Meet the real Anjin from FX’s Shogun

Shogun's John Blackthorne aka Anjin is based on a real Englishman who landed in Japan near the end of the Sengoku Period.

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Fact meets fiction in the spectacular historical drama Shogun. The show, adapted from James Clavell’s book of the same name, follows Protestant English maritime pilot John Blackthorne, nicknamed Anjin (or pilot in Japanese), who seeks to establish trade with Japan. However, he finds himself embroiled in a complicated power struggle, political intrigue, and battle for the rule of Japan. Many viewers drew comparisons to Game of Thrones for both its political and historical influences. However, while there is no clear Jon Snow in history, there was a clear Anjin in the history books of Japan.

The Real-Life John Blackthorne

Although the character John Blackthorne is a fictional character in the story, he is based on the real-life historical English navigator William Adams who came to Japan in 1600 and was the first Englishman to reach Japan. He would then go on to become a samurai under a powerful daimyo who would later become the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Life before Japan

William Adams was born on September 24, 1564 in England. At the age of 12, He was apprenticed to a shipbuilder, and in 1588 he became a master of a supply ship for the British navy during the invasion of the Spanish Armada. After the British secured victory, Adams served as a pilot and ship’s master for a company of Barbary merchants.

A Troubled Voyage

In June of 1598, William Adams shipped out as a pilot major with five Dutch ships bound from Europe for the East Indies, now called, Indonesia. The fleet was scattered by storms and in April of 1600, Adam’s ship, along with his sick crew, anchored off the island of Kyushu in southern Japan, and became the first northern European ship to reach the country.

A Fateful Encounter

William Adam, along with the remainder of his crew, were summoned to Osaka, where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the soon-to-be Shogun, interrogated mostly Adams. The interrogation consisted of various topics like politics, religion, and other technical subjects like ships and shipbuilding. Ieyasu was so impressed with Adam’s knowledge that he made him one of his confidants. Ieyasu bestowed the rank of hatamoto (“bannerman”), a retainer to the shogun, and was given an estate at Miura, on the Miura Peninsula south of Edo, now called Tokyo. However, Adams still wished to return to England, where he had family but was refused permission. He eventually settled in Japan, married a Japanese woman, and became known as Anjin (“Pilot”)

Life in Japan

In Japan, William Adams oversaw the construction of Western-style ships, wrote letters on behalf of the shogun to the Dutch and English traders to encourage them to come to Japan, and then officiated between the shogunate and the traders who visited the country. In 1613, he helped establish an English Factory for the East India Company at Hirado, in Kyushu northwest of Nagasaki for trading. Adams was also allowed voyages overseas between 1614 and 1619 and traveled as far as Southeast Asia.

What Begins Also Ends

When Tokugawa Ieyasu died in 1616, his successor, Tokugawa Hidetada turned Japan more isolationist. Trading with the English was cut down and eventually, the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade, and Adam’s influence with the shogunate decreased. By 1620, William Adams fell ill and died while in Hirado and was buried there. The English Factory was shut down after his death.

When Fact Lives Through Fiction

William Adams would eventually inspire the character of John Blackthorne, and his exploits would be the foundations of James Clavell’s novel Shogun. Although there are many fictionalized parts to tell the rise of the first shogun, Adam’s story is as equally fascinating and inspiring. His story lives on in the history books, and with the people who are watching Shogun.

Shogun is currently streaming now on Disney+.