FX’s miniseries Shōgun takes place at the time of first contact between European colonizers and indigenous Japanese people. In the process, it shows something rarely seen on screen: the shocking hubris of the colonizer and dehumanization of the colonized.

Anna Sawai in Shōgun. (Katie Yu / FX)

In just a few weeks since its debut, FX’s miniseries Shōgun has thrilled its audience and become the #1 streamed show in America. Based on the novel by James Clavell, Shōgun tells the story of a power struggle for control of feudal Japan when Europeans make first contact with the island. The Portuguese and Dutch bring mystery, guns, Old World religious conflict, and most nefariously, colonial ambitions to the newly discovered nation, shaking an already unstable political structure.

While the show’s palace intrigue and warring factions are sure to scratch the itch of anyone missing Game of Thrones or Succession, the historical setting offers something unique: it provides an interesting window into the process of colonization, which is rarely shown on screen. While there’s no shortage of movies and television featuring the struggle underway between colonized and colonizers (Killers of the Flower Moon, The Expanse), seldom are audiences treated to a dramatization of imperialism’s inaugural moments. As Shōgun is set in the period of first contact between Europe and Japan, it shows the colonial process play out through the eyes of the indigenous population.

In the closing scene of the second episode, John Blackthorne, an Englishman who sailed for the Dutch, tells the Japanese Lord Toranaga that the Portuguese have laid claim over all of Japan. Speaking through a translator (who, to make matters more complicated, was converted to Catholicism by Portuguese friars), Blackthorne informs his Japanese audience about the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the “New World” into pockets of Spanish and Portuguese hegemony. Scribbling a world map in the sand, Blackthorne explains to his Japanese audience that, in Portugal’s view, Japan belongs to them. The Japanese are rightfully aghast. “Did he really say belongs?” Lord Toranaga asks in disbelief. Blackthorne nods as dramatic music swells.

It is this moment, a population’s realization that another nation plans to conquer and control them, that is so rare in film and television. Drawn to climactic action, media tends to focus on the final battles of colonial efforts — often with little attention to historical accuracy, as in The Last Samurai or Dances With Wolves. Yet Hollywood’s preference for end-game showdowns causes filmmakers and showrunners to overlook the world-altering experiences endured by the colonized. At some point in every colonial project, whether it was the European conquest of indigenous America or the Zionist settlement of Palestine, the indigenous population has had a moment of horrified epiphany when they realize: “These people are not leaving. They think this land belongs to them, and they’re here to stay.”

The native population is subjected to this no matter what form colonialism takes. Settler colonialism, which aims to replace one population with another, requires genocide and ethnic cleansing to displace the original inhabitants. The atrocities of Wounded Knee and the ongoing assault on Gaza are well-recognized as violent products of settler colonialism. Meanwhile political colonization, in which a foreign nation establishes dominion over a sovereign state but does not seek to displace its inhabitants, may be less brutal than settler colonialism but shares its first step: the dehumanization of the indigenous people to facilitate the conquest.

While one nation could politically colonize another by defeating its army and installing a puppet ruler, as the French did by installing the Mexican puppet Emperor Maximilian, it can also be done through more precise measures, such as claiming monopoly trading rights over the colonized land. It is this version of targeted political colonization that plays out in Shōgun. Despite having trading ports and established links with Japan, the Portuguese kept the nation a secret from the rest of Europe, enabling them to extract resources and gradually strengthen their grip on the newfound nation.

While the magnitude of violence may differ between settler and political colonization, the humiliation and dehumanization of its victims remains constant. The historian Patrick Wolfe, who is credited with establishing the study of settler colonialism, famously called settler colonialism “a structure, not an event.” The same can be said of political colonization, which frequently requires the colonizer to impose a capitalist or mercantile economic system on the colonized nation, creating a dependence from which the indigenous population cannot escape. James Connolly, the leader of the Irish Easter Rising against British rule, perfectly detailed the nature of economic colonization:

If you remove the English Army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts will be in vain. England will still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.

Whether the colonial method is coins or cannons, it relies on the suppression and dehumanization the native population. Dehumanization is the heart of colonization. Without it, the colonized would be seen as equals by the colonizers’ merchants and soldiers, hampering them from carrying out brutal atrocities or deceitful economic plunder. Had Europeans seen the Algonquin people as their equals, the colonist Peter Minuit would never have been able to trick them into selling Manhattan to the Dutch West India Company for a mere $24.

In every colonial enterprise, from Japan to Jamestown, the indigenous have had to come to terms with their colonizers’ inherent belief that their subjugation was the right and natural order of things. For the Vietnamese it likely came when they were forced to sign the Treaty of Nhâm Tuất, ceding the Mekong Delta to French imperialists. For indigenous Americans, it was reinforced each time the US government broke a treaty and pushed tribes further into the frontier. It is a harrowing thought to learn that a strange but hospitable newcomer, whether they are a Spanish warrior or a Portuguese friar, sees you not as a person, but a resource — something to be manipulated so that value can be extracted and sent to the “real” people back in the homeland.

As Shōgun masterfully shows, the central struggle between colonized and colonizer is not over trivial matters, such as which flag will fly over the ruling palace or what to name a shared region. Rather, their conflict rests on whether or not the colonized are beneath the colonizers — indeed, whether the former have a right to human dignity and self-determination at all. As Shōgun, and the harrowing images coming out of Gaza show, the colonizers try to dehumanize their victims to the point they can comfortably tell themselves the colonized are unworthy of humanity. It is the responsibility of decent people to reject this premise entirely.

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