THE Japanese love fine jubako - lacquered boxes that fit within boxes that are in boxes. In "Gai-Jin: A Novel of Japan," James Clavell has written a jubako of a novel. Its 1,038 pages are filled with plots within plots within plots.
The scheming takes place at a critical moment in Japan's history - September 1862 to January 1863, only 10 years after American Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan to Western trading. In that period foreigners, called gai-jin by the Japanese, were vying for influence. Yankee traders were in abundance, but any United States ambitions were deflected by the Civil War. Instead, the British dominated, with plenty of imperial jealousy from the French and Russians.
The Japanese feudal system was in turmoil. The powerful Toranaga family ran the country through their control of the Shogun, the ruler who governed temporal affairs. However, they were challenged by other feudal lords who were constantly scheming to control the "Land of the Gods." At the same time, there was a strong undercurrent of nationalism represented by rogue samurai, who wanted all power returned to the Emperor, who was in charge of spiritual affairs. These samurai wanted to get rid of the gai-jin .
That is where Clavell begins. Two samurai attack three Western men and a woman. One of the men is killed. A second is badly wounded. He is Malcolm Struan, the heir to Noble House (the subject of a 1981 Clavell novel), the Hong Kong trading institution that dominates Asia. The woman, Angelique Richaud, races back to Yokohama, the only area where Westerners are allowed to live.
After the attack, Sir William Aylesbury, the British minister in Japan, demands restitution for the man who was killed and the apprehension of the killers. Call it the beginning of diplomatic incomprehension - West not understanding East.
Struan tries to regain his health. He is fighting not only for his life, but also for his family's empire. His chief Asian rival, the Brocks, have plotted the downfall of Noble House, now run by Tess Struan, Malcolm's mother.
Woven into these events are the love affairs of the community. Miss Richaud is intent on becoming Mrs. Struan. Many of the men have girlfriends in the Yoshiwara, a brothel run by the Japanese who use the women to collect intelligence. The Japanese men have wives and courtesans as well, and Clavell also constructs jubako for them.
"Gai-Jin" is part of Clavell's Asian saga, which so far consists of "Shogun," dealing with the period around 1600, "Tai-Pan" (1841), "Gai-Jin" (1862), "King Rat" (1945), "Noble House" (1962), and "Whirlwind" (1979).
The novel will keep many beachgoers glued to their blankets this summer. The compelling plot helps you forget that the characters sometimes seem stereotyped: The British are pompous, the French connivers, the Japanese cunning and arrogant.
The first two chapters lack order, but Clavell gets it all sorted out by page 30. After the next 1,000 pages, readers will look forward to the next novel in his saga.