Remains of first Englishman in Japan identified

The remains of William Adams, the first Englishman known to have set foot in Japan and the inspiration for the John Blackthorne character in James Clavell’s novel Shōgun, have been formally identified 400 years to the day after his death. The remains were discovered in July of 2017 at the William Adams Memorial Park in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture.

The location of William Adam’s grave has been subject of extensive debate. A tomb was built for him at his fief in Hemi (modern-day Yokosuka City), but he died in Hirado and there’s a grave marker atop Sakigata Hill where he was rumored to have been buried. A small urn containing his remains were found near the marker.

The skeletal remains were in very poor condition. They had been moved into the urn in the 1930s after centuries spent in high acidic soil. Only 5% of the bones survived, but usable DNA was extracted. DNA analysis by University of Tokyo researchers found that the bones belonged to a northern European male who was between 40 and 59 years old at the time of his death. Radiocarbon dating put that time somewhere between 1590 and 1620.

Armed with that data and through process of elimination, researchers were able to officially confirm the bones belonged to William Adams.

At least eight other Englishmen were known to have died in Hirado around the same time, although an investigation by the Tokyo-based William Adams Club has ruled out the remains as those of another Englishman.

Foreigners were buried in their own cemetery in the port town, while Adams had asked to be interred on the top of a hill with a view of the ocean. Japanese records show that he obtained – either by purchasing or as a gift – a small plot of land at the top of Sakigata Hill sometime around 1613.

Adams was born in 1564 in Gillingham, Kent, and was became an apprentice to shipwright Nicholas Diggins when he was 12 years old. Twelve years later in the momentous year of 1588, Adams emerged from his apprenticeship an expert mariner and joined the Royal Navy. He served under Sir Francis Drake as captain of the supply ship Richarde Dyffyld, a merchant vessel that had been commandeered for the war.

He then turned his piloting talents to private ends, working for the Barbary Company which traded in cloth and sugar. In 1598, he was hired by a precursor of the Dutch East India Company to command a fleet of five ships on an epic journey to the Spice Islands via South America. It was a disastrous voyage. Hundreds of crewmen died crossing the Atlantic, the Straits of Magellan and the Pacific.

In April 1600, 24 survivors, including William Adams, anchored their limping vessel off the island of Kyushu after almost 20 months at sea. Only nine of the men would live to set foot Japanese soil. They were all imprisoned in Osaka Castle by order of Tokugawa Ieyasu, already the de facto ruler of Japan and soon-to-be shogun.

Ieyasu came to value Adams as a shipwright, diplomat, trader, interpretor and personal friend. Already in 1602 the shogun ruled that Adams, who had a wife and child in Japan, was not permitted to leave the country. Ieyasu granted Adams the two swords of the samurai and a new name and identity, Miura Anjin. He served the Ieyasu as hatamoto, a samurai retained in the direct service of the shogun. Adams built Western-style ships for the shogun and played a crucial role in negotiating the first treaty between Japan and Britain in 1613. After then, he was allowed to leave Japan for trade missions in East Asia. Adams never returned to England. He died on May 16th, 1620.