REVIEW: 'Samurai William' by Giles Milton

  • Updated: January 4, 2003 - 10:00 PM


Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan

By: Giles Milton. Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 338 pages, $24. Review: This vivid, anecdotal history of early contacts between Japan and Europe focuses on a 17th-century English traveler who inspired James Clavell's "Shogun."

Reviewed by Roger K. Miller

Special to the Star Tribune

In "Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan," Giles Milton raises this fascinating question: Why would anyone in early-17th-century Europe risk disease, danger and death a thousand times over to make the bloody awful sea journey to the other side of the world?

One answer, found in Milton's excellent history, is as appalling as the conditions of such journeys: It was better than the alternative at home. Another is that there were fortunes to be made by those with pluck and luck. William Adams, the central figure of Milton's book (and the inspiration for James Clavell's "Shogun"), possessed both.

Born into an impoverished family in 1564, Adams trained as a pilot and shipwright. He made several African trips before the opportunity arose in 1598 to sail with a Dutch fleet in a 19-month voyage that landed him in Japan.

Of five ships, only one made it. Of a crew of about 100, only 24 were -- barely -- alive, and six were near death.

They weren't the first Europeans to come to Japan, but Adams was the first Englishman to penetrate the mysterious country. He rose so high -- to the rank of samurai -- and became so influential that he could affect the fortunes there not only of his fellow Englishmen, but of competing European interests as well, primarily Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese merchants and Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries.

Adams owed his rise to the powerful shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became both his benefactor and captor. Ieyasu, valuing and rewarding Adams' skills and knowledge, did not grant him permission to leave Japan until 13 years after his arrival. The Englishman, consequently, went native, becoming fluent in Japanese, marrying a Japanese woman and raising a family.

Despite the biographical implications of the title, "Samurai William" does not entirely revolve around Adams. It is at least as much a compact general history of 16th-and 17th-century Europe's contacts with Japan, and with the East in general, replete with weird sexual customs, threats of cannibalism (most, but not all, false) and sightings of strange creatures, not a few of them human.

It is also a study of Japanese society, in which "wanton brutality was a way of life." Milton, who previously brought to life another area of the East in "Nathaniel's Nutmeg: The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History," is an expert at selecting the detail that will shock as well as illustrate.

He has plenty to choose from. Samurai warriors thought nothing of testing their razor-sharp swords on criminals, chopping them literally into mincemeat. Torture was commonplace.

Adams, in fact, did not leave Japan until 1620, seven years after he received permission, and died at sea without seeing the wife and daughter he had left in England two decades before. The Land of the Rising Sun once again closed itself off from the world.

But more than two centuries later, when Englishmen again set foot in a reopened Japan, they discovered that Adams' name was still famous throughout the land, and that a section of Tokyo had been named in his honor.

-- Roger K. Miller, who lives in Wisconsin, reviews for the Star Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Inquirer.

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