'Westworld' Shogun World: Edo Japanese History Explained

All you need to know about Shogun World's lavish portrayal of Edo Japan.

In its second season, HBO’s Westworld goes far deeper into the Delos Destinations portfolio than ever has before. And in the latest episode, “Akane no Mai” — or “Dance of Akane” — Maeve, Sizemore, Hector, and two Delos engineers wander into Shogun World, another park modeled after 17th-19th century Japan that’s apparently more dangerous (and more exciting) than Westworld. It’s just a bummer the place is overrun by rebellious, murderous robots at the moment.

Because it’s an HBO series about theme parks that traffic in the popular imagination to sell vacations, the authenticity of Japan is — fine, honestly. It’s just fine. Portrayed like a new planet on a sci-fi serial, Westworld treats Shogun World as an alternate skin, or a palette swap for its primary Old West park.

Still, even the hack writers at Delos threw in some historical accuracy into Shogun World. Here’s some historical context you need to know about the newest, coolest park in the Westworld universe.

Kuniyoshi 1797-1861, Utagawa, Japan, The actor 4
A woodblock painting from Utagawa Kuniyoshi, one of the foremost artists in the late Edo period.

Edo Japan

In Westworld, Sizemore tells Maeve that Shogun World is modeled after the Edo period, a key period in Japanese history that inspires fiction writers around the world, not unlike Colonial America or Ancient Rome. It’s in the Edo period when Japan solidified its national identity, grew economically and socially, and enjoyed a renaissance of art and culture.

It’s officially recognized as starting with the appointment of Tokugawa Ieyasu as shōgun, or military dictator, in 1603. It ended 265 years later, in 1868, with the Meiji Restoration, when the Emperor was given more power than the military. And historically, there is overlap between Edo Japan and the Old West, which happened concurrently as the Edo period came to an end an ocean away.

It’s hardly a coincidence that so many western movies and samurai movies bear similar plots and storylines, which is all due to the breadth of possibilities the settings inspire. Even the producers of Westworld recognize them. “You had this wonderful call and response between these two genres — with the gunslinger and the ronin,” said Jonathan Nolan in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “They have identical tropes but are set within different cultures.”

And that’s why Edo Japan is being introduced into the TV revival of Westworld, a park not present in the classic 1973 film. “Frankly, this was just a great excuse to go and make a samurai movie with all the trimmings,” admitted Nolan.

Thandie Newton Westworld
Maeve (Thandie Newton) adjusts just fine to Shogun World.

Shōguns and Daimyō

In Westworld, Maeve stares down a daimyō, a feudal lord who answered to the shōgun, who in Edo Japan served as supreme ruler of Japan. Shōguns were appointed by Emperors, who functioned in a ceremonial role while shōguns actually ruled the country.

The Truth About Ninjas

Contrary to popular culture, and especially Westworld, ninjas didn’t wear black in real life. They also weren’t magical warriors who could flip across rooftops. Rather, they were political assassins who engaged in guerrilla warfare, and often dressed in civilian clothes — especially as poor peasants — to hide their identities and slip by unnoticed.

The black costumes they’re most known for come from Japanese theatre, in which stagehands who dressed completely in black would sometimes surprise the audience when they were revealed to be a ninja.

Westworld Musashi
Hiroyuki Sanada, as "Musashi" in 'Westworld' Season 2.

Musashi Miyamoto

A very compelling new mystery in Westworld is Musashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a Shogun World host who is a “ronin,” or masterless samurai. He bears a similar name to Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary undefeated swordsman who lived between 1584 and 1645.

Because he walked the Earth like 400 years ago, it’s difficult to tell what’s fact and what’s fiction, but what is known about Musashi was that he was really, really badass. He is best known for knowing how to fight with two swords, a technique known as Niten Ichi-ryū. (Daniel Wu’s Sunny from the AMC series Into the Badlands is a big homage to Miyamoto Musashi.)

Westworld’s showrunners told Entertainment Weekly that Musashi is, at least, inspired by the real person. He was named after the character in Japanese director Hiroshi Inagaki’s “Samurai Trilogy,” a series of films released in the 1950s that told the story of Miyamoto Musashi.

Westworld airs Sundays at 9 p.m. Eastern on HBO.

Media via Wikimedia / Petrusbarbygere, HBO