Cover image for Samurai William : the Englishman who opened Japan
Samurai William : the Englishman who opened Japan
Milton, Giles.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Physical Description:
352 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2002.

Includes index.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS869.A3 M54 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
DS869.A3 M54 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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An eye-opening account of the first encounter between England and Japan, by the acclaimed author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg In 1611, the merchants of London's East India Company received a mysterious letter from Japan, written several years previously by a marooned English mariner named William Adams. Foreigners had been denied access to Japan for centuries, yet Adams had been living in this unknown land for years. He had risen to the highest levels in the ruling shogun's court, taken a Japanese name, and was now offering his services as adviser and interpreter. Seven adventurers were sent to Japan with orders to find and befriend Adams, in the belief that he held the key to exploiting the opulent riches of this forbidden land. Their arrival was to prove a momentous event in the history of Japan and the shogun suddenly found himself facing a stark choice: to expel the foreigners and continue with his policy of isolation, or to open his country to the world. For more than a decade the English, helped by Adams, were to attempt trade with the shogun, but confounded by a culture so different from their own, and hounded by scheming Jesuit monks and fearsome Dutch assassins, they found themselves in a desperate battle for their lives. Samurai William is the fascinating story of a clash of two cultures, and of the enormous impact one Westerner had on the opening of the East.

Author Notes

Giles Milton is the author, most recently, of the critically acclaimed Nathaniel's Nutmeg (FSG, 1999). He lives in London.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In April 1600 a battered Dutch ship sailed into a Japanese harbor. The only ship of a fleet of five to reach its destination, it carried a crew hoping to open trade negotiations with the powerful shogun of Japan, Ieyasu. William Adams, the sole Englishman aboard the ship, eventually won the shogun's confidence and admiration, allowing the Dutch to survive the Portuguese and Spanish Catholic missionaries' attempts to have them discredited and killed and securing them the trade agreement. Adams learned the Japanese language and studied their culture, eventually becoming a translator for the shogun. Ieyasu lavished riches on Adams, including a beautiful estate, and refused to allow him to leave Japan. When news of Adams' success reached King James I of England, he sent an English expedition, hoping the English would fare as well as the Dutch. But the arrival of the English crew only increased already heightened tensions among the different groups fighting for wealth and power in Japan. Milton gives the exciting story both immediacy and flair; the bright, bustling world of seventeenth-century Japan comes alive through his pen, as do the many dangers and adventures Adams and his comrades face. This is history writing at its finest. --Kristine Huntley

Publisher's Weekly Review

Following the success of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Milton focuses on the exploits of another undiscovered historical personage to center a more expansive story. The individual is William Adams, and the larger narrative is the developing trade relationship between Japan and Western Europe. Adams arrived in Japan in 1600 after a death-defying 20-month voyage. Over the next two decades, he embraced Japanese culture, learned the language and rose to prominence in the court of the reigning Shogun, Ieyasu. His prominence allowed the English to outmaneuver the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch for access to Japanese markets. Much of Milton's story reflects the almost instinctive Western impulse to to take enormous risks in search of riches. The narrative is energized by his accounts of shipwrecks, gruesome deaths from disease and the predations of cannibalistic tribes who attacked ships stopping for provisions. He takes advantage of additional opportunities for gore when describing the dual nature of the Japanese society, highly cultured on the one hand, but barbaric and violent on the other. Milton also offers accounts of the sexual indulgences of the Europeans in Japan, often driven in equal parts by cupidity and concupiscence. In the end the efforts of the Europeans to open trade were futile because, as Milton notes, in 1620, after the death of Ieyasu, his heir closed Japan until the mid-19th century. Milton couches considerable scholarship in a vivacious and colorful narrative that will appeal to lovers of historical adventure. Illus. (Jan. 18) Forecast: The excellent reception of Nathaniel's Nutmeg guarantees good review coverage for this, and enthusiastic reviews will translate into generous sales. