William Adams, the First Englishman in Japan

The eleventh of Aprill 1600, we saw the land of Japon, neere unto Bungo: at which time there were no more but five men of us able to goe. The twelfth of Aprill, we came hard to Bungo, where many barkes came aboord us, the people whereof wee willingly let come.”

It took the loss of 5 ships and the death of over 75 crew members for the first Englishman, William Adams,. to set step onto Japan. His story inspired James Clavell to write a book called Shogun in 1975 that sparked a TV show and a revival of interest in Japanese history.  Adams becomes the hero John Blackthrone. Of course, the real Adams had a far less heroic life.

The Fraught Voyage of William Adams

portrait of william adams from the black ship scroll

Portrait of William Adams from the Black Ship Scroll.

Born at Gillingham in Kent in 1564, Adams apprenticed to a shipwright by the time he was 12 years old. Twelve years later, he commanded a supply ship, the Richard Duffield, at a time when England and Spain clashed for control of the seas. The Spanish Armada blockaded England, making ships like the one Adams captained central to keeping England supplied. We know little about how Adams commanded the ship, but he soon served as a navigator and pilot in service of Queen Elizabeth. Later he worked for Barbary Company of London and served as an officer in the Dutch maritime service.

The voyage that stranded Adams in an unknown part of the world attempted to emulate Francis Drake’s circumnavigation, but scurvy, sickness, indecision and starvation plagued the effort. One crew mutinied and returned to the Netherlands. Two more ships fell to Spanish and Portuguese ships. A storm finished off the forth, leaving only Adams’s ship the Liefde to carry on.

Adams’s fame as the Englishman who had the ear of the Shogun owed to luck. When the Liefde reached Bungo, off what is now Oita Prefecture on the east coast of Kyushu, only 24 men remained alive. Six more would die within days of their landing.

The Portuguese Jesuits already had an in with Ieyasu Tokugawa, the man who would become shogun and begin the Edo period. The Jesuits and the Dutch traders didn’t want England encroaching on what they had, so they tried to convince Ieyasu that Adams and the crew of the Liefde were pirates that needed executed.

Luckily, Ieyasu wanted to meet with these new Europeans before he made a decision. Adams happened to be the only sailor who was healthy enough to meet with with the future shogun. Ieyasu questioned Adams about the wars, politics, and cultures of Europe. Adams provided information that differed from what the Jesuits had told Ieyasu and brought skills the Jesuits didn’t share: mathematics, navigation, and shipbuilding.

William Adams and Ieyasu

Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Edo period

Tokugawa Ieyasu

Ieyasu decided Adams and the crew would remain free in Japan, but they were not allowed to leave until he gave permission. The future shogun added Adams to his informal council of advisors. He also confiscated what was left of the Liefde, most importantly, her guns and cannon. But he compensated the crew for what he took. Adams eventually was given an estate of 100 households and the title of hatamoto, or bannerman, for his service as an advisor. He worked along side the Jesuit Joao Rodrigues as an advisor.

On the whole, Ieyasu appeared to treat the survivors of the voyage well. While there isn’t solid evidence, it appears the Liefde’s weapons helped Ieyasu win the Battle of Sekigahara, the battled that secured him as Shogun. The fact he treated Adams and his mates so well provides some indirect evidence to this. Ieyasu granted Jan Joosten, one of the mates, a small estate, for example.

Adams become the private tutor of the Shogun, teaching him navigation techniques, geometry, and providing a different view on European politics compared to the Dutch and the Jesuits. He also helped design and build several coastal ships. One of them in the European style ferried Ieyasu on a brief trip. Adams’s work as a ship builder under Ieyasu gave rise to the misconception that he was the founder of the Japanese navy. Instead, Adams helped to negotiate a few trade deals for the English trading companies, but the deals fell victim to the protectionism that defined the Edo period.

For his part, Adams, like the Jesuits, admired the Japanese:

The people of this land of Japan are good of nature, courteous above measure and valiant in war; their justice is severely executed without any partiality upon transgressors of the law. They are governed in great civility, I mean, not a land better governed in the world by civil policy.

William Adams, the Family Man

Ukiyo-e by Mizuno Oshikata 1895.

