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An unlikely figure in Japan's history
Giles Milton, author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, returns to the perils and adventures of the 17th-century Pacific Rim in Samurai William. With a novelist's eye, Milton illuminates a little-known but utterly remarkable period during which the fiercely insular Japanese shogunate opened its doors to the West, thanks mostly to the pluck and perseverance of an unlikely Englishman named William Adams.
At the end of a disastrous Dutch expedition seeking a westward route to Asia, Adams' dilapidated and undermanned ship drifted helplessly into Japanese waters in April of 1600. Adams and his crew were not the first Westerners to reach the Japanese coastPortuguese missionaries had begun to trickle in more than half a century beforebut they would be the most influential during Japan's brief dalliance with the West.
Forbidden to return to his native Britain, Adams made the best of his situation, learning the Japanese language and customs, befriending the Japanese shogun and, as Britain and the Netherlands began to establish tentative toeholds of commerce on Japanese soil, becoming a de facto minister of European affairs. It was harrowing, often dangerous work: Japan was fraught with civil wars, and political, commercial and religious tensions frequently boiled over into violence among the Europeans.
Shortly after Adams' death, the Europeans were expelled from Japan, and the island nation again receded into isolation. Two centuries would pass before Japan restored contact with the West. Although almost nothing of the European sojourn had survived the wars and weather of the intervening generations, the memory of the man the Japanese called Anjin Sama, or Mr. Pilot, had been preserved in the name of Tokyo's Anjincho district. Not only a unique figure in European history, William Adams had also earned his place in the annals of Japan.
Adams' story inspired James Clavell's fictional Shogun, but the actual events of his life make as worthy a tale as any novel. Milton evokes with equal skill the gritty quays of London, the soupy tropical shores of equatorial Africa and the exquisite palace of Osaka. He has written an adventure tale that will appeal to both the armchair historian as well as the armchair explorer.
Elizabeth Entman writes from Manhattan.