Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Samurai William

A few weeks ago I completed another book, this one called Samurai William. This book follows the adventures of William Adams, the first Englishman to set foot in Japan.

Portrait of William Adams

Adams was a crewman on a small fleet of Dutch ships attempting to open trade with the Far East by sailing across the Pacific. The book follows their adventures across the oceans including their encounters with the "11 or 12 foot tall savages" at the southern tip of South America. According the these sailors of the time, the vast majority of the savages appeared to be cannibals.

Adams and a group of nearly dead survivors finally made it to Japan where they landed at a place on the Izu peninsula near present day Shizuoka. They became curiosities at first to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. But the shogun quickly realized that Adams, the anjin or pilot, was an intelligent and skilled man.

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu

Though not formally educated, his technical and geographic knowledge was substantial. And his ability with languages was to become a key factor in the subsequent history of Japan. William Adams, an English Protestant, eventually became the European translator for the most powerful man in Japan. He gave the Shogun new insights into the world of the Europeans (especially the ongoing war between Protestants and Catholics). Adams was so important to Ieyasu that Ieyasu even awarded him hatamoto status. Adams essentially became the equivalent of a high ranking samurai retainer to the Shogun.

But for Adams, all this was at a cost. Though given lands, honors, and a new family in Japan, the Shogun forbid William Adams from returning home to England. Adams ended up living in Japan for close to 20 years and eventually he died in Japan, never again seeing his family in England.

A couple of years after Adams’ arrival in Japan, other Englishman arrived in order to set up a trading company, which they were able to do. Adams ended up joining the English company in Hirado and the book follows much of the adventures of the company and its members.

It was an interesting book and it revealed an aspect of Japanese history that I had not read about yet, that of some of the first foreigners to visit Japan. One thing about the book, although it is a book about the life of William Adams in Japan, much of the book actually was less about him and more about the English company (factory) and its Chief Factor, Richard Cocks.

The character Blackthorne in James' Clavell's book Shogun is based on William Adams. In August, the town of Shizuoka holds a festival celebrating the event when Adams and his fellow sailors arrived in Japan near Shizuoka.

All in all it was an interesting book though and I learned more about the eventual persecutions of the Christians in Japan.


  1. I remember watching SHOGUN when it came out in 1980. Little did I know (at that time) I'd wind up visiting that lovely country.

    An interesting perspective on Japan is the movie SILK. It is about silk production in 19th century France. They imported silk worms smuggled out of Japan.

    The movie is love story, but the interaction between the Japanese Samurai with the smugglers is interesting. I cannot vouch for its historical accuracy. I'd leave that for more learned minds.

  2. Thanks. I'll see if I can find that film.

  3. Anonymous3:10 AM

    I read the book, Silk, and I'm still undecided about the film, whether to see it or not. The book is terrific.

    Shogun was a great introduction to Edo era Japan for many people in Europe and the West, but as far as I gather, it was not popular in Japan. They didn't think it reflected the high level of sophistication of Japan at that time, rather, it seems to show Samurai Willian as the protagonist (much like The Last Samurai with Tom Hanks, oh sorry, Cruize), as the main hero. If you watch Kurosawa you get a much better feel for the depth of thinking.

  4. I'm not surprised it was not popular in Japan. I agree about Kurosawa.

  5. I read that book a year or two ago and thought it was really quite good.

    Milton is well-known for his non-fiction 'history' novels, and this true account is obviously more accurate than Shogun:-0

    As for the festival in Ito - huh, it's not far from here, but I've never been to the festival. I'll have to try for next year.

  6. I guess there is actually really very little specific historical information about William Adams so that is why this book has more about the Factory and less about Mr. Adams.

    Let me know how the festival is.

  7. I'm not surprised Shogun wasn't well received in Japan either... Could you imagine watching a Japanese movie about Cowboys? It would be a little contrived I suppose.

    I know that Shogun was based off Of Adams but I didn't know how closely. I guess I'm surprised that it follows even as closely as it did.

    I'll have to look at Silk too, sounds interesting.

    -On another note, cool photo of Ieyasu's grave marker. I'll have to swing up there some time. (If I can ever pry myself away from Kansai.)

  8. That last few times I was in Japan I did not get to visit Toshogu. The last time was 2004. I will try and visit Nikko Toshogu the next time I return to Japan.

    I have never seen the Shogun miniseries nor have I even read the book 'Shogun'. I should read it sometime.

  9. This is a guy that I'd like to get to know better. If I were back in Kanto, I'd check out the areas in Kanagawa where he stayed.

  10. I think he would be an interesting person to me.