FX’s ‘Shogun’: Is It Based on a True Story or a Book?

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FX’s ‘Shogun’ is an upcoming period drama set to be released sometime in February 2024. The show is a tale of collision and transformation featuring John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an adventurous English sailor stranded in Japan, where he encounters the powerful Lord Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) and the skilled yet dishonored Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai). As their worlds clash, the story unfolds against a backdrop of political intrigue and cultural exploration. Based on that interesting premise, many fans excited about the show were wondering whether it was based on a true story or a book. 

  • Article Breakdown:
  • The show ‘Shogun’ is based on a novel of the same name written by James Clavell, but it is also based on true events. 
  • The book takes place some months before the critical Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and observes the events through the eyes of sailor John Blackthorne.
  • Despite being primarily based on the book, the book, in turn, is rooted in real historical events and accounts. The main character, Blackthorne, is based on the life and work of William Adams, and Lord Yoshi Toranaga is based on Tokugawa Ieyasu. Toda Mariko is loosely based on Hosokawa Gracia.

What is the book ‘Shogun’ about?

The book ‘Shogun’ is the first (chronologically) in the series of 6 books written by James Clavell in his ‘Asian Saga’ that covered different time periods and different Asian cultures. 

It follows the story of John Blackthorne, an English pilot aboard the Dutch warship Erasmus and the first Englishman to reach Japan. England and Holland aim to disrupt Portuguese-Catholic relations with Japan and establish their own trade and military alliances. After a shipwreck, local samurai capture Blackthorne and his crew, and a trial ensues where they are accused of piracy. 

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Despite the extremely unfavorable position that Blackthorne has found himself in, he is aided by clever adviser Omi and manages to survive by submitting to Japanese authority. Meanwhile, political intrigue follows as Lord Toranaga, a powerful figure, seeks to gain an advantage in the Council of Regents by securing the spoils from Erasmus. 

The whole book is told through the eyes of Blackthorne, who observes to him an alien culture in the middle of an exciting historical period, and the show promises to be at least a somewhat faithful adaptation of that. But how much of it was based on real-life events

‘Shogun’ can technically be classified as partially based on true events

The book itself takes place sometime before the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The Battle of Sekigahara fought on October 21, 1600, marked an incredibly important moment in Japanese history, concluding the Sengoku period. 

Led by Tokugawa Ieyasu, forces clashed against a coalition of Toyotomi loyalist clans, resulting in a Tokugawa victory and the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate. Despite taking three more years to solidify power, Sekigahara is seen as the unofficial starting point of the Tokugawa era, which dominated Japan for over two centuries until 1868.  

A statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu – Aichi Prefecture

Blackthorne’s account in the books is supposed to be focused on Tokugawa’s rise to power. He is one of the most important figures in Japanese history, often cited as one of the three “Great Unifiers” of Japan, along with Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. 

John Blackthorne himself was based on William Adams

The rise of the Tokugawa shogunate is not the only thing based on true events. John Blackthorne himself is based on a historically important figure, William Adams, who, in 1600, was the first Englishman to reach Japan. William Adams arrived in Japan on the trading ship de Liefde as part of a Rotterdam merchants’ expedition.

Although most of the ships were lost, Adams and a few survivors reached Japan, where he and his second mate Jan, were initially not allowed to leave due to Japan’s closed society. However, they were permitted to establish formal trade relations, while Adams became a key advisor to shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Adams played an extremely important role in constructing the first Western-style ships in Japan and was involved in approving Dutch trading factories. Despite being allowed to return to England, Adams chose to stay in Japan, contributing significantly to the country’s Red Seal Asian trade until his death at the age of 55. He is recognized as one of the most influential foreigners in Japan during that period, even becoming a Western samurai. 

Is Toda Mariko, the female Samurai, based on a real character?

Now that we’ve covered that Blackthorne’s and Toranaga’s characters are based on real historically influential people, what about Toda Mariko? How much of her character is based on true events? 

Well, Toda Mariko was partially and loosely inspired by Hosokawa Gracia (Akechi Tama). She was also an important figure during the Battle of Sekigahra but was mainly a political hostage to the Western Army led by Ishida Mitsunari. She was disgraced when she refused to commit seppuku due to her Catholic Faith (at one point in time, she converted to Catholicism).

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As the last notable survivor of the Akechi clan, her actions had an incredible impact on both armies, damaging Ishida’s reputation and contributing to Mitsunari’s defeat, ultimately leading to the events that led to the formation of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

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