A close up still Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne in Shogun | Agents of Fandom

What Does John Blackthorne’s Title Hatamoto in ‘Shōgun’ Mean?

Does Englishman John Blackthorne’s new title have any real-life significance?

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Shōgun.

Shōgun is undoubtedly a hit — audiences are loving the period samurai drama, set in the year 1600 in feudal Japan. In Episode 1, John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) shows up in Japan. He has a rocky start, but in Episode 3, after assisting Lord Yoshii Toranaga’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) stealthy escape from Osaka, he names John “hatamoto.”

Given the response from several characters in the show, who act as though Toranaga has done something egregious by bestowing this title upon John, it is seemingly quite a big deal. So, what exactly does “hatamoto” mean? Let’s dive in and explore the significance of John’s new title both in the show’s context and in real life.

What Is the Meaning of Hatamoto in ‘Shōgun’?

John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), on his way to being named Hatamoto, looks intently off to the distance in Episode 3 of Shogun | Agents of Fandom
John Blackthorne’s success in helping Lord Toranaga escape Osaka seems to have solidified him as an ally to Lord Toranaga. Image Credit: FX/Hulu.

John Blackthorne, based on a real English navigator named William Adams, is a pilot who embarked on an expedition from the Netherlands, eventually through the Magellan Strait and the Pacific, ultimately drifting into Japan. The ship and the crew were in poor shape when they arrived, and he did not receive a warm welcome — in the first two episodes, most people refer to him as “barbarian” or “heretic.” John is beaten, held prisoner, and nearly assassinated, but by the end of Episode 3, it seems Blackthorne’s luck changes when Lord Toranaga names him “hatamoto.” This seems to carry a great honor, based on the reactions of everyone on the ship.

“Hatamoto” is a real term from Japanese history, translating to “origin of the flag” or “bannerman.” In the context of Shōgun, this likely means that Lord Toranaga is beginning to see Blackthorne as a true ally. He proved himself by risking his life to help Lord Toranaga escape Osaka, and as Lord Toranaga’s political ascent takes shape, he wants Blackthorne by his side during the coming civil war. The title essentially acknowledges loyalty; Toranaga won’t rob himself of a good associate just because of others’ disapproval.

What Is the Significance of the Hatamoto Title in Real Life?

Lord Yoshii Toranaga contemplating his next moves after he finds out the Council of Regents wants to impeach him in Shōgun | Agents of Fandom
Lord Toranaga is not in good standing amongst the Council of Regents in Shōgun, but after he escapes from Osaka, he has a new ally in John Blackthorne. Image Credit: FX/Hulu.

Shōgun takes some liberties with historical accuracy, but is loosely based on a true story. Yes, the “hatamoto” title carried real significance during this period in Japan. Essentially, a hatamoto was a samurai who was very close to the Shōgun — working directly in service to them. William Adams was given the title “hatamoto” by Lord Toranaga’s real-life counterpart, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Similar to the show, Adams was initially dubbed “anjin,” or “pilot.” He impressed Lord Ieyasu with his knowledge of geography, math, and world relations. After Adams’ initial captivity, Lord Ieyasu ordered him to build an English-style ship. Consequently, Lord Ieyasu came to respect Adams, which led him to give Adams the “hatamoto” title. This title was a great honor and carried a lot of benefits, including a fief and influence in Japan’s ruling class.

However, William Adam’s path to becoming a hatamoto was anything but traditional. During Japan’s Edo period, which began in 1603 and ended in 1868, there were many famous hatamoto under various Shōgunate. Throughout the Edo period, most hatamoto were appointed based strictly on income, not on service. This is why John Blackthorne being named “hatamoto” was considered blasphemous; this title was reserved specifically for the wealthy and prestigious, not those with a good moral compass.

Where Is FX’s ‘Shōgun’ Headed?

Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai) prepares to translate from Japanese to English for Lord Toranaga in Shogun | Agents of Fandom
Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai) acts as the Japanese-English interpreter for Lord Toranaga and is becoming an important figure in Shōgun. Image Credit: FX/Hulu.

Based on the similarities to Shōgun and the real-life story, John Blackthorne’s title of “hatamato” likely means the same as it did in real life for William Adams. It seems Blackthorne has now gained true respect from Lord Toranaga, and he will be his close confidante if he becomes the Shōgun, amassing a lot of power and influence.

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