Born on this day in 1564 William Adams was the first Englishman to reach Japan, and one of the few westerners to become a Samurai. Immortalised by James Clavell in the novel (and TV series) Shogun.
When his father died he was aged only 12 and was apprenticed to a shipyard, where he learned the skills that later allowed him to build Western Style ships for the Shogun of Japan.
He served in the Royal Navy in the war against Spain, as Master of a supply ship during the fight against the Armada. In 1598 he joined a flotilla of five Dutch merchant ships on a trading exploration voyage to Japan. They predated the foundation of the Dutch East India Company.
Adams was hired as “Pilot Major” of the fleet, a navigator.
They were hunted and harried by both Spanish and Portuguese in their voyage, who wanted to protect their monopolies in Africa, South America and the Pacific Islands.
One ship of the five made it to Japan, carrying only 23 men who were sick or dying. Of these only 9 recovered their health.
Portuguese Jesuits, already in Japan tried to have the Dutch and English Protestant sailors killed as pirates. The Japanese had other plans for them. They invited the Dutch to open a trading post at Nagasaki in competition with the Portuguese.
Adams built a fleet of Western Ships for the Shogun which allowed the Japanese to expand their trade in Asia. While Adams was honoured with Samurai status and given a large farm complete with the retainers to maintain it, he was never permitted to return home.
He married a Japanese girl and had a second family, his original wife and children being in England. As a Samurai he was “reborn” and given the name Miura Anjin.