Arts and Humanities

Asian studies chair weighs in on ‘Shogun’

Carolina professor Morgan Pitelka discusses the historical accuracy of the Emmy-nominated series.

Morgan Pitelka headshot on Carolina Blue background right next to text reading
Pitelka is a specialist of late medieval Japan, the era in which the "Shogun" series takes place. (submitted photo)

The highly lauded FX drama series “Shogun” has captivated viewers since its first episodes aired this spring.

One especially keen viewer is UNC-Chapel Hill’s chair of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, Morgan Pitelka, an expert on the same pre-modern era of Japan the series explores.

Set in 1600, “Shogun” follows a warlord’s rise to power and his unlikely partnership with an English sailor. Though a work of historical fiction, “Shogun” draws from the real-life shogun Tokugawa Ieyasa, a subject of Pitelka’s book, “Spectacular Accumulation: Material Culture, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Samurai Sociability.”

Pitelka, the Bernard L. Herman Distinguished Professor, took time to discuss the series, based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel.

What makes Tokugawa Ieyasu so fascinating?

He’s an amazing historical figure. In the late 16th and early 17th century, Japan is coming to the end of this period of civil war, and under his leadership a government is founded that rules Japan peacefully for 250 years. It’s a pretty remarkable transition, and obviously, there are lots of people involved, but it’s kind of unusual to be able to put so much credit in the hands of one individual. He was honored as the founder of the government, and he went through a process of deification, so he became a deity who was worshipped for hundreds of years.

“Shogun” is historical fiction, but the Lord Toranaga character is inspired by Ieyasu. What similarities and differences do you see between the real-life and fictionalized version of him?

He was friendly to Europeans who came to Japan. That kind of contact with the West was a source of conflict. We see that in the show. Some Japanese convert to Christianity. Others are interested in Europeans because of trade. Some are very suspicious of them. They’re kind of xenophobic; they want to get the foreigners out of Japan. It is true that Tokugawa Ieyasu was much more engaged and interested in Europeans than many of his peers. He kept trade and diplomacy going. That’s kind of the heart of the story of “Shogun,” this bizarre friendship that developed between this British sailor and this warlord who’s about to become the ruler of Japan – and that’s quite accurate.

Just how accurate is the show’s portrayal of Japanese culture? Does it feel authentic?

On the whole, it does feel accurate. These very powerful warlords have a lot of constraints. There’s Toranaga, the Ieyasu character, and then there’s Ishido. Even though both are very proud patriarchs and powerful warrior leaders, there are a lot of things they can’t do. Ieyasu is constantly being told where to go and what to do, and Ishido wants to take over, but he can’t. He has to rely on the council, he has to get the votes, and he has to bargain with the other regions.

Another detail is that the women in the show are really, really strong. They have a lot of agency. They don’t rule openly, they don’t hold positions in government openly, but they can be consulted. Sometimes they’re the secret boss behind the boss. I think that’s important because sometimes representations of pre-modern history ignore the influence that women had.

Why is this specific era in Japan worth exploring?

It’s a moment of globalization, and that’s interesting because Japan is often thought of as being an isolated country. During the rest of the Tokugawa period, Japan does have such strict border control; that’s part of how they protected themselves. But in the late 16th/early 17th centuries, Japan is more connected, more entangled with other cultures and people from around the world than at any other moment in its pre-modern history.