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The hit series ‘Shogun’ is exposing more people to Japanese history. But how accurate is it?

FX’s new limited series aims to put the “historical” in “historical epic,” but does it succeed? An expert in Japanese history says it hits more than it misses.

Shogun series banner showing a Japanese person riding a horse on a teal and red background.
Finding the balance between dramatic storytelling and historical accuracy is at the core of “Shogun,” says Michael Thornton, visiting assistant professor of history at Northeastern. Image by FX

Between samurai warriors charging into battle, romance and political maneuvering that would put “Game of Thrones” to shame, it’s not hard to see why the FX series “Shogun” has become a breakout hit.

But there’s something else the show has going for it: history. In Hollywood, history is often more of a guideline than a guiding principle. But in “Shogun,” FX’s new adaptation of James Clavell’s 1975 historical novel, history takes center stage in a way that threads the needle between dramatic storytelling and historical accuracy, says Michael Thornton, a visiting assistant professor of history at Northeastern University who specializes in Japanese and East Asian history.

“Shogun” takes place in 1600 at the end of the Sengoku period as Japan is still recovering from civil war. When the taiko, or prime chancellor, dies, leaving an underage heir and a power vacuum, the leading members of the Council of Regents begin to battle for control. All of this occurs at a time when European presence in Japan is restricted largely to Portuguese Catholic priests and merchants, but other Western forces are starting to bang at the doors.

“They really are trying to capture a lot of both the domestic politics and the international relations, both of which are really dynamic, historically speaking, at the end of the 16th and into the early 17th century,” Thornton says. “Everyone is sort of standing in for a broader array of complexity, but I would give an undergraduate lecture on that time that’s about at that level of complexity.”

Thornton adds that Japan’s period of isolation from the West is more well known than this earlier period, but the show has excelled at making what could easily be an overwhelming history lesson into something compelling and largely accurate.

“The show so far has done a good job of conveying an era before fast communications where the connection points that Japan had with the outside world were these very specific groups of people with very vested interests in their own battles,” Thornton says. “To illustrate that complexity is quite spot on.”

Since “Shogun” takes place before Japan’s isolationist period, it allows the creators to focus on a piece of Japanese history that not many people are aware of: how widespread Catholicism was. Missionaries had been present in Japan for more than 50 years when the story of “Shogun” picks up. Parts of the general populace, as well political leadership, were active Christians, creating the kinds of tensions within Japanese society that the show uses for dramatic purposes.

“There’s basically a whole century between 1549 and 1637 or so where a lot of people were Christian,” Thornton says. “But as we can already see in the first few episodes, the political volatility that Christianity injects in Japanese politics, that’s very historically accurate and is what leads to the suppression of Christianity later in the 17th century. All of that is very true and gives a very real sense of both how dynamic domestic politics were and also how interconnected that was with these international developments.”

Christianity was not as central to the political divisions that took place among members of the Council of Regents as the show would have viewers believe, he says. But “that healthy tension between the Hollywood values while anchoring that in historical accuracy is there.”

This is not the first time “Shogun” has been brought to the small screen. The 1980 miniseries was a colossal hit, but the creators of this version have been upfront about the ways they needed to modernize how this story was told. That meant putting the Japanese characters at the center of the frame instead of just the white Englishman, John Blackthorne, who washes up on their shores. It also meant letting them actually speak Japanese for a majority of the show’s runtime.

Thornton says the show’s attention to not just historical but cultural and linguistic accuracy is “a corrective to the original novel where Clavell’s language was, shall we say, inconsistent in the way that he was trying to portray the Japanese that was being used.”

The dialogue in the series underwent a more extensive writing process than in most Hollywood productions, producer Kyoko Morikawi told The Ringer. It was written in English before being translated into Japanese and then checked by historians to ensure it was period appropriate before being polished to make sure it sounds natural but also poetic. 

As a Japanese speaker, Thornton says it’s easy to hear the difference. 

“The Japanese [being used] for especially elite classes is not the Japanese you would speak today,” he says. “When you hear especially the women talking to the various lords, you can hear a formal register that you wouldn’t normally hear. That’s very typical in Japanese samurai films.”

Japanese pop culture has been mainstream for decades at this point –– animation legend Hiyao Miyazaki just won an Oscar for “The Boy and the Heron” –– but the success of “Shogun,” a story told mostly in Japanese, speaks to how little of a language barrier there is for American viewers now, Thornton says. In a system that has often struggled with representing Japanese people and culture, it’s a sign of why taking things like history, language and even costumes seriously is more than just set dressing.

“One of the things that this adaptation at least so far seems to be doing a good job at is downplaying some of the more Orientalizing or exoticizing aspects that, for a lot of us, were really frustrating about the original novel and earlier adaptations,” Thornton says. “I’m always happy to see Japanese history brought to pop culture, especially in a way that does a pretty good job of trying to stay true to history while still having all the Hollywood aspects that are a little more implausible historically speaking.”