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Book Review – Anjin: The Life & Times of Samurai William Adams

This is a fantastic book about William Adams/Miura Anjin which aims to tell his story “through Japanese eyes.” A must-read for anyone who wants to live in Japan.

Anjin – The Life & Times of Samurai William Adams 1564-1620

Hiromi T. Rogers

I’ve always called William Adams, better known in Japan as Miura Anjin, the patron saint of foreigners living in Japan. Although I didn’t know it was partly based on a true story, the first time I got some idea about his life was when I watched the nine-hour mini-series SHŌGUN with my family as a child1. The show was quite an event2 and starred Mifune Toshirō as the shōgun Toranaga and Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne, an intrepid sailor turned confidant of the ruthless samurai warlord.

It was only later in life that I found out that there was a real English sailor who came to Japan in 1600 and soon earned the trust of the daimyō controlling the Eight Kantō Provinces (and future first ruler of the Edo Shōgunate), Tokugawa Ieyasu. In order to survive, he quickly adopted Japanese dress, manners, and lifestyle ingraining himself into the Japan of his times. The shōgun rewarded him by making him a direct retainer and gave him a fief in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture (the Miura coast) and granted him all rights and privileges of that rank. That is to say, Ieyasu made William Adams (now Miura Anjin) a high-ranking samurai and welcomed him into the nascent court of his newly established national government.

The reason I call Miura Anjin the patron saint of foreigners living in Japan is because he is the first well-attested westerner to “go native.”3 He learned the language from scratch. He respected the culture and immersed himself in it. And he seems to have looked down other foreigners who failed to or refused to do the same (more about that later). In short, he is an early model of every long-term resident of Japan I know today. There are so many similarities, except the rest of us poor schleps don’t get samurai status.

Anyhoo, back in 2004, I read Samurai William by Giles Milton which, besides a sketchy Wikipedia entry4, was pretty much the only accessible book on the subject. However, this summer I learned that I was late to the party on the 2016 book Anjin: The Life & Times of Samurai William Adams 1564-1620 by Hiromi T. Rogers which aims to tell the story through Japanese eyes5. The publisher is Renaissance which I know is an academic press that puts out a lot of scholarly books on Asian studies, particularly Japan. So, I figured it was about time to refamiliarize myself with Miura Anjin’s story, especially if this book promises to deliver a more Japanese perspective.

Quick Review

What I ExpectedWhat I Got
Overall ImpressionThere are very few accessible English books on William Adams, so I’m looking forward to learning about him “through Japanese eyes.” I expect to learn a lot of new things about the guy.This book is well-researched and heavy on details that other accessible print and online sources omit. The book is not told exclusively “through Japanese eyes” – only when the story requires it. I was impressed that there’s an endorsement by Koizumi Jun’ichirō6 following the table of contents.
Type of BookThe publisher is well known for academic books, so I expect this to not be a standard biography, but a scholarly one.It’s a biography, but reads like narrative history with a dash of historical fiction.
ReadabilityThis is my first time to read a book by Hiromi Rogers, so I have no idea what to expect.Easy to read. It’s written in plain English appropriate for narrative history and doesn’t read like a stuffy academic book.
BiasIf you’re interested enough in a person to write a biography about them, I suspect you’ll be biased in their favor.Yeah, so… there’s no real bias here except towards the story. Rogers doesn’t even demonize the Jesuits who wanted Adams crucified7.
AudienceProbably not mainstream. I imagine this is a book for academics interested in the late Azuchi-Momoyama Period, early Edo Period. Because of James Clavell’s book and the infamous miniseries SHŌGUN, I suspect nerdy foreigners who live in Japan may be interested in this book, but I don’t know if it’s written with them in mind.I think this book was written for anyone interested in William Adams’ story. Like I said, it’s well-researched and goes into quite specific detail at time, but it doesn’t act like an academic book. Given that there are really only two books about the man’s life, I’d probably say go with this one because it’s newer and enjoys the benefit of a Japanese perspective.
Stars★★★★☆

A Fascinating Biography of a Fascinating Adventurer

Rogers begins the book explaining her passion for the story of William Adams. Although born and raised in Tōkyō’s historic Shiba district, she’s a long-term resident of England. Just as the navigator struggled to find his way in a distant land, so to the author had to come to terms with her adopted country. Like many foreigners who live long-term in Japan, Rogers also found a kindred spirit and inspiration in the story of this openminded English adventurer.

