Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan


by Giles Milton, Hodder and Stoughton, 2003, 399 pages, £7.99, ISBN 0340794682

Review by Michael Sullivan

Using extensive research of letters and other documents of the seventeenth century, this book tells the fascinating story of the first Englishman and the first English factory in Japan. In 1620 William Adams, otherwise known as Miura Anjin [三浦按針], passed away and by 1623 the English factory was given up, bankrupt, and within a few years Japan would enter an era of Sakoku [鎖国], or closed country. Although the main focus is on the life and actions of Adams, the book goes into great detail about the English factory and its other European competitors. It details the bafflement that Europeans had to overcome in order to pursue business interests in Japan while showing the contrasting confusion that the Japanese felt when trying to understand the politics and religions of Europe. Initially marooned in Japan after an ill-fated voyage, Adams eventually took up the customs and language of Japan as his own and was pivotal in opening the country up for trade on behalf of his own countrymen as well as a fellow Protestant country, Holland.

William Adams was born on 24th of September 1564 in the fishing town of Gillingham in Kent, in his youth he was trained as a shipwright and pilot. At a relatively young age he was given command of a supply ship in 1588 during the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada. In the same year he married Mary Hyn in the parish church of St Dunstan in Stepney. After years of work on trading ships travelling between England and North Africa, Adams heard about Dutch plans to send a large fleet to the East Indies. Lured by the thought of adventure and riches, in 1598 Adams left his wife, daughter and London, to join the fleet in Rotterdam. Unbeknownst to him, he would never return. In Rotterdam he found the fleet at anchor, five ships: Hope, Faith, Love, Fidelity and the Merry Messenger, he also found widespread rumours that the real purpose of the fleet was to sack Catholic Spain’s settlements in South America.

Over the course of the next two years the fleet would repeatedly suffer ill luck, the description of the voyage provides an interesting contrast to the modern day. A journey to Japan now can be completed in less than two days and return just as quickly. In comparison in 1598 the Dutch fleet had to fight with Portuguese soldiers in the Cape Verde Islands and suffer fatalities from the poisoned arrows of the tribes of Cape Lopez. In 1599 the fleet became becalmed in the southern Atlantic, and then while braving the Straits of Magellan the starving men found an island of penguins. Within minutes over a thousand birds were dead. Sailing up the western side of South America, again the hapless sailors had to contend with bands of tribesmen who were fearful fighters and described as gigantic men up to eleven feet tall. Upon reaching the Pacific Ocean the fleet was scattered by a storm, the Faith was the only ship to eventually return to its homeport with only thirty six crewmembers still left alive out of an original one hundred and nine. The other ships, apart from Adams’ ship the Love, would be captured by the Spanish, Portuguese or sunk.

Worried about encountering the Spanish or Portuguese in the Spice Islands and in the Philippines, they decided to head for the fabled land of Japan. The Portuguese had reached Japan in 1544 and by 1580 had gained control over the port of Nagasaki, by this time they had established a lucrative trade importing silk while Catholic priests took up the task of conversion. Rumours of wealth, particularly silver, had gradually spread around the European continent since that time. Unfortunately, the journey was long and the crew of the Love did not know exactly where Japan was. On 12th of April 1600, starving and sick, the ship arrived in Bungo, Japan. Only twenty four of the original crew were still alive, most near death, and Adams was one of the few who could still stand when he looked upon the Japanese for the first time. By this time the Portuguese had made nearly 150,000 converts in Japan and through their connections they quickly heard about the arrival of a strange ship in Bungo, believing it to be Spanish they interceded with the local lord to help the battered ship’s occupants. When they discovered English and Dutch Protestants, they just as rapidly decided that Adams and his crew had to be gotten rid of. Since arriving in Japan the Portuguese had presented their religion as being united under the leadership of the Pope in Europe, furthermore they had claimed that their king had an army of millions.

The governor-general of the area, Lord Terasawa, did not know what to do, so he sent a message to his superior in Osaka, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu brought Adams to the magnificent castle of Osaka for a personal interview and at first hand heard about the wars of Europe, how Christianity was divided and about the ships and weapons of the English and Dutch. He soon made a decision; the newly arrived foreigners would be kept safe, but must not leave Japan again. Ieyasu wanted the knowledge of how to build ships, and wanted to use the cannons of the Love for an upcoming war.

Adams spent the rest of his life in Japan, his letters to England eventually arrived, provoking interest in an English trading mission and he was instrumental in setting up the English factory in Hirado in 1613. However, by the time the English had arrived in Japan Adams had spent over a decade living there and to their surprise he seemed to have gone completely native.

This book details the incredible challenges that seventeenth adventurers had to brave in the name of profit, religion and patriotism, as well as the Japanese responses to the differing stories told by their visitors. The Europeans would witness battles involving hundreds of thousands of Samurai and between themselves, while eventually all Catholics would be banned from the country. The recurring theme throughout the book is the behaviour of the Europeans coming into conflict with Japanese culture, a problem which finally couldn’t be resolved and led the Japanese to the decision that the best choice would be a Japan with no Europeans.

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