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"A man tough as salt pork and bred to survive hardship."
on 18 February 2003
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. Though he clearly does not agree with the sense of quick justice, the immediate executions, and the brutality carried out by the Japanese in the name of justice, Milton graphically illustrates his admiration and appreciation of their courage and sense of honor, their loyalty and respect for authority, their diligence, their beautifully constructed and aesthetically pleasing gardens, and the grandeur of the palace in Edo (now the Imperial Palace in Tokyo), along with more mundane characteristics, such as their concern for hygiene and bathing and their medical practices (including acupuncture).
He sets up dramatic contrasts with the mores of the Europeans, clearly illustrating the much higher level of "civilization" that existed in Japan without the influence of the west, and it is easy to see why Ieyasu's grandson eventually banned all westerners in order to preserve his own society. Though Samurai William Adams is the real-life role model for James Clavell's Shogun, I found him far more true to life and interesting in this book. Neither romanticized nor idealized, he exists here as a man with flaws, often speaking in his own voice. His life as a seaman and his life in Japan are fascinatingly portrayed, attesting both to Milton's scholarship and his imagination as he recreates successfully the two cultures and societies in which Adams lived two very different lives. Mary Whipple