The J-Files

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2000

by William Adams

Well, not exactly my own but that of the original bearer of my nom-de-plume, English navigator and trader, William Adams, who arrived in Japan in 1600. On a cloudy Sunday, a group of about 100 people stood in solemn prayer at the purported site of the old sea dog's grave on a hillside overlooking the small port of Hirado, on the far western corner of Kyushu, southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.

Adams passed away in May 1620 in this small and remote port town in Nagasaki Prefecture, which among other things claims the most westernmost station in Japan. In fact Hirado is closer to Seoul than Tokyo, so you can see how far away from the mainstream of life in Japan our departed hero was when he left this mortal coil.

At the time of his death, he was a consultant to the English Trading post established in Hirado in 1613. And thereby hangs a tale. Why were the English there?

The answer lies in Hirado's proximity to China. In the eyes of some early 17th-century traders, Hirado was an ideal hub port for accessing new markets in North Asia, especially China. At the time, their strategy had some merit. Hirado had been a trading port for Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch merchants, and as such was a strong influence on the English decision. The attraction of Japan's markets was not strong enough to deter the leaders of the first English trading mission from following this fatally flawed business plan. The outcome was predictable. By 1623 the post was bankrupt. It closed and the English left, not to return until more than two centuries later.

It needn't have been so. By the time the English arrived on the good ship Clove in 1613, Adams had spent 13 busy years in Japan. His career in this country serves as a good model for anyone planning a business career here. He learnt the language. He made powerful and influential friends -- including Japan's de facto ruler, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu -- and he established a reputation as a man of integrity and honesty. He did what he said he would do -- always a sound policy here if you want to be credible.

For years during his exile in Japan, he wrote letters to England to the managers of what was to be the East India Company, telling them of the trade benefits to be found in Japan. He suggested merchandise and locations for business.

His messages finally got through and the result was the arrival of the Clove under Captain John Saris, an opinionated person, full of his own self-esteem and totally confident of his own business acumen. Adams met Saris in Hirado, bringing with him the Shogun's permit for the English to set up shop near Tokyo, then called Edo and home to close to a million citizens, a huge market by any standards at that time. Saris rejected the proposal to move 600 leagues to the east, seduced by prospects of the China trade.

If only he had followed Adams' advice, the course of English business with Japan might have been vastly different. Instead of the Dutch taking over the trade monopoly among the Europeans, the English might have dominated the market. Instead of learning to do business in Dutch, a language of little commercial value outside The Netherlands, the Japanese would have been learning English, the language of trade and commerce worldwide. Then they wouldn't be having the problems they have now with international ebusiness. Goodness, they might even have taken up cricket, which to some has much similarity to a Noh play, without the excitement. But this was not to be. As it is, the Japanese drive on the left and drink a lot of tea, but the English can't claim credit.

Ignoring sound local advice on a potentially enormous market from an experienced foreign resident with impeccable local contacts, the English paid the penalty and lost an incredible opportunity. As we all know, the prospects of the China trade turned out to be mere illusions.

In Adams' anniversary year, as the New Economy brings with it new opportunities and new fields of business activity, the lure of the China trade is even more powerful than it was then. I wonder what he would say, now that China is finally entering the WTO as a fully-fledged international trading nation?

William Adams is a pen name chosen by the columnist. The real Adams was an English sailor who became highly favored by the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa in the early 1600s.

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