Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The First Englishman in Japan

The first Englishman who ever lived in Japan stayed there because he could not get away. English seamen have had many strange experiences, but few of them stranger than the events which befell Will Adams when he sailed for the East in 1598, as chief pilot of a fleet of five Dutch vessels.

Will Adams was a native of Kent, was born in 1574, and apprenticed when he was twelve years old to Nicholas Diggins, a pilot. He became a master of his trade and entered the service of the Dutch East India Company, who dispatched a fleet of five sail to the East Indies in 1598, and gave Will Adams the important post of pilot-major. The route followed was by way of the Straits of Magellan, and then across the Pacific. The fleet had a terrible time of it. It met bad weather and enemies: it suffered from fever and scurvy and shortness of rations, and many sailors died. Two of the ships turned back at the Straits and made for home, a third was captured by the Spaniards, and the other two, the Hope  and the Charity, alone started to cross the broad Pacific.

Rough weather was encountered. The Hope  disappeared and was never more heard of; the Charity, of which Will Adams was the pilot, sailed on, but in a desperate condition, for scurvy had reduced her crew until the ship could not be properly handled. Only four on board could stand on their feet: Adams and three others; four more could creep on their hands and knees; the rest were helpless. In this sad state the ship was driven ashore on the island of Kyushu, where the governor of the province in which they landed received them kindly, though most of their goods were plundered by the natives. In a few days some Portuguese came over from Nagasaki, but at that day Portuguese and Dutch were bitter enemies, and, instead of trying to help their fellow-Europeans, the Portuguese told the governor that the refugees were pirates and worthy of death.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


The governor sent word to Ieyasu, and the Shogun gave orders that the men and their ship were to be sent to him. The men were sent in boats to Osaka, near Kyoto, where Ieyasu was living, and Adams and another man were taken up to the great castle there and appeared before the Shogun. Adams, in his letters, calls the Shogun the emperor, a very easy mistake for him to make when he saw the supreme power of Ieyasu. The Shogun had a long talk with Adams, asking him what brought the Dutch ship there, and why the Portuguese were so bitter against them. Adams explained that the Dutch only wished to trade, and that the two nations were enemies at home.

After the interview Adams remained in prison for thirty-nine days, expecting at any moment to be led out to die by crucifixion, since this was the terrible manner in which pirates were put to death. He found afterwards that the Portuguese urged Ieyasu to execute him and his friends, but that the great ruler calmly said that the refugees had done him no harm and he saw no reason to put these men to death because the Portuguese and Dutch were at war with each other.

The Charity  was brought to a port near Osaka, where Adams was allowed to go on board, and finally to Yedo, where the crew were disbanded, dividing among them a sum of money which Ieyasu had given them to make up for the goods that were stolen. Each man went his own way, except Adams, to whom Ieyasu had taken a fancy. That shrewd and able ruler knew a useful man when he saw him, and he kept Adams about his Court. From his own letters we can see that Will Adams was a simple, straightforward Englishman, honest and capable, and soon Ieyasu became so convinced of his worth that Adams was never allowed to return home. The English sailor felt this exile bitterly. He constantly wished to revisit his native land and rejoin his wife and children whom he had left there. He had nothing to complain of in the way of ill-treatment, save this loss of liberty. The Shogun gave him a handsome property, which Adams describes as "a living like unto a lordship in England, with eighty or ninety husbandmen, that be as my slaves or servants."

This estate is also spoken of by Captain Cocks, an English adventurer, who visited Adams in 1616. Cocks says: "This is a lordship given to Captain Adams by the old emperor [he meant Ieyasu, who was then dead], to him and his for ever, and confirmed to his son called Joseph. There are above too farms or households upon it, besides others under them, all of which are his vassals, and he hath power of life and death over them they being his slaves: and he having an absolute authority over them as any king in Japan hath over his vassals." Upon this estate Adams lived with a Japanese wife whom he had married, and their graves are shown to this day on a beautiful hill.

What did Adams do for the Shogun? First of all he built ships for him, to Ieyasu's great delight. Next, he acted as a kind of agent between the Japanese and the foreign traders, who began to appear more frequently on the Japanese coast. Again, Ieyasu would hold long conversations with him, learning all that Adams had to tell him of European affairs. It is believed that he had a house in Yedo, near the Court of the Shogun, for to this day there is a street called An-jin-cho, that is, Pilot Street, and it is said that Adams lived there. He was always spoken of among the Japanese as An-jin-Sama, that is, Mr. Pilot.

Adams had been nine years among the Japanese when some Dutch vessels appeared off the coast. Ieyasu received them in very friendly fashion and agreed to trade with them. The Portuguese did not like this, but Adams stood by his old friends the Dutch and helped them to gain the favour of the Shogun. Two years later, in 1611, the English found their way to Japan. Adams advised and assisted his countrymen so well that they obtained a charter to trade in any port of the empire, and in his latter years he worked for his fellow-countrymen and helped to extend their trade.

It must have been a comfort to the old pilot to hear the good English speech, for he was never to see his native land again. He died in 1620, and his memory was honoured by the Japanese as the founder of their navy. He became a Shinto divinity and is worshipped under the name of "Angin-Haka," and flowers are still placed on his tomb. He left his estate to be divided between his Japanese and English families, and left in his letters a very interesting picture of the Japan of his day—a Japan which was about to disappear from the sight of Europe and to become a hidden kingdom.