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Monday, April 9, 2012

Foreigners In Japan - William Adams

Perhaps I should have called this a historical look at foreigners in Japan. But... I didn't.

Since the gaijin (or foreigner / outsider) seems to be a topic of fascination for many people in Japan, I thought I would take a look back and see if we could determine who might have played a big role in Japanese history.

The name that kept popping up, was on William Adams, an Englishman born in Gillingham, Kent, England.

If there is a William Adams out there that you talked to yesterday, that is not him. This William Adams was born in 1564 and died in 1620.

So... what's the big whoop about the old, dead guy? Well... among many things, Adams is believed to be the first Englishman to have set foot in Japan. Not gaijin, of course, but Englishman. I'm guessing the Chinese or Koreans beat him to the punch by centuries. And we'll try and look at some of them in a later blog or two.  

Let's look at Adams history. 
As a young man, Adams worked as an apprentice shipbuilder in Limehouse, London, England starting in 1576 at the age of 12.

Working there for 12 years, the young man studied how to be a sailor, learning astronomy and navigation - two important things when sailing in those days, as one never knew when they would have to sail at night (50 per cent of the time, actually).

He joined the British Royal Navy under the command of Sir Francis Drake and fought against the fearsome Spanish Armada in 1588 at the age of 24.

Ten years later, he joined an expedition of five Dutch ships who were sailing towards the East Indies. The Dutch were fantastic explorers back in those days. That expedition sailed to Africa and South America making in-roads with trade... but as with sea travel in that era, it was fraught with danger.

In fact, by 1600, two years after setting out, only one of the five ships was left, the Liefde (translates from Dutch to English as 'Love'), and only had a crew of 20, starving men left on board when it arrived off the coast of Kyushu, Japan, in and around Osaka near the then-capital of Kyoto.

Japan already had a few European foreigners in its midst already, namely the Jesuits... Portuguese Jesuits, who were so heavily into the Christian traditions of love and understanding, tried to convince the Japanese to put these Dutch sailors to death as pirates. That was sarcasm, by the way.

Luckily, the Japanese did not quite trust the Jesuits, and instead ordered the crew to be placed in the prison of Osaka-jo (Osaka Castle), under the order of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (surname first). And... just so we are all clear... it is pronounced 'show-goon' NOT 'show-gun'!

Welcome to Japan, eh?

Now, it is not necessarily know how long after being imprisoned by the Japanese, but Adams did get an audience with the Shogun. I'm going to guess it wasn't long after he actually arrived in Japan.

You don't get to be Shogun by being stupid, so I'm sure he must have wanted to see the prisoners for himself. Like I said... the Japanese have always been curious about gaijin. Why would the leader of the country be any different?

Regardless, Adams must have impressed the Shogun. Not much is mentioned in the documents I read about how they communicated, but perhaps the Jesuits helped. If they were already in Japan, the chances are good that some of them had learned Japanese to communicate, and surely some of them also knew some English. All supposition by myself, but what else could it have been?

Anyway, Adams was impressive with the Shogun on his knowledge of ships and navigation and received his release from prison. I can only assume he was able to also convince the Shogun that he and his shipmates were not pirates, and they were also released. 

The Shogun in 1604 then requested (or ordered) Adams to construct Japan's first Westernized ship for him... and since he did so quite willingly, their relationship grew. That ship, and others that quickly followed thanks to Adams' lead allowed Japan itself to open up more trading expeditions which lead to further growing of the Shogun's coffers.

These expeditions were known as the Red Seal expeditions, and Japan was thus able to venture out to Siam and Vietnam.

At this time, Adams became known in the Japanese community as Miura Anjin (Pilot) for his navigation skills.      

Because of his skill in opening up new trading partners with South East Asia, the Shogun granted him the title of Hatamoto, a samurai in direct service of the Shogun.

He was also granted lands and servants befitting his rank in the area of present day Yokosuka-shi (City of Yokosuka) in Kanagawa-ken (Kanagawa Prefecture) just south of Tokyo.

Now... sometime in 1611, back in London, the trading post there of the East India Company received a letter dated a few years earlier by someone they had thought lost at sea. Yup... it was from our man William Adams.

Excluding the Jesuits, all other foreigners had been barred by the Shogun from entering their land - and here was Adams living quite happily - and thriving, as a Shogun's special samurai, no less. He had apparently even taken a Japanese name Miuri Anjin (三浦按針), and was now offering his services to the East India Company as a trade adviser and interpreter. Of course, Adams was also a translator and adviser to the Shogun, as well.

Meanwhile, back in Japan, Adams had taken a Japanese wife - her name may have been Oyuki - who was the daughter of a Japanese highway official (in charge of the stations of the main road of travel between Osaka and Edo (now Tokyo). He had two children with his Japanese wife - Joseph (no relation to myself, as it is my surname) and Susanna.

Of course... Adams was already married back in England. Bigamy? That was big of him, too!

