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Representation of the English samurai, William Adams.         Source: adrenalinapura / Adobe stock

Remains of Legendary Lost English Samurai Unearthed in Japan

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The skeletal remains of a legendary English samurai who landed in Japan in 1600 AD, on his way to the New World with an ill-fated Dutch convoy, have been positively identified by archaeologists.

The real-life action adventure story of 17th century English mariner, William Adams, was immortalized in James Clavell's novel “ Shōgun” and in the 1980s hit-TV series by the same name starring Richard Chamberlain. According to a 1980s Evening Independent article, Clavell said that it was reading a sentence in his daughter's textbook that stated that “in 1600, an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai,” which inspired him to write the novel.

Although the story of Adams’ life is well documented, his final resting place has remained a sealed archaeological mystery for more than four centuries, however, last year a team of archaeologists excavating a graveyard on the island of Hirado, in the Nagasaki prefecture of Japan, had reason to believe they had finally discovered his remains.

The Converted English Samurai

William Adams was born in 1564 AD and in 1598 AD, he joined a voyage of five Dutch ships in Rotterdam, bound on a quest for the untold riches of the New World. Adams was among the crew of the one surviving ship that was washed ashore, and he was detained in Osaka Castle by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun, or chief of the samurai caste that ruled Japan at that time. After befriending the legendary Japanese warlord, Adams became so valuable to the ruler that that he was forbidden from leaving the island, where he became known as the “blue-eyed samurai.”

1707 map of Japan, with a cartouche representing the audience of the English samurai William Adams with the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. (Public domain)

1707 map of Japan, with a cartouche representing the audience of the English samurai William Adams with the shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. (Public domain)

Adams impressed the shogun so much, that despite having a wife and children in England, Adams betrothed a Japanese woman called Yuki and they had two children, Joseph and Susanna, and it is recorded that the English mariner was awarded samurai status and “showered with gifts including 90 slaves,” according to a report in the Daily Mail. And when the shogun eventually permitted the sailor-warrior his return to his family and life in England, Adams refused the offer and decided to live the rest of his life in Japan.  

Not One Smoking Gun, But Many Layers of Evidence

The ancient mariner’s bones, of which only 5% were recovered, were discovered inside a funerary urn that had initially been excavated at the Hirado graveyard in a 1931 dig. At that time the skeleton was found in what archaeologists called a “Western-style grave,” which led to the rumor that this was indeed the final resting place of Adams. Then, a headstone was discovered nearby bearing the sailor’s adopted Japanese name, “Miura Anjin.” And now archaeologists at the University of Tokyo using modern tools of analysis have confirmed that the mysterious man died somewhere between 1590 and 1620 AD, which is precisely when Adams died.

Headstone of the English samurai William Adams or Miura Anjin in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan. (Public domain)

Headstone of the English samurai William Adams or Miura Anjin in Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan. (Public domain)

The scientists’ excitement levels were raised when their primary analysis suggested the skeleton’s DNA was that of a northern European male who had died between 40 and 59 years of age. And now, on the 400th anniversary of the sailor's death in 1620 AD, forensic researchers in both Japan and Britain have announced that they have their man, according to an article in The Telegraph. Professor Richard Irving, a member of the Tokyo-based William Adams Club, told the Telegraph that the discovery is “consistent with the known characteristics of Adams himself, in terms of sex, country of ancestral origin, age at death, and year of death.”  

A Sexually Repressed Sailor Looking For Stimulation

While Clavell’s “ Shōgun” was maybe the best adaptation of Adams’ life in Japan, it was not the first, as William Dalton wrote  Will Adams, The First Englishman in Japan: A Romantic Biography in 1861. Then in 1932 Richard Blaker published  The Needlewatcher, a carefully composed work of historical fiction, which de-mythologized the life of Adams. A couple of less successful renditions of the story were told in the 1960s and 70s before Christopher Nicole's  Lord of the Golden Fan was published in 1973 only two years before Calavell’s  Shōgun.

According to the University of Columbia, this last work is “light pornography” revealing the darker side of the sailor, as a sexually frustrated Englishman crushed by the socials norms and morals at the time, who sought sexual freedom in the Orient where he has numerous sexual encounters. And with 90 slaves, many of whom were “barley legal,” it would seem this book was also a work of careful historical fiction.

Top image: Representation of the English samurai, William Adams.         Source: adrenalinapura / Adobe stock

By Ashley Cowie



T1bbst3r's picture

Could have been that there just wasn't enough sailors or a seaworthy ship capable of taking him home. Also, other outposts of that time were under threat of Dutch attacks, there was always a risk of disease etc. on travels so I think survival was his main concern.
He was from Gillingham in Kent.

Adams decided to stay in Japan after the Shogun gave him permission to return to England, because he wouldn’t have been able to live the life of luxury he was living in Japan.  He knew he had a good thing.  While not everything in Japan at this time was perfect, they were far ahead of England in hygiene.  He was a smart man.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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