SAMURAI WILLIAM: The Englishman Who Opened Japan, by Giles Milton. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, 337 pp., $14 (paper).

Samurai William is, of course the English navigator, William Adams, whose story was so effectively fictionalized by James Clavell in the novel “Shogun.” Giles Milton has produced a historical narrative that is no less intriguing than Clavell’s novel. Adams was navigator on the Dutch ship Liefde that departed from Rotterdam the spring of 1598 with a fleet of five ships bound for the unknown islands of Japan. It was the only ship to arrive in Japan, making landfall on Kyushu in April 1600.

The title of this book is, however, quite misleading. This is not about Adams; rather it is about the events that transpired during the period of his life in Japan. It was not Adams who opened Japan. On the contrary, he flourished during sakoku, the period leading up to the closing of Japan, which came about during the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his heirs. The opening of Japan to the West did not occur until the latter half of the 19th century, nearly 200 years after Adams’ death. Strangely, though, he was exactly the type of man who could have opened Japan: He learned how to act in accordance with Japanese customs, mastered the language and, in fact, made himself a person of respect and honor among the Japanese.

Adams’ presence at historical events is always touched on, yet we learn very little about the Englishman’s personal life and experiences such as his family (he had children by his Japanese wife) or his role in managing his estate in Hemi, near Edo. Rather “Samurai William” tells a gripping tale of the ordeal of sailing from England or Holland to Japan, and stories of the early traders who were attempting to establish relations with Japan. These men, the mariners and the traders, seemed driven by greed, yet their bravery and stamina defined them more as men of grand ambition. It was impossible to estimate the hardships involved in undertaking a voyage to the ends of the Earth with primitive navigational skills and no clear idea of what would be found should they survive to arrive in the uncharted, remote land. Indeed, astronauts of today have a much clearer picture of what they will face than did the voyagers of the 16th and 17th centuries charting paths to the Far East.

Of those who did survive to begin the difficult process of functioning in Japan, two separate forces were involved — missionaries from Spain and Portugal and would-be traders primarily from Holland and England. Both stuck out like sore thumbs in the midst of an already long-established culture that had traditions regarding all aspects of life. It was, even in the turbulent 17th century, a culture of highly refined etiquette, especially when it came to the court life surrounding the Tokugawas and other regional warlords. To the Japanese, the mannerless foreigners were often objects of disdain. The clash of cultures amplified the difficulties of realizing the missionaries’ objectives and the traders’ commercial ambitions.

The governors and warlords who accommodated the Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries were dumbfounded by the missionaries’ efforts to treat the poor and sick common people. In 16th- and 17th-century Japan, citizens outside of the court ranking structure — peasants, craftsmen, farmers — were not considered fully human. This aspect of the Japanese class system was of long standing, having been documented as early as the 11th century in Murasaki Shikibu’s “Tale of Genji.” Conversely, the “heathen” foreigners were astounded at how little life was valued in Japan — the samurai, lords and governors could summarily execute peasants virtually at will for even the most minor infractions. Considering the contrast of Japanese behavior to that of the Europeans, it is amazing that the traders and missionaries accomplished as much as they did.

Adams was the only go-between the traders had: He was accepted at the Tokugawa court and was the sole interpreter for the traders. Ostensibly he was the only foreigner who knew how to act in the presence of court officials. A remarkable figure, he was from working-class origins, having grown up in a harbor slum area outside London, yet he became an expert navigator. Milton writes, “He must have been a bear of a man — tough as salt pork and bred to survive hardship,” referring to the fact that Adams was one of only six men left standing on the Liefde when it landed in Kyushu. The original crew of 100 had been reduced to 24 survivors, of which only six could still walk. But Adams was obviously more than a bear of a man — his manner, self-confidence, knowledge and sensitivity made him an object of great interest to Tokugawa Ieyasu. His ability to learn Japanese is also a marvel. Uneducated and without what are today considered essential tools for learning, he became fluent enough to become the court interpreter for Ieyasu.

Milton’s depiction of Japan at this time is so vivid and thorough that the story of William Adams’ success becomes all the more amazing. Having survived the hardships of uncharted waters, he entered a greater unknown and not only survived but prospered. Anyone interested in Japanese history will find great enjoyment in this narrative.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.