Bringing to life the world of feudal Japan, Shōgun is the story of a nation on the edge of a samurai civil war, where honour is everything and life is fast and fleeting.


The series, streaming on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK, is a lavish adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 historical fiction novel of the same name.

Much of the plot revolves around Yoshii Toranaga, a fabled warrior and one of five regents ruling the country following the death of its supreme leader, the taiko.

Already there are plots in the dark about who should step into the void left by the taiko’s death. All-out war seems inevitable. “This is not a time for good men, but for a shōgun,” he is told.

What follows is a work of fiction, but nonetheless Shōgun is based on real history.

That includes the character of Toranaga, a thinly veiled analogue of a real warlord and shōgun – Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The real Lord Toranaga

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

The character of Yoshii Toranaga in Shōgun is inspired by the life of warlord and later shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the third of Japan’s ‘great unifiers’.

From more than a century of near-constant civil war, three successive rulers each rose up, and came to dominate feudal Japan.

The first two of these ‘great unifiers’, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, laid the foundations in the late-16th century.

But it was Ieyasu, who fought alongside both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, who completed the job.

He went from child hostage to feared warlord to military dictator, and in the process established a shōgunate that lasted 265 years.

Who was Tokugawa Ieyasu?

Born with the name Matsudaira Takechiyo in 1543, the future Tokugawa Ieyasu was the son of a daimyo (large landowner).

Although the Matsudaira family claimed ancestry to the prodigious Minamoto clan, which ruled Japan from the 12th to 14th centuries and counted the first shōgun among its number, they were a minor power based in Mikawa province, on the largest of Japan’s islands.

The Sengoku (‘warring states’) period had been raging for decades by now. It was a time of relentless fighting and civil strife between the daimyos that kept Japan divided.

The ever-shifting loyalties of Ieyasu's father meant that the boy was just four or five when he was offered as a hostage to secure an alliance with a strong neighbouring clan, the Imagawa.

While being transported from his home at Okazaki Castle to the Imagawa base at Sunpu, he was intercepted by the rival clan, the Oda, who threatened to kill him if the Matsudaira did not abandon the proposed alliance.

Takechiyo's father refused. The boy was spared and lived with the Oda for several years, before finally finding his way to Sunpu.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rise to power

During his upbringing as a hostage, Takechiyo received military training and education in matters of governance, proving an intelligent and diligent pupil.

He also became clan leader after his father’s death in 1549, when Ieyasu was only six years old.

Aged nine, he was traded back to the Imagawa, becoming a hostage at Sunpu. As a teenager, he married, had his first children – in all, he would have two wives, plus a host of concubines, and father 11 sons and five daughters – and personally led forces on campaign against the Oda.

By 1560, circumstances had changed: the Imagawa clan was in disarray, while an impressive warrior named Oda Nobunaga had taken over the Oda and launched a mission to unify the country, by force.
Ieyasu saw an opportunity to return to his family’s domain and assert his own control. He gathered an army, improved Matsudaira administration, and switched loyalty to Oda Nobunaga.

Emerging as a new daimyo to be reckoned with, Takechiyo would take a new name too: Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Over the next two decades, Ieyasu rose in prominence and expanded his territory thanks to the alliance with Oda Nobunaga, who had become the most powerful man in Japan.

Then in 1582, Nobunaga died after being betrayed by one of his vassals, possibly taking his own life seppuku. Into this vacuum stepped Nobunaga’s brilliant general Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Although initially hostile, Ieyasu eventually, and cannily, sided with Hideyoshi. As part of the ongoing attempt to unify the country, the two joined forces to defeat the dangerous Hojo clan. As a reward, Ieyasu was offered Hojo provinces to the east, as long as he gave up his existing territory. Despite the risks of starting anew in unknown lands, he agreed.

Ieyasu moved his administration to a small fishing village called Edo, where he immediately embarked on a massive construction project to transform the area into a political centre to rival Kyoto, and a cultural hub for artisans and businessmen.

Today, it is the capital city of Tokyo. And the castle he erected, the largest in Japan, became the foundations of the modern-day Imperial Palace.

Tucked away in his eastern corner of Japan, his influence grew and grew. And, significantly, he avoided getting caught up in Hideyoshi’s ill-fated military invasions of Korea.

With Hideyoshi’s death in 1598, Tokugawa was among the most powerful daimyo, and appointed one of the ‘council of five elders’ tasked with ruling on behalf Japan of Hideyoshi’s young son.

Instead, he would seize the chance to take power for himself.

How did Tokugawa Ieyasu become shōgun and unify Japan?

Those loyal to Hideyoshi’s wishes for his son Hideyori to rule formed a faction against Ieyasu, but his so-called Eastern Army defeated the Western Army of Ishida Mitsunari at the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

To keep control of the daimyos, Ieyasu shook up the political landscape by moving them to different parts of the country, confiscating land from enemies and giving it to allies.

Simultaneously, he split the daimyos into three classes – shinpan (those related to the Tokugawa clan), fudai (his loyalists) and tozama (those who swore fealty after Sekigahara) – which each had varying degrees of restrictions within his new system, the bakuhan. With everything centred at Edo, everything could be controlled.

He was awarded the title of shōgun by the emperor of Japan in 1603, marking him as the pre-eminent warlord in the land.

Just two years later, however, he retired in place of his third son, Hidetada. In reality, this meant little as he continued to rule anyway, yet the move established his shōgunate as a hereditary title in the hopes of preventing future claims from other daimyos, such as Hideyori.

Having let Hideyori remain at Osaka Castle for years, Tokugawa ultimately defeated this last rival in 1615, finalising unification.

In foreign affairs, Tokugawa initially welcomed trade with European merchants and allowed missionaries to operate. Eventually, he came to see foreigners as a threat to his dictatorial order, so he forbade Christianity and curtailed traders. This laid the groundwork for Japan’s isolationist policy, which lasted until the 19th century.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s relationship with William Adams, the real John Blackthorne

From Gillingham in Kent, William Adams began working in a shipyard at the age of 12. He grew into a skilled sailor, pilot and navigator, and was involved in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 before joining a fleet of Dutch merchant ships bound for the East Indies.

In 1600, his ship anchored off Japan and he was brought before Ieyasu in the months before his victory at the battle of Sekigahara.

The Englishman impressed Ieyasu so much that he became a trusted advisor, and the shogun lavished him with land and a title, effectively making him a samurai, and lands near Edo. Adams spent the rest of his life in Japan, where he helped build ships and set up a factory for the East India Company.

Just as Ieyasu was the inspiration for Toronaga in Shōgun, John Blackthorne is loosely based on William Adams.

How did Tokugawa Ieyasu die?

In 1616, Tokugawa died of an illness at the age of 73. A magnificent mausoleum and shrine would be erected in Nikko, north of Edo.

For more than 250 years, the Tokugawa Shōgunate ruled Japan: a time of peace, stability and economic growth, but achieved through rigid and often ruthless control. It ended only with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which re-established direct imperial rule once again.


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.


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.