Shogun: Blackthorne’s Hatamoto Title Is More Important Than You Think

John Blackthorne's new Hatamoto title comes directly from the Japanese history upon which Shogun is based.

“SHOGUN” -- "Tomorrow is Tomorrow" -- Episode 3 (Airs March 5) Pictured: Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne.
Photo: Katie Yu | FX

This article contains spoilers for Shogun episode 3.

Through the first three episodes of FX’s Shōgun, pilot major John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) has had a hell of a time in Japan. As the first Englishman in the country (but notably not the first European), the man known as Anjin has been intimidated, beaten, imprisoned, and even urinated on. By the end of episode 3, however, Blackthorne receives a surprisingly impressive new title.

After boldly assisting in Lord Toranaga’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) secret escape from Osaka, Blackthorne is dubbed “Hatamoto.” While this initially means little to English-speaking audiences, the stunned silence from Lord Toranaga’s supporters suggests that this is quite the honor. So what exactly is a “hatamoto” and why is Blackthorne’s elevation to the role such a big deal? The answer to those questions lie in the real life feudal history upon which Shōgun is based.

Shōgun takes place near the tail end of the Sengoku period (or warring states period) of Japan and will lead into the much more well-known Edo Period of the 17th through 19th centuries. It is during this time period straddling two eras that the role of the hatamoto became a consistent, standardized position in feudal Japanese society.

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Roughly translated to English, “hatamoto” means “guardian of the banner,” “near the banner,” or “under the banner.” As is also the case in Western warfare, Japanese officers and soldiers gather under their lord or general’s flag. The hatamoto then is a position that is extremely close to the lord or shōgun both literally and figuratively. As this week’s episode of FX’s official companion podcast for Shōgun reveals, the hatamoto has something that few other samurai do: access to his lord.

“To have the ear and more importantly the trust of a lord in the Sengoku period was to have power and influence,” podcast host and Shōgun writer Emily Yoshida says. “This closeness applied off the battlefield and signified a strong trust in all matters. The hatamoto had the distinguished privilege of a direct audience with their lord.”

In his quest to survive the regency era and bring glory back to the Minowara bloodline, Lord Toranaga has many supporters at his disposal. As the podcast again explains, a feudal lord like Toranaga would have access to many samurai within a clear hierarchy. This includes lesser lords known as vassals who have their own armies but are subordinate to their overlord (akin to Yabushige in the show) and gokenin who serve their lord directly.

Blackthorne obviously owns no lands in Japan so he cannot be a vassal of Lord Toranaga but it would have been far easier (and less offensive to his existing boosters) to name Blackthorne as “merely” a gokenin. After all, the concept of hatamoto role as distinct from a gokenin was not particularly well-established in the Sengoku period anyway. And yet Lord Toranaga opts to bestow this unique honor onto an Englishman all the same. It all might come across as farfetched if it didn’t actually happen in history.

Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, the real life inspiration for Lord Toranaga really did make English pilot major William Adams a hatamoto. Emily Yoshida in the Shōgun podcast explains: “For Tokugawa Ieyasu, the real Japanese Lord that Toranaga is based on, there was one hatamoto that differed from the rest. William Adams – the historical basis for Blackthorne – began as an advisor to Tokugawa on diplomacy and trade. But eventually he earned the title of Hatamoto giving him a lot of influence when it came to foreign policy.”

Why would both Lord Tokugawa and Lord Toranaga impart such a prestigious honor on their little European buddies? Probably for the same reason that any lord imparts a prestigious honor in the first place: it’s good business for them. In a short period of time, John Blackthorne has already proven his loyalty and utility to Toranaga. That’s a man you want near your banner in the wars to come.

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The first three episodes of Shōgun are available to stream on Hulu now. Episodes premiere Tuesdays on Hulu and Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on FX.