year is the 400th anniversary of the first establishment of trade
relations with Japan (or the ‘Japonish nation’ as the English called it
then). The English ship the Clove left our shores in January 1611
and arrived in Japan over two years later, in June 1613 – a very long journey
even by their standards.
expedition was led by a man called John Saris who brought with him letters and
presents from King James I to the Japanese ruler. The king’s letter was addressed to “The
Emperor of Japan” and calls him a “mightie prince”, but what he didn’t know was
that the man who would eventually read it wasn’t the emperor at all, but the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The emperor at the time was a mere puppet and
the Shogun had all the power. I’m assuming he received the presents as
English were very lucky in that there was already a compatriot of theirs living
in Japan – Will Adams. He was originally
from Gillingham in Kent and had been apprenticed to a shipbuilder at the age of
12. He later served on Queen Elizabeth I’s
ships as master and pilot, and spent about twelve years working for the so called
Barbary Merchants, but then he wanted to experience new things and signed on
with the Dutch. He arrived in Japan as a
pilot on board the ship Liefde in the
year 1600 and against all the odds, managed to establish himself there. He was trusted by the Shogun, was given a small estate, married a Japanese woman (even
though he was already married in England) and had children. He stayed in Japan until his death in 1620.
|Drawing © Josceline Fenton|
John Saris arrived in 1613 he therefore had the perfect opportunity to
establish his so called ‘factory’ (trading post) and prosper with the help of a
man with lots of local knowledge and experience. Adams helped him translate King James’s
letter and arranged an audience with the Shogun,
who granted permission to trade and gave the Englishman gifts in return. He even allowed the English East India Company’s
ships the freedom to enter any port and to settle wherever they wanted. But Saris didn’t listen to Adams' advice and
from then on his venture was doomed. He
tried to establish a factory at Hirado, an island outside Nagasaki, but it didn’t
work out and had to be abandoned in 1623. From 1630-1853 Japan was closed to all nations except the Dutch.
week I visited the British Library in London where they had a mini exhibition
about the English in Japan. I was
thrilled to see the actual letter from King James I, as well as a letter
written by Will Adams himself to some English traders in Bantam, Java, in
1611. Adams was obviously an educated
man as he wrote fluently (although his handwriting was so messy I couldn’t make
it out). There were also two
contemporary maps of Hirado/Nagasaki and the sea route to the capital Edo, one
of them beautifully illustrated in the Japanese style. It was especially interesting for me to see
these as I visited Nagasaki when doing research for my novel The Gilded Fan and I couldn’t help but
wonder what the English sailors made of it.
I found it fascinating and exotic in the 21st century, but how much more
so must it have been for the men in 1613?
It’s an amazing place!
Labels: 17th century Japan, 17th century trade, Dejima, English East India Company, Hirado, Japan, Nagasaki, Will Adams