Ever since I read the James Clavell novel Shogun and subsequently watched the TV mini-series, I’ve had a strong interest in the real man these works were based on. And while fiction takes a lot of license with the true-life story, there are plenty of interesting similarities between William Adams and the man known as Anjin-san in Clavell’s book.
Who was William Adams?
While the Spanish and Portuguese had already made a foothold on Japan, the English and Dutch were yet to visit this far away, strange land. And as with most terra incognita in the age of discovery, Japan – at least to the English – was a wild and unknown place where reportedly the streets were paved with silver and their buildings covered in solid gold. Sadly, as with most Timbuktu tales, the reality of Japan was quite different.
After a long an dangerous voyage that saw the destruction of four of the five Dutch ships, Adams (who served as a pilot or navigator for the Dutch) finally disembarked his vessel in the Spring of 1600. And while the streets were not paved in silver, Adams was taken back by the structured and highly cultured society of the Japanese.
You can imagine a person coming from a society that blamed bathing for causing disease and seeing the clean and extremely organized Japanese for the first time.
Adams himself had no opportunity to record his first impressions, but most newcomers to Japan were left feeling that they were distinctly under-dressed in comparison to the Japanese.
With just 9 crew members left alive Adams was met on shore by the locals and a Jesuit priest who claimed that Adams and his crew were pirates and thus they should be crucified.
While things didn’t go well after that, with Adam’s ship and goods being seized and the crew thrown into prison, it was through the piqued interest of one man that Adams would eventually become one of the greatest and most respected Englishmen of Japan.
Adams & Tokugawa Ieyasu
While Tokugawa Ieyasu may have been a fearsome warrior and the powerful Shogun of all Japan, he also possessed a keen interest in the world and was passionate about learning. When Ieyasu heard about these new and extremely smelly visitors to Japan he was keenly interested in meeting them. So he invited Adams to attend to him.
To be granted an audience with Ieyasu was the greatest honor for Adams. Only the richest and most powerful officials were received, and all the lesser mortals had to speak with his advisors.
Ieyasu must have been impressed with Adams as he met with him several times, often questioning him late into the night. The Shogun must have been spellbound by his English guest and delighted with his answers. To show his appreciation Ieyasu would permit a personal audience anytime that Adams was in Osaka, which was something that even the most powerful diamyo would not be guaranteed.
Thus Adams was well on his way to becoming the first white samurai.
The book continues with the introduction of more English traders to Japan of where Adams was an indispensable aid to forging good relations with the Japanese. By this time Adams was fluent with the language and had been made hatamoto (bannerman) to the Shogun. This was a very prestigious position and no doubt helped the English establish creditability with the Shogun.
While life was enjoyable for the English in Japan, dark clouds were on the horizon for all foreigners in Japan. Is wasn’t long before the Spanish priests caused much offense with their posturing and defiance of Japanese protocols. Although showing remarkable tolerance to the Jesuits and Franciscans, the Shogun was becoming increasingly incensed at their haughty arrogance and lack of loyalty.
Thus began the Catholic persecution which eventually lead to war, mass executions and the beginning of the sakoku – the closed country period in Japan. It would be some 200 years before an Englishman would set foot in Japan again.
Samurai William is a great read. Whether your’re interested in this famous English samurai or not, the book contains plenty of detail of what Japan was like during those early days of discovery.
The book can be purchased from Amazon sellers for around $6.00.
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