Shōgun Is Based on a Real Power Struggle

FX's buzzy new series is based on a real Japanese power struggle.
Published: 4 March 2024

If Shōgun's events feel like they're based in historical fact, that's because most of the story is based on a real-life power struggle. Author James Clavell borrowed many historical figures from the 17th century for his 1975 novel of the same name—which greatly dramatised the story of the first Englishman to sail to Japan. His work of historical fiction even garnered a popular miniseries in 1980, which was such a hit that many cultural observers attributed the show's success to the rise of interest in sushi in the West.


Although Clavell—who hailed from England himself—beefed up both the story of John Blackthorne's arrival in Japan and his influence on the eventual Tokugawa shogunate, many of the characters and events depicted in Shōgun are based on historical fact. This week, FX debuted the first two episodes of its take on Shōgun—and it's already a hit amongst critics. The series stars Hiroyuki Sanada (John Wick: Chapter 4) as Lord Toranaga and Cosmo Jarvis (Persuasion) as John Blackthorne. But what's fact and fiction in the latest Shōgun adaptation?

The events of the series begin with the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was the second "Great Unifier of Japan." In Shōgun, he's called the Taikō, which was the title given to a retired advisor of a former emperor. Hideyoshi carried on the work of Oda Nabunaga, the first Great Unifier of Japan, following nearly a century-long of civil war. After the Taikō died, a new path opened for infighting. Five great lords, called daimyo, vied for the title of shōgun: the de facto ruler of Japan.

Japan feared another century of conflict after the Taiko’s death, so Hideyoshi established the five elders who would rule in his place. A prominent member among the five included Tokugawa Ieyasu, renamed Yoshii Toranaga in Shōgun and brought to life by Sanada. Over the span of just two years, he leveraged his power and close connection to the Taiko to become the new shōgun. Assembling his forces, he took Osaka Castle and easily won the bloody battle of Sekigahara—which is one of the most important battles in Japanese history.

Around this time, Takagawa met William Adams, the first Englishman to sail to Japan. Adams eventually became a trusted advisor to Takagawa, who was impressed by his knowledge of Western ships and navigation. He commissioned Adams to Japanese ships—and he later replaced Jesuit Padre João Rodrigues as the shōgun's official interpreter. In the miniseries, Adams’s counterpart, John Blackthorne (played by Jarvis), holds much more significance to Tokugawa’s rise to power than he did in real life. What really won Tokugawa the shogunate? It was military might.


In Shōgun, Tokugawa uses Blackthorne’s presence as a Protestant to sow disagreement between the Five Elders—some of whom profited from the nation’s Christian colonisers, who hailed from from Portugal and Spain. Sure, the Five Elders demanding the persecution of one heretic among Tokugawa’s castle may be a tad far-fetched. But Clavell’s addition of Blackthorne is more so the story's powder keg. Clavell also added a relationship between Blackthorne and Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), whose real-life counterpart never even met Adams.

That isn't to say that Tokugawa and Adams didn't share a friendship in real life. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the two wrote many letters to one another, and the powerful daimyo was fascinated by Adams's knowledge of the globe. Tokugawa also greeted the Englishman during his trips to Japan, even after he had rose to the shogunate. Eventually, Adams was gifted the honorary title of samurai. Meanwhile, Tokugawa remained in power until his death in 1616. He constructed the great Edo Castle—the largest castle in all of Japan—and the Tokugawa shogunate ruled the country for the next 250 years.

Originally published on Esquire US

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