Chris Glenn’s participation in relief efforts in the disaster-hit Tohoku region made the news in 2011, when as a member of a group of pilots he flew a helicopter to deliver food, water and medicines for evacuees.
His voice may also be known by a wide audience as the Australian-born bilingual radio DJ who hosts one of the top three radio shows in central Japan, while frequently appearing on television and in commercials.
But what has made Glenn’s name well known across Japan is his passion for the country’s culture and his dedication to preserving its heritage and history, some of which he says remains unknown overseas.
Appointed earlier this year as tourism ambassador of the town of Sekigahara, Gifu Prefecture, the 47-year-old seems to be the right man in the right place.
Having studied the history of the Battle of Sekigahara for about 18 years and visited the site more than a dozen times, Glenn wants to spark people’s interest in the nation’s heritage. The battle “was the turning point in Japan’s history,” he said.
In a recent interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo, Glenn lamented, “Everyone knows (the Battles) of Waterloo or Gettysburg but though more exciting, there are few people who have heard or know why the Battle of Sekigahara took place.”
He decided to share his knowledge and compiled the results of his study in one of his latest books, “The Battle of Sekigahara: The Greatest Samurai Battle in History,” to challenge the lack of information, especially in English, around the historical event.
The book, written in English, is an in-depth study of the Oct. 21, 1600, battle that led to the end of the warring period and cleared the path for the Tokugawa shogunate under which Japanese culture flourished.
Glenn’s interest in Japanese history was sparked by his grandfather, a school teacher who despite having fought against Japanese forces during World War II would always praise the value of Japan’s rich culture and its achievements.
As a young boy in Adelaide, South Australia, Glenn dreamed of becoming a radio DJ or a helicopter pilot, dreams he later realized. But he always wanted to visit Japan and see its historical sites with his own eyes.
He arrived in Japan for the first time in 1985, in his high school years, as a Rotary youth exchange student sent to Sapporo for a year.
“My then-teacher recommended me a book about the accounts of Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645),” who is believed to have been one of Japan’s greatest swordsmen, Glenn said.
He returned to Australia after the Rotary program ended, and attended a broadcast school that prepared him to start his career as a radio DJ in his home country.
But his interest brought him back to Japan in 1992, hoping to seize a chance to work in Japanese media. He was soon offered a job at a small radio station in Tokyo to be eventually dispatched to Nagoya, where, he says, “every place, every site has a historical value.”
While working for Nagoya radio stations ZIP-FM and 79.5FM Radio-i, he met Nobuo Ogawa, one of just 10 samurai armor craftsmen remaining in Japan.
“I remember when I left the Nagoya Zoo one day, there he was, an old man wearing the samurai armor,” Glenn recalled. Glenn took a flyer from Ogawa offering participation in a photo shoot where families can dress up as former warriors, and was asked if he wanted to take part.
“Why don’t you try to make a kabuto, a helmet worn by ancient warriors,” Glenn quoted Ogawa as saying after the craftsman noticed Glenn’s avid interest in the history of warriors.
Glenn spent one year learning the craft as well as the history of armor and warriors from Ogawa.
More than two decades into his arrival in Japan, Glenn, now a member of the Japan Armor and Weapons Research and Preservation Society, holds a black belt in the sword discipline of kendo and a second-degree black belt in chanbara sword fighting.
He also heads several groups dedicated to swordsmanship and history that share his particular interest in the history of the Sengoku Period, from the late 15th century to the late 16th century of the warring period prior to the Edo Period (1603 to 1868).
In weekly columns in Japanese newspapers and magazines as well as on websites dedicated to areas of his interest, Glenn writes about the Battle of Sekigahara and other historical events. He also shares trivia such as the warriors’ diet or warriors’ personal stories.
“Japan’s culture developed during the Edo Period and that was due to the Tokugawa clan winning at Sekigahara,” Glenn said, explaining why he places emphasis on the importance of the battle in Japan’s history.
“I’ve always been puzzled as to why so little is known about the battle (of Sekigahara),” in which fighting between Japan’s west army and the east army claimed the lives of up to 30,000 samurai in a single day.
“It’s a very, very complicated story, but it’s a fascinating story. There is the political side to it, there’s the actual battle itself, with the lead-up and the aftermath,” Glenn said, adding he wanted people to learn about what really happened during that time and how it affected modern Japan.
“If Tokugawa had lost at Sekigahara, I think that modern Japan would be more like the Philippines or Vietnam, countries that had a long history and their own culture but were contaminated by foreign influence and foreign control,” he said.
“If that battle had not occurred, Japan would have been changed into a more Westernized country.”
Recently, he has also published a book in Japanese on a selection of the nation’s castles, where he explains the architecture of medieval residences of landlords and interesting trivia related to the heroic tales.
“Many people confuse the castle’s keep or donjon with the entire infrastructure,” he said.
Glenn said that Nagoya Castle, situated within walking distance from his home, is one of his favorites.
“I have been to the castle more than 100 times so far. It has the largest keep and the largest number of windows of all Japan’s castles,” he explained.
He added that when exploring the history of castles, one can learn that Gifu Castle, the first built with a keep, was rebuilt by Oda Nobunaga to resemble Kyoto’s Kinkakuji.
“A lot of Japanese historical items, Japanese swords, armor and castles, they have aesthetic beauty,” Glenn said, giving an example of Japanese swords used not only to protect warriors but also as a demonstration of their bravery.
“The castles, each one is unique but they’re also highly functional,” he said. “That’s, I think, what I like about Japan: Everything has that beautiful design but at the same time, high functionality.”
In his book Glenn explains the architecture of particular castles, with information on how they could have been attacked or what weapons could have been used to invade them.
“I hope to increase interest in Japan’s history not only among foreigners but also Japanese people, as I believe that as a foreigner my message may sound more convincing compared to stories told and explained by fellow Japanese,” he said.
“I’ve been to about 400 castles and their sites across the country and I find new information on Sekigahara or about castles every day,” he said. “I want to encourage people to value their heritage and help preserve it.”
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