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The Real History Behind FX’s ‘Shōgun’

Before “Game of Thrones,” there was “Shōgun.

Both are bestselling novels about a factional war between regents/kings to determine who will sit on a recently usurped throne … but James Clavell’s “Shōgun” was published in 1975, 21 years before George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” hit bookshelves. Both became pop culture juggernauts with an Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody Award-winning television adaptation that was so popular that restaurants reported a dip in sales whenever an episode aired … but “Shōgun’s” first adaptation premiered in 1980, “Thrones” in 2012. Both draw on real life history to craft dramatic stories, but “Game of Thrones” is a fantasy and “Shōgun” is historical fiction. Kind of.

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FX’s 2024 adaptation of “Shōgun” will introduce a new generation to Clavell’s unique twist on writing historical fiction — that is to say, one where all of the historical characters’ names are changed. And many of the events depicted didn’t happen that way in real life, or at all, and if they did it was to different people. In short, the line between history, fantasy, and fiction is blurry, especially compared to other historical dramas.

Is Shōgun” based on real history?

“Shōgun” is a fictional take on the early seventeenth century power struggle that in real life led to Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu founding the Tokugawa Shōgunate, a dynastic military government that ruled over Japan from 1603 to 1868. The Shōgunate emerged after a period of political turmoil that saw Japan’s feudal lords, or daimyo, united under the banner of samurai lord Oda Nobunaga, only to see Lord Oda murdered by one of his own men.

Another one of Oda’s men, a peasant-born retainer named Toyotomi Hideyoshi, avenged his lord by killing the assassin and took over Lord Oda’s leadership. The lowborn Toyotomi took the title of Taiko, an imperial regent that essentially made him the ruler of Japan. After his death, a council of five regents ruled in place of his underage son, which they did wisely and peacefully until — just kidding, they hated each other and started a war.

The setup for “Shōgun” copies these exact beats from history but gives the main players different names, giving Clavell enough narrative deniability to stick to history when he feels like it but otherwise go nuts with quasi-historical intrigue. In the Clavell dimension, Lord Tokugawa is called Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his rival Lord Ishida is Ishido (Takehiro Hira). The recently deceased Taiko’s name is Nakamura, who served not Lord Oda, but Goroda to unify Japan. Many other characters have historical backgrounds, including some of the Portuguese Jesuit priests John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) encounters on his journey.

Was John Blackthorne real?

If you’re wondering why a Japanese war epic needs a British co-protagonist … that’s probably the same question Lord Tokugawa asked himself when William Adams, John Blackthorne’s historical counterpart, washed up on the beach with a boatful of guns.

William Adams really was the first Englishman to set foot in Japan, and the broad strokes of his backstory closely resemble the fictional Blackthorne’s. He was the pilot of a Dutch ship that carried the last handful of survivors from a trading journey that went south both metaphorically and latitudinally. Like Blackthorne, Adams spoke Portuguese, which meant he could communicate with Tokugawa through the Jesuit translators who had been attempting to convert the Japanese population to Christianity since the mid-1500s — more about them later.

Of course, “Shōgun” exaggerates Adams-as-Blackthorne’s role in Tokugawa’s court and the war itself, but some of the interactions between Blackthorne and Toranaga directly reference Adams’ letters, including his vocal distrust in Portuguese Jesuits to fairly translate his words.

Where did all these Portuguese priests come from and why do they hate Blackthorne?

In 1494, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, in which they divvied up the rights to colonize and spread Catholicism in the so-called new world. Their sophisticated method for determining which parts of the planet would be Spanish and which would be Portuguese was literally drawing a line down a map and going “everything to on the other side of this line is Portugal now,” which — in case anyone was wondering — is why they speak Portuguese in Brazil when all of the other South American countries speak Spanish. Brazil was in Portugal’s slice of the world pie.

Those rights extended all the way around the globe; when a ship carrying Portuguese traders got lost somewhere around China and ended up landing in Japan in 1543, they were delighted to discover that according to their maps, this too was Portugal’s! After establishing trade routes and bringing in Jesuits to convert the population, the Portuguese kept the location of Japan a secret for 57 years. They had it made as long as none of those awful Protestant countries like England or the Netherlands found them.

Which they did. Or rather, William Adams did. As a Protestant navigator on Japanese soil, Adams became the number one threat to Portugal’s position in Japan. And that’s why every time a Portuguese guy sees Blackthorne it’s pretty much on sight.

Was Mariko a real person?

The historical model for Mariko (Anna Sawai), is Hosokawa Gracia, a Christian Japanese lady whose fluency in Portuguese and Latin made her a unique figure in the late 16th century. Like Mariko, Lady Hosokawa came from a controversial noble house. Remember how one of Oda Nobunaga’s allies betrayed and murdered him? That was Akechi Mistuhide, Lady Hosokawa’s father. To say more about Lady Hosokawa would be to spoil Mariko’s story, but one non-spoilery fact answers any questions about the potential historical reality of Lady Hosokawa and William Adams’ relationship.

Hosokawa Gracia died in 1600, the year William Adams landed in Japan. They never met.

Is “Shōgun” educational?

“Shōgun” was so popular in the ’70s that a collection of professors from The Program in Asian Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara wrote a pamphlet titled “Learning from Shōgun: Japanese History and Western Fantasy.” This pamphlet, published 1980 in anticipation of the first adaptation, estimated that “anywhere from one-fifth to one-half of all students who currently enroll in college-level courses about Japan have already read ‘Shōgun,’ and not a few of these have become interested in Japan because of it.”

That said, even these educators admit that while “Shōgun” may have been responsible for getting the non-academic populace interested in Japanese history and culture, it’s more of a jumping-off point for those who want to do their own research.

So is “Shōgun” historical fiction? More so than “Game of Thrones,” which uses England’s War of the Roses as an incredibly loose model for the War of the Five Kings, less so than direct history books that tell the story of Tokugawa Ieyasu emerging victorious from a war involving five regents.

Learning from Shōgun” is available in PDF form here. Other sources used in this article include “A Brief History of Japanese Civilization” and public domain reprints of William Adams’ letters.

“Shōgun” is streaming on Hulu now, with new episodes on Tuesdays through April 23.

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