusarigama blades (which are clearly scythes) as "knives-with-curved-blades-and-very-long-wooden-handles".
- Canon Welding: King Rat was originally not part of the Saga; although it's set in Asia, it's different in style (and much shorter) than the others. Then the protagonist showed up as a supporting character in Noble House...
- Clean Cut: In the adaptation of Shogun, Englishman John Blackthorne is shocked to see a samurai slice the head off an oldster who did not bow when he was supposed to. The audience gets a great look at Blackthorne's face (and that of the Jesuit priest accompanying him) and just a glimpse of a headless neck—and vertebra—before the body falls out of camera shot.
- Continuity Nod: Noble House has countless:
- The love story between Dirk Struan and Mei-mei is a legend in Hong Kong.
- Tess Brock, now known as Hag Struan, is used to scare children, and the knife she stabbed into her father's portrait is left there for fear that she return from the grave to wreak vengeance on those who would disobey her.
- Several prominent Hong Kong brothels have a bidding war for Dirk Struan's great-great-great-great-great-grandson's virginity, believing Struan to have been the pinnacle of manhood.
- In Noble House, the Struan empire is shown to have strong ties to Toda Shipping, and one of their Japanese associates is a woman named Riko Anjin. John Blackthorne was given the name "Anjin" in Japan, and Mariko Toda was his lover.
- Corrupt Cop: Large portions of the Hong Kong police, especially Donald C.C Smyth: head of the East Aberdeen precinct and the Dragons: a group of Chinese Police officers who run a large portion of the illegal gambling in Hong Kong.
- Chekhov's Gun: The coins.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: In Shogun, Ishido (Ishida Mitsunari's Expy) is buried up to the neck in mud, and random passers-by are invited to take turns sawing away at his neck with a bamboo saw. It took days for him to stop screaming and finally die.
- Also from Shogun, one of Blackthorne's crewmates is boiled alive, a punishment that other characters in the book mention occasionally and fear greatly. A samurai also ends up getting bayoneted in the gut and disemboweled, slowly cut at and mutilated, then left to be eaten by wild dogs for his dishonorable pleas for mercy.
- Culture Clash: Occurs frequently in Shogun.
- Cunning Linguist: In Shogun, there are a few cunning linguists. Most of them are seen as villainous by the (Protestant) hero, being Jesuit monks. However, one, the Lady Mariko, is gifted with languages, being able to speak Japanese, Portuguese, and Latin fluently. She translates for Blackthorne and teaches him enough Japanese to get along by the book's end. Blackthorne himself is a subversion: His native language is English, but he's fluent enough in Dutch to serve on a Dutch ship and fluent enough in Portuguese to learn another language through it. The subversion is that he initially doesn't know a word of Japanese (not to speak of cultural misunderstandings), rendering him unable to fill the Cunning Linguist's role as an interpreter for his crew. Whereas most Cunning Linguists go from mild-mannered to badass, he does it the other way around.
- Determinator: Most of the main characters in each book go through hell and only come out in one piece thanks to this. It is noted in Tai-Pan that successful ship captains tend to be this by default.
- Diagonal Cut: In Shogun, the westerner Blackthorne is accepted as a samurai and issued an old heirloom sword as a mark of Toranaga's esteem. While riding in the country with other samurai, they encounter a peasant oil seller who does not step aside to let them pass. The warlord Oni respectfully asks to borrow Blackthorne's sword, and performs the diagonal cut on the hapless peasant. He hands the sword back, explaining that a new sword must be bloodied for good luck...
- Domestic Abuse: Several characters are this by modern standards, but are completely normal for the time. The Victorian-era Tyler Brock is shown to occasionally threaten his wife with violence, but they nonetheless have a very close relationship and are very happy togethernote . Buntaro is well within his rights to hurt or even kill Mariko by samurai law, but Toranaga is still angry with him for beating her up because she's his only interpreter, and when he chastises Buntaro he criticises him for his short-sightedness and lack of self-control rather than saying it's wrong for him to beat his wife. Buntaro is also a somewhat sympathetic case, as he does genuinely try to control himself and reconcile with her, and Mariko explicitly says that she deliberately angers him with her eternally polite and icily deferential behaviour.
