Samurai and skulduggery abound in FX’s showpiece period drama Shōgun, which transports viewers to the treacherous world of feudal Japan at the dawn of the 17th century.


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

Much of the story is told from the view of John Blackthorne (played by Cosmo Jarvis), an English navigator who washes up on the shores of Japan in 1600 and finds himself in a land on the brink of civil war.

But though the plot particulars of Shōgun are a work of imagination, did you know that John Blackthorne is based on a real person?

Who is 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 Disney+)

The character of John Blackthorne in Shōgun is loosely inspired by William Adams. He is the first Englishman believed to have set foot in Japan, and considered one of the few Western samurai.

Just as Blackthorne makes an ally of the warlord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) in the drama, Adams became a trusted advisor to the real figure who inspired the character of Toranaga, a warlord named Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Iesyau would come to rely on Adams as a trade and diplomatic advisor after becoming shōgun, granting him land, the revered title of hatamoto, and a pair of swords to indicate his status as a samurai – though he was not a warrior.

Who was William Adams?

William Adams was born in September 1564 in Gillingham, Kent.

Little is known of his youth, but much of what we do know comes from Adams’ own hand, in the form of a letter addressed to ‘Unknown friends and countrymen’ that he wrote in the Japanese port of Hirado in 1611.

We know that, aged 12, he was apprenticed to a Nicholas Diggins in Limehouse, London, where he learned nautical navigation, astronomy and shipbuilding. He remained there until he was 24 – the year of the Spanish Armada.

That was 1588. Adams signed up to Francis Drake’s navy, with Adams listed aboard the supply ship Richard Duffylde; whether he actually fought in the battle is unclear.

When the Queen’s fleet was disbanded after England’s victory, he found himself unemployed. After a decade with the merchants of the Barbary Company, Adams turned to the Dutch fleets bound for Asia.

It was through the Dutch he would eventually reach Japan.

The Dutch had been at war with the Spanish for some 13 years when, in 1581, King Philip II of Spain also inherited the throne of Portugal. Dutch merchants, who had sourced all their Asian wares through Lisbon, suddenly found her harbours closed to them.

If they wanted to keep selling Asian goods, they were going to have to go to Asia to get them.

War with Spain made easy allies of Dutch and English sailors, and in 1598 William Adams found himself as a pilot – a pilot being a navigator – within a fleet of Dutch ships bound for the East Indies.

How did William Adams reach Japan?

Five ships set out from Rotterdam in the Dutch Republic in 1598. Just one of these made it to Japan in 1600, with only a score men aboard out of a crew on that single ship of more than a hundred, all malnourished and many wracked by disease. William Adams was one of these lucky few.

It had been a long and perilous journey. The plan had been to sail through the Strait of Magellan, plunder Spanish ships and settlements in South America, and then sell those spoils in Asia, bringing the purchased goods back to Europe via the same route.

“That was the plan, and it didn’t work out how they wanted it to,” says Frederik Cryns, an expert on the life of William Adams and the historical consultant for FX’s Shōgun TV series.

He was speaking to us on a soon-to-be-released episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.

“They had a lot of problem with first the winds, so they couldn't proceed on schedule. They didn't have enough food, so a lot of the sailors starved. They had diseases and they had to fight the Portuguese, then they had to fight the Spanish. And when they came into South America, they were attacked by the native peoples living there.”

One of the casualties in those attacks in South America was Adams’ brother, Thomas.

“Of the five ships, one went back to Holland, one was captured by the Spanish, one was captured by the Portuguese, one was lost in a storm, and eventually there was only one ship left,” says Cryns. “That was the Liefde, which arrived in Japan in April 1600, two years after they departed.”

Illustration of Dutch ships
The Liefde was the only one of the five ships in the Dutch fleet to reach Japan (Photo by Getty)

The crew were met by wary Japanese locals and agog Portuguese Jesuits – until then, the Portuguese had been the only Europeans in Japan, and they’d hoped to keep it that way. They did their very best to convince the Japanese that the crew of Liefde were pirates, which would have condemned them to death.

Instead, the sailors came to the attention of Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of Japan’s most powerful daimyo (large landowners) and one of the five regents who ruled the country in place of the underaged heir Toyotomi Hideyori.

Ieyasu would take a different view.

Did William Adams help Tokugawa Ieyasu become shōgun?

FX’s Shōgun TV series, much like the 1975 novel that inspired it, depicts John Blackthorne as being pivotal to Lord Toranaga becoming Japan’s pre-eminent warlord.

In the novel, Blackthorne’s insights and ‘barbarian’ way of thinking proves instrumental to Toranaga besting his chief rival Lord Ishido, which culminates in the October 1600 battle of Sekigahara. On more than one occasion, Blackthorne directly saves Toranaga from death or capture.

None of this is true for William Adams, who was elsewhere during Ieyasu’s rivalry with Ishido’s real-life equivalent, Ishida Matsunari.

Cryns’ book on the life of William Adams, titled In the Service of the Shōgun, covers the entire period in which the show is based in two pages. That is how little Adams has to do with it.

After being brought before Ieyasu in Osaka, thrown into prison, and intermittently questioned, Adams was released and sent to Uraga, a harbour near Edo (now Tokyo) where his ship and remaining crew had also been moved to.

