15 July 2014

The Former Glover House: Truth and Lies

The former house of Scottish merchant Thomas B. Glover is a symbol of Nagasaki's colorful history of international exchange and the city's most popular tourist destination.  It is also the oldest Western-style building in Japan, an "Important Cultural Asset" designated by the Japanese government, and currently a tentative World Heritage site.  The official designations, however, place emphasis on the architectural significance of the building, not the life and work of Thomas B. Glover or the dramatic story of his family.

After acquiring the property in 1957, Nagasaki City exploited the building as the "Madame Butterfly House," a whimsical nickname conjured up by the American Occupation personnel who had inhabited the house during the immediate postwar period.  To this day, Japanese people tend to draw a connection between the former Glover house and the famous opera, without any reference to historical facts. 

The Former Glover House is preserved at its original location overlooking Nagasaki Harbor

The success of the house as a tourist attraction was so outstanding (as many as two million visitors a year) that no one thought it necessary to change the style of presentation.  Still, if Nagasaki City is serious about applying for World Heritage status, it is going to have to prepare for hard questions from scholars in the field of cultural history as well as architecture.  The following are three points that I think demand immediate attention and correction. 

1. The Madame Butterfly Connection

As mentioned above, the nickname “Madame Butterfly House” was first applied by the American Occupation personnel who requisitioned the house at the time of arrival in Nagasaki in 1945 and marveled at its eclectic architectural style and panoramic view over Nagasaki Harbor.  There is nothing in any primary source or prewar document to suggest a connection between Thomas Glover and the opera, aside from the fact that the Scotsman was married, albeit happily, to a Japanese woman.   The nickname was obviously a sham, but it persisted after the departure of the Occupation forces because it gave Nagasaki City a way to bolster the postwar economy through tourism.  Later, faced with growing criticism, the city adopted fuzzy but less controversial monikers like "Memorial Place of Madame Butterfly" and "Place Connected with Madame Butterfly” that still pop up today in displays and promotional materials.

This postcard from the early 1960s does not even mention the name Glover

2. The Identification of Rooms

The floor plan of the Glover House in official use today (see below) was compiled at the time of a 1966 restoration and included in the lengthy resulting report.  The identification of rooms -- dining room, bedroom, parlor, etc. -- was based on conjecture by the Japanese experts conducting the restoration, not on any documents or photographs from the Glover family.  Here are a few questions.  If room #11 is the guest bedroom, then where was the master bedroom?  Although identified on the floor plan as a bedroom, room #6 is currently part of a wide passageway cutting through the building for the convenience of tourists.  Isn't it reasonable to assume that room #6 was the "middle bedroom" mentioned by Glover's son Kuraba Tomisaburo in a 1908 letter to his father, and that the room that Kuraba referred to as "your bedroom" was room #11, that is, the master bedroom?  Also, why did the experts assume that room #19, directly beside the kitchen, was the "wife's room?"  

3. The "Hidden Room"

This is one of the favorite spots among Japanese tourists trudging through the former Glover house.  Pamphlets, signs and other media give the impression that the attic above the servants' room (#23 on the floor plan) was a "hidden room" where Thomas Glover harbored young samurai rebels.  This conjecture is unlikely for two reasons: 1) the building was added later and so did not exist when samurai rebels were looking to Thomas Glover for assistance; and 2) even if the building had existed, the Glover house was in the foreign settlement and so off-limits to Japanese police and other authorities.  There would have been no need to hide in a cramped attic.  And even if there had been an attack or some other event that compelled the samurai rebels to hide in the attic, the incident would certainly have made headlines in newspapers and consular reports -- of which there are none.  

The following is my guess, for the record.  The municipal authorities who acquired the house in 1957 were surprised to find an attic accessible only by ladder and to note that it had a Japanese-style fusuma door (when everything else in the house was European style).  One of them said, "It looks like a Japanese person used the attic."  Someone continued the line of thought by saying, "Maybe Sakamoto Ryoma or some other samurai rebel hid here."  And, voila, we still have the "hidden room" more than half a century later.



  1. Thank you for introducing Nagasaki in English.
    I know you already recognized that the first Steam Locomotive, which could transport passengers, was by Mr. Glover at Nagasaki, although, official recored does not exist.

  2. Thank you for your message, whoever you are. I know of no official record of Glover's 1865 train experiment, aside from a brief article in the British newspaper "Railway Times" (July 22, 1865). That article came to the attention of the newspaper "Nagasaki Press" in 1918, and the editor asked for information from foreign residents who had been in Nagasaki at the time. In response, American merchant Edward Lake wrote to the newspaper as follows: "I beg to inform you that there was a waterfront street at Oura, Nagasaki, about 18 feet wide and extending from Lot 1 to Lot 11, Oura… In 1865-1866, T.B. Glover & Co. or connection placed a temporary track and ran a small engine and two cars from No.1 to No.10 to show the public. This engine and the cars were simply small models." (Nagasaki Press, June 11, 1918) This shows rather convincingly that the locomotive was a miniature model, small enough to be landed from a ship in Nagasaki Harbor (it was not possible for large steamships to pull up the waterfront at the time). Also, please note that there is nothing to support the claim that the locomotive was named "Iron Duke." It is a conjecture as unfounded as the ones I criticize in my blog entry. If the writer of the above comment is Japanese, I would ask him or her to refer to my book グラバー家の人々(長崎文献社).