In my Quick Review, I described Anjin: The Life & Times of Samurai William Adams as narrative history with a dash of historical fiction. I feel I have to address this right away8, as a lot of people may find this off putting at first. Rogers calls this her “two-horse approach.” Normally, I would turn my nose up at any historical fiction that isn’t by Shiba Ryōtarō, but the author isn’t given to random flights of fancy and doesn’t inject ridiculous speculative emotion or contrived conversations. Rather, she uses the occasional fictionalization to set the mood – to paint a picture with words, if you will. Actually, the book opens with an imagined tea ceremony enjoyed by only Tokugawa Ieyasu and Miura Anjin. She conjures up the accompanying sights, sounds, and smells. This opening scene, while fiction, is entirely plausible. It transports us back to Japan in the opening decade of the 1600’s and immediately establishes the intimate rapport shared by the shōgun and the English navigator. This sort of vignette or digression from the historical narrative illustrates the customs of the times and often the “otherness” of Japanese society that Adams had to deal with and acclimate to over his 20 odd years in the country.

As a lover of the history of Edo-Tōkyō, what really appealed to me was Rogers’ description of pre-Sekigahara Edo. Her description of Edo Castle9 is spot on with how I imagine it. She also nails the look of the castle town in its early days, including the new canals and land reclamation projects in the Hibiya estuary as well as the moated commoner districts of Nihonbashi and Ginza. Although I had never thought of it before, she is right in assuming that Adams would have found Edo at this time to be a little backwards compared to more established Azuchi-Momoyama castle towns with their impressive white and black castles with unscalable stone walls. It’s also pointed out that Adams would have experienced the condition of the Ancient Tōkaidō before Ieyasu became shōgun and created the wide, graveled Tōkaidō we associate with the Edo Period10.

Rogers also does a great job of showing that Ieyasu and Adams established a good rapport almost immediately. Even before meeting Adams, it’s clear that Ieyasu was distrustful of the Jesuits by their constant attempts to influence the laws of the Japanese provinces11. Adams comes off as a very neutral and matter of fact guy (ie; he didn’t try to inject himself into Ieyasu’s policy making) and it seems fairly clear that the future shōgun appreciated this humble attitude. Such humility and restraint of ego were samurai virtues – qualities still valued in modern Japan culture.

Two Japanese voices appear prominently in Rogers’ research. First, Sukeji, a fisherman from Uraga who befriended Adams at age 13 and later in life became a teacher12. Second, Miura Jōshin, a rice merchant from the Miura Peninsula who lived in Odawara-chō (Nihonbashi) with Adams13. The memoirs of both writers give a distinctly Japanese take on Adams’ “otherness.” For example, Sukeji, a mere lower-class laborer commented how Adams, an elite foreigner in the employ of a daimyō14, walked side-by-side with him in the streets. To us this doesn’t seem noteworthy, but in the rigid hierarchy of the time, Adams should have walked silently in front of Sukeji, not even acknowledging his presence. He also mentions that Adams enjoyed Kabuki (which was still performed by women at this time15) and this surprised Sukeji16. From Jōshin’s memoirs we get another peak into Adam’s involvement in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rise to power. Contemporary records of the Battle of Sekigahara don’t mention the use of cannons17, but it’s generally accepted that cannon and muskets were used (these technologies were in fact embraced by the strongest warlords). However, Jōshin wrote that William Adams not only provided Ieyasu with 19 Dutch cannons, he oversaw the aiming and firing of these batteries. This illustrates one more reason Ieyasu valued Adams: he had helped him win the decisive battle that made him the dē factō ruler of all Japan and paved the way for his attaining the title shōgun. The inclusion of these and other Japanese sources are what really make this retelling of William Adams’ story so good.

Rogers also paints a very clear picture of how the shōgunate worked in the early days. When I think of “the Edo Period” as a general concept, I think of everything from the regency of the fourth shōgun, Ietsuna, until the final days of the fourteenth shogun, Iemochi (1651-1866)18. At that time, the government was extremely formal and audiences with the shōgun himself were increasingly ritualized and rarified. But in the early days, things were a looser. Ritual court practices hadn’t developed yet and they were creating standards as they went along. Thus, Adams was able to form a real bond with Ieyasu and some of the other daimyō and high-ranking samurai in the new government. Surely this would have been impossible by the 1650s. The early days of the Edo Period just feel different, and Rogers does a good job of conveying that if you’re a reader with a decent grasp on the era.