He was denied permission to repair the Liefde and leave Japan, but was otherwise left to his own devices.

“He's just sitting idle while Ieyasu fights his final battle against Ishida Mitsunari at Sekigahara,” says Cryns. “It's only after Ieyasu establishes his rule and everything stabilises that Adams is asked to join him.”

This is the point that Adams becomes a tutor to Ieyasu on the wider world.

William Adams is brought before Japanese shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu
William Adams is brought before Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Englishman would become one of the Japanese shōgun most trusted confidants (Photo by Getty)

The relationship between the real Blackthorne and real Toranaga

Though William Adams did not help Ieyasu become shōgun – nor, as the book would have it, teach him how to dive – the pilot would become one of his most trusted advisors, and in the process shape Japan’s relationship with the European powers.

Iesayu still had domestic concerns – it was not until the summer of 1615, 15 years after Sekigahara, that he finally quelled all opposition and became the unchallenged ruler of Japan.

But his other difficulty was the Portuguese, who held a monopoly on foreign trade, particularly Chinese silks, a mainstay of Japanese clothing, as well as lead for weapons.

By 1603, Adams had moved from Uraga to Edo, where he was frequently called upon by Ieyasu.

On one of these visits, Ieyasu asked Adams to build him a Western style ship, which he did with help from the Japanese, teaching them Western shipbuilding techniques in the process.

Ieyasu was desperate for ships like this to launch his own Asian trading expeditions, and he was so impressed with Adam’s 80-tonne vessel that he brought him into his inner circle. Adams became a tutor to Ieyasu of sorts, explaining what he knew of mathematics, geometry and astronomy, not to mention global politics.

Englishman William Adams shows his ship designs to Japanese shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu
Englishman William Adams shows his ship designs to Japanese shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu

When Adams built a second ship, this one of 120 tonnes, the delighted Ieyasu rewarded him with an estate on the Miura peninsula, and named him hatamoto, making him a direct retainer. These came with an increased income and scores of households to serve him, He was now, essentially, a minor lord.

In the midst of this, Adams had been advocating to Ieyasu to reach out to Dutch and English traders. Though prohibited from leaving Japan himself, he convinced Ieyasu to allow two of his compatriots to do – and so in 1609 the first Dutch vessel since his own arrived in Japan.

Various letters given to outbound traders eventually brought the English to Japan in 1613 too, and Adams – by now Ieyasu’s official interpreter – was central to the establishment of an English trading factory.

But his most influential moment may have been in 1611, with the arrival of the Spanish who offered trade, on the condition Ieyasu break ties with the Dutch.

“That of course Ieyasu cannot allow. It’s totally contrary to his own policy,” says Cryns. “But he allows the Spanish to trade and to send missionaries to Japan.”

He also allowed the Spanish to survey Edo Bay, ostensibly as an anchorage for trading ships. When Adam hears this, he cautions Ieyasu against that in the strongest possible terms – he is convinced the survey is a precursor to an invasion.

Cryns explains that Ieyasu believed he could deal with an invasion given the size of his army. “But then, Adams says, you have to be aware because they send missionaries, they will make a lot of Christians in Japan, and then together they cooperate with those Christians to overthrow your government.”

The impact of the dawning realisation that comes to Ieyasu can’t be overstated, says Cryns.

“That's really the beginning of the suppression of the Christians in Japan. And that will culminate afterwards into the closing of Japan for all the Christians, and the Portuguese and the Dutch being transferred to Nagasaki, where they will stay on an artificial island and not allowed to come on Japanese soil.

“This evolution was really started by Adam's advice to Ieyasu. He had an enormous impact on the future of Japan's diplomatic relationships.”

Why was the real Blackthorne called Anjin?

John Blackthorne is referred to as ‘Anjin’ in FX’s Shōgun and Clavell’s novel, ostensibly because the Japanese can’t pronounce his name. ‘Anjin’ is the Japanese word for pilot, or navigator.

William Adams had a similar name. After being granted his estate on the Muira peninsula, he became known as ‘Miura Anjin’, the ‘pilot from Miura’.

When did William Adams die?

William Adams died four years after Ieyasu, on 16 May 1620. He left behind a wife in England, Mary Hyn, as well as a son and a daughter who was born after he left Rotterdam in 1598.

He had also married a woman in Japan, and is believed to have had two children with her also.

Did the real John Blackthorne ever leave Japan?

The novel Shōgun ends with Toranaga narrating that it was Blackthorne’s karma to never leave Japan. His real-life inspiration, William Adams, never made it back to England either.

But Adams was not kept there against his will, at least not at the end – in 1613, Ieyasu gave him permission to leave forever.

When he was offered the chance of a berth on an English ship heading home, however, Adams refused. Instead, he took employment with the British East India Company, navigating expeditions to Siam (now Thailand) and later, on his own account, to Vietnam.

“I think that there were a lot of aspects which kept him in Japan,” says Cryns. “In Japan he was a small lord. He had a fief allotted to him by Ieyasu. He had households serving him.

“He was a man of influence in Japan. But if he went back to England, he was just another sailor.”

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


Kev LochunDeputy Digital Editor, HistoryExtra

Kev Lochun is Deputy Digital Editor of 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.