So... greed being what it was then as it is now, seven members of the East India Company were sent to Japan to use Adams to try and get the riches of Japan.

Now... Japan was suddenly over run by Englishmen... and it caused the Shogun to pause a moment... Should he continue with Japan's policy of isolation and expel all foreigners (except the Jesuits), or should he open up Japan to the world and the world of international trade and commerce?

For over 10 years, the English attempted to use Adams to convince the Shogun to trade with them... but they were constantly being usurped by the jealous Portuguese Jesuits and Dutch assassins who had made there way to Japan owing to the fact that Adams was working for the Dutch when they landed in Japan years ago... This is the basis of the semi-accurate tale written by James Clavell (his book was made into a decent tv mini-series called Shogun) ... and is all about Adams. Kind of cool, eh?

Adams, to his credit, while an Englishman, actually enjoyed himself in Japan, and came to consider himself Japanese. But sytll, he attempted to establish both Dutch and English trading stations in Hirado-shi (City of Hirado) in Nagasaki Prefecture and in Nagasaki-shi (Nagasaki City).

The Hirado English trade, however, was not profitable, though it operated between 1613 - 1623 before closing down.

Part of the problem was that the English representative in Japan, John Saris, hated Adams because Adams was now more Japanese than English, having adopted Japan's lifestyles and habits. Yeah! I can dig it! I tried to do it, too!

Anyhow... Adams did not want to place the English trade settlement in Hirado (which is a small island off the coast of Nagasaki), instead preferring Uraga, which was closer to Edo.

After Saris returned home - Adams refused to accompany him - Adams remained in Hirado and died there at the age of 55. He apparently had a Japanese consort there, and she gave birth to a son, after his death.

Still... despite Adams having two kids with his Japanese wife and one with a Japanese consort, some bright person thought it would be a great idea to bring a stone from his wife's grave in England over to Japan so that they could be united in death. Can't a man escape his wife and live in sin with his two Japanese babes in peace even in death? Apparently not. Poor William Adams.

Regardless... after his death, a memorial stone marker in Sakigata Park over looking the sea was placed at his grave in Hirado.

Despite his relationship with the Shogun, Adams has become a mere footnote in Japanese history, however, and is only immortalized in the Shogun book and television show and this blog. 

But... he may have been the greatest gaijin in the history of Japan. He became a samurai in the service of the Shogun.

By Andrew (Samurai-wannabe) Joseph


  1. Loving your blog... i'd it bookmarked from a couple of years back but never had the time to come read your musings. But am glad i did. Just got back from Tokyo from an oh too short holiday with family n friends, and am spiraling into a post-Tokyo feeling of being lost back at home. Not sure why but reading your musings just bring me back there.

    1. Hi! Well... welcome back! I appreciate you taking the time out to read Rife every couple of years :)
      I am very envious of you and you trip to Tokyo. Feel free to use me and this blog as a forum to tell us what you did! You can be a guest blogger! Seriously. I'd love to hear where you are from and how or why Tokyo is magical. Honestly... Tokyo was a lot like Toronto (where I am from), so for me, the magic resides in the smaller towns... but different strokes for different folks. My brother loves the city, and me, the 'burbs as it is closer to the farms et al (and getting closer everyday, apparently).
      Oribarsan... thanks for reading and taking the time to write. It makes my day when people do that! Cheers!

  2. I like This story but I think It's sad because He had his family in England and He didn't see them again.

    Nowadays In japan Is there His descent(His family in japan) ?

    You are a very good writer. It's so fun

    Thank you so much.

    1. Hi!
      You asked a very good question... what happened to the family of William Adams in Japan.
      Well... he had two children - Joseph and Susanna - with his Japanese wife, and another child with a consort (as he was sort of on the outs with his Japanese wife at that time of his death). Also, the child born to the consort was born AFTER William Adams died.
      Not much is know about any of the children.
      They may have stayed in Japan with their mother... BUT, in 1639 there was an official Japanese decree that ordered the surviving families
      of Euro-Japanese marriages to leave Japan as it was closing its borders for 250 years.
      But... since William Adams was important in Japan - were the children allowed to stay in Japan? Or were they forced to leave? No one knows for sure.
      That's the problem with history...
      Thanks for writing and for reading!

  3. Konnichi wa Joseph-san,
    Just a little extra about the word "shogun." As you wrote, it is pronounced show-goon, not show-gun. Also, the word is a 3-count word as the "o" is a long "o," so the word is pronounced show-u-goon, and is written that way in hiragana.
    I just found your writings and enjoy them. I will write more later.

  4. A couple of other Japanese words that gaijin mispronounce are futon and karaoke. Futon is pronounced fu-toe-n, not fu-ta-n. Karaoke is definitely NOT pronounced kerry-o-key, it is pronounced ka-ra-o-ke (the "e" pronounced like the "e" in the word "get."