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Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan Hardcover – January 18, 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 77 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

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
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st American ed edition (January 18, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374253854
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374253851
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,278,147 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on February 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
When William Adams and his dying crew arrived in Japan in 1600, after nineteen months at sea, they became the first Englishmen ever to set foot on what was, for them, a completely uncharted, unknown land. The duplicitous Portuguese, who had already set up a trading post there, informed the Japanese that Adams and his men were pirates, and the Japanese imprisoned Adams for six weeks, but they did not crucify him, a common punishment in those days. Tokugawa Ieyasu, the most important ruler of the country, had been impressed, both with Adams's navigational skills and with his frank admission of dislike of the Portuguese and Jesuits, who were undermining the political and military stability of the Ieyasu's domain.
After learning the Japanese language, adopting Japanese customs and dress, and maintaining an unfailingly respectful demeanor, Adams became Ieyasu's interpreter, becoming so valuable to him that he was accorded samurai status and rewarded with a large country estate. Stranded in Japan with no means of escape, Adams became "Japanese." When English ships finally arrived more than ten years later, Adams helped them establish bases and become trusted trading partners, but he never returned "home," living his remaining 23 years in Japan, an honored and much respected man.
In this extremely fast-paced historical narrative, Milton uses primary sources to show how Japan came to be "discovered," what its values and culture were, and why the intrusion of the Europeans and the lure of trade were eventually rebuffed and the country "closed" in 1637.
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Format: Hardcover
Samurai William is a very interesting tale about William Adams, an Englishman who had a small, but important, impact on Japanese history. For readers familiar with James Clavell's "Shogun", William Adams is the man that "Anjin-san" is based on.
The main problem I had with this book is Milton's nearly complete absence of Japanese sources. Adams' appearance and involvement in Japanese politics must have provoked rather significant reactions from the leading Japanese leaders of the time, but Milton sadly does not deal with this story from the Japanese side at all. Additionally, in the British edition of this book at least, there are several mistakes regarding the Japanese culture and the language. Most humorously, he refers to "bannermen" as "hamamoto" when he means "hatamoto." A "hamamoto" might best be called a "beachman," which I assume Milton did not intend. Hopefully this type of mistake was caught before the American version was printed. I would imagine many of these mistakes are due to Milton's over-reliance on old European sources and unfamiliarity with the Japanese culture.
Milton is clearly a writer first and a historian second. As such, the line between fact and fiction is somewhat vague at times. Nevertheless, this is a very interesting book. Just remember that it is not always an entirely accurate one.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When I was gathering material to complete my review on Mr. James Clavell's "Shogun" I saw a reference to this book and can't resist the temptation to bought it and read it. After finishing reading it I was amazed by how deeply Mr. Clavell has grasped this exotic environment in his novel.

Mr. Milton has thoroughly researched the contemporary European sources to build this book. He took into account the diary & letters from William Adams (the historical character on which Clavell's book was based), Richard Cock, the chief English Factor at Hirado (Japan), Captain John Saris and other Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese sources. As other reviewers have pointed out, Japanese sources are omitted. This in my opinion, is not a great setback, because the author is telling the story of the hundred year relationship between Europeans and Japanese from the Europeans stand point of view, and he doesn't claim otherwise.

The amazement and shock, that such a different culture generated on these seamen and merchants is shown in their own words. In one hand the higher cultural level, reflected in the cleanness, sophistication and demeanor of the Japanese, seduce them. In the other hand the harsh justices applied: deaths for minor and major faults, without appellation or mercy, appall them.

The spicy language used by William Adams and his fellow merchants is shown, with minor standardization in order to render it intelligibly for modern readers, recreating their environment and mindset. The book is very entertaining and provides a colorful sight of that historical period and place.

Enjoy this reading!

Reviewed by Max Yofre.
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By A Customer on January 9, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I agree with the previous reviewer. There is a distinct lack of Japanese sources and some careless errors with Japan-related words, places, etc. It would have been very interesting to see how members of the court, etc. took to this Englishman entering their ranks.
Also, the book basically skips from Adams being washed up on shore to him becoming a member of the court. I don't know if it's because Adams neglected his diary for a period or what, but it would have been fascinating to find out just how Adams learned Japanese, made his connections, etc. Further, the author obviously has a soft spot for Adams. Whenever somebody doubts or disagrees with Adams, the author finds some vindication for the protaganist to prove that the other party was in error.
That said, the book was a good read. The writing flowed and the insight into the English/Dutch involved in the East Asia trade was interesting.
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