One of the defining battles in Japanese history was fought in late October 1600, in a narrow defile between ranges of steep hills, just outside the village of Sekigahara. The stakes were nothing less than the de facto control of the entire country, and came as the climax to decades of bitter feuding by the most powerful feudal overlords, the daimyo. Each of the two sides had marshaled about eighty thousand troops, cavalry and infantry, armed with muskets, spears, bows, and swords, and the fighting was protracted and fierce. The victor was the fifty-eight-year-old head of the Tokugawa family, Ieyasu, already a member of the five-person Council of Regents, who thus cleared the way for his own claim to be the shogun of Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate that he subsequently founded and passed on to his son Hidetada was to endure for two and a half centuries, until the civil war that accompanied Japan’s forced opening to the West in the 1860s.

Shortly before the great battle, Ieyasu had received an extraordinary windfall, no fewer than nineteen heavy bronze cannon, five thousand cannon balls, and five hundred muskets, all stored aboard the Dutch vessel Liefde (“Love”), which in April 1600 had been stranded near Ieyasu’s great domain in eastern Japan. The blinding rainstorm and dense fog that had preceded the battle of Sekigahara probably prevented firearms from playing a central part there, but in the future Ieyasu was to make good use of them, especially in the siege warfare needed to subdue the castles and massed samurai of his remaining enemies.The Liefde was one of a fleet of five Dutch ships that had sailed from Rotterdam in 1598, financed by the Dutch East India Company, for the purpose of breaking the Portuguese stranglehold over the immensely lucrative trade in silk and silver that flowed between China and Japan.

The voyage had been a disaster, and the Liefde was the only one of the five ships to reach Japan. By the time of the ship’s landfall in eastern Japan after a nightmare passage through the Straits of Magellan and across the Pacific, food and water supplies were exhausted, scurvy was rampant, and there were only six men aboard out of the surviving twenty-four who could even walk. That anyone had survived at all appears to have been owing to the brilliant seamanship and unflagging tenacity of the ship’s captain-pilot, a thirty-six-year-old Englishman from Gillingham in Kent, named William Adams.

From one of Adams’s extant letters, we know that he had been apprenticed at the age of twelve to a shipbuilder and navigator in the London docks at Limehouse; by 1588, aged twenty-four, he was skilled enough at his craft to serve as the master of a small English supply vessel ferrying food and munitions to the battle fleet sent by Queen Elizabeth to block the advance of the Spanish Armada. In subsequent voyages Adams acquired an extensive knowledge of the Barbary Coast, along with speaking competence in both Dutch and Portuguese. It was this combination of navigational experience and language skills that had led the Dutch merchants to hire him as one of the five pilots they needed for their fleet.

When Ieyasu received news of the Liefde’s landfall, he ordered the pilot, William Adams, to be brought to Osaka for questioning. The answers were matters of life and death to Adams, since Ieyasu already knew of the amount of arms stored on the ship, and the Portuguese Jesuits—who served as Ieyasu’s interpreters—were anxious to stop any Protestant rivals who might undercut the Catholics’ dominance in Japan, and had informed Ieyasu that Adams and the Liefde’s crew had been guilty of piracy during their journey out, and were certainly not peaceful traders as they claimed. In a later letter to his wife, Mary, Adams recounted what had happened at his meeting with Ieyasu, whom Adams, not surprisingly, thought must be the king of Japan:

The twelfth of May 1600 I came to the great King’s citie, who caused me to be brought into the court, being a wonderfull costly house guilded with gold in abundance. Comming before the King, he viewed me well, and seemed to be wonderfull favourable. He made many signes unto me, some of which I understood and some I did not. In the end there came one that could speake Portuges. By him the King demanded of me of what land I was, and what mooved us to come to his land, being so farre off. I shewed unto him the name of the countrey and that our land had long sought out the East Indies, and desired friendship with all kings and potentates in way of marchandize…. Then he asked me whether our countrey had warres? I answered him yea, with the Spaniards and Portugals, beeing in peace with all other nations…. Thus, from one thing to another, I abode with him till midnight.

