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Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan [Hardcover]

Giles Milton
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

13 Jun 2002

In the winter of 1611, a mysterious letter was received by the London merchants of the East India Company. The fact that it came from Japan, a forbidden and unknown land, was a cause of wonder, but even more remarkable was that the writer was an Englishman by the name of William Adams.

Adams had sailed to the East in 1598, but most of his company had died by the time their ship was washed up unexpectedly in Japan. He fell in love with the barbaric splendour of the country and decided to settle. He soon forged a close friendship with the ruthless Shogun Ieyasu, took a Japanese wife and sired a new, mixed-blood family.

However his homesick letter to London inspired the merchants to plan an expedition to the Far East, wishing to trade with the Japanese through Adams' good offices.

SAMURAI WILLIAM illuminates a Jacobean world whose horizons were rapidly expanding, and a Japan that was still unknown to the world.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton; 1st edition (13 Jun 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0340794674
  • ISBN-13: 978-0340794678
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 13 x 4.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 297,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Amazon Review

Other writers have produced biographies of the great adventurers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean age--Drake, Raleigh and their peers--but in Samurai William, as he has done previously, Giles Milton has specialised in rescuing someone who has slipped through the net of history into anonymity. In Nathaniel's Nutmeg and Big Chief Elizabeth he drew attention to minor, but intriguing, figures in the story of England's earliest expansion both eastwards and westwards, bringing them out of dusty archives and into the light of day. In Samurai William he has done the same for William Adams of Limehouse and the book is just as gripping as its predecessors.

Fate carried William Adams a long way from the East London docks amid which he grew up. He joined a voyage to the East, which went disastrously wrong and, in 1600, he was washed up on the shores of Japan, one of the few survivors of the journey and the first Englishman to set foot in the country. Adams was clearly a remarkable man. In a few years he had progressed from shipwrecked castaway to honorary samurai and close advisor to the Shogun, the effective ruler of Japan. When the East India Company, alerted by a letter Adams managed to send, despatched merchants to trade with the Japanese, it was the English samurai who made their mission possible. Adams never returned to England and died in Japan in 1620.

This is an extraordinary story and Milton tells it well. His great gift is that he knows how to highlight those details from the archives that bring both Adams and the long-dead merchant venturers back to life. The secret of Adams's survival was that he adapted readily to Japanese life; the traders did not, as Milton shows us. He records their responses to the wonders of the new civilisation they were encountering but he also quotes the laddish jokes about Japanese women they swapped in letters, the details of their epic boozing and their increasingly desperate attempts to make enough money to keep afloat. It is little wonder that the trading station could not survive without Adams and folded less than three years after his death. Japan was to be a country closed to Europeans for the next two hundred years. The story of Adams and the first contact between England and Japan was forgotten for centuries but, as told in Samurai William, it's one well worth recovering from oblivion. --Nick Rennison


Giles Milton is a man who can take an event from history and make it come alive. Milton's book delivers that most precious of commodities - fun. He has a genius for lively prose, and an appreciation for historical credibility. With Samurai William he has crafted an inspiration for those of us who believe that history can be exciting and entertaining. (Matthew Redhead, Times Play)

Milton's account of this remarkable life is rich in historical detail. It's a page-turner of a book, a good read, an accessible, well-crafted piece of popularised history. (Allan Spence, The Scotsman)

Giles Milton has once again shown himself to be a master of historical narrative. The story of William Adams is a gripping tale of Jacobean derring-do, a fizzing, real-life, Boys' Own adventure underpinned by genuine scholarship. (Katie Hickman, The Sunday Times)

Milton makes the story a compelling one. Lovingly researched and strikingly written (Time Out)

Giles Milton has been assiduous in searching through all the published sources. This is an attractive book. If it brings more readers to the marvellous story of how West discovered East and East discovered West, that's good. (Anthony Thwaite, Sunday Telegraph)

The subject matter of Samurai William is fascinating. Milton can certainly write, and is at his best when imaging the details of say, London's Limehouse district where "in the half-light of dawn, the dockside looked like the skeletal frame of a wrecked galleon". (James Wood, Scotland on Sunday)