- Doorstopper: All of the books save for King Rat.
- Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: In Noble House, Roger Crosse is the chief of British Intelligence for Hong Kong, who pretends to work for the KGB but really reports to London and earns money and commendations (by selling information to and selling out agents from) from both sides.
- Drawing Straws: Near the beginning of Shogun, the local daimyo orders the Dutch sailors to choose one of their number to be executed, and they use this method.
- The Dung Ages: The filth of the 16th century Europeans (confirmed by the Real Life accounts of the Elizabethan Age) is shocking to their Japanese contemporaries, while things hardly improved until the 1840s (the timeframe of Tai-Pan) among people of low birth like sailors and traders.
- Earthquakes Cause Fissures: The protagonist in Shogun gets a very powerful friend by saving him from falling down one such fissure during an earthquake.
- Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Shogun goes both ways with this trope, with some Japanese speaking English poorly, and Blackthorne struggling and even getting in trouble trying to speak Japanese.
- Eternally Pearly-White Teeth:
- The hero of Tai-Pan is the only European to have them. Proof of his moral degeneracy, as he learnt tooth care from the Chinese, who consider European teeth to be disgusting and evidence of un-necessary neglect. Most Europeans live for the day they can have the whole lot pulled out and replaced with false dentures; one rival dies when stoically ignoring an abscess, which develops into blood poisoning.
- Rodriques, the Portuguese navigator in Shogun, is said to have them—justifiably, as he is not only married to a Japanese woman (who would have emphasised hygiene) but being Southern European, likely had a far better diet in vitamins growing up (more fresh fruit), not to mention that forms of dental hygiene had been practiced in the Mediterranean countries since the Romans.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Tyler Brock, the nominal antagonist of Tai-Pan, genuinely loves his family, insists that his nemesis Dirk Struan be broken "regular" (i.e not assassinated or knifed in the back) and refuses to take advantage of his daughter Tess' love for Culum Struan. In this he actually shows more standards than Struan, who takes full advantage of it to manipulate Culum and Tess into eloping, knowing it would enrage Brock's mad son Gorth into attacking him so he could challenge him to a duel and kill him legally.
- His descendant Quillan Gornt, after a verbal confrontatation with Ian Dunross, genuinely compliments and shows great charm towards Dunross' wife Penelope. When called on it by another character, he explains that just because he loathes Dunross that's no excuse to be rude to his family.
- In Noble House Donald "the Snake" Smythe may stand as the pinnacle of police corruption - but he's patriotic enough to be genuinely enraged when the traitor Brian Kwok tries to offer him a handshake.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": In Shogun, only the ruling class have actual names: everyone else is called things like "Old Gardener" (except prostitutes who take the names of flowers). The protagonist ends up being called Anjin-san, which is a polite way to refer to his job as Pilot of a ship.
- Excrement Statement: Shogun had one of the samurai forcing Blackthorne to lie on the ground, and subsequently urinating on him, as a punishment for disrespect. Specifically for saying the words: "I piss on you and your stupid country."
- Extended Disarming: In the TV adaptation of Shogun, Rodrigues (John Rhys-Davies) has come to murder the protagonist in his home, but the household staff insist on searching him despite his protests, removing one concealed weapon after the other even though Rodrigues keeps insisting he's just there for a friendly chat.
- Faux Fluency: Yoko Shimada knew very little English when cast as Mariko in the Shogun miniseries and relied heavily on acting coaches to learn her lines. Filming took so long that by the end of filming she was much more fluent and able to do her lines with little trouble. Ironic since she was playing a translator.
- Forced to Watch: In the beginning of Shogun, the Japanese are surprised to learn that Blackthorne isn't vulnerable to personal humiliation, and even more surprised to learn that he is vulnerable to this trope. Abuse and mistreat him all you want, and he won't break; but touch one of his companions instead...
- Full-Name Basis: In the text The Snake, Donald C.C Smyth is often referred to in full rather than just his fore or surname like all the other characters
- The Fundamentalist: Whirlwind is full of them (unsurprisingly, since it's set during the Iranian Revolution). Shogun also has quite a lot of fanatical Christians (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) which again is to be expected due to the setting. Tai-Pan and Gai-jin have a few, but they're not really a plot point.
