Thomas Glover: The Scotsman Who Helped Meiji Japan Modernize


In July 2015, UNESCO newly inscribed 23 facilities symbolizing Japan’s industrial modernization during the Meiji era (1868–1912) as World Cultural Heritage sites. Scattered across eight prefectures, the historical sites include Gunkanjima, or “Battleship Island” (the Hashima Coal Mine), and the Takashima Coal Mine in Nagasaki Prefecture and the Imperial Steel Works in Fukuoka Prefecture. All are closely related to the beginnings of modern shipbuilding, mining, and steel production in Japan. Less well known, however, is the surprising fact that a single Scotsman was one of the key drivers behind many of these projects that led Japan’s industrial modernization.

Making Engineers Out of Samurai

Glover’s portrait at his Nagasaki residence.

Among the many people who helped propel Japan’s industrial revolution from the end of the Edo period through the beginning of the Meiji era was Nagasaki-based Scottish merchant Thomas Blake Glover (1838–1911). Glover was directly involved in the establishment and construction of the Takashima Coal Mine and Kosuge Slip Dock in Nagasaki Prefecture. He also built his own distinctive home and office in Nagasaki, now a popular tourist site known as the Former Glover House. All were inscribed as World Cultural Heritage sites by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in July.

The modernization of Japan’s shipbuilding, steel production, and coal industry was vastly accelerated by the Western engineers and the latest in Western technology that Glover brought to Japan. His tireless efforts also played a significant role in creating opportunities for Japan’s samurai to put down their swords and transform themselves as engineers and specialists as the Edo Period wound to an end.

As a result, Japan itself would be transformed into one of the world’s leading modern industrial states in just some 50 years.

Japan’s Oldest Existing “Western-Style” Wooden Architecture

Glover arrived in the southern Japanese port city of Nagasaki in 1859, when he was only 21. A former ship’s doctor and trader, he called on the Nagasaki offices of Jardine Matheson & Co., founded in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1832, and soon began work as an assistant to the firm’s Nagasaki agent. When the agent left Japan in 1861, Glover inherited the company’s representation rights and established his own full-fledged trading company, Glover and Co., at the young age of 23.

Today a collection of retro Western-style buildings dating back to Nagasaki’s foreign settlement era have been relocated to Glover Garden, a popular spot on Nagasaki’s tourist circuit. In 1863, however, when Glover first built his house on this height overlooking Nagasaki harbor and the eventual site of the Nagasaki Steel Works, it was unique. Now a designated Important Cultural Property, the Former Glover House is a wood-frame, T-shaped bungalow. With its distinctive fan-shaped roof, brick chimney, and large, colonial-style windows, it is the oldest surviving example of Western-style wooden architecture in Japan, and is also said to be the first ever example of Wa-Yō setchū architecture, a hybrid style blending elements of Japanese and Western design.

A model of Glover House reveals its layout (left); the exterior of Glover House today.

Helping the Chōshū Five and Satsuma Samurai Reach England

At the request of the powerful southern Kyushu feudal domain of Satsuma (today’s Kagoshima Prefecture), Glover used his fluent Japanese to broker the import of Western ships. This led to an illicit trade in ships, weapons, and black gunpowder not only for Satsuma but also for other powerful domains in southwest Japan, including Chōshū (Yamaguchi Prefecture) and Tosa (Kōchi Prefecture). In some circles he was branded a “merchant of death,” but Glover—who was widely believed to be supporting the political factions intent on bringing down the old Tokugawa shogunate—did more than engage in black-market trading. He also defied the shogunate’s prohibition on foreign travel to help send samurai from Satsuma and Chōshū to study overseas.

One of Glover’s greatest achievements was arranging for five young men from Chōshū to secretly sail from Yokohama for England in 1863. The five were Itō Hirobumi, later to become Japan’s first prime minister (1885–88; he would fill the post four times in all), Inoue Kaoru, later Japan’s first minister of foreign affairs, Yamao Yōzō, often called the father of Japanese Industry, Endō Kinsuke, later director of the Imperial Mint, and Inoue Masaru, the future head of the Railway Department and the father of Japan’s railway system. In England these men are still remembered as the “Chōshū Five.” Glover later went on to help 19 samurai from Satsuma reach England in 1865. The leader of the Satsuma party was Godai Tomoatsu, who later reigned as the doyen of the Osaka business world.

On his appointment as prime minister in 1885, Itō pushed powerfully for the construction of an iron and steel mill to support Japan’s national goal of “Enriching the country, strengthening the military.” In 1901 he imported German technology and built the state-owned Yawata Steel Works, later renamed the Imperial Steel Works, in today’s Kitakyūshū. The Imperial Steel Works is one of the most prominent of the newly inscribed World Cultural Heritage sites.