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In 1600, the dawn of the modern world, when overseas journeys were measured in months and even years, William Adams (1564-1620), an English mariner of humble origins, washed up on the shores of Japan with a band of his fellows. Through a combination of skill, native wit, guile, and good luck, Adams became the confidant of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the powerful warlord who founded modern Japan. Milton (Nathaniel's Nutmeg) places Adams at the center of this rollicking popular history of early European intercourse, in all the senses of that term, with a Japanese society in many respects far more cultured and civilized than Europe. This rowdy and riveting tale is peopled with a large and colorful cast of European merchant adventurers, rogues, and miscreants who sought fame and fortune in the service of the British East India Company and like enterprises. Milton is a gifted storyteller with an eye for the graphic, often gruesome, detail. This is the kind of page turner that will keep you up way past your bedtime. For all libraries.-Steven I. Levine, Univ. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



AT THE COURT OF BUNCO No one had ever seen such strange-looking men. They had big noses, giant mustaches, and wore puffed and padded pantaloons. They also seemed to have little understanding of Japanese etiquette and manners. To the little crowd of onlookers gathered on Funai's quayside, these three seafarers appeared to have come from another world. Their ship had been blown to Japan by the "great and impetuous tempest" that was playing out its last dance on the waters offshore. It was rare for junks to cross the East China Sea, and the arrival of this sea-battered vessel quickly attracted the attention of Funai's governor. He made his way to the port where the strangers-speaking through Chinese interpreters-explained that they "came from another land, named Portugal, which was at the further end of the world." The governor was unsure how to react, and sent a message to the local ruler, the lord of Bungo, with news of their arrival. His lordship ordered that the men should be summarily executed, and he sent instructions for their possessions to be stolen and their vessel confiscated, fearing that they would cause no end of trouble if he kept them alive. This news caused something of a stir in the palace chambers, especially when it reached the ears of the lord's eldest son. He told his father that such an action would blacken the name of Bungo throughout Japan and added that he refused to tolerate such a murder. The lord of Bungo reluctantly changed his mind, but congratulated himself later when he learned more about these men from "another land." He was told that they were well dressed and that they spoke with considerable delicacy. In the ordered and strictly hierarchical society of Japan, this was of the greatest importance, and his lordship was particularly pleased to learn that they were "clothed in silk, and usually wear swords by their sides, not like merchants." He composed a missive to the governor of the port, ordering that one or all of the men be brought to him immediately. "I have heard for a truth," he wrote, "that these same men have entertained you at large with all matters of the whole universe, and have assured unto you, on their faith, that there is another world greater than ours." The lord of Bungo's sudden interest in the men was, it transpired, little more than idle curiosity. He was a lethargic individual who suffered from a variety of real and imagined illnesses and had long been taxed by ennui. "You know my long indisposition," he wrote in his letter, "accompanied with so much pain and grief, hath great need of some diversion." He promised that whoever visited his little court would be treated with the greatest honor and respect. There was never any doubt as to which of the three Portuguese men would go to meet the lord of Bungo. Fernão Mendes Pinto, a garrulous adventurer, was immediately selected by the port's governor, who chose him because Pinto was "of a more lively humour, wherewith those of Japan are infinitely delighted, and may thereby cheer up the sick man." His lively humor would, he explained, "entertain his melancholy, instead of diverting it." Indeed it would. Pinto was an adventurer extraordinaire-an outlandish fidalgo , or nobleman-whose flamboyant costume hinted at the colorful persona beneath. He was a perennial romantic, a collector of yarns, who had left Portugal more than six years earlier in search of the bizarre and the absurd. When, many years later, he came to write up his travels, he gave his book an irresistible puff on the title page: "[I] five times suffered shipwrack, was sixteen times sold, and thirteen times made a slave." His book, Peregrinaçam , or Peregrination , is packed with incident and high adventure, mostly involving the intrepid author. He wrote it for his family and friends, but it was soon printed and became a best-seller. It should have come with a cautionary note: Pinto was a plagiarist who thought nothing of passing off other men's exploits as his own. He claimed to have been the first European to reach Japan, yet it is now known-as he himself knew-that a few shipwrecked mariners had been washed up there in the previous year. Pinto altered dates, borrowed stories, and exaggerated his own bravado in order to make his tales more entertaining. Yet there is much that is true