On Aug. 10, on the eastern shore of Izu Peninsula, the usually laid-back city of Ito was showing signs of hustle and bustle. Near the beach, street stalls served traditional snacks and drinks while other vendors delighted children with goldfish, candy and brightly colored masks. Further into town, locals and visitors gathered and waited along the streets in anticipation of the city’s pride and joy — the parade celebrating its annual three-day summer festival.

It seemed like any other Japanese summer festival, with taiko drumming, floating lanterns and giant fireworks displays, except this particular parade did not begin at a shrine with men bearing a mikoshi on their shoulders. Instead, the preparations took place outside the Ito City tourism convention center, where girls in leotards practiced unicycle routines and marching bands tuned their instruments.

When the parade began to move, a group of men and women in pristine sailor outfits pulled out the main attraction: a Lilliputian replica of a 17th-century sailing ship with a slightly bemused Englishman in period costume at its helm.

Ito City, while known for its hot springs and old-school beach resorts, holds its biggest festival in honor of a foreigner: British navigator William Adams, one of the first Western influences on Japan.

Adams arrived here in 1600 as the pilot of a Dutch expedition ship that had been forced to abandon its charted course for South America. Believed to be the first Briton to have sailed to and settled in Japan, Adams is now known as Miura Anjin (pilot of Miura), Anjinsama (the pilot) or the more romantic “Blue-eyed Samurai.” If none of those rings a bell, he is perhaps better remembered in the West as the inspiration for John Blackthorne, the protagonist of James Clavell’s best-selling novel “Shogun,” played by Richard Chamberlain in the popular 1980s TV adaptation of the novel.

This year, the leading actor of Anjinsai (Anjin Festival) was played by Frank Thomas, research officer for the Defence Section of the British Embassy in Japan. Thomas is the latest in a long line of embassy representatives who have portrayed Adams since the late 1970s.

Finding someone to spend an afternoon dressed in an embroidered jacket, a frilly shirt and white tights is probably not easy, but it’s become an annual obligation that its volunteers have learned is not only good fun but also quite an honor.

“William Adams was originally a sailor,” says Thomas. “We work in the Defence Section, and the Defence Attache, who attends the festival each year, is always from the Royal Navy, because it’s a sign of the strong tradition and relationship between Britain and Japan’s navies. I think for over 30 years the Defence Section in the British Embassy of Tokyo has been represented at the Williams Adams festival. It’s a very long tradition.”

The duty usually falls to a newcomer in the British Embassy’s Defence Section, and at age 30, Thomas is one of the youngest to play Adams. Having worked at the embassy for only about seven months, he has already settled into a busy schedule: “About half my job is researching, analyzing and reporting on foreign policy, defense policy, the security situation in Japan and East Asia,” Thomas says. “I report to London, other embassies and other sections within the British Embassy.” His remaining duties include assisting Defence Attache Capt. Gareth Derrick, interpreting, networking and representational activities.

Anjinsai, originally begun in 1947, celebrates a former Royal Navy navigator who impressed Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu so much that he was freed from Osaka Castle, where he had been imprisoned after resident Portuguese Jesuit priests claimed he was a pirate. When Ieyasu became Shogun in 1603, he made Adams a foreign affairs adviser and instructed him to teach government officials everything from geography, astronomy and mathematics to weaponry and shipbuilding. In return, he was given a fiefdom, bestowed with the authority of a samurai and re-named Miura Anjin.

Known for overseeing the construction of the first Western-style ship in Japan, Adams helped facilitate one of the earliest exchanges of Western culture and knowledge, and this is something that this year’s “William Adams” is familiar with, from not only his work but also from his own childhood.

Frank Thomas, who is of British and Japanese parentage, first learned about Adams from the “Shogun” TV series he had watched as a boy. “I remember, my mother, who is Japanese, made me watch the entire series on videotape,” he says with a laugh. “And I think it is a total of 95 hours or something. It’s a massive, massive TV serial. I definitely remember in the 1980s I used to come home from school and my mum and I would watch the next installment. I was fascinated.”

Though a romanticized account of 17th-century Japan, the TV show sparked the young boy’s interest in Japan. “When I heard that the British Embassy was involved in the William Adams festival and it clicked that this Adams was actually ‘Richard Chamberlain,’ ” Thomas recounts, “I was even more eager to get involved.”

His mother, he says, had by pure coincidence, “actually ordered the DVD set of ‘Shogun’ in the same week of the festival!”

Thomas’ role in this production, however, was a little less glamorous than Chamberlain’s.

First, he attended a formal ceremony in the convention center, with speeches from Ito Mayor Hiromi Tsukuda, Ambassador Designate Philip de Heer of Holland, Third Secretary of Mexico Jose Louis Delgado, U.S. Commander Capt. Daniel L. Week and British Defence Attache Capt. Gareth Derrick. Then, after a quick costume change, Thomas, accompanied by Capt. Gareth Derrick’s 12-year-old son, Edward, stepped aboard the miniature wooden ship for 90 minutes of waving.

The ship, which is rolled out every year, is a replica of the San Bueno Ventura, and its background explains the multicultural crew of representatives at the festival. Built by Adams in Ito, the Ventura was lent to a Spanish crew that had been shipwrecked in Japan on its way to Mexico in 1609. The loan of the Ventura, which stopped over in California on its way to Acapulco, allowed Ieyasu to demand favorable treatment of the Japanese merchant ships that later visited Mexico and was thus a significant step toward international relations.

Adams himself was banned from leaving Japan until 1613, but he continued to work in the aid of Japanese trade until his death in Hirado on May 16, 1620. During his time in Japan he become fluent in Japanese and married the daughter of a wealthy Japanese merchant. He already had a wife in England, but she was considered a widow once Ieyasu announced the death of William Adams and his rebirth as Miura Anjin.

At the recent Anjinsai, festival-goers probably didn’t realize how well cast Thomas was. As the son of a British Council official, he grew up in various countries. He was exposed to the cultures of both Japan and Britain, although he points out that he was not brought up to be bilingual. “Until the age of 18, I only knew a few words of Japanese,” he says, explaining that he learned Japanese while studying Oriental Studies at Oxford University. He went on to receive a Japanese master’s in sociology at Tokyo University, an experience he describes as a tough but gratifying challenge.

Now fluent, Thomas has been using his language skills to continue what Adams instigated: strong Japan-Britain relations. He also joined the British Embassy during one of its busiest cultural exchange years. Aug. 26 marked the 150th anniversary of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Amity and Commerce, and it is being celebrated by The British Embassy and British Council with their yearlong U.K.-Japan 2008 campaign of over 280 arts, media and technology events. This month events include the Cambridge University Pembroke Players Japan tour, the airing of BBC drama “Spooks” on BS11 and the John Everett Millais exhibition at The Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo.

“I am often told by Japanese people that they feel an affinity between Japan and the U.K., and I really agree with them,” Thomas says when asked about the development of Japan-Britain relations. “Perhaps it includes the island-nation mentality, having a tea-based culture, or a shared emphasis on social etiquette. The most interesting aspect about the relationship is that in addition to our strong political and economic relations, we now have a more multidimensional aspect of U.K. and Japan exchanges in numerous other fields too.”

And all this owes some thanks to a man who built Western ships in Ito. No wonder the city is proud.

Anjinsai is held Aug. 8-10 in Ito City, Shizuoka, every year. For more information on U.K.-Japan 2008, please visit the Web site www.ukjapan2008.jp

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