Anyone who’s read James Clavell’s “Shogun,” or seen the TV mini-series of the same name, is already indirectly acquainted with William Adams, the first Englishman to settle in Japan after a solitary ship of the Dutch trading fleet he was piloting drifted ashore in present-day Oita Prefecture in April 1600.

In “Shogun,” though the fictional heroics of the central character, John Blackthorne, make for a great story loosely based on Adams’ exploits, the dashing Blackthorne wastes his talents in an ill-fated, adulterous love affair. Pilot Major Adams, however, was much more preoccupied with commerce and outmaneuvering his Catholic, mainly Jesuit, European adversaries in this distant land hostile to foreigners.

More accurate accounts of Adams’ life can be found in “The Needle Watcher,” by Richard Blaker (1932), William Corr’s “Adams the Pilot,” and Tadashi Makino’s “The Footprints of Miura Anjin” and “The Blue-Eyed Samurai.”

But whether fiction or fact, all agree that Adams’ survival in Japan against the odds of the time was near miraculous — and a terrible omen to the Iberian traders who thought they had East Asia tied up.

From seaman to samurai

Adams was born in Gillingham, Kent, England, on Sept. 24, 1564. After losing his father at age 12, he was apprenticed to shipyard owner Master Nicholas Diggins at Limehouse on the River Thames in London, where he spent 12 years learning shipbuilding, astronomy and navigation.

In 1588, Adams commanded a supply ship supporting the British naval fleet that destroyed the so-called Spanish Armada sent to conquer Britain. He is also believed to have served on one or more vessels of the Barbary Merchants trading with the Mediterranean and North Africa.

What is certain is that in 1598, Adams, then 34, left behind a wife and two children when he was chosen as pilot major for a five-ship fleet bound for the Far East on what was intended as the first Dutch-flagged circumnavigation of the world. However, instead of opening up boundless new trading opportunities, the voyage was a disaster that bankrupted its backers.

Although all five ships made it through the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of the Americas, only two reached their rendezvous point on the coast of Chile — “De Liefde” (originally named the “Erasmus,” and still bearing a wooden figurehead of the Dutch scholar on its bow) and “De Hoop.”

In late November 1599, with only sketchy charts to guide them, the two ships set sail across the Pacific for Japan. Though Corr speculates that one or both of the vessels very likely reached the Hawaiian Islands (175 years before Captain James Cook), and that a handful of crewmen jumped ship and stayed there, in late February 1600 a typhoon claimed “De Hoop.”

Finally, when “De Liefde” made landfall April 19, 1600, off Bungo in present-day Usuki City, Oita Prefecture, Adams was one of only nine of the remaining 24 crew members who could even stand. Three died the very next day; another three shortly after.

Despite assertions by Jesuit priests — who wanted the “heretics” executed — that he was a pirate, Adams and the other survivors were well looked after, and the arrival of the first non-Iberian European ship drew lots of attention and interest.

Among those most keenly interested was the cunning warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who as the first Tokugawa Shogun was to become the ruler of a unified Japan three years later. As Ieyasu probed Adams in detailed interviews, partly conducted in Portuguese through a translator, his eyes were opened to seething European rivalries and conflicts and he decided it made sense to retain the pilot. Treated from then on as a revered diplomatic and trade adviser, Adams was accorded great privileges, including the rare authority to trade on his own.

In 1604, Ieyasu ordered Adams to build a Western-style sailing ship at Ito, on the east coast of the Izu Peninsula. An 80-ton vessel was completed, and the shogun then ordered a larger ship, of 120 tons, to be built the following year. However, what might have been the beginning of a large and at least regionally dominant ocean-going fleet was sunk at birth when political insecurities led Japan’s rulers to close the country to foreign contact save that of Dutch and Chinese traders.

Ieyasu’s rewards for Adams’ service and loyalty were grand, and included a large house in Edo. He was also presented with two swords, symbols of rank and authority. The swords elevated Adams to the status of hatamoto (bannerman, or direct retainer). The formerly humble English mariner was also awarded a modest fief at Hemi, including present-day Yokosuka City and the Miura Peninsula, which brought him a handsome stipend and enabled him to marry the daughter of a court official. By this time known throughout the land as “Miura Anjin” (“Pilot of Miura”), Adams and his bride, Oyuki, settled in Hemi, where they had a son, Joseph, and a daughter, Susanna.

Though Adams apparently entertained thoughts of leading an expedition in search of an Arctic passage to Europe, by 1609 he was instead assisting both the Dutch and British to establish trade with Japan. Although he sailed to Okinawa, Thailand and Indochina on behalf of an English company, the opportunity of a voyage back to England did not present itself before Adams died, age 56, at Hirado, north of Nagasaki, on May 16, 1620. His final resting place is unknown, perhaps because many Christian cemeteries were destroyed in the ensuing years.

An unlikely legacy

William Adams occupies a peculiar place in history because his greatest accomplishments, beyond getting to Japan at all, never realized their full potential, or failed outright — notably his attempts to foster Anglo-Japanese trade.

Nonetheless, the pilot’s memory is honored to this day both in Britain and at numerous sites in Japan, including the supposed site of his home in the capital, at Nihonbashi Muromachi, which is a designated important cultural property. Ceremonies are also held each year in Ito City at the site where Adams built his ships, and at Yokosuka, where stone monuments to him and Oyuki, likely erected by their son Joseph, stand on a hilltop overlooking the pilot’s former fief. Although many believed this to be their grave, a 1905 excavation of the site revealed no human remains.

However, this Englishman’s greatest legacy may have been of truly epoch-making proportions, despite it not being generally recognized as such.

In an e-mail interview, author William Corr said: “Adams’ arrival, and the later establishment of trading factories by the Dutch and the British, overshadowed the Catholics’ efforts to convert Japan and was to eventually prove a contributory factor in the expulsion of the Iberians and the all-but-complete annihilation of Japanese Christianity in the Tokugawa era.”

The degree to which Adams may have undone what the missionary St. Francis Xavier started when he arrived in Japan in 1549 remains a fascinating subject of debate and speculation. But certainly, Miura Anjin’s open distrust of the friars played right into the hands of the shogunate as it slammed Japan’s door in the face of the world.

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