Review: Shogun Is Great TV – But It’s Not About Colonialism

Review: Shogun Is Great TV – But It’s Not About Colonialism

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Shogun on FX
Picture: FX
The 2024 Shogun TV series stacks up pretty well to history, says a Japanese historian - but the surrounding conversation around "colonialism" is ridiculous.

With the release of the new Shogun series from FX, a lot of people want to know two things: (1) is it good television, and (2) is it good history? As an academic historian in Japan, I say you can enjoy both the story and the real history behind it. You just have to separate them from one another.

Separating fiction from fact

In the academic world, I study the contact between Japan and Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. For general audiences, I work on everything that has to do with Japanese history in general and the samurai in particular.

So, since FX announced the new version of Shōgun, many people have asked me about it. in fact, I’ve ended up watching it every week live on YouTube. (I invite you to join us if you understand Spanish.)

When a fictional product is based on (or inspired by) real historical events, everyone always wants to know how much it resembles those facts. Many are eager to point an accusing finger at any anachronism or slip-up, à la Nelson Muntz.

John Blackthorne, a character from Shogun
Don’t get it twisted, says our reviewer: John Blackthorne is no William Adams. (Picture: FX)

I am very much in favor of doing this regarding a history book. I’m not so inclined when we’re talking about a television show, a movie, or a video game. It’s fiction. Let’s enjoy it as it is and not get too bent out of shape.

I am even more permissive in this specific case. Real context and characters clearly inspired James Clavell, the author of the novel on which the show is based. However, he had the very good idea of changing their names.

Advertisements

The bottom line is that protagonist John Blackthorne could have arrived in Japan aboard the Millennium Falcon, and I wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. Because we’re no longer talking about the English sailor William Adams. We’re talking about a made-up character.

My verdict on the history behind Shogun

That being said, I think Shōgun is fine from a historical point of view. It has some pro-Anglo and anti-Iberian bias, yes. However, both the novel and the original show also have it. In those, it’s even more accentuated. It is, furthermore, a perfectly understandable bias – one that will always be less evident than the pro-Catholic bias of the vast majority of European documentation of the time on this topic.

Aside from that and some artistic license, I haven’t seen anything that seemed too out of place within the first six episodes. In fact, this version has fixed some errors from the previous ones, such as the appearance of a ninja, a fictional character that did not really exist. We hear Blackthorne and Mariko talking to each other in English, although they are supposed to be doing it in Portuguese, yes. However, we know that English-speaking audiences are not used to reading subtitles, so this can be easily forgiven, I guess.

In this new version, they also focus much more on the political side of the novel, expanding and complicating it even more. This Game of Thrones-ification process distances it even more from the classic show’s lighter approach, which focused on adventure and romance. I think we’ve gained from it. The truth is that I have no complaints – beyond, perhaps, the disturbing blue contact lenses of our English fellow.

No, Shogun isn’t about colonialism

Curiously, where I have seen the most anachronisms and misplaced arguments has been in some comments that other people have made about or based on this new Shōgun.

Some have wanted to see in this show a conflict between “European colonizers and indigenous Japanese people.” I’m sympathetic to and generally agree with these arguments. But here’s the thing: you can’t apply them to Japan in the 16th and 17th centuries.

None of the European countries present in Japan at the time considered the idea of conquering or colonizing the country. Not for lack of desire, that’s true, but for lack of means.

Sure, some people had plans – like the Castilian Jesuit Alonso Sánchez, and many others. However, no one took them seriously. The number of soldiers Japan sent to war in the 16th century were unattainable by Portugal or Castile.

Toyotomi’s powerful army

Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Let’s compare them. On the one hand, Toyotomi Hideyoshi –the Nakamura of Shōgun– mobilized some 280,000 soldiers to conquer the island of Kyūshū. On the other hand, in the same decade, Philip II, as one of the movements to take over the crown of Portugal, mobilized a then-impressive army of 20,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry soldiers. To do so, he had to resort to some of his allies. Not just for troops, either, but also to lend him money to finance the campaign.

