In 1600 a Dutch ship washed up on east Kyūshū. It was the lone survivor of five vessels that had set sail from Europe two years previously; three-quarters of the crew had perished from starvation and the remaining 24 were close to death.

One of those rescued was the navigator, an Englishman called Will Adams (1564–1620). He was summoned by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the future shogun, who quizzed Adams about European affairs, religion and various scientific matters. Ieyasu liked what he heard and made Adams his personal adviser on mathematics, navigation and armaments. Adams, known locally as Anjin (“pilot”), later served as the shogun’s interpreter and as a diplomat, brokering trade treaties with both Holland and Britain. In return he was granted samurai status, the first and last foreigner to be so honoured, along with a Japanese wife and an estate near Yokosuka on the Miura Peninsula.

Adams’ main task, however, was to oversee the construction of Japan’s first Western-style sailing ships. In 1605 he set up a shipyard at Itō, on the east coast of Izu, where he built at least two ocean-going vessels over the next five years. His fascinating life story is told in Giles Milton’s Samurai William and also forms the basis for James Clavell’s novel, Shogun. Each August Itō’s Anjin Matsuri celebrates Adams.

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