'Samurai William,' a rich saga from the infancy of globalism

On Books

January 12, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

So far as history reveals, the first Europeans to set foot in Japan were three Portuguese adventurers who arrived in 1544. They soon were followed by missionaries, Portuguese and Spanish, principally Jesuits but Franciscans as well. Centered in Nagasaki, they carefully adopted Japanese customs and manners, worked hard to conquer the complex Japanese language, built churches and shrines and converted tens of thousands to Christianity.

Other Europeans -- particularly English and Dutch -- were intent on reaping the riches of trade and the glory of adventure. They learned of Japan from the accounts of the missionaries and the tales told them in other Asian countries where they were trading. The earth had been circumnavigated, rough maps were available and navigational science was developing. Yet the Japanese -- among other Asians legendarily hostile to outsiders -- remained deeply mysterious and bursting with promise of vast riches.

In 1598, an English and Dutch merchant syndicate put together a mission to go to Japan: five ships, well-armed and carrying substantially more than 500 men. One of the captains was William Adams, an accomplished mariner who had spent the previous 10 years on voyages to west Africa and around the near Atlantic. Born in Kent, Adams had been brought up in Limehouse, a rough part of London's harbor, and trained as a pilot

For much of the next 20 years, Adams kept a diary and wrote copious letters. Those documents and other correspondence, logs and journals that have been preserved by English and Dutch and private libraries, are a rich trove that has provided the information and impetus for a number of books about Japan in the 1600s. The latest is an impressive, intriguing history: Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan, by Giles Milton. (Farrar Straus, 368 pages, $24).

As it proceeded down the African coast, the little fleet had grave difficulties obtaining supplies and food. Crews suffered, and often died, from tropical illness and scurvy. Reaching South America, they were attacked by murderously hostile natives and lost many men. When they entered the Pacific, one of the ships was captured and its crew slaughtered by Spanish forces and another by Portuguese. Both countries were bitter enemies of the English and Dutch, competitors in trade, their enmity greatly intensified by the bitter gulf between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

Four of the five vessels were lost. On April 12, 1600, Adams' ship reached Japan, at a town called Bungo, on the southern island of Kyushu. Twenty months had passed, and out of an original expedition of substantially more than 500 men, only 24 were left alive, including Adams. Six were healthy enough to stand up. After some initial difficulties, they were shown welcome and support.

Adams and others who left diaries and correspondence found the Japanese almost incredibly civilized, subtle and sophisticated in contrast to other cultures they had come across, and even compared with most Europeans. Milton has pieced together enchanting descriptions of Japan in 1600, including the intricacies and grace of the ornamental gardens, eating, drinking and bathing habits.

After assiduously schooling himself in the local language and customs, Adams was taken to the court of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first great shogun, who had brought feudal Japan together as a nation and reigned with such firmness and force that all Europeans took him to be emperor. (The actual emperor was honored as the hereditary and spiritual descendant of the mythic founders of the nation and race, but had virtually no political or military influence.)

Ieyasu, a brilliant leader, was curious about almost everything foreign, and especially about navigation, mathematics, geometry and the sciences. He took to Adams almost immediately. Adams, in turn, worked hard until ultimately he was fully and officially embraced by Ieyasu, who brought him into a major position in his court.

The growing Jesuit mission was bitterly opposed to Protestant interlopers and sought to have them executed. Adams' increasing influence with the shogunate insured survival of the English and Dutch traders. Most his original companions died or disappeared, but other trading vessels of the English East India Company arrived and established a trading "factory" in Hirado, a small port on the strait between Kyushu and Japan's main island, Honshu.

When an English trading mission reached Japan in 1611, they were led to Adams. "The man was English," Milton writes, "of that there was no question, but one who was dressed and acted as if he had been born and brought up in Japan. He gave 'so admirable and affectionated commendations of the country as it is generally thought amongst us that he is a naturalized Japaner.' William Adams of Limehouse had gone native."

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