Shōgun - The Hulu Limited Series and the True Story



As many of you know, there is a new historic drama being shown on Hulu right now called Shōgun. It's about the tail-end of the civil war period of Japan, about an English sailor who crash landed on the island and somehow managed to climb his way up to the top and help the leader of one of the sides in this civil war win control of the country.

This limited series is based on the 1975 book by James Clavell. It has already been adapted once, in a 1980 mini series starring Richard Chamberlain and the always amazing Toshiro Mifune. The 1980 miniseries took America by storm. It was and remains the highest-rated miniseries ever. It inspired a wave of interest in Japan. Many of the foreigners I have met in Japan over the years have told me that the Shogun miniseries is what first made them interested in Japan. The new limited series stars Hiroyuki Sanada, who, while not as huge of a name as Mifune, is a pretty big name in both Japanese and America film.

It is a mostly true story. An Englishman really did land on Japanese shores and really did manage not only to not be killed, but help one of the sides in the civil war and to climb the political ladder to end up as a very important person, for which he was awarded the rank of samurai and given some land.

Let's look at a brief overview of the real history. [Note: I may have used Ieyasu instead of Tokugawa a few times to refer to the Shogun in the post. Don't be confused. His full name was Tokugawa Ieyasu, but when talking about him we often use his given name—Ieyasu—just to make it easier to distinguish him from the other members of his family. Also, "shogun" is now considered an acceptable word in English, so these days we usually remove the macron over the o. The Hulu series keeps it for effect, but I will remove it in this post.]


In 1600, William Adams, an English ship navigator (a "pilot") for the Dutch trading ship Liefde found his way to Japan, after more than 19 months at sea with a crew of 23 sick and dying men (out of 100 who had started the trip). He dropped anchor just off the coast of Kyushu, near present-day Usuki City in Ōita Prefecture. (Not quite the shipwreck portrayed in the book/TV series.) This would be the first Dutch ship to reach Japan.

Unfortunately for them, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries were active in this area and they told the local lords that the Dutch ship was a pirate ship and that all the crew should be executed. The Portuguese and Dutch were not very friendly (to put it mildly) at the time due to one being a Catholic country and one being a Protestant country. The ship was therefore seized and the crew imprisoned on the order of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the most powerful warlord (daimyō) in the country.

In the Liefde's cargo were nineteen bronze cannon, 5,000 cannonballs, 500 muskets, 300 chain-shot, and three chests filled with coats of mail. These were all taken. We have reports that the nineteen cannons and the muskets were later used in the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, which was won by Tokugawa and would lead to him being declared Shogun, making him the de facto ruler of Japan, but that is jumping ahead in the story.

Adams met with Tokugawa a number of times. He did not know any Japanese, but he did speak Portuguese, so they were able to communicate. Despite the Jesuit demands that he be executed, he was able to make Tokugawa aware of his abilities and knowledge of ships, shipbuilding, and navigation. This information was deemed very important to Tokugawa, so Adams was kept alive.

Adams would go on to build a ship for Tokugawa. This pleased the Shogun so much that he gave Adams leave to visit the palace whenever he wanted, and they evidently struck up something of a friendship. Adams was subsequently appointed diplomatic and trade advisor, and eventually became Tokugawa's personal advisor on all things Western. He became fluent in Japanese and so later became the official interpreter for the Shogunate. He was given two swords and made a samurai, and officially renamed Miura Anjin (三浦按針) which means "the pilot of Miura", Miura in reference to the Miura Peninsula which is where he was granted fiefdom, and given the title jikatatori hatamoto (地方取), a rank of hatamoto who took their income from land holdings. He was given 80-90 servants and an estate valued around 250 koku.

He married a local Japanese woman and had children and he seems to have completely embraced and adapted to Japanese life. We have reports from other foreigners of their meetings with Adams, and they report how he insisted on sitting on the floor like a Japanese, dressing like a Japanese, and using Japanese customs instead of English ones.


It's an amazing story, so you can see why Clavell was inspired to write a novel about it and why two TV series have been made from it (and several books were written on Adams before Clavell wrote Shogun). Unfortunately Clavell did add a love story to it which was not present in the real history. The woman he makes the love interest was real, but she had no association with William Adams, and most of her actions in the book/TV show wouldn't have been allowed to a woman of her station. Clavell also amps up the drama and makes Adams into something of a white savior figure, suggesting that Ieyasu never would have come to power without him and other key events were directly the result of him, which is also a little unfortunate, but that's kind of par for the course for historic fiction written by white guys about other cultures. Since this new Hulu series is Japanese produced, I am hoping they tone down this aspect to the story.

