This is another book which ultimately (kind of like The Age of Wonder) wasn’t really about the title. The title (and the back-cover summary) say that it’s about William Adams, a 17th century Englishman who wound up in Japan and became a trusted advisor to the shogun. But while Adams is a character, and not a minor one, really it’s more about the East India Company’s attempts to trade in Japan (as an extension of the rest of their Asian trading).
I found it interesting to read about 17th century Japan. It’s not a period and place that I know a lot about, and some of the cultural insights were interesting to me. And I think that William Adams could be an incredibly interesting character: he was the only one of the Dutch and English adventurers/businessmen who adapted to Japan. Unfortunately, this book skips over the process of assimilation, and jumps right to the problems that the East India Company’s agents had in setting up a factory and store.
In fact, for a book that’s nominally about William Adams, he’s not the most well-defined character. I certainly felt like I knew Richard Cocks, the senior merchant, much better than I knew Adams. I understood his issues and his motivations a lot more than I understood Adams’s. The other sad thing/relatively misleading thing about the title is that, even though the subtitle is “The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan”, the English economic base in Japan ultimately failed – didn’t even last a generation – and internal Japanese politics then led to the country being isolationist for quite a while afterwards. William Adams may have temporarily unlocked Japan, but as soon as he was gone it slammed shut again, with chains on the doors and everything (to belabor the metaphor).
I think I’ve also pinpointed one of the problems that I have with the 17th century. I really hate the Puritan mentality. There is one way to be moral; it is the same for everyone, regardless of situation, circumstance, or personal belief; if you do not live up to it at every moment, then you are inferior and must be punished. The directors of the East India Company seemed to have this belief. They’d never been to Japan, and yet they felt qualified to judge what would best succeed there in terms of both goods and behaviour. Ugh. (Not saying that the English merchants didn’t deserve chastisement, just not necessarily for the same things, and certainly not in the same way.)
Anyway, back to the book itself. It’s a quite readable book. Milton does seem to have the trick of making what is basically an economic history very personal and fairly compelling. My biggest problem with it is that it is more an economic history than a biography, so there was almost a sense of false advertising. (Not blaming Milton for this, I must add – I know from reading authors’ blogs how tricky the politics of publishing and book promotion/marketing are.) If you’re interested in Japanese history and English history and the 17th century in either England or Japan, it’s a good read.