Woodblock print by Mizuno Oshikata 1895. The Edo period, also called the Tokugawa period, shaped Japan as we know it today. The woodblock prints provided the foundation for manga and anime we enjoy today.

Early in his stay, Adams wrote a letter stating he intended to return to England and to his wife, but he claimed his sailing skills were so useful to the Japanese that they refused to let him leave. In his letters, Adams had a tendency to exaggerate his importance. Although Ieyasu did use Adams as an advisor and as an interpreter, Adams claimed he was a diplomat and more.

He wrote letters back to Britain, urging trade between Japan and Britain and offering to negotiate it. The British United East India Company was offered a warehouse in the new capital city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), but the company refused. The British ignored Adams’s advice to trade at the port of Uraga. Instead, they set up close to the Dutch, leading to conflicts.

Adams remained separate from these Dutch and English conflicts, to the point of the English calling him a “naturalized Japanner” instead of considering him an Englishman. Eventually the Englishman in the area came to trust his judgment.

As Adams gained wealth and some influence in Japan, his intention of returning home waned. Back home, he would’ve been just a moderately wealthy sailor with exotic stories. While in Japan, he had an estate, rank in the Shogun’s court, and also a Japanese wife.

Adams’s marriage to Yuki wasn’t illicit. According to English Common Law, taking a second wife was a felony if the original partner still live. But exceptions were made when “either party hath been continually abroad for seven years, whether the party in England hath notice of the other’s being living or no” (Corr, 1997) Adams fell in this exception, allowing he and Mary, his English wife, to legally remarry (which Mary eventually did).

Yuki was the daughter of Magome Kageyu, an official in charge of the tenmasho, or horse station in Edo. Horse states were part of a transport system. The marriage created a new house, ie, and they had two children together: Joseph and Susanna.

Despite his marriage to Yuki, Adams still took his family life with Mary seriously.  He regularly sent support payments to Mary through the Dutch and English companies, even though he had no legal obligation to do so. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that he didn’t want his English family to become destitute.

Adams also had a consort (apparently Japanese customs of the time overrode his Englishness) in Hirada. She bore him a child, but Adams never saw the baby. He died shortly before the child was born.

The consort likely resulted from tension between Adams and Yuki. Yuki attempted to take over his estate at one point. In response, Adams willed half the value of his estate to Mary and their daughter back in England, and he willed the other half to Joseph and Susanna. Yuki received nothing.

Sadly, the consort and child didn’t either, but in Adams’s defense, he wasn’t aware of the child.  I suspect he would’ve willed a portion of the estate to his mistress if he had known she was pregnant with his child. He had an obvious love and concern for all of his children, even the daughter in England he would never see again.

The Death of William Adams and the Fate of the Liefde

Utagawa Hiroshige Yahagi Bridge at Okazaki

Another example of a woodblock print the Tokugawa period Ieyasu founded.

After Ieyasu died in 1616, Adams saw his status decline. Ieyasu’s son Hidetada lacked his father’s interest in the West and began the process of closing Japan to the rest of the world. Adams died four years later.

Adams’s 20 years in Japan sparked various stories inside Japan–by the name of Miura Anjin, but today he remains relatively unknown. Luck and strong health allowed him to become the first Englishman to live in Japan, but his mark on history remains slight.

Outside of some exaggeration, his letters to his wife and friends in England are warm at times and professional when they call for it. Other than taking a risk as a sailor, he strikes me as a pretty normal man. He was good at his job–after all, the Liefde did make it to Japan despite the deaths of the crew and the loss of her sister ships.

Speaking of the Liefde. She was damaged beyond repair in an accident. Only the wooden stern figure of Erasmus Desiderius and a map survived. You can find them in the Tokyo National Museum. Adams had altered the map at some point, changing the way the islands of Japan were drawn. He likely did this upon Ieyasu’s request. Although we know Adams drew other maps while living in Japan, none of them survived.

Adams lives on as the inspiration behind James Clavell’s Shogun. He resonates the most as a man dedicated to supporting his children.


Corr, William (1997) Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Englishman. Japan Quarterly 44 (1). 74-82.

Shimada, Takau (1992) Another manuscript copy of William Adam’s letter in ‘Hakluytus Posthumous’ Notes and Queries. 39 (1) 28-29.