In Giles Milton’s novel, Samurai William, the reader is taken to the other side of the globe to experience the history of old world Japan. Though out the book, Milton provides reason for complex historical events and actions, while still communicating the subtleties and mysterious customs of the Japanese. The novel also closely examines the wide range of relationships between different groups of Europeans and Asians, predominantly revolving around the protagonist, William Adams. The book documents the successes and failures that occur between the two civilizations, then links them back to either the positive or negative relationship they have. As the book goes on, the correlation is obvious. Milton shows us the extreme role that religion, etiquette and trade played in establishing positive relations between visiting Europeans and the Asian civilizations.
Religion and traditions played a chief role in the Europeans relationships in Asia all throughout the novel. Milton puts an incredible weight on the shoulders of religion on both sides of the civilisations. The book dives right into explaining the fascination and disgust felt by European priests and Jesuits towards the Japanese monks. They carried rosaries like the Catholics and “in old age, many retired to Buddhist monasteries to live the rest of their days in prayer and contemplation”. The Buddhist All-Souls Day consisted of the ceremonial sprinkling of graves with flower petals. All of this appealed to the Catholic Jesuits, no doubt, as it was reflective of many forms of Christianity. It was also appealing because many were “convinced that Japan would prove fertile territory” for converting because of the similarities. However, it was the negative aspects such as of sodomy, crucifixion, and complete lack of charity and care for the sick that seemed to fuel the mission of the Jesuits. (The relationship between the Catholics and Protestants must also be noted here. The battling religions came to a head in Japan when the Liefde appeared baring William and other Dutch Protestants. Japan was slowing becoming baptised to Catholicism and the arrival of the ‘heretics’ terrified the Jesuit priests. They lobbied non-stop to the feudal lord to have them executed before they could harm Japan, as they had the rest of the world, they said. The ruler, Lord Terasawa, refused for “he wanted to know more about their voyage and the purpose of their mission”. Had the monks had a positive and influential relationship with Terasawa, he probably would have listened to them, and done as requested.) The book presents such complex Japanese religious traditions as ritual suicide and goes on to say how an individual would commit such an act in great detail. But it also fills in all the blanks with subtleties of the religion and traditions that denied European monks the pork and beef they so longed for. It was the Japanese, however, that realized the power of converting to Christianity. Otomo Yoshishige of Bungo grasped the idea that by converting to Christianity, he would please the Europeans and create more positive relations with them. Becoming parallel with the beliefs of the Jesuits would in turn bring travel and trade to Bungo. When the Europeans landed in Nagasaki, the feudal lord immediately saw the benefits of conversation and “went one step further and declared intention of making his fiefdom a purely Christian one.” Religion and tradition had become more then just beliefs; they were now a way for the civilizations to connect with one another.
The level of etiquette that had been established by the Japanese was perhaps the largest barrier that stood in the way of positive relations with the Europeans. The beginning of the novel explains the Japanese’s first impressions of the newly landed visitors as amazed and repulsed. They were reported as being “well dressed and that they spoke with considerable delicacy”. But it was soon learned that they did not bathe everyday; they ate unfit...
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