Thursday, August 07, 2014

Samurai William - Giles Milton

Reading that book about the first year of the War in the Pacific got me curious about Japanese history, something I mostly know from anime and what little got touched on in World History classes. Rather than ask my father about it, and risk being buried under another 2 dozen books, I've opted to snoop around on my own, and pick up anything that looks promising.

Which brings us to Samurai William, which is ultimately more about early European experiences in Japan. Especially the life of one William Adams, an English mariner on a Dutch trading mission who reached Japan by almost pure luck, and stayed there. It helped that Adams quickly drew the interest of a prominent shogun of the era, Ieyasu, in the years just before he founded what became the Tokugawa shogunate, which dominated Japan for the next 250 years. I don't think Adams was ever a samurai per se, more Ieyasu assigned him a rank in his court which put him on equal footing with samurai. Which means Adams was able
to help influence certain events, at least so far as Europeans were concerned. By the time he had arrived, the Jesuits had already been there for 60 years, and tensions between Catholics and Protestants being what they are, they had tried to have him executed. Only Ieyasu's curiosity (and Adams' experiences traveling the globe) had spared Adams, and he was eventually able to convince the shogun that the Catholics were intent on conquering his land, and that their religion was merely a ruse to help them do so. Their case wasn't helped by the fact they lied to Ieyasu, portraying Christianity as one united faith. Much as the poor behavior or English and Dutch sailors while in Japan didn't help their case with Ieyasu's son and grandson, both of whom
were much less interested in the outside world, and much more interested in removing outside influences.

There is quite a bit about Japanese culture of that time, but not much about how it had reached that stage, the forces that drove it and such. It's more about how the Europeans reacted to the culture, and the ways in which they adapted, accepted, or struggled against it, while failing to provide a profit for the companies they represented. It's more a book about the early struggles of European imperialism (or mercantilism if you prefer) to deal with the challenges involved in having a branch of your business or empire around the world, given the state of communication and transportation in the early 1600s. At that, it does pretty well, and
as for Japanese history, it at least provided with some details to be curious about and investigate further in the future.

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