Other details caught my attention. A boat traffic jam in Ōsaka – something I can picture vividly in mind. The amount of traffic on the Tōkaidō after Sekigahara. Things that happened back in England that Adams totally missed, such as the death of Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare’s most active years19. Also, I can totally relate to a thoroughly Japanized Miura Anjin feeling disappointed and embarrassed by his fellow Englishmen refusing to learn the customs, manners, and language of Japan. When he took his compatriots to Kamakura, one can only imagine his horror as they shouted curses at the Daibutsu (Big Buddha) and wrote graffiti inside the it20. On subways, I often won’t sit or stand next to other foreigners for fear that if they do something obnoxious, I’ll be guilty by association. I know I’m not alone in this gaijin casting shade on other gaijin in Japan thing. It goes on all the time today, and Anjin experienced this first.

The author also does a great job at pointing out how utterly incompetent and conniving the employees of the English East India Company were. Sure, these guys were probably great at working on boats but they had zero business acumen and an even worse sense of diplomacy. Most of them come off as greedy and, quite frankly, annoying. It’s no wonder that Adams, though working hard on their behalf, seems to have been disillusioned by his fellow Englishmen.

One guy who was all ego and no common sense, Captain John Saris, irritated William Adams (and to be fair, Adams likewise irritated Saris) because of his obsession with drinking and whoring. He also seems to have not cared about doing things the Japanese way so much so that he breeched court etiquette during an audience with Ieyasu which could have doomed his mission and would have reflected very badly on Anjin.

Interestingly, Saris was passionate about accumulating an extensive stockpile of Eastern erotica, including prints from Japan. His stash was discovered in London by Sir Thomas Smythe, governor of the English East India Company and treasurer of the Virginia Company. Smythe was a Puritan21 and he freaked out when he stumbled across Saris’ massive porn collection. Clearly unaware of the Streisand Effect, he reported his discovery to the management of the East India Company and “in order to avoid scandal” held a public burning in which Saris’ entire assemblage of dirty pictures was destroyed in front of the whole city. I don’t know why, but this little side story had me laughing so hard.

Issues

With all the books I review, I can be a little nitpicky. One minor issue I had with the book is that Ieyasu is sometimes referred to in the text and chapter titles as “shōgun” despite not actually becoming shōgun until Chapter Six22. Also, and this is merely a personal preference on my part, maybe nobody else cares about it, but Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s title of kanpaku (imperial regent) is consistently rendered into English as governor-general. Again, this is just my personal feeling, but I dislike when Japanese titles are translated as things like “chamberlain” or “chancellor” because these are distinctly British terms that have no meaning in the context of Japanese history. As an American, I don’t even know what those terms mean in a British context. “Governor-general” is a similarly meaningless term. Although, to be fair, Rogers does write “Kanpaku/Imperial Regent or governor-general” in a footnote. I just think “imperial regent” is so easy to understand, it’s the better translation.

And lastly, there are a number of standardization issues throughout the book. For example, Hidenobu Oda for Oda Hidenobu, Hideyori Toyotomi for Toyotomi Hideyori; Itoh for Itō, Ôtsu for Ōtsu, etc. Let me be clear: none of these are mistakes. It’s just a question of picking a standard and sticking to it. I don’t fault the author with this. Rather, an editor or proofreader should have caught these. They don’t detract from the book and I’m sure they will be fixed in the third edition. And hey, anyone who’s read my website has probably found more misspellings than any human can count, so I’m not blameless either.

Conclusion

In short, I really had a lot of fun reading Anjin: The Life & Times of Samurai William Adams. Rogers’ take on the story of Miura Anjin brings some refreshing Japanese perspectives to his story. While sympathetic to the navigator’s gradual adoption of an alien culture, she also shows us that despite achieving prestigious rank and privilege in feudal Japan (unmatched by any other foreigner ever), some Japanese around him exoticized him or simply found him “useful.” Indeed, Adams seems to have forged strong friendships (I believe his relationships with Sukeji, his wife O-yuki, and even the shōgun Ieyasu were genuine), but when finally joined by other Englishmen, his Japanization prevented him from relating to them in the same way he might have prior to his arrival in Japan. To his compatriots, he was seaman, a navigator. In Japan, he was a samurai and expected to behave like one and accept the responsibilities associated with that rank.

As a long-term resident of Japan, I found myself at first rooting for Adams, then identifying with him, yet in the end, I sort of felt sorry for him. The expulsion of all mixed-blood children including Adams’ illegitimates in the 1630’s, the early death of his first-born son and heir, Joseph, and the promulgation of the edicts that effectively closed off Japan for the next 200 years make for a bittersweet epilogue. Rogers telling of his story frames the undeniable impact William Adams/Miura Anjin had on establishing the Edo Period, yet the Edo Period was one of Japan’s Golden Ages that had no need of him. He was a stranger in a strange land. The right person in the right place at the right time. And to all many of us who have made Japan our home, he’s a reminder that living abroad is an adventure colored by many ups and downs.

