The Adventurer who Unlocked Japan

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Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan

By Giles Milton

1999 Hodder and Stoughton Published in paperback 2005 by Sceptre

399 pages, some illustrations

On a hill overlooking Yokosuka Harbor is a grave marked 'Miura no Anjin and wife'. In Hirado, on a small island off the northwest coast of Kyushu, is a grave marked 'William Adams'. Nearby is a bit of stone cut from the gravestone of his wife, Mary, who is buried in England. ‘Miura no Anjin’ is the Japanese name of William Adams. This man was the inspiration for James Clavell's Shogun.

For me this book combined two great interests; the C17th and Japan. I’d read his Nathaniel’s Nutmeg about the spice trade, but would this be any good?

In 1611, the merchants of London's East India Company received a mysterious letter from Japan, written several years previously by a marooned English mariner named William Adams. Foreigners (‘southern barbarians’ to the Japanese) had been denied access to Japan for centuries, yet Adams had been living in this unknown land for years. He had risen to the highest levels in the ruling shogun's court, taken a Japanese name, and was now offering his services as adviser and interpreter.

Seven adventurers were sent to Japan with orders to find and befriend Adams, in the belief that he held the key to exploiting trade with this forbidden land. Their arrival was to prove a momentous event in the history of Japan, and the shogun suddenly found himself facing a stark choice: to expel the foreigners and continue with his policy of isolation, or to open his country to trade. For more than a decade the English, helped by Adams, were to attempt trade with the shogun, but confounded by a culture so different from their own, and rivalled by scheming Jesuit monks and the much more organised Dutch, they found themselves in a desperate battle for their businesses and lives. They weren't the first Europeans to come to Japan. The Portuguese had made tentative forays 60 years earlier and the Dutch briefly stopped there from time to time.

Born into an impoverished Kentish family in 1564, Adams trained as a pilot and shipwright and made several trips in the African trade before the opportunity arose in 1598 to sail with a Dutch fleet in a voyage that 19 months later landed him in Japan. The voyage was disastrous, matching any of the shambolic journeys from Nutmeg. Out of five ships, one made it to Japan, with only 24 left out of a crew of 100. Six of these were dying. Adams was the first Englishman to be able to travel and live in Japan. He rose to the rank of samurai, partially through his ability as a shipwright, building a European style ship for the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and partially through his understanding of the sensibilities of the Japanese. He became so influential an advisor on trade matters that he could affect the fortunes there not only of his fellow Englishmen, but of competing European interests as well, primarily Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese merchants and Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries.

Although his expertise was appreciated, Ieyasu pretty much kept Adams prisoner and did not grant him permission to leave Japan until 13 years after his arrival. In the meantime Adams went ‘native’, learning Japanese, marrying a Japanese woman and raising a family on his estate granted by Ieyasu. His fellow Englishmen were never able to fully come to grips with the rigid social hierarchy and codes of the Japanese, their attitudes towards crime, nor the subtleties of their etiquette. They were impressed by the silks, spices and other goods which Japan could provide, but it took them a while to understand how sophisticated the Japanese were (Osaka Palace made the Tower of London look like a toy) and what trade goods they would be interested in.

This book is really a brief look at early modern Japan and a general history of 16th and 17th century Europe's contacts with Japan, and trade with the east, not unlike Nutmeg. Adams' story is often peripheral to the stories about the journeys from Europe to the east, and he usually only appears in detail when the English traders are in some sort of trouble with the Japanese or the Dutch or the Portuguese, who have used their Jesuits, busy covertly converting the Japanese to Christianity, to stir up trouble.

Milton's writing style irritated me as the wording is often clunky and the writing doesn’t flow very well, rather like a researcher who has gone from compiling notes into writing without adopting their style. For general interest in the broader C17th and trade it is worth a read, more so than Nutmeg I thought.