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In the year 1600, when William Shakespeare was just 36 years old, William Adams became the first Englishman to reach Japan. Adams sailed as part of a 5-ship fleet employed for the expedition by a private Dutch company. Adams would serve in Japan under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, helping to build the first Western Style ships in Japan, and later helping Japan establish trading factories with the Netherlands and England. While Adams held significant influence in Japan during his lifetime, what was most remarkable was the friendship he cultivated with Ieyasu that would last until Ieyasu’s death.

Here today to share with us the story of this incredible Englishman contemporary to Shakespeare is author of The Shogun’s Silver Telescope: God, Art and Money in the English Quest for Japan, Timon Screech.

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Timon Screech taught the history of Japanese art at SOAS, University of London, for 30 years, before moving to the International Research Center for Japanese Studies (Nichibunken) in Kyoto, in 2021, as Professor of Japanese History. He has recently published The Shogun’s Silver Telescope: God, Art and Money in the English Quest for Japan (OUP, 2020) and Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo (Reaktion /University of Chicago, 2020; available in Chinese translation). He is now completing a major monograph on the deification and cult of Tokugawa Ieyasu, as concurrently working a short book on early European contacts with the Kingdom of Lūchū (J: Ryūkyū), modern Okinawa. Screech is a Freeman of the City of London, and Fellow of the British Academy. See more information on Timon Screech, including a list of his other publications in the show notes of today’s episode. 

1866 Sketch, William Adams before Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Shogun was frequently confused by foreigners as the Emperor. William Adams: The first Englishman in Japan (Miura Anjin). | Public Domain | Source

 I will be asking Timon Screech about:

  • The fleet was a part of a Dutch private company, but Adams being English, did he need special permission from King James to leave England as part of this Dutch crew? 
  • There was some considerable upheaval created by the arrival of these ships in Japan. Portuguese Jesuits claimed that the crew members were pirates and tried to have them executed. Timon, why were Portuguese Jesuits in Japan, and what interest did they have in accusing these men of being pirates?
  •  Did Adams become a samurai?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Recommended by Timon Screech:

Kassell, Lauren. Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London: Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist, and Physician (Oxford Historical Monographs). Oxford University Press, 2007.

Lilly, William. Christian Astrology 1647 https://archive.org/details/ChristianAstrologyByWilliamLilly 2021

Sondheim, Moriz. “Shakespeare and the Astrology of His Time.” Journal of the Warburg Institute, vol. 2, no. 3, 1939, pp. 243–59,

Yates, Frances. The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, Routledge 1979

Get the Detailed Show Notes! Here's what's inside this week:

  • Portrait of William Adams
  • Sir Francis Drakes West Indian Voyage 1585-86
  • 1600 woodcut of Adams' fleet of ships that went to Japan
  • Memorial painting of Adams' arrival in Japan
  • Map of Japan from the 1700s that features a sketch of Adams arrival and meeting with the Shogun
  • Topographical map of the bay of Hirado in 1621
  • Letter King James wrote to the Shogun in 1613
  • Letter written by Adams at Hirado in December 1613
  • Monument to Adams in Tokyo, Japan
  • Grave marker for Adams in Hirado

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