- Gambit Pileup: Especially in Shogun. Toranga is scheming to defeat Ishido and vice versa, Blackthorne is scheming to defeat Jesuit influence in Japan (and survive), the Jesuits are scheming to convert all of Japan (and kill Blackthorne), and then countless more plots from the supporting cast.
- Genius Bruiser: Quite a few characters need to be this in order to survive the intrigue and violence of the settings. Dirk Struan probably takes the cake, being a very big yet very quick man who is also a Magnificent Bastard.
- Glad You Thought of It: In Shogun, Toranaga is notorious among both his allies and enemies for his skill at this. During the massive Gambit Pileup that makes up the book, his enemies are constantly trying to figure out whether such-and-such a player is working with Toranaga, acting independently, or simply believes himself to be the latter when he's actually the former. Yabu and Omi also rid themselves of an enemy by manipulating an unaffiliated character into deciding to kill him, but the person who fell for it is well-known to be stupid and impulsive, and any intelligent characters see through it immediately.
- Going Native: In Shogun, John Blackthorne, to the point that he find his former companions "alien".
- Gratuitous Japanese: Despite being used incorrectly sometimes; in one egregious case, one character of Shogun wants to beg another not to kill someone, but she uses "dozo", which means "please [suit yourself/ go ahead]" instead of "please [don't do that]".
- Hates Baths: In Shogun, Blackthorne was afraid of baths at the begining of the story. Notably, Blackthorne is an adult, but comes from 17th-century England where a bath a month was considered overdoing things.
- Hellhole Prison: In Shogun, John Blackthorne ends up in such a prison. The prison is described as a room, where dozens of men are all stripped to their undergarments. The floor is covered in filth, the air is hot with a terrible stench and the men themselves only have enough room to stand in very close proximity, with those who lie down being too sick and near death to stand. Sick men die during the night and the rest are willing to kill each other for a bowl of rice. It's enough to drive Blackthorne into a Heroic B.S.O.D..
- Hidden Weapons: One scene in Shogun has Blackthorne, prior to acting as a distraction in the plan to liberate Toranaga's ship, borrow a few knives and start stashing them under his belt, strapped to his arm and so on. The surrounding samurai seem vaguely appalled. Later he's visited by Friendly Enemy Rodriguez, who he orders searched, turning up knives and pistols hidden in his boots, sleeves, pockets and even in the band on his hat.
- Historical-Domain Character: The pre-20th century novels feature No Celebrities Were Harmed versions of many historical figures. In Shogun, these include (in the backstory) Oda Nobunaga (under the name of Goroda) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (under the name Nakamura).
- Honor Before Reason: Being set in cultures where face is very important, quite a few characters from various books fall into this. In Tai-Pan, one of Dirk Struan's most notable characteristics is that he'd rather die or have his family hate him than lose face in front of his colleagues and enemies. His methods for getting around this problem is one of the things that qualify him as a Magnificent Bastard.
- Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: While many of the romances are between Westerners and East Asians, and so some difference in size is to be expected, Blackthorne, Dirk Struan and Erikki Yokkonen are explicitly stated to be big even by Western standards, and some of their lovers are small by Eastern standards. Malcolm Struan and Angelique Richard also have this dynamic even though they're both European, so the author seems to be fond of this trope.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: In Shogun, the samurai Buntaro nails a gatepost that is behind him with an arrow fired from inside a house. (Admittedly the walls were only paper, but still...) Not only does he hit the gatepost several times, the arrows are stated to all go through THE SAME HOLE in the ricepaper walls. He's also been drinking heavily.
- Indirect Kiss: Invoked and averted in Noble House, where Quillan Gornt stubs out a cigarette given to him by his ex-mistress, because he does not want "the taint of her lips". When he said the relationship was over, he really meant it.
- Info Dump: One of the primary storytelling strategies in Shogun involves characters behaving in bizarre, illogical ways, then explaining why at great length a few pages later. The most flagrant example comes at the very end of the book, in which Toranaga takes several pages to finally lay out all of his plans and motivations.
