Thursday, January 12, 2012

Foreign Samurai


Samurai have an iconic Japanese identity. There have, however, been a handful of foreign samurai across the centuries.

The first, and probably best known, was William Adams (1564–1620), an English sailor. He was the first Englishman to visit Japan and became an adviser to Tokugawa Ieyasu, then a local lord, but later shogun (military ruler of Japan). Adams built Japan's first western-style ships; helped establish trade with New Spain, the Dutch East India Company, and English East India Company; and fostered Japanese trade with Southeast Asia (in vessels such as that pictured left). Adams was ultimately presented two swords, the signs of a samurai's office, for his service. In addition, he was given the Japanese name Miura Anjin (三浦按針) and the title of hatamoto (bannerman).

If this story sounds vaguely familiar, you may have heard it before. James Clavell's novel Shōgun and its hero, John Blackthorne, made famous by the miniseries of the same name, are loosely based on the life of William Adams.

One of Adams' sailing companions, Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn (1560 – 1623), also became an adviser to the shogun. He too was granted the two swords of a samurai and the title hatamoto.

More than two centuries later, Jules Brunet, a French army officer, arrived in Japan as part of Napoleon III's efforts to help modernize the shogun's army. When the emperor's supporters overthrew the shogun and Japan erupted into civil war, Brunet chose to stay and fight alongside the shogun's forces. He was present at the creation of the Republic of Ezo, serving as second in command of its army, and fighting in the Battles of Toba-Fushimi and Hakodate. Although not a samurai in any proper sense, Brunet certainly cast his lot with a Japanese cause, defending it on the field of battle.

Again, if this story sounds familiar, you may have seen it before; Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, is inspired, in part, by Brunet's life.

At the same time Eugène Collache, a French sailor, deserted his ship while in Japan and joined the shogun's forces, then fighting a rearguard action on the island of Hokkaidō. Collache was given the task of fortifying the mountain chain which protected their position, and he later fought in the Battle of Miyako Bay, in which he commanded one of three vessels that launched a surprise attack against the imperial navy. During the battle his ship was wrecked, and Collache was captured and imprisoned. He was eventually released back to France. Throughout his time with the shogun's faction, Collache always wore his samurai dress (pictured right).

Are these men mere historical curiosities, examples of cultural eclecticism? Perhaps. But they also strike me as interesting examples of the interconnectedness of the world, proof that broad national categories don't always make sense.
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