952: Samurai William by Giles Milton

by Gerard

952.024092: Milton, Giles. Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan. New York: Penguin, 2004. 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-14-200378-7.

If all the books available in my collection for this challenge, I’m heaviest in the 900s. After reading classic fiction for so long for my English degree, I developed a taste for history books. When I compare our day to those of the past, you get an understanding of where we come from from both a sociological and technological standpoint. Today’s history falls squarely in the history sections: 952–History of Japan.

On April 12, 1600, the citizens of the fishing town of Hirado, Japan watched, mouths open, as a strange ship from the East India Company drifted onto their shore. Most of the men were dying from scurvy or dysentery, but one man–William Adams– was strong enough to leave the boat and became the first Englishman to step foot in Japan. Being a stout and resolute ship pilot from England, he began to openly and politely study the Japanese culture and learn how to co-exist with his new surroundings.

For the next twenty years (and one month), we would stay in Japan and watch as new Westerners came and went, sometimes forgetting their manners and embarrassing their homeland. But Adams remained courteous, ingratiating himself with the ruling shogun and earning a lordship. He was even granted the title of hatamoto, equivalent to a samurai consultant to the emperor.

Giles Milton’s Samurai William is brilliantly researched and wonderfully nuanced. The tale is a sad one, however. Once he left England in 1598, Adams never made it back, and many of the Westerners from Portugal, Holland, and England openly defied their host country’s wishes, starting skirmishes and trading factories without properly understanding the culture. Adams may have “gone native,” but he was one of the few Renaissance travelers to become truly cosmopolitan.

It’s a good book, once you get past all the comings and goings of the myriad boats and traders.