An intensely readable account of the first trading missions to Japan. Giles Milton has managed to provide a complex history lesson in the form of an engaging narrative. Anyone interested in the mysteries of the East or in the cultural make-up of the inscrutable Japanese will find this an engaging read. (Alex Meehan, Sunday Business Post (Dublin))

Milton bring his customary panache to his latest work. This is an author who cannot buckle his swash. The basic story needs little gilding from Milton. Milton, however, gives it added breadth and depth by playing his two major trump cards: research and a clear writing style. Samurai William is swash-buckling in its scale and execution but, like its hero, it has quieter, perhaps more substantial traits. (Hugh MacDonald, Glasgow Herald)

Giles Milton again expertly navigating the eastern seas (Economist)

Giles Milton is a great biographer for the unknown. After his well-liked NATHANIEL'S NUTMEG and BIG CHIEF ELIZABETH he turns his painstaking researcher's eye on William Adams. Milton makes the story a compelling one. Lovingly researched and strikingly written. (Time Out)

Milton has produced another superb sortie into the eccentric byways of history (Oxford Times)

The best book this year ... Told with Stevensonian gusto ... A revelation (Jane Gardam, Spectator)

Praise for Giles Milton's previous books:

'A magnificent piece of popular history'

(Independent on Sunday)

Fascinating reading . . . a very thorough and absorbing account of this period, witty and accessible. (Irish Times)

Milton has brought the era to life, conveying nuances of character and the values of the time. (The Sunday Times)

The thoroughness and intelligence of his research underpins the lively confidence with which he deploys it. (The Times Literary Supplement)

Fascinating detail . . . Milton is good at portraying eccentric characters and the Englishmen's shock at the periodic brutality of the Japanese. (The Times Literary Supplement)

Milton couches considerable scholarship in a vivacious and colorful narrative that will appeal to lovers of historical adventure (Publishers Weekly)

Milton gives the exciting story both immediacy and flair ... This is history writing at its finest (Booklist)

Rowdy and riveting ... Milton is a gifted storyteller ... This is the kind of page turner that will keep you up way past your bedtime (Literary Journal)

Fascinating (Good Book Guide)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A window on a clash of cultures 4 July 2002
Giles Milton has produced a compelling book on a unique piece of history. He uses original archive information to produce a 'novel' type of history about a remarkable man, who reached great heights in the pecking order of Japan. Mr Milton's writing style is easy on the brain, yet is full of information and emotion. A first class read, and quite un-put-downable!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The life and times of William Adams 29 Jun 2006
A gripping, well-written account of William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan, and the short-lived attempt by the English to expand its burgeoning Empire to this most unique country. Milton does and excellent job of piecing together the various extent contemporary accounts--including those left behind by Adams himself--into a fascinating story. One will be disappointed, however, if one expects this to be a detailed account of William Adams himself--as far as I know, an impossibility given the amount of material that he left behind. A considerable amount of the narrative deals with trade in East Asia, the workings of the Jesuits in Japan, and the English factory established at Hirado.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Engagingly written history 13 Mar 2003
Giles Milton writes engagingly and knowlegably about an episode of English history which sheds light upon Japanese society in the 1600's. If you are interested in history then this book will provide a fascinating look into a culture and society very different to the Western world, in an interesting and often amusing way. Well worth the read.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Samurai Shipping! 1 Oct 2002
By A Customer
The title of this book is misleading. There is very little information in here about William Adams himself. It centres more on the British/Dutch & Spanish activities in South-Western Japan around the late 16th and early 17th centuries. If you are looking for information on Adams then this is not the best place to get it (whole chunks of his life are left by the wayside in favour of tales of shipping throughout the region by various parties). The book, however, is an entertaining read and worth spending time on, but is not a definitive source on William Adams.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, well written and inaccurate. 7 Jan 2004
By A Customer
Giles Milton's book is certainly a well written piece of pop history and very entertaining. However, if you are looking for accuracy and veracity, this isn't the book to read.
As another reviewer noted, it spends considerable time on the general situation but while doing this it fails to make more than passing mention of Jan Joosten one of Adam's shipmates who held a similar postition in Japan.
It also has a very anglocentric view, uses unreliable sources - as an example, there is no reliable source which actually named Adam's Japanese wife - and imply's many thing's which are simply not true.
So, if you want historical entertainment then this is the text for you, just don't take what you read to be gospel truth.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Popular Historian 21 July 2002
By A Customer
Another Giles Milton history book dressed up as a biography. Not that I am complaining, if all history books were this readable we'd all be historians! I doubt he cares either, as the formula is obviously a successful one.
It is impossible not to draw comparisons with James Clavell's Shogun (I never did get to the end of that one) but I sped through Samurai William and enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps Milton should now take a leaf out of Clavell's book and move on a few hundred years for his next 'biography' before we start getting bored.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars WELL RESEARCHED YET UNFULFILLING 3 Dec 2011
By NeuroSplicer TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Once a month, my wife organizes a thematic weekend around a favorite TV or movie series of ours. November is usually Shogun month. This year I realized that I had not read any books on the real Anji-Sama and this was the book I settled on to remedy this. With mixed results.