- Informed Ability: An unusual example in Shogun. Toranaga is repeatedly stated to be a military genius and an amazing battle commander who has never lost a battle in his life, yet the reader never actually sees him leading in a battle, and the moments when we see him planning a campaign are very brief and not particularly detailed (possibly because the author was not an expert on samurai warfare strategies). However, because we get many, many examples of his brilliance in political chessmastery and manipulation, we don't really have any reason to doubt the people who say he's a great general, so he gets away with it better than most examples of this trope.
- Japanese Christian: A recurring plot issue in Shogun.
- Japanese Politeness: A scene plays out in the Shogun miniseries where Rodrigues points out to Anjin-san how the Japanese are all about ceremony, and how breaking it has serious consequences, as a samurai beheads a peasant right there on the beach as they stroll by.
- Kangaroo Court: Whirlwind has a huge number of people executed by the hastily set-up and completely untrained religious courts, who often don't even understand their own religious laws particularly well. In one case, the victim was actually set free by the court, but the guard escorting him out applied his personal interpretation of God's will to a random occurrence and led him to the firing squad instead.
- Knowledge Broker: Gyoko from Shogun seems to know everything, and has a network of courtesans who supply her with information. In a society that values titles and military power, she manages to do much with the use of information only.
- Like a God to Me: A non-humorous example occurs in Tai-Pan, when one character tells Dirk Struan that he is God to her. He doesn't actually like hearing this, as he is a devout Christian, has been trying to have a mentor-relationship with the woman in question, and probably recognises such a declaration as the result of her slavish admiration and unhealthy obsession with him.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Shogun, which frequently switches character viewpoints without warning as we get to know everyone involved in the Gambit Pileup going on in Japan in 1600.
- Long Dead Badass: In Noble House, tales of Tess "Hag" Struan's long, cunning, and ruthless rule-behind-the-throne through successive tai-pans (chief executives) of Struan's Trading Company, and her dealings with hers and the company's enemies, were commonly discussed by the main characters.
- May–December Romance: Tai-Pan's May-May and Dirk Struan.
- Mighty Whitey: Subverted in Shogun. While John Blackthorne does eventually integrate into Japanese society, he has a lot of difficulty learning the new ways, becomes only moderately competent, does not impress people, and is usually irrelevant, except as a Spanner in the Works who unwittingly derails everybody's schemes, save for Toranaga, who plays him like a fiddle.
- The Mole: Several in Noble House. John Chen is one in Struan's for Linc. Sevrin is a soviet network of moles in the Hong Kong police and business and Brian Kwok is one for the PRC.
- Morton's Fork: The Catholic hierarchy faces one of these in Shogun - they're being pressured by both Ishido's faction and Toranaga's faction for support, with it being made clear that failure to commit or backing the losing side will result in the loss of their power and influence. Since Ishido openly dislikes them and will restrict them anyway if he wins, they decide to back Toranaga - who secretly dislikes them and will restrict them anyway if he wins.
- Nightmare Fetishist: Yabu is shown as such as a bit of a Establishing Character Moment. When one of Blackthorne's men is being boiled alive, most everyone else is kept awake and made very uncomfortable by the screaming. Yabu, meanwhile, is described as not just enjoying it but it is all but blatantly stated that he is getting aroused by listening to them. Almost immediately afterwards, he has a threesome with a woman and a boy and on a few occasions thinks back fondly on "The Night of the Screams".
- Ninja: Shogun features a ninja attack at one point. They fail to kill Mariko/Gracia Hosokawa only because she commits suicide.
- Noble Bigot: Given that one of the main interests of the series is the clash between vastly different cultures, it's no surprise that there are many very prejudiced characters who are highly admirable in other ways. Some of them grow out of their prejudices (to one extent or another), while others don't, but are still fundamentally good people.
- No Man of Woman Born: The method by which Ishido is executed. It has been prophesied that Ishido will "die an old man with his feet firmly planted in the earth, the most famous man in the land". So Toranaga has him executed by being buried up to the neck in an upright position, and passers-by are invited to saw at the most famous neck in the land. "Ishido lingered three days and died very old."
- Not Big Enough for the Two of Us: Tai-Pan:
Dirk Struan: Hong Kong is big enough for Struan's and the other British traders. It's big enough for Britons and Americans. Whether it's big enough for the Brocks and the Struans is a different matter.
