Giles Milton

"Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 16, 2003)

"A bear of a man - tough as salt pork and bred to survive hardship. While others wilted and died…Adams remained in rude health. He munched his way through joints of raw penguin to keep himself alive [on the journey to Japan] and, when he had sucked the bones until the marrow ran dry, he gnawed the salt-toughened leather that surrounded the mast ropes."

Born among poor fisherfolk in Gillingham in Kent in 1564, William Adams's family moved to Limehouse, a Thameside district of wharves and shipyards, when he was twelve, so it was not surprising that he himself would eventually seek his own future on the sea, despite its hardships and the less than encouraging survival rate for crews that signed on for long trips. Reports touting the riches of China, Africa, India, the Spice Islands, South America, and other exotic and far-off lands were arriving in England regularly, inspiring trading companies and adventurers to seek their fortunes by mapping new sea routes to new countries, and, in the process, establishing new trading posts, acquiring new markets for their goods, and bringing new goods and wealth back to England. England's enemies, the Spanish and Portuguese, were also seeking routes to the same lands and markets, however, compounding the dangers of the sea, for which there was only limited knowledge of navigation, with the dangers spawned by greed-being captured by the Spanish or Portuguese was a certain death sentence. Ship captains were always able to obtain crewmen for dangerous and risky journeys into the unknown, however, a fact that probably says as much about living conditions for the poor in England as it does about any desire for adventure.

When William Adams was seventeen, Sir Francis Drake sailed up the Thames, returning in triumph as the first Englishman to sail around the world. Not incidentally, he arrived with a huge booty for Queen Elizabeth. The largest, most elaborate celebration since the reign of King Henry VIII, took place aboard The Golden Hind at its anchorage in Deptford, on the Thames, easily visible to all on shore, and the Queen herself came aboard. Few young men like William Adams, contemplating life on the sea and perhaps standing shoreside, would be able to resist the lure of such excitement.

After an apprenticeship as a shipwright, Adams took to the sea at age 23, commanding a supply ship carrying food and ammunition to the English fleet as it battled the Spanish Armada, and later trading on the Barbary Coast. When he heard rumors that a Dutch company was seeking pilots for a fleet of five ships going to the Spice Islands in the East Indies, he signed on, bringing his brother, too. Though the risks would be high, "the potential rewards were enormous. The returning pilot would--if all went according to plan--command a vessel stashed with spice and gold." The ship set out for the Spice Islands on a route around South America in order to avoid the Spanish and Portuguese in and around Africa. At the end of nineteen catastrophic months, the 36-year-old Adams and twenty-four desperately ill and dying crewmembers arrived at the south end of Japan, the first Englishmen ever to do so. None of the other four ships, one of them piloted by his brother, ever arrived.

Adams's experiences in Japan and his association with its rulers serve as the framework of this book, which chronicles the opening of this hitherto unknown country to western trade. Because the author provides detailed and lively descriptions of London life and society in the late 1500's at the beginning of this book, the reader can easily visualize how greatly English "civilization" contrasted with the superior Japanese culture which Adams discovered upon his arrival, and which the author describes in detail. As an early Portuguese visitor noted, "Apart from our religion, we are greatly inferior to them."

Upon Adams's arrival, more dead than alive, Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries at a nearby trading station informed the Japanese that Adams and his men were pirates, hoping that the Japanese would imprison and crucify them, a common punishment in those days, but Adams survived his six week imprisonment and was released, having impressed Tokugawa Ieyasu, the most important ruler of the country, both with the navigational skills his journey required, and which Ieyasu hoped to acquire, and with his honesty regarding his dislike of the Jesuits and their Portuguese supporters. The Jesuits, with their proselytizing, were undermining the political and military stability of the Ieyasu's domain, and Ieyasu came to believe he could trust Adams, unlike the Jesuits.

Adams quickly learned the Japanese language and adopted Japanese customs and dress, always treating his hosts with respect and honor. Eventually, Adams became Ieyasu's interpreter, even in dealings with the duplicitous Portuguese, becoming so valuable to him that he was accorded samurai status and given a large country estate. Stranded in Japan with no hope of escape, Adams became "Japanese," finding the rude and riotous behavior of the Portuguese and eventually the Dutch as offensive as did his hosts. When English ships finally arrived more than ten years later, Adams used his connections at the highest levels of Japanese society to help English traders establish bases and become trusted trading partners with the Japanese. Working for Ieyasu, and later his son, Adams lived the remaining 23 years of his life in Japan, an honored and much respected man.

Samurai William is an extremely readable, scholarly study of the opening (and in 1637, the closing) of Japan to western trade. Using many primary sources, Milton creates an exciting story of how Japan came to be "discovered," what its values and culture were, and why the intrusion of the west and the possibility of trade were eventually rebuffed. The contrasts Milton sets up throughout the bigoraphy attest to his appreciation of 17th century Japanese society. Though he clearly does not agree with the sense of quick justice, the immediate executions, and the brutality and torture carried out by the Japanese in the name of justice, he shows his admiration for their courage and sense of honor, their loyalty and respect for authority, their beautifully constructed and aesthetically pleasing gardens in Kyoto, the grandeur of the palace in Edo (now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo), along with more mundane characteristics, such as their concern for hygiene and bathing, their medical practices (including acupuncture), their care for their appearance and cleanliness, their careful food preparation with its emphasis on freshness and healthiness, and their quiet self-control. The obvious contrasts to the mores of western society show how the hierarchical, non-individualized focus of the Japanese led to a more community-oriented society with a much higher level of "civilization" than that of the adventurer-traders, who were out for personal benefits, no matter the costs to their host country. So power-hungry were the westerners at the trading posts and the Jesuits in their parishes, that it is easy to see why Ieyasu's grandson eventually banned them all in order to preserve his own society.

Though Samurai William Adams is the real-life role model for James Clavell's Shogun, I found him far more true to life and interesting in this book. Neither romanticized nor idealized, he exists here as a man with flaws, often speaking in his own voice. His life as a seaman and his life in Japan, are fascinatingly portrayed, attesting both to Milton's scholarship and his imagination as he recreates successfully the two cultural and social milieus in which Adams spent his two very different lives.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 57 reviews

Read an excerpt from Samurai William at the publisher's Web site

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