The book is very good in giving the surrounding events that preceded and precipitated the arrival of William Adams in Japan. The Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch missionaries and merchants that established the first European landfalls in Japan and then erected obstacles in William's way. And even tried to have him crucified.

It is also a very well researched book, with a full Notes-on-Sources, Index and Picture-Sources sections. By maintaining the original spelling and wording of the source letters, the book conveys an air of authenticity. However, all this does not save it from a mediocre end result.

The life of William Adams (who is the main selling point of this book after all) is only scantily described whereas his rise in the court of Tokugawa Ieyasu (who would later become Shogun and the first of the dynasty that ruled Japan up to the 1860's) is very rapidly passed over.

What we get, instead, is a very detailed account of how the first English Factory (or trading house) of the infamous East Indian Company was established in Japan - and how William Adams aided them in every way he could. However, this is a book I picked up to learn about about the everyday life of Samurai Williams - and not the troubles of...Richard Cocks who was head-factor of said Factory.

Not a bad book altogether. Unfortunately it does not deliver what it promises.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Local hero!
I watched Richard Chamberlain play the role of William Adams in the 70's series "Shogun". A great story, the true Samurai William much more interesting than anything... Read more
Published 5 months ago by m osullivan
5.0 out of 5 stars book
I really enjoyed the book that i bought the rest of the Giles Milton books to read at my liesure
Published 7 months ago by Anne Rae
5.0 out of 5 stars Remember an old TV serial from the 1970s with Richard Chamberlain?
Think the name of the above was Shogun, but this is the original and a very interesting story too. You really were on your own in the far East and letters were unreliable. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Mr. G. P. Emsden
4.0 out of 5 stars the struggle for trade and souls in 17th century Japan
This is an interesting account of the attempts by Europeans, particularly the English,Dutch and Jesuits to establish trading and religious footholds in Japan in the early 1600s. Read more
Published 17 months ago by markr
5.0 out of 5 stars Samurai Williams
Reading this you can see where Clavell got the plot from. A very good book which I can really recommend
Published 18 months ago by George Law
5.0 out of 5 stars Very enjoyable
Yet another very readable and interesting history book from Giles Milton.

This book ties in with Nathaniel's Nutmeg, not that it sets out to do so but there are parts of... Read more
Published on 31 July 2012 by Mr Gordon Davidson
4.0 out of 5 stars Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan.
`Samurai William' recounts the life story of William Adams who was an English mariner who sailed to Japan and who became enraptured with the culture and customs of this intriguing... Read more
Published on 3 Jun 2010 by Spider Monkey
5.0 out of 5 stars a very good read
Fantastic book, favourite quote from the book "The English did not take well to Japanese customs except their love of drinking, at this the English excelled. Read more
Published on 13 Feb 2010 by J. Cooper
5.0 out of 5 stars A very different culture
Milton writes well and makes little known history come alive. In this case it is the European exploration of the Far East for trade with the first Englishman, William Adams, in... Read more
Published on 12 Mar 2008 by G. J. Weeks
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