in his account of Japan. He certainly did sail to Bungo with his countryman Jorge de Faria, and his information on the Japanese coastline is largely correct. So, too, are the incidents that occurred during his time in the fiefdom, for they can be verified from other sources. The feudal lord's son, Otomo Yoshishige, later recounted a strikingly similar tale to a Japanese chronicler, who recorded it. The English translator of Pinto's book was not altogether wrong when he wrote that "no man before him ... hath spoken so much and so truly of those oriental parts of the world." Pinto was escorted to meet the lord of Bungo by a stately retinue of courtly retainers and ushers, who wore rich gowns and carried maces, their insignia of office. He was immediately struck by their sumptuous costumes, which were decorated with delicately embroidered petals and chased with golden filigree. Later visitors were rather more taken by the peculiar faces of the Japanese. They had "tiny eyes and noses," wrote the Jesuit padre Luis Frois, and they eschewed the fabulous mustaches so favored by the Portuguese. Instead, they "plucked out [their] facial hair" with tweezers, leaving their skin smooth and shiny. Their hairstyles, too, were a cause of mirth. They shaved most of their heads, but left a ponytail "on the back part ... long and bound together." Even the way in which the Japanese picked their noses was a cause for comment. "We pick our noses with our thumb or index fingers," wrote one, "... [while] the Japanese use their little finger because their nostrils are small." Pinto was whisked into the great palace of Funai and taken straight to the private chambers where his lordship was languishing in bed. But as soon as the lord of Bungo set eyes on Pinto, he pulled himself up and gave a rare smile. "Thy arrival in this my country," he said, "is no less pleasing to me than the rain which falls from heaven is profitable to our fields that are sowed with rice." Pinto was quite taken aback by such an extraordinary greeting and recorded in his book that he was "somewhat perplexed with the novelty of these terms and this manner of salutation." But he soon recovered his composure and apologized for his momentary silence, explaining that it "proceeded from the consideration that I was now before the feet of so great a king, which was sufficient to make me mute an hundred thousand years." He added that he was "but a silly ant in comparison of his greatness." Pinto may well have believed that the lord of Bungo was indeed the king of Japan, for it was some years before the Portuguese learned that Otomo Yoshiaki-for that was his name-was actually a feudal lord, one of sixty-six. His little fiefdom covered a small area of land on Kyushu, one of the four principal islands that made up the Japanese realm. His lordship did nothing to correct Pinto's mistaken impression, nor did he show any interest in learning about the land from which Pinto had come. Instead, he spoke about his favorite subject-himself-using Pinto's Chinese intermediaries to inform his Portuguese guest of his illness. "Thou shalt oblige me to let me know whether in thy country, which is at the further end of the world, thou hast not learn'd any remedy for this disease wherewith I am tormented." Gout was not his lordship's only problem. His stomach went into revolt every time he was presented with seafood and shellfish, and he told Pinto that his "lack of appetite ... hath continued with me now almost these two moneths." Pinto was alarmed to find himself being asked to administer medicine and he stalled for time, informing Yoshiaki that he "made no profession of physick." But, fearing that he would disappoint his lordship, he suddenly changed his tune and said that he had on board "a certain wood" that, when infused in water, "healed far greater sickness than that whereof he complained." This wood was brought to the palace, Pinto made a brew, and Yoshiaki, "having used of it thirty days together ... perfectly recovered of his disease." Although the lord of Bungo quickly struck up a friendship with Pinto and seemed genuinely grateful for his medicinal potion, his fellow countrymen found little to praise in the early Europeans in Japan. "These men are traders of south-west Barbary," sniffed the author of the Japanese chronicle Yaita-hi . "They understand to a certain degree the distinction between Superior and Inferior, but I do not know whether they have a proper system of ceremonial etiquette." Others were horrified to discover that these foreigners thought nothing of shouting at and cursing each other. "[They] show their feelings without any self-control," wrote one contemptuous scribe, "[and] cannot understand the meaning of written characters." Worse still, their clothing was filthy and stank of stale sweat, while their unshaven appearance was a cause for concern. The Japanese probably would have dismissed the Portuguese without further ado, were it not for one important item that was stowed in the holds of their ships. This was a supply of weapons-muskets and arquebuses-and the destruction that they wrought was a cause of wonder to the Japanese. "They had never seen any gun in that country," wrote Pinto, "[and] they could not comprehend what it might be, so that for want of understanding the secret of the powder, they concluded