Is Shogun based on a true story?

Chris Tilly
shogun season 2

A new adaptation of hit historical novel Shogun is now streaming, but is the series based on a true story?

Written by James Clavell and published in 1975, Shogun quickly became one of the bestselling books of that decade. The novel was then turned into an equally successful mini-series in 1980.

A new book-to-TV adaptation brought to life thanks to Hulu, the official synopsis of the series reads: “Shogun is set in Japan in the year 1600 at the dawn of a century-defining civil war. Lord Yoshii Toranaga is fighting for his life as his enemies on the Council of Regents unite against him when a mysterious European ship is found marooned in a nearby fishing village.”

A man called John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) is on that ship, with the plot concerning his experience as the first Englishman in Japan. And that story has its roots in reality.

Is Shogun based on a true story?

Yes, Shogun is very loosely based on a true story, with James Clavell using the life and times of pilot William Adams as a jumping-off point for his story.

In September 1980, while promoting the first Shogun series, Clavell told The Evening Independent that he was inspired by a single line in a history textbook belonging to his kid, which stated that “In 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a Samurai.”

That man was William Adams, who was born in Gillingham, Kent, in 1564. From a young age, he worked for the merchant marines, and then the British Navy, before serving as a pilot for the Barbary merchants.

In April 1600, the ship on which he served ran into trouble, was blown off course, and ended up the first European boat to reach the coast of Japan. Adams was captured and interrogated, and so impressed local leaders with his nautical knowledge that he became the shogun’s confidant.

According to Brittanica, Adams then “oversaw the construction of Western-style ships, wrote letters on behalf of the shogun encouraging Dutch and English traders to come to Japan, and then officiated between the shogunate and the traders who began visiting the country.”

When he wasn’t granted permission to return home, Adams settled in Japan, married a local woman, and helped establish a trading post for the East India Company.

William Adams then fell ill, died in Hirado in 1620, and was buried in Japan. But through James Clavell’s book – as well as the TV adaptations – a version of his story lives on.