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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 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

This is a fantasy drawing of William Adams from a British booklet called ‘William Adams: The Pilot Major of Gillingham, the First Englishman who Discovered Japan’ (Published by Gillingham: Mackays, 1934). According to the scholarly paper William Adams and Early Enterprise in Japan. | Public Domain | Source

In England during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the concept of a passport, or needing permission from the government, to leave the country, was already in place. You may remember in our episode on Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony that the Separatists’ plight to gain permission from James I to leave England impacted their choice of ship as well as their launch date. However, Timon explains that for William Adams, he was not obliged to seek permission from James I to leave England, primarily because he didn’t carry enough personal clout to be noticed.

“At the time there was already the concept of a passport, and you were obliged to obtain permission to leave if you were of the category of someone the government cared about, like a noble, but Adams wasn’t in that category. He was able to leave. It was routine for Adams to be sailing with the Dutch company, and his brother travelled with him.”

– Timon Screech, quotation from the audio of Episode 211

As the fleet set sail, Japan was not the ultimate destination for the group. While they had hoped to eventually find this “Japan” they had heard about, for the leadership as well as the crew members, Japan was still very much a legendary place, with all involved unclear whether they would get there or exactly what Japan even was to start with.

They hoped to get there but they didn’t really know what they were aiming for, Japan was a fabeled place mentioned by Marco Polo, and “Cafe” we think of as china, is probably japan because it was referred to as an island. There were Portuguese ships exploring this area already, and people were already there, but getting to Japan was a big deal. Maps were substandard, and you had to make a choice of two routes: one was a round Africa and directly across the pacific, to java and Sumatra, then you go through straits in Indonesia to the east china seas (tricky) and then you get to Japan. But there was also a way to go south around modern chili, around the horn, and go Terra del Fuego, and this was thought of as suicidal, except Drake who had managed it, but that’s the way they meant…

Sir Francis Drakes West Indian Voyage 1585-86, Hand-colored engraving, by Giovanni Battista Boazio | Public Domain | Source

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. After losing their ships to the voyage, not to mention several lives of their crew, it was hardly a warm welcome. When reading about the history of William Adams’ voyage and subsequent arrival, it can be confusing to discover Portuguese Jesuits in Japan. Timon explains, however, that the presence of not just Jesuits, but Portuguese Jesuits in particular, in Japan was a result of a dividing line drawn across the world by none other than the Pope himself.

Portuguese Jesuits were everywhere, there with traders and slave owners and they were part of a rather grotesque outfit that went in the train glorious days of discovery. Spain and Portugal were huge maritime countries of the period and the Spanish and Portuguese crowns, one person by chance took both and to avoid squabbles and debates, the pope was persuaded to divide the world in half. Half for the Spanish, half for the Portuguese. Portuguese went east and southeast Asia and the Spanish went West, taking over Latin America, the Pope’s dividing line allowed the Portuguese to keep Brazil which is why Brazil is Portuguese – [the only one in South America]. Papal dispensation allowed the Portuguese Japan, and the Portuguese crown had supported the Jesuits, the Spanish crown supported the Franciscan friars, and not always priests, and they took over large parts, converting Latin America. When the Dutch ship arrived, (there had been one that arrived before but the ship was bedraggled and hardly sea worthy( and they probably assumed it was Portuguese and then horrified to see Protestants, and the Netherlands was at that time under Spanish domination, and the dutch were fighting for liberation against the Spanish and the Portuguese and the dutch were at war, by virtue of their link to Spain, and this ship the Portuguese regarded them as criminals. As for the claim of piracy, that’s a terminological issue. One person’s pirate is another person’s freeloader, so the Portuguese believed the dutch were attacking people and the dutch believed that they were being correctly under terms of war. So the english would have pointed out they weren’t intending to seek territory, purely trading bodies, (at this time). Leifde ship, means Charity [also translated “Love”], The three ships were called Faith Hope and Charity, and the only one that made it was the Charity, and it was heavily armed. 

