Shōgun’s Mariko: Translating Deeper Feelings vs Her Eightfold Fence

Shogun, the hit new miniseries, populates its gritty historical drama with a number of intriguing characters, all with their own secrets and desires – in some ways calling to mind fan-favorite Game of Thrones. One stand out is Toda Mariko, a loyal and fiercely intelligent highborn woman. Trapped in the prison of her past and torn between two worlds, Mariko has to fight to keep herself afloat, all the while looking impeccably calm. Her life has been shaped by death and suffering, but through it all she remains focused on moving forward – though more out of a sense of fealty than personal desire. So who is Mariko, really? Let’s take a deeper look at Mariko on screen, the page, and her real life counterpart to truly figure out what’s going on behind her steely gaze.


Mariko exists much like the proverbial swan – tranquil and cool above water while furiously kicking below. This isn’t due to a true icy personality, as her abusive husband Buntaro assumes, but instead serves as a means of self protection. She has lived a turbulent life filled with sorrow, and has learned that to stay safe she must keep her emotions to herself. And it’s through this remove, and the control it allows her to have, that she is in a way able to empower herself even in a world that seeks to dispirit her. Though she is highborn, her life has not been easy.

“Many years ago, a great injustice stole everything from me.”

When she was young, she was sent by her noble father to live with Lord Kuroda and his family. She fit in well and became good friends with his daughter, Ochiba. Her happy life began to fall apart when she witnessed her father’s friends being murdered after he had a fight with Lord Kuroda. Rather than providing an explanation he just told Mariko that it was “just a dream” – just something she should forget, ignore, hide her feelings about. Then more tragedy struck when her father assassinated Lord Kuroda, dishonoring himself and his entire family as a result. As punishment, he was made to kill his wife and children before committing seppuku – but Mariko was spared because she was a newlywed. This meant that Mariko was left alone, with no family except for her terrible husband, to try to live in a way that could make amends for what her father had done. She became incredibly loyal to Lord Toranaga – and, importantly, always remembered the lessons she had learned as a child about keeping herself safe by keeping her emotions under wraps.

“For a long time, I have been unable to seek resolution for what happened. But recently, Toranaga-sama offered me a way.”

She at one point explains this by relaying a poem from the eighth century that extolled an “eightfold fence” that separated people from one another and Japan from the world.

“From the time we are small, it is something we are taught to build within ourselves… An impenetrable wall, behind which we can retreat whenever we need.”

Anna Sawai, who plays Mariko on the show, relayed a story to the LA times about how Hiroyuki Sanada, a veteran actor, helped her connect with this facet of the role by urging her to ““simply to feel it, but “try to hide it, because that’s what Mariko would do.” It clicked, Sawai says, because it’s something every Japanese woman is used to doing.””

Mariko is well educated and highly intelligent, which has allowed her the ability to pick up new languages. She uses this skill to translate for Lord Toranaga, but it’s in the way she translates that we can see Mariko’s true heart shining through. While she is practical, she also has keen insight into the minds of others. And so, when she translates, she is (as all good translators do) conveying much more than just a direct translation of words. She is able to feel what each person is really trying to get across, and she also knows when she needs to provide a bit of a buffer when people are saying things they might not mean (or that could get them into trouble.)

“Tell this milk-dribbling f*ck-smear that I’m ready to go.” “With the utmost respect, the Anjin apologizes for the misunderstanding.”

While she helps smooth over clashes between egos, she’s also adept at getting across important context and emotion to help build bonds, like when she reveals the true cultural importance of the gift Fuji got for John Blackthorne. (And this ability to foster great care and understanding is what leads to Mariko and Blackthorne’s deepening connection, which we’ll unpack in a moment.)

While Mariko suffers internally, she does not see herself as someone who needs to be saved. Instead, she believes that through her commitment to atoning for her father’s sin and her own skill and smarts, she can overcome her past herself.

“We grieve those we have lost by continuing their fight.”

And while her husband and some other members of her community might be loath to forget what her father did, Toranaga clearly sees that there is more to her than her dark past. Given her intelligence, fighting ability, and ability to bridge gaps between people, it’s clear that she’s a very useful ally to have on his side. This is also why he trusts her to translate his conversations with the newly arrived barbarian…


English ship pilot John Blackthorne arrives in Japan at a very testy time – their leader Taiko had just died, leading to a power vacuum that a number of leaders were looking to fill. Though none of them were particularly happy about having an outsider on their shores, several did recognize how useful Blackthorne (and his ship) could be. Toranaga in particular is keen to use Blackthorne as a pawn to help him shore up power against the others that are plotting against him. But, as the pair do not speak the same language, it is up to Mariko to build this connection. [“He asks what you seek here.” “To vanquish our common enemies.” 01x02 00:49:05] Also, thanks to her cleverness, she’s the first to put together Toranaga’s true plan to use Blackthorne to sow discord among the warring members of the Council and buy himself some more time to make a winning play.

