Scot who helped Japan go full steam ahead

Share this article

WHEN Thomas Blake Glover arrived in Shanghai in 1859, at the age of 21, to seek his fortune in foreign parts, Japan was still largely a closed society. Commodore Matthew Perry and his famous "black ships" (black, iron hulled, steam-powered warships) had compelled delegates of the Tokugawa Shogunate to sign the Kanagawa Treaty, which had opened up the ports of Shimoda and Hakoate to US trade just five years earlier, in 1854.

The treaty spelt the end of a policy of isolation that had lasted for more than two centuries and the Japan that Glover found was ripe for massive change. As he launched himself into the formation of what was to be a very successful first venture, exporting Japanese tea to Europe, Glover could not have had the slightest inkling that after his death he would come to be known throughout Japan as the Scottish Samurai, or that today the house he built at Nagasaki would become a major visitor attraction, drawing about three million visitors a year.

The fifth son of seven boys and one girl, Glover was born in Fraserburgh on 6 June 1838. He was the son of an English father, an officer in the Royal Navy, and a Scottish mother from Fordyce in Banffshire (now divided between Moray council and Aberdeenshire council). Although Glover's initial position on landing in Japan was as an agent for Jardine, Matheson & Co, tea merchants, he moved quickly to set up his own business, Glover & Co. Within two years he had launched himself as a merchant and entrepreneur.

By 1863 his many business interests had matured to the point where he was able to build Glover House on Minami Yamata, a pleasant hillside location overlooking Nagasaki Harbour. Today the house is the oldest western-style building in Japan and is a favourite tourist site for Japanese visitors.

Glover quickly proved himself to be a visionary, and a man capable of bringing major projects to fruition. At an early stage, building on the impression Commodore Perry's black ships had made on Japanese society, Glover set about securing modern ships for the nation. He commissioned Aberdeen shipyards to build steam-powered ships for Japan, laying the grounds for what was eventually to become the formidable Japanese navy. Within ten years, by 1869, he had established Japan's first western-style shipyard in an inlet of Nagasaki harbour.

He brought Scottish coal mining machinery and skills to bear on the Takashima coal mine, helping to speed Japan's ability to power its emerging industrial base. Moving on from there, he imported the first locomotive to the country and set up Japan's first telephone line, from his office to the Takashima mine. He also built the first slip dock for ship repair and established a brewing company, the Japanese Beer Company, which today, under a different parent company, makes the hugely popular Kirin beer.

Glover also had a key role in the formation of one of Japan's leading companies, Mitsubishi, helping to organise coal exports for Mitsubishi in 1881. The company had close links with Glover throughout his life.

All these activities made him not just the leading merchant in Nagasaki at a time when trade with the west was blossoming. It made him a vitally important figure in Japan's industrialisation. Had he done no more, that would probably have been enough to ensure his memory would be respected by Japanese historians for centuries to come.

However, Glover was also involved in Japan's Civil War, which saw the end of the Tokagawa Shogunate and the restoration of the emperor. Glover provided support for Ryoma Sakamoto and rapidly developed an arms business, equipping the powerful Choshu samurai clan with modern weapons. As such, he played a key role in enabling the combined samurai clans to defeat the Tokugawa Shogun in the Boshin War.

At the same time, Glover was instrumental in helping to smuggle several young men from the anti-Tokugawa faction to the west to further their education. Among these youths was Hirobumi Ito, the man who was to become Japan's first Prime Minister. In fact, academic circles in Japan are increasingly coming to reappraise Glover's role, seeing him as the godfather of the Meiji Restoration.

The importance of this, of course, is that whereas the Shogunate had been responsible for Japan's isolationist policy, many of the forces behind the restoration of the emperor were in favour of modernising Japan.

Where the Shogun had feared that missionaries and other early western contacts were simply agents preparing for the west's inevitable invasion of Japan, the reformers argued that an industrialised, modernised Japan would be a strong Japan.

The reformers found a willing supporter in Glover. In 1987, as part of some restoration work carried out on his house in Nagasaki, the curators discovered a hidden attic room in which it is said that secret discussions with rebel leaders were held prior to the downfall of the Shogunate.

Glover's Japanese wife, Tsuru, was the inspiration for John Luther Long's story Madame Butterfly, which gave rise to Puccini's famous opera of the same name. Tsuru had a nickname, "Ocho-san", taken from the fact that she commonly wore kimonos with butterfly motifs.

In 1908, four years before his death, when he was already to all intents and purposes the most famous foreigner in Japan, Glover was the first non-Japanese to be awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, one of Japan's top honours. Yonosuke Iwasaki, the second president of Mitsubishi, had close links with Hirobumi Ito and played a role in securing the award for Glover. On 13 December 1911, at the age of 73, Glover died in Tokyo. Today, a few years short of a century later, Scotland is starting to carry out its own reappraisal of one of its greatest early entrepreneurs.