Through Japan feudal history, samurai warlords have fought one another to claim the ultimate badge of supremacy – the title of shōgun.


That title is the same one given to FX’s samurai civil war drama Shōgun, streaming on Hulu in the US and Disney+ in the UK.

The story begins in 1600 when Englishman John Blackthorne (whose life is very loosely based on that of Western samurai William Adams) washes up on the shores of Japan.

His fate is forever changed when he is brought before Yoshii Toranaga, who is based on the real-life shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

What was a shōgun?

The title shōgun is derived from the term Seii-taishōgun, meaning ‘barbarian-subduing generalissimo’ in feudal Japan.

Essentially, a shōgun was a military leader appointed to lead punitive campaigns against criminals or to suppress rebellions.

Though initially a temporary title, the role evolved over time, gaining more permanence and power, eventually becoming a central figure in Japanese politics, especially by the 17th century, which is when FX’s Shōgun is set.

It becomes a title that is seen as the pre-eminent title for a warrior in Japan, and it is a title that is always bestowed by the emperor. Despite this, the emperor had no power over the shōgun.

“The emperor still ruled the country in name, but the real government was performed by the warlords,” explains Frederik Cryns, historical consultant for FX’s Shōgun TV series, who was speaking on a soon-to-be-released episode of the HistoryExtra podcast.

“The shōgun was, you might say, the military leader of the samurai caste. The samurai were once aristocrats, but they didn’t have any place in the bureaucratic system. So they had to leave the imperial capital, and went to live in remote areas, where they fulfilled a sort of military service for the court.

“Because they had the military power, they eventually usurped the power of the emperor and became the rulers themselves.”

What is a shōgunate?

A shōgunate refers to a governmental system in ancient Japan that emerged in the 12th century.

“Essentially, it was a small bureaucracy of samurai for samurai,” says Michael Wert, who was speaking on our ‘Everything You Wanted to Know about the SamuraiHistoryExtra podcast episode.

The shōgunate’s role was to manage the affairs and behaviour of the warrior class in Japan.

“In the 12th century, it's a very weak bureaucracy. It is unable to have a say over what all the warriors of Japan are doing,” says Wert.

“They are ruling partners with the aristocracy and the emperor in Kyoto, but once we get into the 13th and 14th century, the shōgunate begins to become more powerful. They have much more of a say of what goes on even in Kyoto itself. They become more of a warrior regime and gradually eclipse the power of the aristocracy.”

By the 17th century, the samurai had replaced the aristocracy in overseeing Japan’s administrative functions, a transformation that saw them adopting roles such as scribes, accountants and managers.

“These warriors, as one scholar put it, go from being sword-wielding warriors to sword-wearing bureaucrats,” says Wert.

What was the first shōgunate?

There have been three major shōgunates in Japanese history – the first being the Kamakura Shōgunate, established in 1192.

It was established in the eastern Japanese city of Kamakura by Minamoto no Yorimoto following his victory over the Taira clan in the Genpei War. It was overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo in the Kenmu Restoration, which briefly restored imperial rule.

This was followed by the Ashikaga Shōgunate, established in 1336 when Ashikaga Takauji overthrew Emperor Go-Daigo and brought an end to the Kenmu Restoration. He based his shōgunate in Heian-kyö, the city today known as Kyoto.

What was the Tokugawa Shōgunate?

The Tokugawa Shōgunate was formed by Tokugawa Ieyasu towards the end of the warring states period (Sengoku), which was brought about by the collapse of the Ashikaga Shōgunate in 1573.

It was Ieyasu who befriended Englishman William Adams – who loosely inspires the character of John Blackthorne of FX’s Shōgun.

Based in his stronghold of Edo (now Tokyo), the Tokugawa Shōgunate would persist for some 25o year and culminated with the end of the samurai themselves during the Meiji Restoration.

What was the relationship between the shōgun and the emperor of Japan?

Japan’s emperors initially possessed significant influence and exerted direct rule over their subjects, while the shōguns were limited to affairs of war.

“It's very weak in the beginning, but the shōgunate starts to be seen as one of the three major institutions ruling people and property in Japan,” says Wert. “But it is a very junior partner in this ruling structure in Japan.”

This gradually changes, and by the 17th century it is evident that the shōgunate is the de facto political authority in Japan.

While the emperor remains a symbolic figurehead, the shōgunate holds the real political power.

Why didn’t the shōgun get rid of the emperor?

The reason why the shōgun doesn't simply abolish the imperial institution and become the sole ruler lies in the intricate cultural and power dynamics of feudal Japan.

Despite the shōgun's military authority, the emperor – and the aristocracy centred in the imperial court in Kyoto – held significant cultural sway.

“If you ever see an official portrait of a shōgun, they'll often be portrayed in robes rather than armour,” says Wert.

“These robes are indicative of the rank that the warrior or shōgun has in the bureaucratic structure in Kyoto. Warriors looked up to the aristocracy as their social betters and tried to imitate their culture.”

This extended to participating in aristocratic activities, including kemari (a ball game) and the tea ceremony.

So while the shōgun holds military power, it’s the aristocracy and the emperor that hold the symbolic authority that shapes the social fabric of feudal Japan.

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 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.