Despite this apparently auspicious beginning, Ieyasu remained suspicious, and remanded Adams to a grim Osaka prison for several terrifying weeks. But soon the talks resumed and roamed far afield, even though Ieyasu was preparing for his great battle. Ieyasu had ordered his own seamen to sail the Liefde with its cannon to Osaka, so that he could examine the ship and its contents. When that summer he moved to Edo, present-day Tokyo, where he also had a castle, he ordered the vessel transferred to the port there, along with Adams and the surviving crew. In the dozen years following his victory at Sekigahara, Ieyasu strengthened his hold over the whole country, and had himself declared shogun. And as Adams grew more fluent in Japanese, his conversations with Ieyasu became both wider in scope and more detailed, roaming over global strategy, the reasons for the religious struggles between the Portuguese and Spaniards on the one side and the British and Dutch on the other, navigation, geography, military ordnance, international trade, and shipbuilding.


Ieyasu refused Adams’s repeated requests that he and his surviving men be allowed to return home, but gave them an annual food stipend and allowed them to trade at Hirado and elsewhere. He instructed Adams to build him a ship, and though Adams initially tried to claim he was lacking in the necessary skills, Ieyasu insisted. Eventually Adams completed a design, and with the aid of Japanese craftsmen constructed a vessel of eighty tons, which was later to serve on the trans-Pacific route to the Americas. Adams followed this remarkable feat by building another, larger, vessel.

To Adams himself, who was now known to the Japanese by the name Anjin Sama or Mr. Pilot, Ieyasu granted a fief near Edo, with ninety vassals and their families to serve him. Adams was granted the rank of hatamoto (personal retainer) to Shogun Ieyasu, with free access to the Shogun’s presence, and soon became a trusted intermediary between the Shogun and the few foreigners in the country. When Adams married a local Japanese woman of good family, settled her on his estate, and fathered a son and a daughter by her, Ieyasu granted Adams’s son the right of inheritance to the fief. And when a ship from the English East India Company finally reached Japan’s shores in 1613, Adams was the natural person to negotiate their trading privileges, and to arrange for their audiences with Ieyasu. For the last seven years of his life Adams looked after his own family, worked with the merchants of both the Dutch and the British trading companies, and tried a number of trading ventures of his own in the China seas and in Southeast Asia.


Adams’s story is a grand one, fit to take its place beside any of the engrossing tales of travel, displacement, and personal discovery that pepper the years of Europe’s apparently unending search for trade, religious converts, and empire. In Samurai William Giles Milton presents it with undisguised gusto. His notes and bibliography make it clear that he has absorbed much of the voluminous secondary literature on this period and on Adams himself, and doubtless he also knows of the half-dozen or so historical novels written about Adams’s adventures in Japan over the last century, most famously James Clavell’s Shogun of 1975. But unfazed by these various precursors, Milton sensibly roots his vigorous narrative firmly in the two key sources that contain the most surviving materials on Adams and the Japanese branch of the English East India Company.

Foremost of these is the magnificent edition of transcribed documents compiled by Anthony Farrington and published by the British Library in 1991 (The English Factory in Japan, 1613–23, 1,658 pp. in two volumes). But not far behind in usefulness comes the edition of the voluminous diaries of the garrulous head of the English Factory, Richard Cocks, transcribed by a team of Japanese researchers and published in three English-language volumes in Tokyo in 1980. (Succinct but adequate notes in Milton’s book, bunched by chapter, keep the reader informed of the major sources being consulted.) Not only does Milton adhere closely to these original sources, he is particularly successful in quoting brief passages from them in their own ebullient language, making changes in transcription only where it is absolutely necessary to avoid confusion. The result for the reader is a pleasing blend of distancing and of intimacy.

