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4.3 out of 5 stars
Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan
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21 of 21 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. 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
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 29 June 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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 December 2011
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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 1 October 2002
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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 13 March 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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 8 December 2014
What a great read! As a pilot on a Dutch fleet, William (then still William Adams, no samurai yet) endures a horrific journey all the way from Rotterdam to the Pacific. Just as the last crew are about to expire, they make landfall in Japan - an almost unknown country at the time (1600). Clearly William must have had tremendous social skills, to the point that he actually managed to work his way up into Japan's highest circles (despite his initial lack of knowledge of etiquette!). This was even more impressive as Portugese jesuits (the Portugese had been around in Japan for half a century already) did their worst to have him and his other crew members killed to prevent them from contaminating Japan with their protestant heresy. Thankfully this scheming came to nothing & in fact it was the jesuits who got booted out themselves as they overstayed their welcome & became too arrogant and overbearing.

The fact that the Japanese actually chose which Westerners they wanted around (and which ones they wanted out) provides a striking contrast with many other countries that got 'discovered' and where the natives were easily subdued. It appears from the book that Japanese civilisation had such a level of development (and this despite the country just going through a bad spell of anarchy and civil wars) that even the least politically correct sailors and discoverers tended to be full of admiration for how well the country was organised, the quality of roads, the beauty of the women, the discipline of the soldiers etc. In order to succeed, Westerners had to adapt, which meant not only learning to wear a kimono but also to master the elaborate court rituals.

I won't give away any of William's adventures; suffice it to say that this is a very enjoyable, compact book that I greatly recommend.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 7 January 2004
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
`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 land. Adams is the man who James Clavell based his book `Shogun' on and there are many parallels between the lives of Adams and Blackthorne in that book. This reads like a novel and I was surprised just how gripping and readable this was. It has stories of sea-life adventure, international travel and exploration, Japanese culture and history and life along the trade routes of the East India Company. There are illustration dotted throughout the book which show various aspects of the book superbly. Not only is this a fascinating history of a remarkable man, but it also a history of world trade during Elizabethan/Jacobean times and afterwards. As information on Adams is a little sparse this also covers general life at the time, as well as the aforementioned global trade and religious conflict in Japan, but this doesn't detract from the wealth of knowledge on offer or the enjoyment of the book at all. If you have an interest in Japan then I'd suggest you take a look at this and if you enjoyed `Shogun' then snap this up and revel in a tale of similarly epic and inspirational proportions.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 25 March 2013
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. it makes for entertaining reading throughout, with tales of shipwrecks, tropical disease, and culture clashes interwoven with the attempts of settlers to build trade and to enrich themselves.

The parts of the book about William Adams, and his remarkable rise in Japan from imprisoned shipwreck victim to Samurai rank as personal advisor to the Shogun, were for me the most interesting, and I was al little disappointed that there was much less of this in the book the I had inspected. There is much more about the lives, pleasures and struggles of English settlers who attempted to operate a factory on the shores of Japan that there is about Adams life.

Overall though this is is a very enjoyable book, which paints a clear picture of the inter European struggle for trade and converts in Japan, and the relationships between the various European groups and the Japanese hierarchies.

I enjoyed this but would have welcomed more information about William Adam's remarkable rise and influence in the Japanese court
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 12 March 2008
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 Japan during the early 17th century. Japan was a mixture of an advanced civilisation combined with cruel brutality They were held back by their inability to build ocean going ships.. When Adams arrived, his European earlier arrivals, Portuguese Jesuits, wanted him crucified lest his Protestant heresy infect the country. Adams proved a suvivor becoming a trusted advisor of the Japanese leader. He was able to aid the British traders of the East India Company who came later. H has them spared from the terrible persecution of the Catholics which cane as Japan reacted against foreign influence. British traders were also in conflict with the Dutch. Most traders were sexually immoral, often given to drink and self interest. Adams stood out as the one man to be really accepted by Japan. This is a great account of brave mariners and a strange country.
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