Monday, June 13, 2016

What I'm Reading: Samurai William

Samurai William: The Englishman Who Opened Japan

by Giles Milton

Milton's book starts out in 1611, when the merchants of London's East India Company received a mysterious letter from Japan, written several years previously by a marooned mariner off a Dutch ship, an Englishman named William Adams. Access to Japan by Europeans was very limited, yet Adams had been living in this unknown land for years. He had risen to the highest levels in the ruling shogun's court, taken a Japanese name, and was now offering his services to the English king as adviser and interpreter.

Now instead of some guy named William Adams, you might think the first Englishman to enter Japan was this guy...
...Richard Chamberlain as John Blackthorne. 

But if you though that, you would (a) be wrong and (b) be old enough to remember the 1975 miniseries, Shogun. James Clavell based his book (which was turned into a miniseries) on William Adams.

The book includes a lot of material about exploration in the period and includes material on failed attempts to reach Japan and the East via a northwest passage and even a northeast passage route above Russia. (That was news to me and such an attempt would make a great hook for an Arctic sea voyage. I was also surprised at how ruthlessly violent trade was in the Far East. Massacres of English traders by the Dutch - nominally allied with the English - to attempt to limit the spice trade; and scheming by the Portuguese and the Spanish, and their Jesuit advisors, to keep Protestants out of the East; and Dutch assassins. At times it seems to gonzo to be actual history. 

For RPG players, William Adams's rise from a common London origin, to navigator on a Dutch ship, to friend and advisor to the Shogun of Japan is a great example of true life zero to hero.

The author uses a lot of original writing by the various principles, while that is great from a primary source perspective, it does make the book somewhat scattered in its point of view. But overall, Milton provides an interesting story and useful nuggets of fact about a little known (at least in the West) person, place, and time.

I give it 3 out of 4 stars.

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