By Dave Hynes
Some people have seriously lived. For such people, their exploits and their influence are unknowably great. They achieve so much; they invent so much; they live so much. Their legacy continues way beyond their death, even if they didn’t really have one during their lifetime. One such person was the Aberdonian Thomas Blake Glover.
Who? Some of you may still ask, well Glover was the Scottish Samurai, for a long time the single most important person in Japan, arguably the single most important person in Far Eastern Asia. And he wasn’t Japanese, he was Scottish.
Glover heralded from Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire from relatively humble beginnings, starting his working life as a trader. His travels took him far and wide until he came to Japan where he began to prosper as a tea merchant. He instantly took to the ‘land of a thousand suns’, casually aiding and abetting the overthrow of the Shogun dynasty and the ascension of the samurai class into power.
He was instrumental in laying the foundations of what would become modern Japan; one of the most powerful, and militaristic nations of the world. Glover was the single-most important factor in the construction of the Japanese navy, indeed he even commissioned Japanese destroyers to be built in the ports of Aberdeenshire itself. He also engineered a revolution in Japan’s transport system, opening the country up to western levels of modernisation.
He was the most famous foreigner in all Japan and he was heavily involved in various branches of Japanese life. It has even been rumoured his wife was the inspiration for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.
Oh and by the way, old Glover had a real eye for making a pretty penny, orchestrating the development of the company that would later become known as Mitsubishi . . . you know what, I think I’ve heard of them. Indeed, if you think about Japan’s transformation from a backwater nation 150 years ago to the modern mechanical giant it is now, you need only think of Glover. Japan and Glover; Glover and Japan.The Scottish Samurai was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun for his derring-do, a then unprecedented honour for a foreigner to receive.
Wow, so you’ve heard of him now. The bullet train, the battle of Midway, Nanking, Pearl Harbour did they all have their roots in the exploits of a dram-swilling Aberdonian looking to make a quick buck on the high seas? Well, yes and no. Clearly, Glover has blood on his hands if you trace a linear projection of what he helped create to what these things (like the navy) were later used for.
But Glover’s life and work in Japan is much more complex than this, shrouded as it is in a matrix of mystery and shadowy manoeuvres. Glover was, after all, an emissary of a tea company, commissioned by none other than the powerful Baron Rothschild. Glover’s mission; to establish first a trading post in Japan and then to create a new arms market in the country. In short, he was a secret agent whose real job was to initiate a civil war in the country, support the ascending samurai and then sell them the latest western engineered weapons at lucrative prices. And his father wanted him to stay at home and be a sheepfarmer!
How much Glover can be blamed for later atrocities is a tough one to consider. What Glover’s life really means of course is that, to me anyway, Scotland can claim yet another triumphant feat of exploration on a global scale under its belt. I hadn’t even heard of Glover until recently. And this is perhaps the strange thing about Glover and Japan. For I had obviously heard of the East India Company which employed so many Scots, or about say Stanley in Africa, or even Scottish influence in the Caribbean and the States; but the story of Glover and Japan I confess took me by surprise. This is intriguing and beguiling, for arguably Glover should be the most famous of all, up there with Hume, Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Smith in the pantheon of the all-time greats.
Or perhaps the story of Glover is somehow less Scottish, more individualised, less recognisably gallant and praiseworthy than the tales of those other ‘titans’. Certainly he was a loner; sellable to the highest bidder and sent to Japan not as an ambassador for his homeland but instead to make a personal fortune regardless of the lives it took to secure his wealth.
His business as a secret agent, engineering civil war in Japan whilst ostensibly aiding its samurai class speaks volumes of his Machiavellian wit and charm. Glover was, if nothing else, extraordinarily entrepreneurial and his industrious enterprise combined with the beginnings of a manufacturing nation created the birth of modern Japan. Still, a deep shadow remains over the mysterious Aberdonian, and he ended his years in bankruptcy and illness, far far away from the rolling green hills of his beloved Aberdeenshire.
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