The swashbuckling Scotsman who helped build modern Japan


A character in J. M. Coetzee’s “Summertime” states, “Of course we are all fictioneers. I do not deny that. But which would you rather have: a set of independent reports from a range of independent perspectives, from which you can then try to synthesize a whole; or the massive, unitary self-projection comprised by his oeuvre?”

AT THE EDGE OF EMPIRE: The Life of Thomas Blake Glover, by Michael Gardiner. Birlinn, 2007, 229 pp., 16.99 (hardback)

Michael Gardiner proves himself an exemplary biographer and historian, adding narrative panache and drive to his wealth of perceptive research. This is the story of a Scotsman who had a major influence on the course of modern Japanese history. Thomas Blake Glover became intrinsically involved in the revolutionary changes that resulted in the end of the Tokugawa shoguns and the restoration of the emperor in 1868.

Gardiner intersperses his diligent fact-finding with contemporary commentary and humorous asides, as if metaphorically retouching fusty portraits of people in danger of fading from view, re-energizing and re-invigorating their memory and history, giving their mutton-chop whiskers a new shine.

In 1859, Glover — a merchant, businessman, and somewhat of a chancer — made his home in Nagasaki, where he would live for most of his life. Gardiner portrays Glover as a man who seems to have been in the right place at the right time, a man who spread wide his affiliations — he supplied both the shogun’s forces and the imperial rebel clans with the latest military hardware. However astute his business politics, Glover was not so canny with money and loans. He went bankrupt despite having a hand in the establishment of Mitsubishi and Kirin as powerful zaibatsu (family-controlled companies) that are among the mega-corporations of today. Glover also liked a drink or two, and had a keen interest in the arts of Nagasaki’s yujo (prostitutes) before he settled down with a Japanese wife and fathered a son (maybe with a different woman) and a daughter.

Gardiner explores the links between Scotland and Japan, the role Glover had in the Meiji Restoration, the status of foreigners in Japan during the late 19th century, the problems of rapid industrialization, the expansion of French power, and the influence of Prussian politics. He also looks at the impact the established British Empire — at the time, ready to change from an ethics of colonization to an aesthetics of culturalization — had on the burgeoning Japanese imperial ambition.

Three years before the Meiji Restoration, Union forces defeated the Confederacy in the United States; three years after the end of the shoguns’ rule, Bismarck’s Realpolitik unified Germany. Thomas Blake Glover — an archetypal Scottish adventurer and son of Empire — would be instrumental in fashioning the modern industrial world, the events that would lead to two world wars, and the destruction of much his beloved city by the “Fat Man” nuclear bomb.

Compelling, instructive and highly readable, “At the Edge of Empire” re-creates a historical figure and analyzes his role in a changing Japan. With a “fictioneer’s” eye for action and intrigue, Gardiner intersperses his impressive scholarly research with warring clans, the philosophy of Sonno joi (revere the emperor and expel the foreigners), the subsequent attacks on foreigners, the Dutch and British in Dejima, the voyages to Britain of the Choshu five and the 19 Satsuma ryugakusei (students abroad) — some of whom would form the first Meiji government, and allows us a glimpse into the strange world of the Rokumeikan.

What Gardiner does best is provide a chronicle of a dramatic period percolated through the story of a man whose exploits verge on the mythological. Gardiner explodes some of these myths, confirms others and delivers a biography with all the derring-do and intrigue of a historical novel.