William Adams (1564-1620), also called Miura Anjin, was the first Englishman to visit Japan. Through a series of events spanning decades, Adams and his former crewmate settled in Japan, and would later become the only known English Samurai.
Adams was born to a working-class family in Gillingham, Kent. As a young boy, he showed an interest in shipbuilding and the navy. At the age of twelve, Adams’ father died and he became an apprentice in the local shipyard. After completing his training, he entered into the Royal Navy, serving under the legendary Sir Francis Drake and seeing combat on numerous fronts against the Spanish Armada. After the war, he returned to civilian life and began to take part in merchant voyages with the Dutch.
Originally a sailor and navigator, in his thirties Adam embarked on a fateful voyage across the Pacific. However, the expedition proved to be nothing short of a disaster: the expedition force was split up by a storm, and further down the line Adams’ vessel was plagued by issues such as a lack of food and rampant disease, which killed the majority of the passengers. After a long journey, Adams and his surviving crewmates managed to steer the boat into port at one of Japan’s docks, where they were arrested and eventually granted an audience with its Emperor, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Emperor took a liking to the Englishman, and sensing his potential granted him the authority to oversee the construction of Japan’s first western-style ships.
Historical records concretely prove that Adams is the only Englishman to have ever been granted the title of samurai, and some historians have even gone as far as to argue that he was the only westerner to truly receive the title as well. While the latter claim is still debated, it is an undeniable fact that Adams was the only Englishman to have been granted the honour. During his knighting ceremony, the Emperor proclaimed that William Adams the navigator had died, and that Miura Anjin, a samurai was born.
Though the rest of Adams’ crew eventually returned home, Adams himself proved far too valuable to the Emperor to be allowed to leave the country. He served as the primary advisor on all western matters to both Emperor Ieyasu and his son, and was granted titles, riches and lands in exchange for his service. In his later years, he conducted trade and diplomatic expeditions on the orders of the Emperor outside Japan, mostly to other Asian countries.
While Adams had originally married in England and began a family with his wife there, in his later years he would remarry in Japan to a young Japanese woman named Oyuki, with whom he had two children: Susanna and Joseph. Records state that Oyuki was not of a high social standing nor nobility, despite the fact that her father was an important official, and as such seem to imply that the marriage was romantically motivated.
As a high-ranking member of the Emperor’s court, Adams was able to establish successful trade relations between England and Japan. He organised several trade voyages and expeditions across Asia and the Indian subcontinent, some of which he led personally on board his own ship, “Gift of God.”
A highly unusual yet legendary figure, Adams left behind a uniquely inspiring legacy. He died in 1620. His titles and estates were transferred to his son Joseph upon his death, and payments were distributed to both his family in Japan and his family in England - most of which came out of his own pocket as dictated by the will he left behind. One of the towns in Tokyo in which Adams resided during his life was named in his honour, “Anjin-cho” (‘Anjin’ being his Japanese given name, and ‘cho’ meaning village in Japanese) where he is annually celebrated in a festival taking place on the 15th of June. His hometown of Gillingham in Kent also hosts an annual festival in his honour.