Clavell also, for some reason, renamed all the main characters. William Adams becomes John Blackthorne. Tokugawa Ieyasu becomes Lord Yoshi Toranaga. Ieyasu's predecessors in conquering the country, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, were renamed Goroda and simply, "The Taiko", which was a title used for the real Hideyoshi. Set opposite Ieyasu was Ishida Mitsunari, renamed to Ishido in the novel. The love interest is based on Hosokawa Gracia, renamed to the Lady Mariko for the story. There are many more.

I suppose Clavell renamed the characters to show that he was writing historic fiction and not 100% true history, but I've read many historic fiction books that reimagine the past and also use the real names and I don't think anyone is confused by this, so I'm a little bewildered by Clavell's decision. And of course historic movies always use the real names, despite usually disregarding actual history and making up most of the events (the recent Napoleon movie springs to mind). Personally I would have preferred if he had used the real names. But it is as it is, I suppose.

But anyway, despite the different names and the reimagining of some of the story, it was a real event, one fairly close to what you see in the book and what you will presumably see in the new limited series on Hulu. The 1980 miniseries was a huge hit for NBC, number one in the ratings, and left a lasting impact. It will be interesting to see if the new Hulu series has a similar effect.

Hi there! David LaSpina is an American photographer and translator lost in Japan, trying to capture the beauty of this country one photo at a time and searching for the perfect haiku. He blogs here and at Write him on Twitter or Mastodon.

Posted using CineTV


You received an upvote of 95% from Precious the Silver Mermaid!

Please remember to contribute great content to the #SilverGoldStackers tag to create another Precious Gem.


Loved the 80’s miniseries eventhough I was just a kiddo when it came out. Also loved the book and am really enjoying the Hulu show. Are they airing it in Japan too?

What’s the Japanese take on the show?


Yep, it's on Disney+ here. So far the Japanese response seems pretty good. There is a lot of praise for getting the small details right, which isn't a surprise since the series is Japanese produced (but I don't think most Japanese people are aware of that; the assumption would be foreign show = foreign crew). I haven't seen many negative comments yet.


I’ve only seen the first one but I like it a lot.


If you liked the original, you should give this one a shot. It's tough to top Chamberlain and Mifune, but once you get used to the new actors then it is a great show.


It's out on Disney+ here in the UK. I remember watching the 80s version as a kid and loved it. I read the book in the 90s and liked it. The new version is great too. I'm really enjoying it, although the acting of the guy playing John Blackthorn is a little wooden in places. Very entertaining and educational even if not entirely based on fact. Until now I hadn't realised that it was based on true events.


It's on Disney+ in Japan too. Clavell's weird sex obsessions aside, I've always liked the book as well. It does a good job introducing a totally alien culture and its history to the West. Yeah, I'm not crazy about the guy playing Blackthorn. He's no Richard Chamberlain. But otherwise the show is going well!


Interesting. We hear a lot of stories about the English and Europeans landing in China and other parts of Asia, but less to Japan, or maybe it's just that I haven't heard of them before.

Do you think the original 80s mini series is better or this new one?


One reason may be that there are just fewer "Europeans in Japan" stories. Except for this brief window around 1600, Japan was pretty successful in not allowing any foreigners in the country, with few exceptions, until modern times.

I can't really compare yet. I'll let you know after the entire series has run. I have a fondness for the actors in the 80s series, but I do like that this one seems less focused on Adams/Blackthorn. I like that it is showing more of Japan and making the Japanese into real people instead of just background to Blackthorn. Overall it is doing a good job. It is getting good word-of-mouth within Japan too.


I think Japan is one of the few countries in Asia that were never occupied or colonized by the Europeans. Though I always find it quite odd how Japan seems to be quite pro UK in terms of their love for English things, and them driving on the left like us, but we've had the conversation before about why that may be.


I haven't started watching it yet, but my father in law says it is really good.


Congratulations @dbooster! You received a personal badge!

You powered-up at least 10 HIVE on Hive Power Up Day!
Wait until the end of Power Up Day to find out the size of your Power-Bee.
May the Hive Power be with you!

You can view your badges on your board and compare yourself to others in the Ranking

Check out our last posts:

Hive Power Up Day - April 1st 2024