The Christian Faith of ‘Shogun’s’ ‘Blue-Eyed Samurai’

In Shizuoka, the prefecture of Japan where I grew up, you can find a park dedicated to the first Englishman to enter Japan. A small public space along the water in the city of Itō, it commemorates Miura Anjin, or William Adams, who arrived in the country when his ship washed up on its shores.

Captured by local leaders, Anjin was put in the service of Tokugawa Ieyasu—the first shōgun (a chief army commander who ruled Japan) of the Edo period—which led to his ascendancy as the first Westerner to become a samurai, earning him the nickname of “blue-eyed samurai.” Itō’s annual Anjin Festival in August commemorates his accomplishment in building the first Western-style ships in 1604, and Japan has honored him by registering his burial mound, Anjin-zuka in Yokosuka, as a national historical landmark.

Shōgun (2024), currently playing on FX, takes its inspiration from the lives of Anjin and Tokugawa. Set in the year that Anjin first stepped foot in Japan, it tells the story of an English ship pilot named John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) who washes ashore and is taken captive by Japanese bushō (“warrior lord”) Toranaga Yoshii (Hiroyuki Sanada). Blackthorne soon becomes entangled in Toranaga’s political rivalry with four other bushōs and ultimately witnesses the rise of Toranaga as a shōgun. Writers and producers Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks based their TV series on James Clavell’s bestselling novel with the same title published in 1975, which sold over 15 million copies and subsequently became a popular TV show in 1980.

Just as the original novel grew the general public’s interest in Japanese culture, the 2024 FX adaptation undoubtedly will inform many about Japanese culture and history. “Shōgun has probably conveyed more information about Japan to more people than all the combined writings of scholars, journalists, and novelists since the Pacific War,” wrote Japan scholar Henry Smith in 1980.

Similarly, the recent television series has garnered wide critical acclaim, as a reviewer for The New York Times noted, especially compared to its ’80s counterpart. But what many of the viewers will rediscover, or perhaps even learn for the first time, is how Christianity manifested in Japan, just 50 years or so after it first arrived.

The portrayal of Christianity in Shōgun

From the first episode, Shōgun establishes that by 1600, Portuguese Catholics had been richly profiting from trade in Japan for decades, keeping the country’s whereabouts hidden from their sworn enemies: the European Protestants. It’s this international religious and political conflict that sends Blackthorne and his Dutch ship Erasmus to Asia in the adaptation, with the explicit command to “plunder any Spanish territory.”

After Toranaga and his men take the crew of Erasmas captive, the prisoners fear that the Catholics are behind their incarceration. At one point, a Portuguese Catholic priest serves as an interpreter for Blackthorne. When the priest introduces himself as “a servant of God,” Blackthorne responds with the derision “your God … you papist prick.” He later rips off the rosary of the priest, stating, “I am not one of them,” and stomps on the cross. The priest then describes Blackthorne as a “devil, murderer, and pirate” who ought to be executed.

This scene is inspired by a historical account of Anjin that he describes in a letter from 1611. He negatively recounts how, soon after his arrival, a foreign Jesuit—his “mortal enem[y]”—came to serve as his translator.

The dramatized conflict between Blackthorne and the Catholic priest reflects the wider Protestant-Catholic religious and political turmoil during the 16th and 17th centuries. After the Protestant Reformation began in Wittenberg in 1517 and spread throughout Europe over the subsequent century, it fomented tension between Catholics and Protestants, at times resulting in armed clashes. Sometimes this violence escalated into significant bloodshed, including the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598) and the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648).

It was also during this period that Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits) in 1540, and Catholicism at large made a renewed effort in world evangelism. In 1549, the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier and his associates arrived in Japan as the first Christian missionaries, and the Roman Catholic faith soon spread across the country, reaching many, including the nobility.

The relationship between these distinct parts of the world also had economic consequences, allowing Portugal and Spain to monopolize trade with Japan. The unexpected arrival of the British Protestant sailor thus presented a religious, economic, and political threat to the (Catholic) Portuguese and Spaniards in Japan.

Miura Anjin / William Adams

The real-life Anjin was indeed a British navigator who left his wife and two children in England and boarded a doomed Dutch ship at the beginning of the 17th century. Just as the show portrays Toranaga granting Blackthorne the rank of hatamoto (a title given to upper-class samurai who were vassals to the shōgun), Anjin also became a hatamoto of Tokugawa and served as the counselor of foreign trade.

James Clavell, who wrote the original novel, as well as the writers of the FX adaptation, took several creative liberties that diverge from the historical account, however. Many of these differences are geographical, including changes to the hometown of the protagonist (from Kent County to London) and the part of Japan he arrives in (from Oita to Shizouka Prefecture). But the adaptation also shows Blackthorne having a relationship with Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai). (In real life, Anjin took a Japanese wife and had a son named Joseph and a daughter named Susanna.)

Gracia Tama Hosokawa

Toda Mariko is loosely based on a historical figure commonly known as Gracia Tama Hosokawa. Born Akechi Tama, she was the daughter of Akechi Mitsuhide, who is infamously known for assassinating his lord in what became known as the Honnō-ji Incident. Due to her father’s treachery, her husband Hosokawa Tadaoki hid her in the mountains of modern Kyoto Prefecture for several years. Even after she returned to her husband’s palace in Osaka, she remained in confinement until her death.

