In the Service of the Shogun: The Real Story of William Adams

  • By Frederik Cryns
  • Reaktion Books
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski
  • July 5, 2024

Meet the 17th-century Brit behind James Clavell’s masterpiece.

In the Service of the Shogun: The Real Story of William Adams

William Adams, the Englishman who loosely inspired James Clavell’s bestselling novel Shogun, comes alive in the revelatory In the Service of the Shogun by Frederik Cryns, a professor of Japanese history at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto.

This timely study arrives on the heels of the 2024 FX series “Shogun,” whose historical accuracy Cryns supervised. In this first full biography of Adams based on original Dutch, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese sources, Cryns considers the entirety of the man’s life, both in his early years and during the perilous voyages that washed him ashore in Japan. While Clavell used six months of Adams’ life for his novel featuring the fictional John Blackthorne, Cryns makes clear that “the other 55 years are worth studying too.”

Adams was born in 1564 in Kent, England, and his youth was spent in “a time of uncertainty and fear” marked by religious conflict (Catholic vs. Protestant) and the constant threat of Spanish invasion. Cryns spends time fleshing out the chaotic historical environment of Adams’ youth in Great Britain to “contextualize” his later actions in Japan as a valued foreign-policy adviser to the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The most notable skill Adams gained during his early years was the ability to read and write; as Cryn says, literacy “played a crucial role in social status” and positioned Adams in a class — with access to a wide range of knowledge — that supported those interested in commerce and politics.

In 1588, the 24-year-old Adams, with 12 years’ experience apprenticing with a shipyard owner and navigator, joined Queen Elizabeth I’s royal fleet just in time to help repel the Spanish Armada (although records do not indicate if Adams fought in the naval battle or merely supplied the ships). His navigational skills and time with the royal fleet eventually led him to the United Provinces, where Dutch traders sought experienced captains to guide them to Asia.

Adams joined a Dutch expedition that departed Rotterdam in June 1598, and Cryns skillfully weaves disparate primary sources to reconstruct his voyage to South America and beyond — one riven with sickness, squabbles, starvation, and storms. (“Their misery was great,” the author states simply.) Adams’ ship, the Liefde, finally dropped anchor in Japan’s Usuki Bay in April 1600, soon after which time Adams and a companion traveled to Osaka to meet with Ieyasu. Put under a type of house arrest for a year, Adams was at the disposal of the shogun, who peppered him with questions about foreign affairs, particularly concerning the heated rivalry and war between the Dutch and Spanish.

One of the surprising bits of Cryns’ biography describes the “Jesuit slander” against Adams. For whatever reason — but most likely because he was a Protestant and aligned with the Dutch — Jesuit missionaries in Japan at the time continually painted him and his men as “pirates” who should be executed. But Ieyasu’s keen interrogation of Adams and the imperial machinations of Spain only “deepened his mistrust of the Jesuits,” who soon found themselves on the wrong side of the shogun. When Adams built a small Western-style ship at his request, he “came into Ieyasu’s favor and acted as his tutor.”

The two grew closer over their shared love of learning, and in this way, writes Cryn, “the warlord and the pilot established their unshakeable relationship of trust.” Adams mastered the Japanese language, took a Japanese wife, and became a hatamoto or “banner-bearer,” who engaged in diplomacy on Ieyasu’s behalf. Given his own estate and retainers, Adams lived as a valued vassal during the shogun’s life, brokering key free-trade agreements between Japan, England, and the Dutch, among other diplomatic accomplishments. After Ieyasu’s death in 1616, however, Adams fell out of favor with Ieyasu’s son and successor, Hidetada. He succumbed to illness in 1620.

Carefully researched and replete with thoughtful insights, In the Service of the Shogun is a concise and enjoyable exploration of the first known Englishman to visit — and fall in love with — Japan. Fans of the novel Shogun and the television series would do well to pick this one up.

Peggy Kurkowski is a professional copywriter for a higher-education IT nonprofit association by day and major history nerd at night. She writes for multiple book review publications, including Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, BookBrowse Review, Historical Novels Review, Independent Book Review, Shelf Awareness, and the Independent. She hosts her own YouTube channel, “The History Shelf,” where she features and reviews history books (new and old), as well as a variety of fiction. She lives in Colorado with her partner (quite possibly the funniest Irish woman alive) and four adorable, ridiculous dogs.

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