Thomas Blake Glover was born on the 6th of June, 1838.
Thomas Blake Glover was the holder of the ‘Order of the Rising Sun’ and became known as the ‘Scottish Samurai’. Now, there’s an idea for a movie. Starring? Who do you think; Ewen Macgregor or Gerald Butler, perhaps? Glover became one of the first westerners to establish a business in Japan, where he was an entrepreneur, merchant and reformer. Glover was also an arms dealer, which would make that movie all the more innerestin’. He was involved in ship building and in procuring Japan’s first iron-clad warship. Today in Japan, Glover is widely remembered as one of the founding fathers of the modern industrial country. Interestingly enough, although it’s likely that most Japanese would recognise his name, few of his countrymen would. Glover’s name is synonymous with Japanese technology and the Mitsubishi Corporation, which he helped to found.
Thomas Blake Glover was born in Fraserburgh on the 6th of June, 1838, the fifth son of a family of seven boys and one girl. For the first six years of his life he lived at number 15 Commerce Street in Fraserburgh. The house no longer remains, because it was destroyed after a bombing by the German Luftwaffe during World War II, which was not the only time a bomb would feature in Glover’s story. In 1851, the Glovers moved to Bridge of Don.
After leaving school, Glover began working for a trading company and travelled the world. He visited Shanghai with his brother, in 1857, and in 1859, in the closing days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, he arrived in Nagasaki. At the time Glover arrived in Japan, it was widely viewed as a closed society where business was both difficult and dangerous for outsiders. Initially, he worked for the Scottish trading house and tea merchants, Jardine, Matheson & Co., and two years later set up his own independent trading company, the Glover Trading Company (Guraba-Shokai). He was clearly successful as a merchant, trading in weapons and ships in Japan during the 1860s, which was a politically unstable and particularly violent neuk of the world.
Glover’s trade in ships and arms led to his forming strong links with the former samurai clans, the Satsuma and Chôshu, helping them to overthrow their military leader, the Tokugawa Shogun. That action helped to restore the Meiji Emperor to his throne and earned Glover the nickname, ‘The Broch Samurai’ or ‘The Scottish Samurai’. In 1862, Glover was instrumental in sending youths from those samurai clans to study in Britain. Amongst those he sponsored was Hirobumi Ito, later to become the first Prime Minister of Japan.
In the early days of the Meiji Period, after the Restoration in 1868, Glover provided technical know-how for shipbuilding and mining in Japan, playing a key role in the industrialisation of Japan. He introduced a great deal of western technology ‘firsts’ to Japan. Glover owned the first mechanised coal mine, the Takashima Coal Mine and, in 1869, he constructed the first western-style shipyard in Japan, in an inlet of Nagasaki harbour. In 1865, Glover also introduced Japan’s first railway locomotive, the ‘Iron Duke’ and, not forgetting the economy of his native land, he also ordered three warships for the Japanese Navy from the shipyards of Alexander Hall & Company back in Aberdeen. One of these ships was the Jho Sho Maru (later called the Ryujo Maru), which was Japan’s first iron-clad warship.
Eventually, Glover overstretched himself and, in 1870, he became bankrupt. However, that didn’t hold him back for long and he went on to found a shipbuilding company, which later became the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan, retaining Glover as a consultant. The great Mitsubishi yard, which dominates Nagasaki harbour today, was also the main reason for the United States targeting of the city with its atomic bomb. In case you’re not sure, that was the second bomb to feature in Glover’s story. Ironically, as you’ve just read, Glover’s main business was arms dealing and the selling of ships.
In an interesting side-bar to his life story, it is said that Glover’s Japanese wife Tsuru, whom he married in 1867, was the inspiration for ‘Madame Butterfly’, a story written by the American author, John Luther Long, and later turned into the famous opera by Puccini and first performed at the Scala, Milan, in 1904. Tsuru’s nickname was ‘Ochô-san’, from the butterfly motif on her kimono, hence the name of the popular opera heroine.
Glover himself became the most popular and famous foreigner in Japan and he was the first non-Japanese to be presented with the ‘Order of the Rising Sun’, one of the country’s top honours. To Japanese, this expatriate Scot remains the symbol of commercial involvement and enterprise. He was also a thirsty chiel and helped set up the Japan Brewery Company, later to become the Kirin Brewery Company.
In launching the Thomas Blake Glover Aberdeen Asset Management Scholarship Fund, in 2008, Lord Bruce, Honorary Patron of the Japan Society of Scotland, said, “Thomas Glover and his generation of Scots left an indelible mark on [a] formative period in Japanese history. The launch of the ‘Fund’ honours their role in the foundation of modern Japan… and [will] perpetuate that special relationship, which emerged from the first contact between our countries 150 years ago.”
Glover died in Tokyo, on the 13th of December, 1911. His ashes were later interred in the Sakamoto International Cemetery in Nagasaki, where his name is remembered in Glover House and Glover Garden. In an interesting postscript, Glover House on Minami Yamate overlooking Nagasaki Harbour, is the oldest western-style building in Japan, where recently the plaque on the wall was changed to describe him as a Scotsman, rather than English. Good grief!