What does Shogun mean?

Chris Tilly
Hiroyuki Sanada looking noble as Yoshii Toranaga in Shogun.

Shogun is already one of the most acclaimed TV shows of 2024 – so what does the program’s title mean?

Written by James Clavell – and published in 1975 – Shogun tells the story of Pilot John Blackthorne’s adventure in Japan, with the official synopsis as follows: “Starting with his shipwreck on this most alien of shores, the novel charts Blackthorne’s rise from the status of reviled foreigner up to the heights of trusted advisor and eventually, Samurai. All as civil war looms over the fragile country.”

The book was turned into a 1980 mini-series that starred Richard Chamberlain as Blackthorne and became one of the most-watched shows of all time in America.

While now Cosmo Jarvis plays the same character, in a 10-part epic – much of which is in Japanese – that’s currently airing weekly on Hulu and FX in the US, and Disney+ in the UK.

What does Shogun mean?

While John Blackthorne was an invention by James Clavell – loosely based on the life and times of one William Adams – Shogun is a real word, that essentially means “military leader.”

It’s actually written “shōgun” and is a contracted version of the phrase “Sei-i Taishōgun,” which literally translates as “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force Against the Barbarians.” This is why Blackthorne is called “Barbarian” for much of Shogun’s first three episodes.

Beginning in 1185, Shoguns were usually appointed by the Emperor but increasingly ruled over their own military dictatorships.

Here’s how Britannica describes their rise to power: “Legally, the shogunate was under the control of the emperor, and the shogun’s authority was limited to control of the military forces of the country, but the increasingly feudal character of Japanese society created a situation in which control of the military became tantamount to control of the country, and the emperor remained in his palace in Kyōto chiefly as a symbol of sovereignty behind the shogun.”

That was until the last Shogun – Yoshinobu – was forced to return the running of civil and military affairs to the Emperor in 1868, which marked the end of the Shogun period.

Head here for more great shows streaming this month, or scroll down for the best of our Shogun articles:

Why Shogun director doesn’t like Game of Thrones comparisons | What fans think Shogun does better than every other show | Was Joe Blackthorne a real person?