Thistle and the butterfly: Scotland’s 158-year links to Japan


By Dorothy Bruce

Fiona Hyslop, Holyrood’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, has spent a productive trip to Japan recently, sweet-talking trade and cultural links while reassuring Japan that its investments are safe in Scotland in this Brexit-insecure UK.

The Cabinet Secretary was not cold calling, as she had a 158-year foundation of Japanese/Scottish relations to build upon.

Japan is one of the top 20 destinations for Scottish exports, as we regale the Japanese with smoked salmon and whisky, whilst welcoming their tourists to indulge their passion for golf. Japan is Scotland’s 13th largest food and drink export market, worth £98.7m million in 2015, up nine per cent from 2014, while Scotch whisky exports increased by 18 per cent to £75.849 million, making Japan Scotland’s 14th largest market for whisky.

Japanese companies that already invest in Scotland include Mitsubishi, life sciences firm Kyowa Hakko Kirin and medical firm Reprocell. The country is the seventh biggest source of foreign direct investment with Japanese firms employing 6,250 people in Scotland.

The Scottish Government wants to reassure that Brexit will not make Scotland isolationist. The Japanese know much about isolationism.

250 years of isolation

In the early 17th century Japan embarked upon a long period of isolation when a military government ruled. At the head was the shogun who made all decisions, with the emperor reduced to a figurehead. Society was ordered by a feudal caste system at the top of which sat the elite with peasants, craftsmen and merchants relegated to the bottom of the pile. The system was maintained by rigorous restrictions on trade and industry, severely hampering Japan’s economic development.

During the Kaei era (1848–1854) a small number of foreign merchant ships were allowed to trade with Japan, but nearly two decades of internal conflict and insurrection passed before resentment at privileges enjoyed by the elite forced Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu to relinquish power to Emperor Meiji, with the following rebellion bringing the shogunate era to an end. The 1868 Meiji restoration brought about the end of the 250-year period of national isolation and opened ports to goods from the west, with the new government encouraging investment in heavy industry and modernisation of the army.

French and Scottish artists influenced by Japanese art

Between 1868 and 1912 Japan experienced a period of rapid growth in which GDP nearly tripled.

The results of this were evident at the 1878 World Trade Fair in Paris where the Japanese pavilion caused a sensation, causing the world to take notice of a country about which little was known. Young artists, bored with tradition, looking for new approaches to art, were bowled over by the art of Japan and soon every artist worth his easel was collecting ukiyo-e – woodblock prints by Hokusai, Hiroshige, Shigemasa and Utamaro. The Impressionists were influenced by this exciting new art as was the American painter James McNeill Whistler, another flamboyantly controversial American whose mother was Scottish or of Scots descent.


Artists in Scotland were given the opportunity to learn more about Japanese art at the 1882 exhibition in Glasgow Corporation Art Galleries. The exhibition comprised mainly objects gifted to Glasgow by Japan, an exchange initiated by Robert Henry Smith who had been appointed Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Tokyo. In return for examples of Scotland’s industries being sent to Tokyo National Museum, over a thousand items of contemporary ceramics, lacquer ware, textiles, metalwork, paper and furniture came to Glasgow – in time to influence the work of the Glasgow Boys and the women later dubbed the Glasgow Girls, as well as future pupils at the School of Art including Charles Rennie Mackintosh, his wife-to-be Margaret Macdonald, and their associates.

Another impetus came from the publication of Christopher Dresser’s book Japan, Its Architecture and Art-Manufactures (available on the internet and well worth downloading), and his lecture on his 1876 visit to Japan. Glasgow born Dresser was a lecturer in botany and art botany, and one of the first independent industrial designers. He championed design reform while embracing modern manufacturing in the development of wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, glass, furniture and metal ware, working for numerous well-known companies including James Couper & Sons of Glasgow, manufacturers of Clutha glass.

Alex Reid, Vincent Van Gogh and vogue for Japanese prints

Impressionist paintings were first introduced to Scotland by Alexander Reid. Reid had spent time in Paris, working in Boussod and Valadon’s Montmartre gallery alongside Theo van Gogh, who for six months had represented the art dealer Goupil at the 1878 World Fair, whilst lodging with him and his brother Vincent in Montmartre. Reid’s Glasgow gallery, La Société des Beaux-Arts, sold the works of Whistler as well as those of the Glasgow Boys and the work of Impressionists to collectors such as William Burrell and W A Coats of the Paisley-based international thread making company. He also sold Japanese prints, and in 1909 visited Japan bringing back crates of merchandise for his gallery.

Thomas Blake Glover, the Scottish Samurai

During these years Scotland’s trade with Japan was based on the supply of ships and expertise, building on the foundations of another Scot, taking advantage of the openings brought about by the upheaval of the Meiji restoration. In 1859 Fraserburgh born Thomas Blake Glover arrived in Nagasaki to make his mark in Japan where he became increasingly influential. Glover, fresh from wheeling and dealing in fish and timber, had joined Jardine Matheson’s Far Eastern trading company and was soon posted to Shanghai. There he sold opium to middlemen, and traded in silks, tea and guns, ensuring a cut for himself from the deal, before relocating to take advantage of the new opportunities offered by a Japan where the old order was crumbling, offering the potential for lucrative deals.

He bought property, formed his own trading company to deal illegally in ships and weapons with some of the rebellious clans who railed against the policies of the shogunate. A maverick as well as a moderniser, astute and adept, a tough businessman, his aptitude at playing one faction off against another kept him alive and prospering. Glover became a major arms dealer and played a crucial role both in the overthrow of the old, clan-based system in order to unify Japan under its Emperor, and in the effort to industrialise the country. Glover fought and traded with the warlords he later advised, many of whom in 1868 brought about the end of the isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of the Meiji. He was there at a time when his knowledge of the west and its customs became useful to a country desperate to trade and to modernize its industries.