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  1. The epic made-for-TV movie which aired in 1980 was, in turn, based on the 1975 best-selling novel of the same name by James Clavell.

  2. There were only something like five channels at the time, so pretty much everyone in America watched it.

  3. By most accounts, until quite recently, westerners before and after Adams insisted on special exemptions from participating in Japanese culture. Sure, they liked the prostitutes, but few chose to Japanize and participate in the culture. The dictionary and Hiromi Rogers both point out that the term “go native” is a legacy term from the British Empire and has a negative connotation. I’m American and I never thought the term had a negative nuance. Then again, I’m a huge believer in the philosophy “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

  4. Back in 2004, there were very few articles on Japanese historical personages. And most of them were pathetic. Samurai Archives had a modest but decent entry on Miura Anjin at the time. Both the Wiki page and the Samurai Archives page have been greatly expanded since then.

  5. In fact, “as seen through Japanese eyes” is the subtitle of the book.

  6. Koizumi was Prime Minister of Japan from 2001-2006. I moved to Japan during the Koizumi years.

  7. If I wrote this book, I would totally demonize those guys. Just sayin’.

  8. Rogers herself also addresses this right away in her preface.

  9. Also known as Chiyoda Castle. At the time Ieyasu took over the “castle,” it was little more than a glorified fort with earthen walls and a single moat. It was originally built by the Edo clan, then later refortified and by samurai bad ass Ōta Dōkan for the Uesugi clan. Since the time of the Uesugi, castle building technology had leapt forward dramatically with castles now serving dual purposes: protecting the local lord and displaying his authority and elegant taste. When Adams first saw Edo Castle it was probably a dump undergoing many renovation projects.

  10. Improving and maintaining a sophisticated network of highways was one of Ieyasu’s greatest achievements as this allowed commerce and culture to emanate from the capital at Edo and for merchants and provincial lords to come into the city from the various domains.

  11. For example, they constantly urged Ieyasu to crucify William Adams and his crew.

  12. One is compelled to infer that Sukeji’s time spent with this curious foreigner opened his mind to a world larger than most Japanese would ever know, especially a commoner like him. This is purely conjecture on my part, but I think after the isolationist policy began in the 1630’s, Japan wouldn’t see teachers like Sukeji until the Bakumatsu.

  13. Adam’s mansion in Edo was located in Odawara-chō. The name Odawara-chō isn’t used anymore. Today the area is called Anjin-chō after Miura Anjin. Odawara-chō’s name derives from Odawara Domain, ruled by the Ōkubo clan, which controlled the Miura Peninsula (including Anjin’s fief). Ieyasu ordered Odawara to pay for the development of that neighborhood, hence the name and the connections to Miura Jōshin and Miura Anjin.

  14. At this time Ieyasu was not shōgun.

  15. Many of the dancing actresses were also sex workers, so that might have had something to do with the appeal.

  16. I’m not sure why this surprised him. Sukeji was unaware of non-Japanese theater so he had nothing to compare Kabuki to except Noh. But perhaps he sensed that the stylized language, often archaic, was beyond the comprehension of foreigners. Today, many Japanese have expressed surprise when I tell them I love Kabuki, especially if they’ve never seen Kabuki themselves lol.

  17. The author points out that records from the late 1600’s do state cannon were used.

  18. The last shōgun, Yoshinobu, was kind of a unique guy who was keenly aware that things were changing quickly. His style of rule and composure was quite different from his predecessors.

  19. Rogers points out that William Adams probably had never heard of Shakespeare despite being contemporaries.

  20. Some of this graffiti is still visible today, by the way.

  21. And a racist and a bigot…

  22. Adams arrived in Japan in 1600. That same year, Ieyasu won the Battle of Sekigahara the same year and became the dē factō ruler. It wasn’t until 1603 when he received the title of shōgun.

10 replies on “Book Review – Anjin: The Life & Times of Samurai William Adams”

OMG. I love the book ‘Shogun’ and I love the story of William Adam’s. I taught English in Japan for 2 years in 2006 when Koizumi was Prime Minister.

When you call him the patron saint of foreigners in Japan I totally get it. Yes!! I never thought of his story as bitter sweet, so this book will be my Christmas present to me! Thank you for your review!

I bought the Milton book about 06-07. It was the only book on Amazon about Anjin. I couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t a Japanese story. I love your example of the fisherman boy and how Anjin treats him like an equal. When you say the Edo Period didn’t need Anjin anymore I almost cried. Now I think I’ll find my DVD of Shogun and watch it tomorrow. That’s what weekends are for!

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