From left to right, Blijde Boodschap (Good Tiding), Trouw (Loyalty), Geloof (Faith), Liefde (Love) (William Adams’ ship) and Hoope (Hope). 17th century engraving. On these ships, only the Liefde managed to arrive in Japan, where it was sent by Tokugawa Ieyasu to Edo. Rotten and beyond repair, the ship foundered during the journey. | Artwork of the book Wijdtloopigh Verhael (made in circa 1600, page 142) | Zacharias Heijins (Amsterdam, in de Warmoestraet, in de Hooft-dueghden) | Public Domain | Source

After being accused of piracy, the crew ended up being treated very respectfully. While the general air of opinion was one of high suspicion, both the Jesuits and the Japanese thought the the arrival of the ship represented an opportunity that could not afford to be missed.

The Jesuits and the Japanese doubted it was traders because it was covered in weapons. The did, however, think that news from somewhere else beyond Portugal and Spain could be useful since they were only getting information form one place. Ieyasu called for the most interrogate-able person to be taken to him from the ship, and that happened to be Adams. 

Kekeneck [I’m not sure on the spelling here] also eventually had a similar encounter (the dutch captain) but Adams went first. Adams was not also purely a sailor, he was also a scientific figure on board, able to inform the shogun about the geography of Europe, the movement of the planets, tracking instruments, etc, and Shogun was intrigued. 

A monument depicting the arrival of the ship Liefde at the coast of Kyushu. William Adams wears a blue hat and clothes, and Jan Joosten red clothes. It was their first encounter with the Japanese in 1600. | Author: N. Tamada, De Liefde Arrival Memorial Park on Kuroshima Island in Usuki city, Ōita Prefecture, Kyushu.| Public Domain | Source

After the fleet arrived in Japan, not everyone was allowed to leave the country. Timon explains that while Adams’ decision to remain in Japan was ultimately made for him (at least initially by order of the Shogun), the opportunity presented to Adams by the Shogun for a life much better than anything he would have had back in England was as irresistible as it was practical.

“…they weren’t able to leave on the ship they arrived upon and had to wait on a ship, and another ship didn’t arrive until 9 years later. When that ship came, the captain offered to take the men home, lots of them went home, others were settled by this time happily in Japan. Adams maintained that they were genuine friends and many were impressed that he could walk in to the shogun’s presence and talk with him which most people aren’t able to do. Shogun did rely on Adams and he basically said Adams couldn’t return home, but he was given a tempting offer to stay. He took a wife in Japan with land and territory, and wonderful perks. It was worth his while to stay, later expressed some regret at never seeing his family again, but it was doubtful if he’d of even made it home.

What was Adams’ role in Japan while he worked for the Shogun? Timon explains,

“[Shogun] took Adams into his household as a banner man, a gentleman in waiting in the household, access to a salary and land and servants provided by Japanese state. Once his contract expired with the Dutch company, he was able to trade freely under his own name and when the English showed up in Japan in 1613, more than a dozen years after Adams had been there, he takes up with the East India Company and sends things under his own name around the area, not as far as England, but wealthy neighboring areas, like Okinawa, Taiwan, and Vietnam”

Eventually, Adams becomes so prominent in Japan, that he is given the title of samurai. However, Timon explains that in the 17th century, when Adams was granted this title, Japan had not created the strictly military association with the word “samurai” that you may think of right away:

He was [ a samurai]. He had the right to carry swords, which was the indication of a samurai, but the real formalization between the samurai class and the commoner class didn’t happen until later, so at this time there were people who in a gray area in terms of who qualified as a samurai. He was given a Japanese name. Anjin. Means “the pilot” since that’s what he was on the ship, the navigator. “An” was also an abbreviation of England, and jin means a person, so it also means “the Englishman” [Japan was in a] state of civil war throughout the entire 16th century, so the class statuses were fluid at this time.

Map of Japan with William Adams who visits the Shogun in 1707. In the top right is Hokkaido (Terra de Iesso) In the top left side is a part of the Korean peninsula. The bottom right is a cartouche representing the audience of William Adams with the Shogun (Tokugawa Ieyasu). The bottom right text says: “William Adams Reystogt na Oost-Indien; Avontuurlyle door de Straat Magellaan in’t Keyzerryk van Iapan Voleyndigd.” Translation = “William Adams travels to East India; adventurous through the straight of Magellan in the Empire of Japan completed.” 1705 | Public Domain | Source

When Adams left England to go on this journey, he left a wife and child at home, whom he would never see again after arriving in Japan. Timon explains that despite staying in Japan and remarrying a wife there, Adams did not forget his family back in England.