Tyler Brock: I'll tell you this, boy; China isn't big enough for the two of us.
- Given an Ironic Echo by their descendants Ian Dunross and Quillan Gornt in Noble House.
Casey: Surely Asia's wide enough for the both of you.
Dunross: The whole world isn't.
- Not Even Bothering with the Accent: In the miniseries of Shogun, Richard Chamberlain plays the lead, an early 17th-century English sea captain, in his native American accent.
- Offscreen Moment of Awesome: All of Shogun builds up to the decisive, climactic battle between hundreds of thousands of samurai that historically decided the fate of Japan—and the novel ends just before the battle begins.
- Off with His Head!: The 1980 Shogun miniseries was noted as being the first American network production to actually show a head being cut off on screen. The VHS version of the mini-series is gorier than the broadcast version and shows the blood spurting from the neck.
- Out with a Bang: One of the protagonists of Gai-Jin dies like this after the strain re-opens injuries sustained at the beginning of the book.
- Personal Seals: Show up and become plot points in the expected fashion.
- Playing Both Sides: Linc and Casey arrive in Hong Kong trying to do this with Struan's and Rothwell-Gornt's. Not only are Dunross and Gornt both well aware of this, they consider that Bartlett would have to have been a fool not to try it.
- Plot Coupon: The four broken coins given to Dirk Struan by Jin-Qua. Each half coin allows the bearer to ask one favor of any size of Noble House. One of them was used to get Chiang Kai-Shek out of China when the Communists took over.
- Pretty in Mink: Venus Poon in Noble House complains about her lover promising her one, until he finally gives it to her. It's also mentioned that many of the women attending the horse race are wearing mink for the glamor, even though it's the middle of summer.
- Privateer: John Blackthorne in Shogun.
- Reality Has No Subtitles: In the miniseries version of Shogun, when Blackthorne is around and the Japanese characters are speaking in Japanese, there's no subtitles.
- Reckless Gun Usage: All over the place in Whirlwind by the Iranian revolutionaries, unsurprising since they are armed (and trigger-happy) civilians rather than trained soldiers. One such instance is when one of them finds his gun jammed, looks down the barrel, and then bashes the rifle butt against the ground with the barrel pointing towards him. At the same time there's another revolutionary who's attached grenades to his belt by their pins. The helicopter pilots (most of them ex-military,) are naturally horrified and try to stay as far away as they can. It's not totally clear whether the lack of care is simple stupidity or whether it's part of their fanatic belief that everything happens at the will of God, so either they'll be fine anyway, or they'll die and there would be absolutely nothing they could do to prevent it.
- Averted in Shogun; Rodrigues carefully inspects the armoury on his ship, and is furious when he finds a musket with an improperly maintained flint that would cause it to be dangerous. However, many other characters are somewhat careless about pointing muskets, pistols or cannons at people while they're still considering whether or not to kill them.
- It's also pointed out that the unreliable nature of early firearms meant that it was virtually impossible to be safe around them anyway; in Tai-Pan an unfortunate pirate blows off his own hands when he fires an old musket.
- Reliably Unreliable Guns: In Tai-Pan, mention is made of how the muskets the Chinese use are ancient and poorly kept, more likely to kill the shooter than the person they are trying to shoot. Sure enough, not long after this mention, Dirk Struan is in a fight with some Chinese sailors when one attempts to shoot Dirk. The gun blows up in his hands, taking his hands with it.
- Samurai in Ninja Town: In Shogun, everyone believes that the target of the ninja attack is the Anjin-san (the gaijin samurai). In reality, its the Lady Mariko. Not that it matters, because the castle is full of samurai, and the ninjas are attacking in force.
- An earlier example, when the very ninja-like Amida Tong assassin attacks the castle where Toranaga is staying at, it is assumed the assassin was going after Toranaga. The real target is later determined to Blackthorne/Anjin-san and the assassin's employers are hinted to be the Portuguese. This was when Anjin-san was just a Funny Foreigner, not samurai.
- Sand Necktie: The death of Ishido in Shogun.