Milton has already written two historical books on this same general period, one on the spice wars between the English and the Dutch, and the other on the early Elizabethan settlements in North America. Thus he has a good general sense of the wider British context of Adams’s life. He is less at home with some of the other aspects of the story, and readers should not look here for in-depth instruction in Japanese society and governance, or in the finer theological or personal details of Cath- olic missionary enterprise. Indeed some may be irritated by Milton’s focus on gratuitous Japanese violence, and by his constant practice of calling the Jesuits “monks,” which they patently were not, while others may even query if the “samurai” of Milton’s title is the correct rendering for the title of hatamoto that Ieyasu granted to Adams as proof of his trust. But throughout the book readers will find a rich and delightfully varied roster of oddities about British character and behavior.


Here the scene is skillfully set by Milton’s splendid passages on the hunt for the Arctic northern passage to Japan undertaken by the English seamen-adventurers Arthur Pet and Charles Jackman in 1580, for which the great chronicler of England’s global explorations, Richard Hakluyt, served as an informal adviser, urging that the English ships’ captains win the Japanese over by judicious gifts of “marmelade” and other conserves, and make sure that supplies of scented water were kept handy, in order to “besprinkle the guests withall, after their coming aboard.” Readers will learn why raw penguin steaks tasted so good on a harsh winter’s day, why a ship’s master too much “inclined to druncke drincking” chose to conceal “a naked dagger in his codpisse,” the ways that pornographic pictures of Venus and her acolytes might be used to decorate the captain’s cabin and woo the local women visiting shipboard, and how a captain might divert his crew, in the year of grace 1607, by staging a performance of Hamlet on the West African shore.

There are countless striking vignettes of the hazards of travel at the time, and Milton has fun exploring the often disastrous sexual adventures of the British (and also the Dutch) when they were ashore. Though a good many of them settled down with local women in Hirado, others preferred to dally with the local “cabokes” (so named from the mispronunciation of the word kabuki) or from the ladies much given to “frollyke” whom they termed their “dansing bears.” One elderly member of the English merchants, unable to control his appetite for young Japanese women, was warned by a colleague that “you old chipps are most dangerous fuell [when] standing near such tinder boxes.” There are times, indeed, when the English mariners and merchants, with their sexual churlishness, endless search for grog, and uncontrollable tempers, seem to have behaved like an unattractive cross of characters from A Clockwork Orange with soccer hoodlums.

But Milton’s book is also filled with detailed and interesting information about early-seventeenth-century British trade, which cumulatively shows how swiftly fortunes could be lost, and what patience and luck it took to make a decent profit. One of the many surprises, at least to me, in Milton’s account is how astonishingly shoddy and unsuitable for the sophisticated Japanese market were the goods that the East India Company sent to its factors. Milton describes how the British agent at Hirado, Richard Cocks, wrote of this problem in a letter of January 31, 1617, to the London-based merchant directors of the company. In rich and graphic language, Cocks analyzed the “ill-conditioned cargezons of goods” that he was meant to be trying to sell:

Viz. broadcloth, som defaced, rotten and moth-eaten,…lookinglasses, w’ch came in the Thomas, many of them broaken, and all of them soe spotted that they are not vendable; the cony skins and mantels of squerill skins are as bad (or rather worse)…so worm-eaten that all the haire goeth ofe them…. And for the pictures, mappes of citties, provinces, shires & others, they came soe torn, broaken & defaced that they are not worth anything, and the pictures in oyle (to the life) were clapt wet togeather, that in openyng of them all are defaced & noe remedy to amend it.

The goods brought by the Dutch or the Portuguese were infinitely better both in quality and in value, and put the English traders at an enormous disadvantage.

