Shōgun brought up the term rōnin, but what does it mean?

In the second episode of Shogun, the term Ronin was used. Read on to find out what it means, and why it's a big deal in the series.

“SHOGUN” -- "The Eightfold Fence" -- Episode 4 (Airs March 12) Pictured (L-R): Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX
“SHOGUN” -- "The Eightfold Fence" -- Episode 4 (Airs March 12) Pictured (L-R): Cosmo Jarvis as John Blackthorne, Anna Sawai as Toda Mariko. CR: Katie Yu/FX /
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During the second episode of Shōgun, Blackthorn discovers a guard of rōnin protecting a secret Portuguese base. This term will sound vaguely familiar, and it holds a huge weight in Japanese culture, especially of the time. What does it mean, and why is it so important?

Blackthorn needs to find a way to protect his life, and the Portuguese offer him that chance without realizing. He notices that there’s a secret Portuguese base that is being protected by Japanese guards. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s fallen on something much bigger, and all of this will make way for changes in the future that he won’t even be around to see.

What is a rōnin?

The term rōnin is a Japanese one that connects to samurai culture. When a samurai’s master dies or when the samurai has been cast out from the tribe, he is supposed to carry out the act of seppuku. This is a ritual suicide that we saw one man almost carry out in the early episodes. It’s something that you’ve likely seen on other TV shows and movies that focus on Japanese culture and beliefs.

Some samurais wouldn’t carry out this ritual. Instead, they would become masterless samurais, also known as a rōnin.

This may not have been a big deal for some time. After all, Japan in the 1600s faced a feudal state that saw a lot of change. It would be a problem within the period that followed the Sengoku period in Japan, which was the Edo period.

Why you didn’t want to be a rōnin

Those who became a rōnin were shamed by society. This became more prevalent during the Edo period. Laws were created that mean a rōnin was not allowed to find a new trade. As the work for bodyguards and mercenaries dried up, many of these men could no longer find a way to support themselves.

It makes sense then why Blackthorn saw a guard made up of rōnin in Shōgun. They couldn’t find other work, so they became bandits or they took whatever jobs they could. They were willing to guard a Portuguese military base from those who had cast them out of society.

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Shōgun is available to stream on Hulu.