- Self-Made Man: Both Dirk Struan and Tyler Brock started with nothing and worked and schemed their way into being two of the most powerful men in Asia. Their backgrounds and attitudes put them at odds with many of the upper class politicians and soldiers they have to deal with, and their exasperation with their blinkered social superiors is one of the few topics on which they completely agree.
- Linc Bartlett and Casey Tcholock from Noble House also fit this, though they at least come from an era where this was less shocking.
- Seppuku: In Shogun:
- Subverted by Blackthorne who attempts it but lives to tell, still getting benefits as it raises other people's opinion of him.
- Played straight by Mariko, who commits suicide before being killed by ninjas, and before killing herself she states that her death shall be seen as seppuku. It does, and since her master Toranaga's Batman Gambit depended on her commiting suicide, he wins his bets and becomes shogun.
- Also played straight by Yabu, who has his treachery revealed at a time when he has also ceased to be useful, and is ordered to do this by Toranaga. For all his many faults, everyone who attended the suicide said his was the most dignified and graceful they had ever seen. By the time of Whirlwind, over 400 years later, he is still remembered among his family for the quality of his suicide and the gracefulness of his death Haiku.
- Sexophone: In the adaptation of Noble House, this is Venus Poon's leitmotif.
- Slave Galley: Played with in Shogun. When Blackthorne sees the galley that will transport him to the capital, he panics thinking its a slave ship and is willing to die in order not to be a galley slave. It is revealed that the rowers were all full samurai doing their duty rather than slaves.
- Smug Snake: Quite a lot of examples from every book, which is unsurprising in a series where virtually everyone, regardless of competence or intelligence, gets involved in the Gambit Pileups. Probably the best example is Yabu in Shogun, who is repeatedly shown to believe that he is stronger and cleverer than Toranaga. He is very wrong.
- Soap Opera: The adaptation of Noble House plays a lot like the nighttime soaps that were popular at the time.
- Spanner in the Works: In Shogun, Blackthorne unwittingly disrupts years of carefully laid scheming.
- Spell My Name with an "S": Variation. William Longstaff has his name written out in Chinese characters, not knowing that his translators are getting back at the round-eyed foreign devil by transcribing his surname with the characters for "Odious Penis". Much hilarity is had by everyone who reads Chinese.
- The Starscream: Yabu is determined right from the start to betray Toranaga and take his position. Toranaga is fully aware of this, and plays him expertly to keep him loyal, at least until he doesn't need him any more and is provided with a convenient reason to get rid of him...
- Stiff Upper Lip: Taken to ludicrous extremes by Gornt during the floating restaurant fire, who makes a point of very calmly sitting and sipping a whisky as fire breaks out all around him and everyone else is running like hell.
- Stock Ninja Weaponry: In Shogun, the shinobi aiming at Mariko's life are described wielding poison-covered shurikens, swords and "scythe-like knives connected to long weighted chains" (aka: Kusarigama).
- The Strategist: Toranaga
- Teasing from Behind the Language Barrier: In Tai-Pan, the mandarins—the Chinese officials—"renamed" the highest British official His Exellency Longstaff: they translated his last name into Cantonese as "Odious Penis". This nickname was used in all official letters addressed to Longstaff for more than a year.
- Thanatos Gambit: In Shogun, Ishido unsuccessfully attempts one; he tries, by insulting the noble families of Japan, to goad one of his archenemy Torunaga's retainers into murdering him, which would completely destroy Torunaga's reputation and political career. One of the samurai does come at him with a sword, but thinks better of it at the last second.
- They Call Me Mr Tibbs: In Shogun, the name "Blackthorne" is all but unpronounceable to the Japanese. The local lord assigns him the status-neutral name Anjin (Pilot) to simplify communication. As soon as he's learned enough Japanese to understand honorifics he runs with this and gets a lot of leverage out of insisting on being referred to as Anjin-san ("Mr. Pilot") instead of just Anjin: the samurai he encounters can't really argue against it without being seriously impolite, and once they comply, they've implicitly conceded that he has a legitimate place in their society.
- Too Important to Walk: In Shogun, all of the important female characters (and not a small number of the important male characters) travel this way when going long distances.