The Kosuge Slip Dock’s “Abacus Dock”

The Kosuge Slip Dock, another of the new World Cultural Heritage sites, was a collaborative venture between Glover and Godai. In the waning days of the Tokugawa, both the shogunate and southern feudal domains rushed to buy Western ships from the foreign trading houses in Nagasaki. However, most of the vessels available were worn-out veterans that had been plying Chinese waters for years, and they were constantly breaking down. There was a critical need for a large-scale ship repair facility in Japan.

Looking out over the Nagasaki Shipyard and Nagasaki harbor from Glover Garden.

Glover imported the necessary equipment for the yard from England and built a slipway with trolleys that could haul vessels out at high tide using steam winches. People called it the “abacus dock” for the way the trolleys shuttled back and forth, and onlookers cheered as the great ships were cranked out of the water. In 1872 Emperor Meiji himself visited Nagasaki and observed Japan’s first steam winches in action.

The “Abacus Dock” still exists in its original form in an industrial zone opposite today’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industry Nagasaki Shipyard and Machinery Works. Bought up by the Meiji government in 1869 and resold to Mitsubishi in 1887, it was eventually incorporated into the Nagasaki yards.

The Takashima Coal Mine: Bringing Steam Power to Mining

Coal was discovered on the island of Takashima off Nagasaki as far back as 1695. The coal on Takashima was high in quality, but the techniques available for mining it were extremely primitive. If water built up in one tunnel the only option was to abandon it and search for another seam to work.

Glover concluded a mining contract with Saga domain, the manager of the mine, to modernize the operation in 1868. It was the first joint venture by a foreign company in Japan, and the Hokkei Well Shaft project itself proved to be the first vertical shaft mine excavated in Japan using steam power.

The Takashima Mine was not a financial success at first. Conflicts between workers and management escalated into what has been called Japan’s first full-fledged labor dispute in 1872. The Meiji government bought the mine out in 1874, but even then it struggled to turn a profit. Glover and Fukuzawa Yukichi, the founder of Keiō University and one of the preeminent propagators of Western knowledge during the Meiji period, scrambled to find a buyer. Thanks to their efforts, management rights to Takashima were eventually transferred to Mitsubishi Shōkai, whose president Iwasaki Yatarō would go on to found the Mitsubishi industrial empire.

Output at Takashima surged after World War II as the mine rode the wave of Japan’s postwar economic recovery. By 1968 some 18,000 people were working at the facility, but as Japan diversified its energy sources the operation slid back into the red. The Takashima Mine was finally shuttered for good in 1986.

A Centenarian Crane and Kirin Beer

Another artifact that has now won World Cultural Heritage recognition is the giant cantilever crane standing along Nagasaki harbor’s shoreline opposite the Mitsubishi shipyard. Entering service in 1909, this towering construction was the first electric crane in Japan, and is 61.7 meters high with a maximum lift capacity of 150 tons. More than 100 years since its construction it is still in use today, loading turbines and giant propellers onto ships. Even after he surrendered his interests in the Takashima Mine, Glover continued to serve as an advisor to Mitsubishi Shōkai, sharing his expertise on business and external affairs.

While it did not make the list of the candidates for World Cultural Heritage recognition, there is another unforgettable endeavor that Glover turned his hand to: the founding of the Japan Brewery Company, forerunner of today’s Kirin Brewery Company. Beer was first produced commercially in Japan by a resident American entrepreneur who built a brewery shortly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868. When the brewery went on the market in 1885, Glover joined with his friend Isono Hakaru (1857–97), the president of foodstuffs import house Meidi-Ya, to launch the Japan Brewery Company.

Their first beer went to market three years later in 1888. The brand name was “Lager Beer,” but the label memorably bore a picture of a legendary Chinese creature called a qilin (kirin in Japanese), believed to be a bearer of good luck. In later years, Kirin would become both the product name and the company name of Kirin Brewery. There is a sculpture of a kirin on display today in the former Glover House.

Western Technology and Engineers to Japan

Japan’s industrial modernization might not have been possible without the presence of individuals like Glover, who worked so tirelessly to build bridges between Japan and the West from the closing days of the Tokugawa shogunate to the middle of the Meiji era. The impact of Glover’s energetic efforts to bring Western engineers and the newest in Western technology to Japan is incalculable.

In that sense, the inscription of these landmarks of “Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” as World Cultural Heritage sites is also a recognition of the great achievements of pioneers like Glover. The Scotsman himself was presented with the Order of the Rising Sun, second class, by Emperor Meiji in 1908. The recommendation for the honor came from Itō and Inoue, two of the young Chōshū Five he had helped to reach England so many years before.

(Banner photo: The Kosuge Slip Dock in Nagasaki. © Jiji.)

World Heritage Meiji history Nagasaki Thomas Glover