David Tee - AncientPages.com - William Adams was born in Elizabethan England in the 16th century and grew up working as an apprentice to shipbuilders. For the first years of his life, he spent either learning how to build ships or sailing them. Between trips he married his first wife and they had two daughters together.
The Beginning Of The Journey
While he became the first white man to become a Samurai, he was definitely not the first white man to travel to Japan. Portuguese missionaries traveled to the country to spread the Catholic faith and trade in Japanese slaves.
In 1598, William Adams was hired by Dutch traders to guide a fleet consisting of 5 ships and help them get to Japan. At the time travel to Japan was limited to only the Spanish and the Portuguese. The Dutch wanted to break that monopoly.
Over the course of two years, 4 of the five ships were lost to a variety of storms, angry natives and European competitors. One ship with Adams and 23 other crew members arrived in Japan. But only Adams was healthy enough to negotiate and communicate with the Japanese.
Because both the Spanish and Portuguese guarded their connection to the Japanese not much was known about the people or the country in England or Holland. What was known came mostly from the traveler Marco Polo.
Giles Milton wrote, that all the information about the Japanese held outside of Spain and Portugal came from Marco Polo who never visited Japan. His information came from the Chinese who described the Japanese as civilized, well-favored, very independent and proud people. They did not rely on anyone else.
Marco Polo also noted that no one ever traveled to Japan because of the distance and the dangers involved. The lack of information did not dissuade anyone from thinking about the country. With little information to go on, many Europeans felt that these types of forbidden kingdoms held wealth untold.
Marco Polo did not help stop those thoughts. Instead he helped fuel them by his descriptions of golden roofed palaces and other details exaggerating the wealth of the Japanese.
William Adam's New Life In Japan As A White Samurai
The Portuguese missionaries and traders did not like the arrival of Adams who impressed the head of the local shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. They declared that Adams was a heretic and a pirate then demanded that he be executed. Instead, Tokugawa Ieyasu made Adams an adviser.
Statue of William Adams (1564-1520) in Nagisacho, Japan. Credit: Public Domain - CC BY-SA 3.0
William Adams not only advised the Japanese leader, he directed the building of an 8 ton European style boat; became a tutor in geography, navigation and geometry. He also worked as an adviser in international issues negotiating with the Dutch and Spanish Philippines.
It took years for Adams to finally reach the position of Samurai, but he was not forced to become a Samurai. That elevation took place as a reward for his dedicated service and contribution to the Japanese shogunate.
William Adams received land in Miura Henmi part of Sagami province, along with 80 servants. This gift contained about 100 farms. He was also given a mansion n Edo as thanks for his service to the shogunate.
Along with all the physical rewards, Adams was given a new name. He was called Miura Anji. The word anjin means pilot, which he was to some extent. In 1605, while still married to his first wife, Adams married a Japanese lady and had two more children with her.
He also kept a concubine and had one child with her.
Becoming a Samurai is not the same as becoming a Ninja warrior. The Ninja is a profession and not a status of class in Japanese society. To be a Ninja one must train hard and work years as a warrior honing their skills.
In pre-16th century days, the Samurais were skilled warriors, whose equivalent would be the knights of old Europe. They held land, fought for a king or a lord and trained for years to master the art of warfare.
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By the 16th century, though, the Samurai evolved into becoming political leaders who managed large areas of land and people. A Samurai is now a class in Japanese society, one does not have to train. They merely have to be appointed, as Adams was.
William Adam's Legacy
The arrival in Japan was not an act of misfortune for William Adams. What was a difficult, treacherous journey turned out to be something of a silver lining for him. His knowledge, abilities and dedication served him well leading him to be favored over the remaining crew members.
Because the local shogunate took a liking to Adams, he was given opportunities that were withheld from other Europeans who visited the country before, during and after his life time.
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It is said that he was the Englishman who opened up Japan. This may be an honor that can be debated but that is his legacy. His trading adventures took him to different parts of the Orient including Siam, Vietnam and other countries in the geographical region.
He also helped other Europeans get established in the country, including the first head of the London Merchants Company’s Japanese office.
At one point, around 1612, Adams wanted to return to England. He made his request to his shogunate but was refused. The leader of the Japanese shogunate felt that Adams still had a useful purpose to serve in the country and did not want him to leave.
Left: Grave of Miura Anjin, Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan - Right: The monument to William Adams at the location of his former Tokyo townhouse, in Anjin-cho, today Nihonbashi Muromachi 1-10-8, Tokyo. Credit: Public Domain
When new trading opportunities opened up, the thought of making more money deterred Adams from making the request a second time. He did finally receive permission to leave Japan, but his business interests kept him tied to the country.
He died in 1620, never seeing England or his first family again. It is said he is buried in Japan but the location of his grave is in doubt.
Written by – David Tee AncientPages.com Staff Writer
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Expand for references
Samurai Adams: The Englishman who opened Japan by Giles Milton