The First Englishman in Japan

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Commodore Matthew Perry, an American Naval officer, is generally credited as the man who, with his 1854 expedition, opened Japan to trade with the West. However, author Giles Milton, who previously proposed (in Nathaniel's Nutmeg) that New York City might still be a Dutch colony but for the spice trade, would like to bring English sailor William Adams to readers' attention. Adams, largely unknown in the land of his birth, was the first recorded Englishman to reach Japan -- and he is the eponymous hero of Milton's latest popular history, Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened the East (FSG).

Milton said (via e-mail from his home in Wimbledon, South London) that, while Perry reopened Japan in the 19th century, in Samurai William, he wanted to restore "the adventurers of the 16th and 17th century to their rightful place in history. What they achieved was truly remarkable."

Milton came across Adams' story while researching Nathaniel's Nutmeg. "I found it a truly fabulous tale and was surprised by the number of original records to have survived," he said. He was especially amazed by the ability of Adams to adapt himself to Japanese society.

Adams arrived in Japan on April 12, 1600. That he survived the journey from England -- when "at least half the crew died, usually of scurvy, dysentery, or malaria"-- is reason enough for amazement. What happened next is almost unbelievable. Portuguese missionaries and Jesuits had arrived some 50 years before Adams. For political reasons, they had not told the Japanese that there was more than one type of Christianity. When the Portuguese saw Adams and his crew arrive on a Dutch Protestant ship "they were horrified that all their hard work would come undone. That's why they tried to have them crucified," Milton explained. The attempted crucifixion was a turning point in Adams' life. Before it, he had been a sailor who had probably reached the peak of his career captaining trading ships. After the interview that saved him, he was the one European to have the ear of the ruler of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Ieyasu and other Japanese were fascinated by Adams' aloof attitude. He did not act like other sailors on landfall. He saw that "the Japanese had a system of ceremonial etiquette that was as complex as it was baffling," and, without making a misstep, he managed to find a place in Japanese society.

Milton said that Adams is still remembered in Japan. "He's known by his Japanese name, Miura Anjin -- 'the pilot from Miura,' the place where he had his country estate." There are still two major festivals each year held in his honor: Miura Anjin Festival Cherry Blossom Viewing ("Miura Anjin Matsuri") in Tokyo and another on August 10 in Ito.

"One reason the Japanese are so fond of him is because he was almost the only Westerner to take the trouble to learn more about the local culture and language," Milton explained. "By the time he died, he spoke fluent Japanese, had a local wife, and was the owner of a rambling country estate, complete with Japanese retainers." Milton points out that "Adams' story, heavily fictionalized, was the basis for James Clavell's novel Shogun."

Milton wrote most of Samurai William in the London Library, "a wonderful old private library in central London. It's got a huge reading room, large Victorian desks and creaking armchairs. It's a very atmospheric place in which to work," he said. While he still occasionally writes for newspapers, most of his time is now spent on writing and researching the books. "They require," he added dryly, "a lot of work."

While researching Samurai William, Milton went to Japan. He "wanted to tell Adams' story not only from his point of view, but also from that of the Japanese." While there's nothing left of the English trading post in Hirado, archaeological digs have recently turned up the remains of old Dutch warehouses.

Milton manages to provide a lot of background about Adams' time in Japan, his voyages, and even on other contemporary voyages from Europe to East Asia. It helps that Milton is a member of the Hakluyt Society. Named after Richard Hakluyt, a famous Elizabethan explorer, the society's members are "dedicated to reprinting the works of explorers and adventurers in scholarly editions. They have reprinted many accounts first published in the 16th and 17th centuries, including some that are extremely obscure," Milton explained. Some of these books were very helpful in the writing of Samurai William, such as one of last year's books, "a reprint of an edition written by Joao Rodrigues, one of the first Jesuits to arrive in Japan."

Samurai William is a satisfying book -- it is broad in scope, yet skips along at a fine pace. Milton sensibly keeps the detailed notes for the back of the book. (He provides 11 pages of "Notes and Sources.") It is, however, ultimately a sad story. None of Adams' descendants are known in England or Japan (he had a family in each country), and, despite his work on behalf of the British, Dutch, and other governments, Japan closed itself off to visitors soon after his death.

Milton explained that "the ruling shogun grew heartily sick" of the behavior of the visiting Europeans. "If [they] had behaved better," he went on, "Japan might never have expelled the Europeans and closed its frontiers to the world. If so, it would these days be a very different -- and much more open -- society." --Gavin Grant