Movie Reviews

Shogun's Ranks & Ruling Order Explained

The historically accurate ranking system and hierarchy in the FX/Hulu series Shōgun is one of the most fascinating structural aspects of the critically acclaimed new historical epic. Similar to Game of Thrones, Shōgun’s plot is centered around various power-seeking parties who wish to claim sole control over the kingdom, in this case, feudal Japan at the start of the 17th century. The series follows Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada) as one of the five members of the Council of Regents, which was established by Japan’s previous ruler, the Taikō, before his death until his young heir Yaechiyo comes of age.

During the time period in which Shōgun is set, the Council of Regents collectively act as one unified ruling body over Japan, which would theoretically have lasted for roughly 10 years until Yaechiyo became the new ruler. This is true to the historical accounts of feudal Japan before the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, which held power during the entire Edo Period between 1603 and 1868. Yoshii Toranaga is inspired by the real-life shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was a part of the Council of Five Elders before taking full control over Japan after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

The highest ranking member in the early episodes of Shōgun is the Taikō, who is depicted on his death bed in a flashback scene in episode 2 “Servants of Two Masters”. The Taikō was the de facto leader of a divided Japan until his death as there was no Emperor in place. In the absence of the Taikō, the Council of Regents, Yoshii Toranaga, Ishido Kazunari, Sugiyama, Kiyama ukon Sadanaga, and Ohno Harunobu, shared power until the heir to the Taikō came of age.

Daimyos were feudal lords and landowners who were vassals of those in power. A Karo was a high-ranking samurai and vassal as well, while samurai were considered working-class warriors and Ronin were dishonorable and masterless samurai who had no links to their family lineage in some cases. The shogun was the name for the top military ruler in feudal Japan and was technically the figure who wielded the most power despite being outranked by the Emperor, who was effectively powerless.

Although the Emperor of Japan didn’t appear in the first two episodes of Shōgun, it would historically be Emperor Go-Yōzei, the 107th Emperor of Japan. Emperor Go-Yōzei was the eldest son of Emperor Ōgimachi, the 106th Emperper of Japan whose reign ended in 1586. Even though the Emperor was ostensibly the most powerful figure in Japan, the figures who wielded the most power in Shōgun were the Taikō and the Council of Regents following his death. Emperors during the eras of the shogunate were likened to mostly symbolic figures of authority, similar to the monarchies in modern-day England and Japan.

The shōgun was the most powerful figure in Japan between the late 12th century and mid-19th century. The three major shogunates were Kamakura, Ashikaga, and Tokugawa. Shoguns differ from emperors and Taikos in that they are largely militaristic and are essentially the commander-in-chief of Japan’s army and navy. Shoguns are appointed by the Emperor and must have an established hereditary line that makes them worthy of the esteemed rank. Tokugawa had a direct lineage to the Minamoto clan which helped him establish the Tokugawa shogunate.

Technically, a taikō is considered a retired kampaku, or the chief advisor to the Emperor. The Taikō portrayed in Shōgun is based on Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was both the kampaku to Emperors Ōgimachi and Go-Yōzei as well as the Chancellor of the Realm. The real-life Taikō was considered one of the great unifiers of Japan, but generally speaking, a takio literally means a retired kampaku. The kampaku is the most esteemed of all the regents and is considered the Emperor’s most trusted advisor.

The Council of Regents in Shōgun is based on the Council of Five Elders that Toyotomi Hideyoshi appointed before his death. The regents are all powerful feudal lords or daimyos and are essentially the Taikō and a kampaku split into five parts who share the same title. The Council of Regents as seen in Shōgun was the result of unusual circumstances following the Taikō’s death, since if the Taikō’s son Yaechiyo had been old enough to take his father’s place then they would not exist. After the first few episodes of Shōgun, the Council of Regents are the closest advisors to the Emperor.

Daimyos are feudal lords and landowners who own fiefdoms in Shōgun, such as Lord Kashigi Yabushige and Kashigi Omi. They are effectively vassals of the shogun and the council of regents. Daimyos are also leaders of warrior clans known as samurai. Every daimyo was given a fief, or an estate of land contingent on loyal feudal service, and was devoted to their regent or shogun, depending on the political landscape of Japan at any given time.

A Karō is an esteemed rank for a samurai and is considered a top-ranking samurai official such as Hiromatsu in Shōgun. Karōs also act as advisors who are in service to the daimyōs of feudal Japan. Hiromatsu is a hardened general and is Toranaga’s right-hand man and closest ally, essentially acting as his second in command. Karos in general serve Daimyos, but an esteemed Karo such as Hiromatsu would be considered in a more honorable position as the advisor to a regent and future shogun.

Samuari are the working-class warriors in Shōgun and are considered a hereditary-based military nobility class. Samurai eventually became the highest-ranking social caste of the Edo Period and were known for their advanced skills in battle and weaponry. They were a very honorable and established class of feudal Japanese warriors. William Adams, who was the inspiration for John Blackthorne in Shōgun, became a samurai.

While still skilled in armory and battle, Ronin are a masterclass class of samurai who lack ancestral integrity and are thus deemed dishonorable compared to samurai. A samurai becomes a ronin after the death of his master or lord and is often connotated with a disgraced drifter type of character. Ronin grew in numbers during the Tokugawa shogunate and should become major players in later episodes of Shōgun.

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