Samurai William

June 22, 2011

How William Adams became the first caucasian samurai.

Samurai William is a thrilling, fascinating work of nonfiction about a little-known personage. William Adams was the first Englishman to set foot Japan and the first European to become a samurai. His personal story is interesting in its own right, but he was also a linchpin in the larger history of trade between Japan and Europe.

Adams, a working-class shipbuilder and navigator, arrived in Japan in April of 1600, some half a century after the first Europeans, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. But the Shogun–the great Tokugawa Iyeasu (who has just finished uniting the nation by conquest)–quickly favored Adams for his ability to build Western ships for Japan’s lackluster navy. He eventually elevated Adams to the samurai rank of hatamoto, a feudal lord in Tokugawa’s direct service, with swords, serfs, and a feudal estate. Adams, an English Protestant, proved a fatal counter to the Jesuits, who had been telling the Japanese for 50 years that Portugal was the most powerful of nations and Catholicism the one true faith. With Adams at his ear, Tokugawa soon soured to the Jesuits, eventually kicking all Catholics off the island.

Except for this bit of politicking, Adams was an astoundingly decent guy. He served the Shogun well as both retainer and interpreter, and when English or Dutch ambassadors and merchants arrived in Japan, Adams counseled them on Japanese customs and manners. While the Shogun’s orders and later Adams’s health ruled out a return home, he took a Japanese wife and had children, but still sent money back to his family in England. Dubbed Anjin-sama (Mr. Pilot), Adams was so well-liked in Japan that a neighborhood in Tokyo was named Anjin-cho after him. The town still celebrates his legacy on June 15 each year.

Milton is a good enough storyteller, but he truly excels at blending his own narration with primary sources. See how he does it in this minor but memorable passage about a naval battle between the Portuguese and Japanese:

The [Portuguese] sailors on board were jubilant and were already proclaiming victory when events took a most unexpected turn. A chance musket shot, fired by one of the samurai, struck a grenade that one of [Captain] Pessoa’s defenders was about to hurl at the Japanese. The burning shrapnel set fire to gunpowder on deck, and the mizzen sail suddenly burst into flames. Within seconds, the entire upper works of the ship were ablaze. Pessoa immediately realized that all was lost and that the great ship was doomed. High on excitement and half-deranged by the heat, he now decided on a spectacular finale. “With an intrepid heart, [he] put down his sword and shield in a cabin without saying another word and, taking a crucifix in one hand and a firebrand in another, he went below and set fire to the powder magazine.” The resulting explosion was immediate and catastrophic. The Nossa Senhora de Graça rose slightly in the water, split in two in a wall of flame and sank in thirty-two fathoms of water. Of Pessoa himself, nothing whatsoever remained. (125)

That’s some way to go.