Amid these varied distractions, William Adams made his determined way. Despite his family in Japan, he was constantly aware of his wife, Mary, and his daughter, Deliverance, back in England, and as the years glided past he often wrote the East Indian Company on their behalf, requesting that part of the sums owed to him for his services should be paid out to them for their keep. It is not easy to assess Adams’s character with precision, because he was certainly many different things to many people. Ieyasu clearly came to trust him, but Ieyasu’s son Hidetada was less sure, and refused to renew many of the trade privileges made to the English after his father died in 1616. The four surviving logbooks of Adams’s storm-wracked trading ventures are intriguing, but hardly clear guides to his character, except for demonstrating his enduring faith that good fortune lay just around the corner. Similarly, his thirteen surviving letters show great practical abilities and flexibility, but harbor no deep sense of mystery. Despite his years reflecting on Adams, Giles Milton remains somewhat guarded, writing of the pilot that

his letters reveal a chimerical character whose recklessness and arrogance combined with a quiet charm that could weave its magic in a foreign and an alien land…. Sometimes he was aloof and detached. At other times he was disarmingly honest. His fellow countrymen would confuse his brusque manner with arrogance and accuse him of being haughty. They failed to realize that this was the very quality that had enabled him to survive—and thrive—in the most desperate circumstances.

One answer of course may be that Adams had never been taught to write analytically, and had begun to live his seafaring life at the age of twelve. He had also learned not to waste words in idle speculation. Thus on the Japanese as a people, amid whom he had lived for so long, Adams simply wrote:

The people of the lande good of nature, curteous out of measure, and valliant in warres; justice is severely executed upon the trauns- gressor of the lawe w’thout partiallety; governed in great civillety, I mean not a lande better governed in the worlde by civil pollecy.

Coming from Adams, this can be read as high praise indeed.

Richard Cocks, Adams’s nominal superior (at least as far as East India Company business was concerned), had initially been wary of Adams, and often suspected him of putting the interests of his Dutch friends ahead of those of his own countrymen. But there was no denying Adams’s general probity, and it was certain that the English traders could hardly have survived without his linguistic help and his commercial expertise. Slowly, too, the Englishmen in Japan came to know something of Adams’s other lives. It was in September 1616, a couple of months after Ieyasu’s death, that Cocks and Adams traveled together to Edo, to try to gain renewed privileges for British trade from Ieyasu’s son Hidetada. After some weeks of protracted negotiations, in which they believed they had gained their cherished objectives, the two men rode down to Adams’s estate at Hemi, southwest of Edo, and there for the first time Cocks met “Capt. Adames wife and his two children,” Oyuki, Susanna, and Joseph. Now Cocks could see for himself, unclouded by the class preconceptions of England that so strictly separated the artisan from the gentleman, how Adams—when away from his fellow Englishmen—was indeed the lord of his own domain, with “above 100 farmes or howsehold” at his disposal, over which “he hath power of life and death.” Not only that, but the right of inheritance to the fief by Adams’s Japanese son Joseph had been confirmed by the Shogun.

William Adams fell seriously ill in May 1620, when he was fifty-six, after living in Japan for twenty years. He was with his countrymen in Hirado at the time, not with his Japanese family, and as he rapidly weakened he asked Cocks and one other member of the East India Company to act as his executors. His will (which has survived) was simple: after setting aside enough money to pay his debts, and to make a few simple gifts to friends, he divided the approximately four hundred pounds that he had accumulated between his two families in England and Japan. Soon after Cocks and the others had signed as witnesses, he died. In forwarding the will to the East India Company office in London for probate, Cocks noted that he knew it had been Adams’s private wish that the English share of the inheritance should be divided in two, with one half going to his wife, Mary, and the other portion to his daughter, Deliverance. The reason was that as he neared death Adams had indicated that “yt was not his mind his wife should have all, in regard she might marry an other husband & carry all from his childe.” The other half of the money was to be divided equally between the two Japanese children, Susanna and Joseph, presumably with Oyuki acting as trustee until they were of age.

In his postscript to the East India Company directors, Richard Cocks added a final thought: “I canot but be sorofull for the losse of such a man as Capt. Wm. Adames was, he having byn in such favour w’th two Emperours of Japon as never was any Christian in these p’rtes of the worlde.” Thanks to Giles Milton’s taut and entertaining book, one is inclined to agree with Cocks’s parting judgment.

This Issue

April 10, 2003