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Thomas Blake Glover - Japan's favourite Scot

THE name of Victorian trader and businessman Thomas Blake Glover means nothing to most people in his native Scotland. In his adopted homeland of Japan, however, he is a hero.

The so-called Scottish Samurai who helped topple the tyrannical Shogun rulers of the 19th century, Glover was the visionary industrialist who founded the giant Mitsubishi company and a man so revered he became the first foreigner to be awarded one of Japan’s highest honours.

Glover was born in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, in 1838, the son of an English Royal Navy officer who had been appointed the port’s chief coastguard. When he was 13, the family moved to Bridge of Don, Aberdeen City, but the restless young man was soon travelling the world as a merchant trader. In 1859 he settled in Japan and quickly became one of the most prominent and influential businessmen in Nagasaki.

Glover did not forget his roots and commissioned three warships for the Japanese navy from shipyards in Aberdeen before setting up his own shipyard that grew into the Mitsubishi firm. He also introduced Japan’s first railway locomotive and mechanised coal mine and helped found the Japan Brewing Company, makers of Kirin beer.

So dynamic and energetic were his business skills that Glover earned the sobriquet "father of Japanese industry", no mean feat considering the enormous industrial powerhouse Japan has become. He also sent many young Japanese to Britain to be educated, including future prime minister Ito Hirobumi, who rewarded him with the Order of the Rising Sun.

Glover’s first impact on Japanese life was support, in the form of guns and other weapons, for the Samurai people against the long-time ruling Tokugawa government - or Shoguns. His motives may have been politically romantic or simply that of a freebooter, but his arms dealing provided the Samurai with the military might to restore the emperor to the throne.

When hostilities ended in 1868 Glover, who had been the richest foreigner in Japan, slid into bankruptcy. However his business interests were diverse enough to allow him to recover and live comfortably for the rest of his life.

It is widely believed - though never proved - that Glover’s colourful personal life was the inspiration for the Puccini opera Madame Butterfly. His wife Tsura, the daughter of a Samurai, wore butterfly emblems on her kimono, but Glover also fathered children by four other women, one of them a geisha girl called Kaga Maki. When Glover and Tsura adopted the boy, Tomisaburo, Kaga Maki attempted suicide, an event that scandalised Nagasaki.

Glover died in 1911 at age 73. His house survived the American atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki during the Second World War and remains the oldest standing western-style building in Japan and one of the country’s top tourist attractions with more than two million visitors a year. Not so lucky was his birthplace at Commerce Street, Fraserburgh, which was destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb.

His contribution to modern-day Japan has never been forgotten. Glover in 1889 proposed the design used as the prototype of the present Kirin Beer label, and the mythical figure of a bushy moustached man once used by the brewery in its marketing was seen as a tribute to the adventurous Scot.

 
 
 

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