Thomas Blake Glover was one of the first western businessmen to establish links with Japan and is remembered as the ‘Scottish Samurai’ responsible for bringing what was an isolated nation into the modern industrial and commercial world.
Glover was born in Fraserburgh, Scotland, in 1838, the son of a coastguard officer and, on leaving school, he joined the trading company, Jardine Matheson and first visited Japan in 1857.
At that time, Japan was very much a closed society where business was both difficult and dangerous for outsiders due to the anti-foreigner feeling due to the unbalanced treaty agreements imposed by the US and other western powers. It was also a period of rebellion with militants seeking to topple the Shogunate and restore the emperor.
In 1859, at the age of twenty-one, Glover established a presence for Jardine Matheson in Nagasaki buying green tea and two years later set up his own company, the Glover Trading Company (Guraba-Shokai).
In the 1860s, Glover began trading in ships and arms that he supplied to the rebel factions and by 1868 he had played a part in the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Meiji Restoration. This left him well-positioned with the new regime.
Glover introduced the first steam locomotive to Japan in 1865 and by the end of the 1860s he was operating Japan’s first coal mines and had built its first dry dock. He went on to found a shipbuilding company, which went on to become the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan.
He also helped set up the Japan Brewery Company, which became the Kirin Brewery Company and some say that the facial hair of the fantastic creature that appears on Kirin Beer labels is in memory of Glover and his own moustache.
He also became the first non-Japanese recipient of the prestigious Order the or Rising Sun and married Yamamura Tsuru, reputedly the former wife of a samurai warrior. Together they settled at Glover House in Nagasaki. Built in 1863, it remains the oldest western-style building in Japan.
Glover died in Tokyo in 1911 and was later buried at the Sakamoto International Cemetery in Nagasaki. But one of the most surprising twists is that many believe that Glover was the inspiration for Puccini’s opera ‘Madame Butterfly’ which is set in Nagasaki.