Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan

Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan

by Giles Milton

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374706234
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 01/18/2003
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 1,161,542
File size: 11 MB
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About the Author

Giles Milton is the author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (FSG, 1999), Big Chief Elizabeth (FSG, 2000) and The Riddle and the Knight (FSG, 2001). He lives in London.

Giles Milton is the internationally bestselling author of eleven works of narrative history. His most recent book is Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy: How the Allies Won on D-Day. His previous work, Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, is currently being developed into a major TV series. Milton’s works published in twenty-five languages include Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, serialized by the BBC. He lives in London and Burgundy.

Read an Excerpt

Samurai William

The Englishman Who Opened Japan

By Giles Milton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2002 Giles Milton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70623-4



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 diverging it."

Indeed it would. Pinto was an adventurer extraordinaire—an outlandish fidalgo. or nobleman—whose flamboyant costumes 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 ill-hap 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."

Pinto's first visit to Japan came to an end after a couple of months at Otomo's court. He had been fascinated by the richness and splendor of Japan and, although his account often reads like a medieval fable, it gave the world its first eyewitness description of the country. It also provided a graphic illustration of the amazement that would soon be shared by those who followed in Pinto's 's footsteps. One newcomer would write home with the shocking news that the Japanese were a superior race in almost every respect: "You should not think that they are barbarians," he said, "for apart from our religion, we are greatly inferior to them."

Pinto survived his time in Japan by a mixture of bluff, bravado, and cheery good humor. Confined to the fiefdom of Bungo and never straying far from the coastline, he seemed unaware that sixteenth-century Japan was one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The Land of the Rising Sun was in the grip of the terrible sengoku jidai—the era of civil wars—in which power was determined by military prowess. "Men chastised and killed each other," wrote one early European visitor, "banished people and confiscated their property as they saw fit, in such a fashion that treachery was rampant and nobody trusted his neighbour."

The land was nominally ruled by an emperor, the self-styled Lord of Heaven, who lived in splendid isolation in the city of Kyoto. In the golden age of medieval Japan, he had presided over a vast hierarchy of courtly ladies and chamberlains who spent their waking hours indulging in aesthetic pursuits. Now, with the imperial coffers empty, many nobles had abandoned such ceremonial amusements and had withdrawn to the provinces, leaving the emperor to fend for himself. His palace was described by one Japanese chronicler as being indistinguishable from a peasant hovel; his remaining courtiers scratched a living by selling autographed verses and peddling antiques in Kyoto's back streets. Abdication was impossible, for the court could not afford the expense of the necessary rites and rituals. When the emperor Go-Tsuchimikado died in 1500, his rotting corpse remained unburied for six weeks due to the parlous state of the royal finances. The emperor currently on the throne, Go-Naratenno, fared only slightly better. His coronation had to be delayed for nine years because of insufficient funds. Even when he was enthroned, he was a puppet without any power. "The true king," wrote one, "but obeyed by no one.


Excerpted from Samurai William by Giles Milton. Copyright © 2002 Giles Milton. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Chapter 3 - ALL AT SEA,
Chapter 13 - LAST ORDERS,
A Note on Spelling,
Notes and Sources,
Copyright Page,

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