- To the Pain: The death of Ishido in Shogun. Toranaga has him buried up to his neck and invites passersby to saw away at his neck with a bamboo saw. He lasts three days, and dies "very old."
- The Traitor: Noble House has two different cases, both from the Chen family. The entire Chen family turn out to have been a benign form of this to the Noble House since the beginning, on orders of its founder, recording every single dirty deed the Struans ever did as a form of protection. John Chen then uses this to become The Starscream to the Chens, stealing the half-coin to deliver it to Bartlett for money and erasing his own gambling debts in the process.
- Brain Kwok is also this for the British police in Hong Kong, turning out to be a Chinese mole.
- Translation By Volume: In the Shogun miniseries, Blackthorne's first interactions with the Japanese all involve him speaking very loudly and very slowly.
- Translation Convention: In Shogun, the narrative makes clear that the characters are speaking in various languages — mostly Portuguese, but also Japanese, Spanish, and Latin — but all the dialogue is rendered in English. In the TV miniseries adaptation, all the dialogue which is really taking place in Portuguese is rendered in modern English. In moments of intimacy, the two main characters speak in Latin; this is rendered in archaic English, recognisable by the use of singular second-person pronouns (thou) and the "eth" ending.
- The Triads and the Tongs: Feature prominently throughout Tai-Pan, where the Triads in Hong Kong are a persistent thorn in Dirk Struan's side.
- Four Finger Wu is the leader of one in Noble House, controlling much of the smuggling into HK, but also proving effective in doing some dirty work for both the Struans and the police.
- Philip Chen holds a hereditary position as a Red Pole in the 14K Triad
- Troll: In Tai-Pan, Dirk Struan; he throws a lavish ball with a huge prize for the best dressed woman in the then near cultureless Hong Kong, knowing that every female European on the continent will do nothing but nag their husbands into insanity for weeks before hand about buying dresses/getting their hair done etc.
- Upper-Class Twit: William Longstaff from Tai-Pan is not totally brainless, but he is very set in his upper-class English mindset and not very decisive, and as such is completely out of his depth when dealing with self-made traders and Chinese ambassadors in the fledgling Hong Kong. When he has to deal with European politics, he is noticeably more adept. Dirk Struan even comments that he would be as out of his depth at any court in Europe as Longstaff is in Hong Kong.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: All of his books (with the possible exception of Noble House) are based on real historical events, and their protagonists on real people, but the names have all been changed, along with anything else that got the way of the story.
- The Noble House is based on Jardine House, and the events depicted in the novel as one week in the 60s were in fact several years in the same decade for Jardine.
- Vetinari Job Security: The Taiko in the backstory of Shogun, to a degree where after his rather unexpected death the whole of Japan has descended to chaos. While he was alive, the major daimyos wouldn't have dreamed of turning on him. Of course, since he died two years before the protagonist came to the scene, the book depicts the daimyos taking political scheming Up to Eleven.
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: In the backstory of Blackthorne and his men in Shogun.
- Xanatos Speed Chess: Toranaga and Ishido are playing it against each other all the way through Shogun. Ishido seems to be better at it, as during much of the second half Toranaga mainly just goes through desperate attempts to buy more time and needs the help of several others to figure out how to counter Ishido's latest move. But in the end it's enough...
- Yamato Nadeshiko: Mariko Buntaro both subverts it (refuses her husband in private instead of being subservient to him) and plays it straight ( prefers death rather than renouncing to her ideals). Then again, she is an expy of Gracia Hosokawa who was an Ur-Example of the trope.
- Yank the Dog's Chain: In Shogun, Toranaga is never going to let Blackthorne leave Japan. Ever.
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: In the Shogun miniseries, used as a Translation Convention. Portuguese (and/or Japanese and Dutch, depending on the POV character) is rendered as contemporary English. When Blackthorne and Mariko slip into Latin, however, it's rendered as Ye Olde Butchered Englishe. "I say thou art beautiful, and I love thee!"
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Lots of characters try this, with varying degrees of success. One instance which works, is Toranaga offhandedly ordering Yabu commit seppuku.
- Your Normal Is Our Taboo: A staple of the series and featured from all cultural sides, since one of the series' primary themes is the interaction between Western and Eastern cultures.