Researchers seek DNA from Kent descendants to prove bones belong to first Briton to reach Japan

Julian Ryall
A bust of Englishman William Adams at the Anjin Memorial Park, named after his Japanese name Miura Anjin - AP

Researchers are seeking DNA from the Kentish descendants of an adventurer who was the first Englishman ever to set foot in Japan.

The remains of William Adams, a sailor from Gillingham, are thought to have been found in a small pot beneath what was long rumoured to his grave in the remote southern town of Hirado, Nagasaki.

But experts are keen to trace the family line to a surviving relative in Britain to compare the DNA extracted from the bones and two teeth they believe belong to Adams, who became a samurai and inspired James Clavell’s novel Shogun.

Carbon dating revealed that they date from 1590 to 1620 and analysis suggests the DNA is that of a northwest European.

Academics and historians believe that finding a DNA match is a “realistic possibility” and are hoping to identify the bones before the 400th anniversary of Adams’ death next year, when they plan a formal ceremony in which he is officially “laid to rest”.

Susan Haydock, former Mayor of Medway and chair of the Medway Japan Group, said many people had come forward claiming to be descendants of the celebrated sailor and had shown her their birth certificates.

English wood engraving of William Adams, greeted in 1600 as the first Englishman to visit Japan Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

But she added: “It’s a very common name. The only way we can really weed it out is by asking for volunteers to come forward for DNA testing.”

Adams was born in Gillingham in 1564 and served in the Royal Navy under Francis Drake against the Spanish Armada.

He married his first wife, Mary Hyn, in Stepney in August 1589, and had two children who were baptised in the same area.

His daughter Deliverance married local mariner Raph Goodchild in Stepney in 1618 and had two daughters, one of whom died.

In 1598, Adams signed up as a navigator on one of five Dutch ships travelling from Rotterdam to the New World. He arrived in Japan in April 1600 after his ship was wrecked off the town of Usuki.

Initially threatened with execution, Adams and the rest of the crew were imprisoned at Osaka Castle in the orders of Tokugama Ieyasu, the "daimyo" of Edo, modern-day Tokyo, and future shogun.

Adams reportedly met Ieyasu three times in the summer of 1600 and impressed him sufficiently with his knowledge of ships, shipbuilding and nautical mathematics that he was barred from leaving Japan.

He later oversaw the construction of two British-style warships to add to the shogun’s fleet, which had been destroyed in a tsunami in 1605.

William Adams built ships for the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu  Credit: Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

As an expression of his gratitude, the shogun granted Adams the title of samurai and gifted him  an estate at Yokosuka, south-west of Tokyo.

He was given the nameMiura Anjin, after the name of the peninsula where he had his estate and the meaning for pilot of a vessel.

Adams, who also had a Japanese wife and at least three children born in the country, has been deemed a powerful a powerful symbol of Anglo-Japanese friendship, and each year a memorial service is held in Hirado in his honour.

The British Library holds letters written by Adams to the English East India Company and curators from the Library send an annual message to be read aloud at the service.

Prof Timon Screech from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, said the Japanese were hoping to make a big announcement about the discovery next year, to coincide with the 400-year anniversary of Adams’ death.

He said: “Everyone in Japan knows who Adams is. He is taught in schools, credited with revealing that the western world was not Spanish or Roman Catholic and teaching them about the Spanish Armada. It marked the beginning of the Japanese turn against the Catholic mission.”