that of necessity it must be some sorcery." The lord of Bungo quizzed Pinto about the number of gunmen serving under the king of Portugal, thereby inviting his guest to tell his tallest story so far. Pinto claimed that the Portuguese king had approximately two million gunners at his disposal. "The king was much abashed," wrote Pinto, adding with considerable self-satisfaction that it was "a marvelous answer." The lord of Bungo's son, Yoshishige, was quick to grasp the value of such a powerful weapon in a land where wars were still fought with swords and crossbows. Wishing to test the arquebus for himself and fearful that Pinto would refuse his request, he crept into his guest's chamber at night and stole it. It was a foolish act. Young Yoshishige had little idea of how to load the gun, nor was he sure how to fire it. He packed the barrel with a huge quantity of powder, rammed in the shot, and applied the match. There was a blinding flash and a huge explosion. "It was his illhap that the arquebus broke in three pieces and gave two hurts, by one of the which his right-hand thumb was, in a manner, lost." The young prince looked at his shattered thumb, fainted, and "fell down as one dead." This was the worst possible news for Pinto. The prince's accident instantly caused turmoil and fury in the palace, and the object of this wrath was their uninvited guest. "They all concluded that I had killed him," wrote Pinto, "so that two of the company, drawing out their scimitars, would have slain me." But the lord of Bungo stopped them, for first he wished to question Pinto more closely. He ordered his guest to squat on his knees and his arms were bound. Pinto was then quizzed by an interpreter while a judge stood over him, clutching a dagger "dipped in the bloud of the young prince." He was also given a swift lesson in the manner of Japanese justice. In normal circumstances, convicted criminals were mutilated in public, then flogged to death or beheaded. The corpses were then left to rot as a grim warning to others. Pinto's punishment was to be no less gruesome. "If thou doest not answer to the questions I ask thee," said his inquisitor, "... thou shalt be dismembred into air, like the feathers of dead fowl, which the wind carries from one place to another, separated from the body with which they were joined whilst they lived." The justices were itching to start chopping him to pieces, but the lord of Bungo had an altogether more sensible proposal. He suggested that since his guest had been the cause of young Otomo's accident, he should now be charged with bringing him back to life. He had provided a cure for the gout; it was possible, perhaps, that he could administer a different potion that would resurrect his son. For the second time since his arrival, Pinto found himself playing doctor-only this time his very own life was at stake. Yoshishige looked as if he was beyond repair. He had collapsed on the floor, "weltering in his own blood, without stirring either hand or foot." But a cursory examination convinced Pinto that the wounds were not as serious as the assembled courtiers believed. The gash on his forehead looked terrible, but was actually "of no great matter," while the thumb, which was hanging from its tendons, could probably be saved. "Now, because the hurt of the right hand thumb was most dangerous," wrote Pinto, "I began with that, and gave it seven stitches." His handiwork was clumsy and the wound continued to ooze blood, so he applied a more traditional salve-"the whites of eggs ... as I had seen others done in the Indies." The cure worked. The blood clotted, and the prince regained consciousness and began to recover. Within twenty days, he was completely better, "without any other inconvenience remaining in him than a little weakness in his thumb." The new technology-Pinto's muskets and arquebuses-had proved their deadly effect, and their future in Japanese warfare was guaranteed. Within a few months of the accident, local armorers were busy making copies of the weapons. Pinto was astonished by the refined manners of the Japanese, while Yoshiaki's retinue were appalled by the rough and uncouth table manners of the Portuguese. On Pinto's second visit to Japan, in 1556, he was invited to a stately banquet at which he quickly found himself the object of derision. "We fell to eating after our own manner," wrote Pinto, "of all that was set before us." He said that watching him eat "gave more delight to the king and queen [than] all the comedies that could have been presented before them." The Japanese, it transpired, were "accustomed to feed with two little sticks ... [and] hold it for a great incivilitie to touch the meat with one's hands." By the end of the meal, the good humor of the Japanese had turned to disdain, and the assembled courtiers "drove away the time at our cost, by jeering and gibing at us." The banquet ended abruptly when a Japanese merchant entered the room carrying a small stash of fake wooden arms. To the uproarious mirth of the courtiers, he explained to Pinto and his men that since their hands "must of necessity smell always of flesh or fish ... this merchandise would greatly accommodate us." Continues... Excerpted from SAMURAI WILLIAM by GILES MILTON Copyright © 2002 by Giles Milton Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.