Blackthorne is both off putting and interesting to Mariko because of how different he is to any man she’s ever met. He certainly has his issues, like his propensity for profanity and his lack of interest in bathing, plus the fact that he’s a Protestant while she’s a devout Catholic, but he also has a certain freedom of character that is unlike anything she’s ever experienced. As a Japanese woman of her era, she has spent her entire life very carefully playing a role, keeping her true self hidden away safe in the depths of her soul. But as she gets to know Blackthorne as she teaches him about Japan and its language and culture, the tiniest bits of light begin to break through her eightfold fence. Even if they don’t always see eye to eye, they’re able to work together to get out of sticky situations (like when Blackthorne had to create a major distraction to keep eyes off of an escaping Toranaga, and Mariko translated his raving to some very confused guards.) His free nature has a bit of a darker edge, too – he left his wife and children for a life on the high seas. But Mariko gets wanting to get up and leave your entire life in search of something more, since she feels the same pull.

A pivotal moment in their relationship comes when Blackthorne is (finally!) having a bath and Mariko joins him. They’re able to talk more freely about life and their feelings than they ever have – and while there is still a bit of distance and formality between them, it’s clear that they connect with one another on a deep level. They imagine what they would do on a date together in London, free to be together as they please.

“Well, if you were with me, all the way from the Japans, I’d take you to see my queen.” “Would she receive us?” “Oh yes, I’m sure.”

It’s a cute moment of wishful thinking, but it’s really his story about walking along the Thames that catches Mariko’s attention. While he doesn’t understand much about Mariko or Japanese culture in general, he clearly does share some innate understanding of the eightfold fence that she’s used to keep herself from becoming overwhelmed with the pain of her world.

“And all your troubles and your past and all the ways life seems to leave you wrecked… They all just disappear. And then you are free.”

And when they take their relationship to the next level, it is by Mariko’s choice – she is the one that makes the big move and enters his room. This doesn’t mean that their relationship is all sunshine and roses going forward, though. The next morning, she attempts to hide their tryst at breakfast by saying that he actually slept with a courtesan. She continues to keep him at arms length, only for their relationship to become even more complicated when her husband – who everyone thought had died – returns.

Mariko and Blackthorne’s relationship isn’t just there for romantic drama – it in itself represents the bridging of cultures that’s at the heart of the show, and the war that exists in everyone’s minds between what they should do and what they desire.


While Shogun the series is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by James Clavell, Mariko’s story is much older. She is loosely based on a real person: Akechi Tama, born in 1563 (and who became known as Hosokawa Gracia upon sneakily getting baptized in 1587.) Like Mariko, Gracia was the daughter of a noble father who betrayed and killed his lord, leading to the entire family becoming disgraced. Gracia reportedly had five or six children, while Mariko only has one son. While she was fluent in Portuguese and Latin like her on screen counterpart, Gracia never worked as a translator. And though they were alive during the same period, Gracia never met William Adams, the real-life sailor that Blackthorne is based on.

Warning: Some book spoilers ahead! Use the video chapters to skip ahead if you don’t want to hear them!

Gracia’s story has been told on page, stage, and screen countless times, always cut short by her tragic end. At only 38 years old, before being taken hostage by an invading army, Gracia was killed by one of her servants. Stories differ about who made the call – many reports note that Gracia herself told the servant to kill her, while others believe that the servant was sworn to do so by her husband should her “honor” be in danger. In the book Shogun, Mariko sacrifices herself during a siege to buy Blackthorne and some hostages time to escape. This is certainly a sad end for such a great character, but it is also seen as her karma – she dies in service of her Lord to right the wrong of her traitorous father.

One thing that is so important about Mariko’s characterization on the show is that she doesn’t get boxed into the negative stereotypes and tropes that Asian women are often forced into on screen. She is not stuck being a docile, submissive quote-unquote Lotus Blossom who only exists to be sexualized (we have a whole video analyzing all of the problems with that trope which you can check out after this video.) Instead, she is her own independent person with agency and a full inner self. She might keep her cards close to the chest, but she still has them. And making sure that Markio would be proper, positive representation was very important to Sawai before agreeing to take on the role. She told the LA Times, “I didn’t want it to be another depiction of Japanese women being sexualized by white men. I wanted this to be the right portrayal of women.”

Mariko is a perfect example of the power of having a strong sense of self, and a model of quiet resilience. She is not just a pawn in someone else’s game, but an important strategic player in her own right. And she teaches us a valuable lesson about knowing when to keep your fence up, and when to let a little light in.