He made money from property, from a coal mine and from a brewery, pursuing international relations, developing interests and greasing the wheels of deals to lure expertise and engineers (mainly Scottish) to bring to fruition projects in town planning, lighthouse-building and railways.

Yataro Iwasaki had set up a shipbuilding business which in 1873 was renamed Mitsubishi – the acorn from which the international Mitsubishi conglomerate grew. The following year Glover was invited to join it, inputting not only his expertise but also considerable funds. The firm benefitted too from the contacts both men had with former rebels now in positions of power in the government.

The Empress of Scotland

Glover ordered ships from Scotland, initially from Aberdeen, later from Clyde shipyards. Lobnitz & Co at Renfrew developed close links with Japan in the 1870s, and supplied the first vessel to the NYK, the Japanese shipping line. Several Japanese apprentices were trained in the yard and bookkeepers from Lobnitz helped introduce a modern accounting system at Mitsubishi. Alex Reid’s younger brother, James, a naval draftsman, worked in the Nagasaki shipyard on the reconstruction of the Japanese navy. Glover had an interest in the yard, which had belonged to the Japanese government, and was then leased by Mitsubishi. The surviving correspondence between James and members of his family provides a fascinating insight into a country coming to terms with the modern world and with the West. James was a friend of Henry Lobnitz.

Napier Shanks & Bell, another Renfrew yard, also built vessels for Japan. The first, the Meiji Maru, designed in 1874 for lighthouse work, is preserved in a dry dock at Tokyo Maritime University as a reminder of Scottish co-operation in the modernisation of Japan. Another of the ships the yard built, the Sanuki Maru, helped evacuate refugees from the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. In 1930 Fairfield’s built the Empress of Japan, described as the finest Pacific liner ever built. She was later renamed Empress of Scotland.

Glover House – Japan’s largest visitor attraction

Through Glover many Japanese were able to visit Britain to see at first hand the fruits of the industrial revolution. Glasgow University has very close connections with the development of modern Japan, welcoming many Japanese students from the 1870s onwards. Glaswegians also went to Japan to work, including Henry Dyer who became the first Principal and Professor of Engineering at the new Imperial College of Engineering in Tokyo. Emperor Meiji awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, the country’s highest honour.

Glover (right) went on to become pivotal in the growth of Mitsubishi as an international conglomerate, and also founded shipyards, coal mines and breweries, becoming an adviser to the Japanese Government, viewed as one of those who laid the basis for Japan’s modern industrialisation.

Glover House in Nagasaki, the first western-style building in Japan, with its stunning garden, attracts over two million visitors a year, Japan’s largest tourist attraction, perhaps because his affair with one of his mistresses is said to have inspired Puccini’s Madam Butterfly.

G & J Weir, the Glasgow engineering company, was the workplace of Sir John Richmond, another of Alex Reid’s major collectors. Weir was also involved in Japan. In 1911 the company negotiated with Mitsubishi and Kawasaki to make their pumps under licence. They developed excellent relations with the Imperial Japanese Navy and with Mitsubishi and Kawasaki, and the licences with these companies continued until the 1930s. Before the First World War Japanese engineer officers regularly attended G & J Weir at Cathcart for training.

“James G Weir, my great uncle, also visited Japan before the 1st War. He told me how he went there via the Trans Siberian railway. The locomotive ran out of coal and the passengers had to cut trees in the snow for firing the boiler until they got to a station.”

(Lord William Weir, in letter to Dorothy Bruce, 17th April 2009, when I was researching for an exhibition and booklet to celebrate 150 years of Japanese/Scottish relations.)

Weir continues its links and trade with Japan and with the Nagasaki shipyard.

Glover, revolutionary and modernizer

Glover probably acquired at least some of his guns from the engineering and ordnance firm belonging to Sir William (later Lord) Armstrong, where the new Armstrong gun was under production. Greenock-born physicist and gunnery expert Sir Andrew Noble, often considered the founder of the science of ballistics, joined the firm’s Elswick factory on leaving the Royal Artillery. By 1900 Sir Andrew had become chairman of the company.

It is highly likely that in his early days with the company Sir Andrew met the young sons of Japanese clan leaders that, arranged illegally by Glover, visited Britain to study and learn about modern industrialised practices. In time, after their return they became high-ranking officials in the new government brought about by the coup and the Meiji restoration. Glover and his associates had secured large consignments of rifles for the uprising, and many of these were most likely procured through Armstrong’s.

Like Thomas Glover, and Henry Dyer, Sir Andrew was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government.

So Scotland’s influence in and trade with Japan has seen the country emerge from centuries of isolationism to become a modern industrialised country, the home too of many works by Impressionist painters influenced by that country’s own art.

Scotland still a source of new engineering technology in Japan

In the nineteenth century David Stevenson of the ‘lighthouse’ family worked with another Scot, Richard Henry Brunton, inventing a novel method for lighthouses to withstand earthquakes. Brunton supervised the building of twenty-six lighthouses in Japan.

As Fiona Hyslop’s week in Japan, which included visits to Tokyo and Nagasaki, came to a close, Orkney-based company Aquatera won a consultancy contract to support a major tidal energy project in Japan. What goes around comes around.

Japan still recognises in the 21st century the contribution Scotland has to offer in engineering and cutting edge technology.

Dorothy Bruce is author of Alexander Reid and the Japanese influence: Art Ships and plants. 2009, Available from Amazon.