One day while her husband was off to battle, Hosokawa secretly attended a Catholic Easter church service. Although this was the first and last time she attended a church service, her interest in Christianity led to her subsequent letter correspondences with Jesuit priests and ultimately her conversion. About a decade later, Tadaoki sided with Tokugawa in Japan’s largest samurai battle against commander Ishida Mitsunari.

Although sources differ on how Hosokawa died, when Ishida sought to take Hosokawa as a hostage, she either took her own life, was put to death, or was killed in a fire. As Hosokawa died in 1600, the presence of Mariko in Shōgun, which takes place later, is completely anachronistic. Additionally, the show’s portrayal of Mariko’s frequent interactions with Jesuit missionaries and her coming and going differ from the historical Hosokawa, who spent her life in seclusion. Mariko’s openness about her Christian identity, however, reflects Hosokawa’s strong faith and determination to hold to her beliefs even to the point of death.

A genuine faith?

Viewers may question whether Anjin was genuinely a Christian. In Shōgun, Blackthorne is foul-mouthed, engages in extramarital affairs, and irreverently steps on a cross. But an analysis of six letters written by the real-life Anjin between 1611 and 1617 indicates that his faith may have played a more significant role in his personal life.

Anjin explicitly refers to Jesus twice in his first letter, dated October 1611, which entreats the name of Jesus Christ when requesting that the recipient of the letter report his survival to his wife and children in England. He writes, “I do pray and intreate you in the name of Jesus Christ to doe so much as to make my being here in Iapon, knowen to my poor wife.” He also concludes the letter with a similar request, asking the Almighty God that his wife, children, and acquaintances would hear of his letter and that they would send a reply.

Anjin’s six letters from Japan refer to God a total of 47 times. When describing the hardship he and his crew went through as captives accused of thievery, he praises God for showing them mercy in saving their lives. He also claims that God has blessed him for repaying the evil actions of his “former enemies” (i.e., the Spaniards and Portuguese) with good. He writes a familiar ecclesial blessing: “to him only be all honnor and praise, power and glory, both now and for euer, worlde without ende” and confesses God as the creator of heaven and earth. These references to God support that, at least in speech, Anjin confessed his belief in God’s presence and guidance in his life.

By the time Anjin arrived in Japan, Christian persecution was already underway. In 1587, the imperial regent of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, described Christianity as an evil religion from Christian nations and Japan as protected by its own gods. He therefore issued edicts requiring his permission for daimyōs (powerful landholders) to become Christian, prohibiting them from forcing conversion upon his subjects, and expelling Christian missionaries. A decade later in 1597, Toyotomi crucified 26 Catholics (including both Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries and Japanese believers) in Nagasaki.

Anjin arrived in the neighboring city of Oita only three years after this tragic event, and his letters attest to increasing Christian persecution during his time in Japan. In a letter dated January 1613, he refers to the presence of many Christians according to the “Romishe order,” but already in 1612, the Franciscans were “put down,” and only the Jesuits remained in Nagasaki.

In 1614, Tokugawa Ieyasu issued an anti-Christianity edict, banning missionaries and making it illegal to become Christian. Anjin witnesses to Tokugawa’s persecution of Christians in a letter dated in 1616–17. He reports that Tokugawa deported foreign Roman Catholics and commanded the burning of churches. Additionally, following the death of Tokugawa, his son (Tokugawa Hidetada) was against the “Romish relligion” and prohibited daimyōs from converting to “Romish Christiane.”

The series of executions of Christians in Japan reflects the increasing severity of persecution during Anjin’s life until he died in 1620: in 1616 in Edo, 23 were martyred; in 1614 in Arima, 43 were martyred; and in 1619 in Kyōto, 53 were martyred.

Japan entered into a permanent state of national isolation in 1633, and during this period, the kakure kirishitan or “hidden Christians” concealed their faith to avoid fierce persecution. Japan hunted down Christians by requiring every Japanese family to register at a Buddhist church, making people step on a fumi-e (a picture with Christian symbols such as Jesus and Mary), and granting rewards to anyone who reported a Christian. Captured Christians were tortured until they renounced their faith, and those who did not abjure were brutally executed.

Though he was a foreigner, Anjin’s story nevertheless illustrates the complexities that Christians faced in the 17th century. As evidenced in his letters, his continued belief in God may attest to his perseverance of faith despite his spiritual isolation. Additionally, his rise to a position of influence reflects how others valued his knowledge, skillset, and social capital, despite his foreign Christian identity.

On the other hand, despite Anjin’s Protestant identity and presence in Japan, Protestantism did not take root or spread in Japan during his lifetime. And while Anjin retained his belief in God, the question remains: Did he conceal his faith in response to the increasing hostilities against Christians in Japan?

In fact, Anjin’s faith is clearest in his first letter, whereas in his later letters from 1617, the expression of his faith is limited to formulaic conclusions that either entrust the recipient to the “protection of the allmighty” or pray for the recipient’s prosperity.

Despite the lack of explicit faith declarations leading up to his death in 1620, one can hope he was inspired by the courageous faith of other Japanese Christians, like Hosokawa, who once told a priest that her conversion happened “not by the persuasion of humans, but only by the grace and mercy of one and only almighty God, in whom I have found that even if the heavens changed into the earth and the trees and the plains ceased to be, I, by the confidence which I have in God, shall not be moved.”

Kaz Hayashi (PhD, Baylor University) is associate professor of Old Testament at Bethel Seminary/University in Minnesota. He was born and raised in Japan, attended high school in Malaysia, and now resides in Minnesota with his family. He is a fellow of Every Voice: A Center for Kingdom Diversity in Christian Theological Education.

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