Let’s imagine that, in addition, he had to send that army to the other side of the world. That was impossible. One need only read the repeated requests the Castilian governors of Manila made to the king in all their letters. They always asked for more soldiers and money to improve the city’s lackluster defenses.

It was already evident from the beginning of its presence in the Philippines that the Castilian empire in the Americas would decline. Neither the Dutch nor the English could, at that time, do anything in Japan similar to what they would later carry out, through their East India Companies, in Southeast Asia.

Japan’s “Christian Century” that wasn’t

Tokugawa Ieyasu
Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who unified Japan and upon whom Shogun‘s Toranaga is based.

Other comments that I have read about Shōgun are much more predictable. They fall into the usual Eurocentrism found in many works dealing with this same general topic: the contact between Japan and Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Too often, people inflate the importance of Europeans’ arrival in Japan. Western academia has been talking for decades about “the Christian century of Japan” and other formulas that are as chauvinistic as they are inaccurate.

Many things happened in Japan from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century. Most of them were much more important than the arrival of the Europeans. European trade and religion had minimal impact, and they didn’t spark any revolutions.

In fact, the opposite is true. Japan’s political situation always conditioned how it received and treated Europeans. Japanese politics was an active agent in this contact since war and disunity made trade and evangelization successful in the first decades. Japan’s unification and search for political stability were what led it to expel Westerners from the country.

Firearms vs. Christianity

Firearms indeed had a significant impact. They accelerated the unification process, which had been stalled for decades and could have remained that way for a long time. However, we shouldn’t magnify their importance.

Christianity, on the other hand, had a much smaller impact. First, it only existed in certain specific provinces. Second, even there, the interest of the daimyō was related only to Portuguese trade and the economic benefits they could obtain with it. Christianity was nothing but the price they had to pay for it.

The numbers of converts that the Jesuits boasted about, in addition to being exaggerated, corresponded in the vast majority of cases to conversions by decree. In these cases, a territory’s daimyō wanted good relations with the missionaries to access trade through them. Suddenly, his 10,000 subjects automatically became Christians.

The Jesuits counted them as such. However, they knew perfectly well –we know this from their letters– that they were Christians only on paper. The mission didn’t have the resources to convert them for real.

In addition to a chronic lack of funding, the Jesuit mission was understaffed. It peaked at 142 members in 1590 and 1591, of whom only 47 were priests.

We only find cases of convinced converts in some second-generation Japanese Christians. When a daimyō converted –for economic reasons– it was common for him to educate his children in Jesuit schools, which instilled Catholic doctrine. When Tokugawa IeyasuShōgun‘s Toranaga – banned Christianity, the same daimyō converts who had ordered the burning of temples and shrines when they were baptized immediately abdicated from their faith and dedicated themselves to fiercely persecuting Christians.

Enjoy the romance

Blackthorne and Mariko in Shogun
Picture: FX

In Shōgun, the Western protagonist significantly impacts how the great Japanese historical events develop after his arrival. As a result, some have tried to make a markedly Eurocentric reading of those same events outside the realm of fiction.

The real Blackthorne, William Adams, was also Ieyasu’s advisor on issues related to European contact. However, he didn’t play a major role beyond that. And that’s fine. We shouldn’t lift historical readings from a TV show. Historical facts aren’t based on fiction but vice versa.

No matter how hard we dig, we don’t even know whether Adams and Gracia Hosokawa ever met. So, let’s enjoy the romance between Blackthorne and Mariko and leave it at that.

Note: For an opposing take, read our review of James Clavell’s Shogun.

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jonathan Lopez-Vera

Jonathan López-Vera (Barcelona, 1977) is a Doctor of Japanese History (Universitat Pompeu Fabra), Master in World History (UPF), and graduate in East Asian Studies (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona). A specialist in Japanese History, he is the author of the Historia Japonesa website, the books "Historia de los samuráis" (Satori, 2016; Alianza, 2021) / "A History of the Samurai" (Tuttle, 2020), and "Toyotomi Hideyoshi y los europeos" (Edicions Universitat de Barcelona, 2021); and co-editor of the journal "Asiadémica".

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy