FX's highly anticipated historical drama series Shōgun takes us to the world of feudal Japan, where the samurai hold power and death is preferable to dishonour.


Set amidst the backdrop of political intrigue and power struggles, Shōgun begins with Englishman John Blackthorne (portrayed by Cosmo Jarvis), a navigator washed ashore and now having to live by his wits in an unfamiliar world.

Fighting to survive in a culture he doesn’t understand, Blackthorne is drawn into a web of alliances and betrayals as Japan’s most powerful warlords vie for ultimate power: the coveted title of shōgun.

The 10-part limited series, which stars Cosmos Jarvis, Hiroyuki Sanada and Anna Sawai, is streaming on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK.

Shōgun plot: what is show about?

The story begins in 1600, with the arrival of the all-but-wrecked ship Erasmus in a small Japanese fishing village. Aboard are the badly malnourished, half-dead remnants of its crew, a dozen Dutchmen and their English navigator, John Blackthorne.

Blackthorne, who has become the crew’s default commander after scores of losses at sea, finds making it to shore to be just as perilous as being adrift.

Japan is on the edge of civil war. Its ruler, the ‘taiko’, is recently deceased, leaving behind a seven-year-old heir and a council of five regents made up of the most powerful men in Japan to govern until he comes of age.

Pre-eminent among them is Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a feared warrior with an ancient lineage. Accused by his fellow regents of wishing to usurp the heir – the result of Machiavellian plotting by his chief rival Lord Ishido (Takehiro Hira) – he is on the brink of impeachment and forced suicide by seppuku.

Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in Shogun
Hiroyuki Sanada as Yoshii Toranaga in Shogun (Photo courtesy of Kurt Iswarienko/FX)

With open conflict between samurai seeming inevitable, Toranaga senses that Blackthorne represents an opportunity – not only in his fight against his fellow regents, but also against the Portuguese.

At this time – in the show and in real history – Portugal is the only European power present in Japan. They represent a dual threat, holding a monopoly on trade and wielding soft political power through the Japanese warlords who have converted to Christianity.

Toranaga is not Blackthorne’s only concern. As allegiances shift, the ever-ambitious Kashigi Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano) seeks to manipulate the Englishman to his own ends, while the Portuguese move in the shadows to condemn Blackthorne as a pirate, lest he break their grip on the country.

The only person who seems to be able to contextualise this brave new world is his translator – the Christian-Japanese Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai) – but can he really trust her?

Is Shōgun a true story?

Yes and no. Shōgun is based on James Clavell’s 1975 historical fiction novel of the same name – yet its major characters are loosely inspired by real historical figures, and the larger plot points are based on real events from Japanese history.

Clavell later said that his novel was inspired by a single line in one of his daughter’s schoolbooks: “In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai.”

That Englishman – the 'real John Blackthorne' if you will – was naval pilot (navigator) William Adams, whose remarkable story – from surviving a shipwreck to becoming a trusted advisor to a shōgun, serves as the cornerstone for the character of John Blackthorne.

In the novel and the series, the warlord whom Blackthorne serves and later becomes shōgun is Yoshii Toranaga – and he is a thinly veiled analogue to the real-life Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Ieyasu battled his fellow regents and other samurai warlords, eventually becoming so powerful that he became de facto ruler of Japan, and was given the title of shōgun.

Many of the other major characters likewise have historical counterparts. Toranaga’s chief rival Lord Ishido on the council of regents is paralleled by Ieyasu’s real-life enemy Ishida Mitsunari, for instance.

Who was the real John Blackthorne?

Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne in FX's Shōgun
Cosmo Jarvis as English pilot John Blackthorne in FX's Shōgun (Photo courtesy of Kurt Iswarienko/FX)

William Adams was a real historical figure whose life inspired the character of John Blackthorne in Shōgun.

A survivor of a harrowing two-year voyage who washed up on Japan's coast, Adams was brought before the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who recognised his expertise in navigation and shipbuilding.

He would become one of Ieyasu’s most trusted advisors, particularly when it came to fostering trade and diplomatic relations between Japan and European powers who later came to Japan.

How historically accurate is Shōgun?

Though the precise way the story of Shōgun plays out is dripping in dramatic licence, the wider plot points are based on real episodes from Japanese history, says Frederick Cryns.

Cryns is the historical consultant for FX’s Shōgun TV series – and he was speaking on a soon-to-be-released episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.

“You have the story of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and he stands just before the battle of Sekigahara, which will be fought half a year after Adams arrives in Japan.

“You have the story of William Adams, who becomes a hatamoto, which is a direct retainer of Ieyasu.

“And you also have the story of Hosokawa Gracia, who in the novel and show is [the character] Mariko.” Without spoiling the show, Gracia’s story mirrors Mariko's and will play a huge part Shōgun.

“What Clavell did was put those three stories together in one epic story.”

Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko in Shōgun
Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko in Shōgun (Photo courtesy of Kurt Iswarienko/FX)

Yet Cryns, who is also an expert on the lives of Adams and Ieyasu, reveals that Blackthorne, Toranaga and Mariko did not interact in the way seen on screen.

“There are scenes in Shōgun in which Blackthorne is interrogated by Toranaga,” he says. “The real Adams recorded what Ieyasu asked him and what he answered, and we have incorporated that into the show. That is very historically accurate.

“But what happens afterwards, William Adams was not part of. He was sent to Uraga, which is a small harbour near Edo [now Tokyo], and he was sitting there idle while all the political intrigues in the show unfolded.”

Of course, in the show Blackthorne is central to those intrigues – none of that happened. Nor did Mariko meet Blackthorne and become his translator.

But it is the small details, Cryns advises – whether it is the presence of the samurai war cry ‘Ei-ei-ooooooh!’ seen in the trailer (below), the depiction of a piece Noh theatre called the Akechi-uchi, or the samurai’s shaved-crown hairstyle – that really bring feudal Japan alive.

What was the Black Ship?

When Blackthorne arrives in Japan, the Portuguese don’t only despise him as a man of a different faith – they were concerned he would disrupt their trade monopoly, which in the show is represented by the ‘Black Ship’ which brings wares to Japan annually.

There was a Portuguese Black Ship in real history too.

During the Sengoku period, China both banned Japanese ships from coming to China and banned its own merchants from sailing to Japan.

But Japan still had to find a way to import Chinese silk – it was what all kosodes (now know as kimonos) worn by the samurai were made of.

“The Portuguese had a base in China, and every year a large ship came to Japan that held one year’s worth of all the imports Japan needed,” says Cryns.

“They had a virtual monopoly on the import of Chinese goods, and another monopoly that was the import of Western weapons.”

Though the typical image of samurai is of swordsmen, at this time in history most battles were fought with matchlock guns that came from Portugal (as did the lead for the bullets).

This was the trade that the Portuguese feared that Blackthorne – and in real history, Adams – would disrupt.

Why do the Portuguese want Blackthorne dead?

One central point of division in Shōgun revolves around religion.

It is not simply between the Catholic and Protestant Europeans, there is contention even between the five regents on which Toranaga sits, two of whom have converted to Catholicism and so have aligned their interests with the Portuguese.

This religious division is mirrored in real history with William Adams and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Each year, when the Black Ship came to Japan, it brought Jesuit missionaries as well as silks and guns.

“For the Portuguese, trade and the propagation of the Christian faith went hand in hand,” says Cryns.

“The warlords in Kyushu [where the ship made port] were happy to become Christian and to have their vassals become Christians if, by doing so, they could pull the trade to their side.”

“On the other side, you had warlords like Ieyasu, who once wrote a letter to the Viceroy of Mexico declaring Japan to be the land of the kami and the hotoke – the Shinto and Buddhist gods – and that Christianity had no place in his country.”

The deceased taiko in real history– Toyotomi Hideyoshi – was also opposed to Christianity, mostly because he feared the influence the Jesuits had on Japanese warlords. In fact he proclaimed a prohibition of Christianity, but didn’t enforce it as he “feared that he could lose Portuguese trade”.

When Adams arrives in Japan on a Dutch ship – not Portuguese – it offers new possibilities for Ieyasu.

Shōgun is available to stream on Disney+ from 27 February, with new episodes airing weekly until 23 April. You can sign up to Disney+ for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now.

Frederik Cryns is Professor of Japanese History at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. His book about the real John Blackthorne, In the Service of the Shogun: The Real Story of William Adams, is published by Reaktion Books and will be released in May 2024


Michael Wert is an associate professor of East Asian history at Marquette University in Wisconsin, US. He is the author of Samurai: A Concise History (OUP, 2024)


Kev LochunDeputy Digital Editor, HistoryExtra

Kev Lochun is Deputy Digital Editor of HistoryExtra.com and previously Deputy Editor of BBC History Revealed. As well as commissioning content from expert historians, he can also be found interviewing them on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.