He sent letters back and the second dutch ship that took them up brought back letters form Adams and a couple of them has only just been discovered in the Hague, and we know the East India company came here in 1601, and the company operating in London hears of Japan and Adams and how he’s established status there, and they are intrigued to use him as an entrance point for trade, which he eventually becomes for them. Just outside Bishops Gate in London, there’s a place called [maritime house] and his wife Mary was living there with their daughter, named Deliverance, which meant the delivery of England from Spain from the Armada, and it was a sort of cold war situation, attaining peace but only just, the memories of the horrors of Spanish invasion was strong, and Adams would have been telling The Shogun, and he sent money and letters back to his wife, and when he died in 1620, he left half his estate to his Japanese family and half to his english family, deliverance married in London but no one has successfully traced what happened to her afterwards. 

To hear Adams’ story, it sounds like he was enslaved in Japan, he was certainly required to serve and denied the right to leave. With such conditions, I am surprised he would be so loyal to the Shogun, yet, Adams was loyal even to the point of even being buried in Japan upon his death. Timon explains that when we understand both how remarkable the friendship that developed between Adams and the Shogun really was, along with the sheer impracticality, even impossibility, of returning to England, it makes sense to believe Adams was happy with his new life in Japan.

The friendship we would love to know. Adams kept many records that have survived, and no doubt any that have not survived, so we don’t have his thoughts or comments, but we can know that when the East India company arrived in1 613, Richard Cox, was a copious diarist and quite a bright person, a cut about the average sailor, and he wrote down many comments about Adams relationship with the shogun, the futch [Not clear what this is] had also wrote down details of this relationship. [Adams] didn’t dump one loyalty for another. The Shogun had helped him get established with land and status in the country, things that would never happen in England. The gorgeousness and the wealth would have been utterly amazing and he’d never been to court in England, and the [Japanese] court was grander, climate was better, food was better, and having status, speaking Japanese, there was no greater achievement to be found back home. 

Images You May Enjoy

Images in the Gallery:

  1. Togographical map of the bay of Hirado in 1621. To the right on the shore-line, the Dutch East India Company trading post is marked with the red-white-blue flag of the Netherlands. To the far left, somewhat back from the shore-line, notice the white flag with the red cross, possibly the St. George’s Cross of England. The English factory in Hirado was established in 1613. Richard Cocks was appointed as chief merchant. The factory was eventually closed in 1623 | Public Domain | Source
  2. Letter King James wrote to Ieyasu in 1613. Author: King James I of England (1566 – 1625) | Public Domain | Source
  3. Excerpt from a letter written by William Adams at Hirado in Japan to the East India Company in London, 1 December 1613.| Public Domain | Source

4. Monument to William Adams, on the emplacement of his former Tokyo townhouse, in Anji-Cho, today Nihonbashi, Murocho 1-10-8, Tokyo. Personal photograph.

The English text reads:




The Japanese text reads:





(Historical site Miura Anjin mansion remains

William Adams was born in the state of Kent in England in 1564 (Western Calendar), came to Japan in the 5th year of Keicho 5 (1600), was greeted by Tokugawa Ieyasu, entered Edo, where he was given a mansion in this place. He made achievements in shipbuilding, gunnery, geography, and mathematics, and then became a trade adviser during Ieyasu Hidetada’s reign, contributed to the trade between Japan and the UK, and died in the 6th Year of Genna (1620).

Miura Anjin gives his name to an area in Sagami Province, and being originally a ship’s master, this place was also called Anjin Town until the beginning of the Showa era.) | Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License. | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

5. Photo of Adams’ Gravesite in Hirado, Japan.

The larger inscription says:


(“The Grave of Miura Anjin”).

The smaller inscription says:


(“William Adams”).

This image was copied from wikipedia:en. The original description was:”Grave of Anjin Miura” (William Adams)This grave is in HiradoNagasaki prefectureJapan.I took this photo around 1996 and contribute it to the public domain. | Public Domain | Source

Note from Cassidy: the “I” included in the above photo description was a quote from the person who uploaded the photo of Adams’ grave to the public domain. There was no authorial information provided to credit that person as the photographer. To be clear, I, Cassidy Cash, did not take the above photo.