2) Cultural Links Between Scotland and Japan
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Aberdeen
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
This case study traces the impact on cross-cultural links between
Scotland and Japan of The Pure Land, a historical novel by Alan
Spence based on the life of Thomas Glover, a merchant from Aberdeen who
emigrated to Japan in the mid-19th century. Glover was an
influential figure in the development of modern industrial Japan, and was
instrumental in the founding of Mitsubishi. A revered figure in Japan, he
was less well known in his own country. Publication of The Pure Land
in 2006 transformed this, generating global interest in Glover and
highlighting previously unrecognised affinities between Eastern
(particularly Japanese) and Western (particularly Scottish) cultures. As
well as inspiring a new biography, newspaper articles and radio
programmes, and various educational initiatives, Spence's novel has
enhanced cultural ties between Scotland and Japan, and extended public
understanding of the history of globalisation. Other works by Spence on
Scottish-Japanese themes have extended this influence.
Alan Spence is an award-winning writer who has taught Creative Writing at
the University of Aberdeen since 1996 and has been Professor in Creative
Writing since 2005. In 1996 he was Scottish Writer of the Year, winning
the McVitie Prize. He founded the annual WORD Festival in 1999.
The research that underpins The Pure Land is Spence's previous
creative work, archival research, collaboration with other Glover experts,
and a series of research visits to Japan. Spence's publications include
fiction, poetry and drama: in all of his writing there is a strong sense
of place and historical context, but underlying this is a thread of the
magical and poetical, a search for a deeper spiritual truth. This often
takes the form of a `journey to the East' and an exploration of Eastern — especially Japanese — philosophy.
These interests, already evident in Spence's early poetry collection Glasgow
Zen (1981; expanded edition 2003), are central to The Pure Land
and to his other works on Scottish-Japanese themes, which include a
mini-opera, Zen Story, commissioned and performed by Scottish
Opera in 2010; a book of Japanese-form poems, Morning Glory
(2010), with illustrations by Dame Elizabeth Blackadder; and his latest
novel, Night Boat (2013), based on the life of the 17th-century
Zen master Hakuin Ekaku. All of these works involve exploration of the
`Zen mind' and how it relates to the everyday: something perceived as
esoteric is seen as universal, while also being framed in a distinctively
Of the research visits to Japan, one — to Nagasaki in 1999 — had
particular significance for the novel. As well as visiting Glover's home
(now a museum and major tourist attraction which receives half a million
visitors a year), Spence met the foremost Western expert on Glover,
Canadian Brian Burke-Gaffney, who lives in Nagasaki, and discussed the
project with him at length. Another important consultant was Alexander
Mackay, based in Edinburgh, the author of the first book on Glover -The
Scottish Samurai, published by Canongate in 1993. Both men shared
with Spence their research materials: not only their own writings but also
extensive archive material — books, newspapers, photographs and commercial
documents relating to the topic of Glover and throwing light on his
historical period. On-site research in Nagasaki also included visits to
locations associated with Glover, such as the dock he imported from
Aberdeen and the island where he developed coal-mining — first steps
towards the industrialisation of Japan.
This artistic, biographical and historical research enabled the author to
capture and adapt Eastern modes of thought and expression for Western
readers, and to use the medium of fiction to elicit imaginative
understanding of the history of globalisation while also probing the deep
historical and cultural ties between Scotland and Japan. The Pure Land
is a novel `grounded in historical research and filled with emotional
truths' (Daily Mail) which has reached an international public and
had a tangible influence on cross-cultural relations.
References to the research
• The Pure Land (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006). Winner of the
Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Literature Award 2006.
• Night Boat (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013).
• Glasgow Zen (1981; expanded edition Edinburgh: Canongate,
• Morning Glory (Edinburgh: Renaissance, 2010). Illustrations by
Dame Elizabeth Blackadder.
• Zen Story (Glasgow: Scottish Opera, 2010).
• `The Emperor's Warriors' (Radio 4, Glasgow Herald, 2009).
• Creative Scotland Professional Development Award (£4500) funding
research trip to Japan, November 2011.
• Grant from Hanazono University in Kyoto (£1200) to fund trip to Tokyo
for participation in Zen Art conference January 2013 (keynote speaker).
Awarded October 2012.
Details of the impact
The impact of The Pure Land is indicated first by its world-wide
sales and translation into 16 languages, with other translations in
preparation. In addition to many English-language editions, the novel has
appeared in translation between 2008 and 2013 in French, Italian, Spanish,
Brazilian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Greek, Czech, Russian, Swedish, Norwegian,
Dutch, Finnish, Danish, Polish and Chinese, with editions forthcoming in
Japanese and German. Book sales for English-language editions currently
total over 50,000 copies, and for other languages worldwide in the region
of 60,000. In each country, the critical reception of the novel has
mirrored its commercial success, confirming its status as an important
work of global fiction.
On its initial publication, the book was launched at the Edinburgh
International Book Festival and featured at the Aberdeen WORD Festival
(with audiences in excess of 200 for each of Spence's own readings, and
attendance figures of 10,000 for the WORD Festival as a whole). Spence has
since done numerous other readings, including at the Aye Write Festival in
Glasgow, at festivals in Ullapool, Wigtown and Nairn, and at events in
London (Poetry Society, ICA). Internationally, he has appeared at a
conference on European literature in Turin, at British Council events in
Madrid and Prague, and at events in Poland (Warsaw, Kracow and Wroclaw,
2008). On all of these occasions he has read from and discussed The
Pure Land and other Japanese-themed works, reaching audiences beyond
Spence's ability to explore and crystallise through his writing the
relationship between Scotland and Japan has made him an important cultural
ambassador between the two countries as well as an artistic authority on
the history of Thomas Glover. In 2006, Spence was the guest speaker at an
event in the Scottish Parliament honouring Glover, and since 2008 has been
a regular guest of the Japanese Consulate at functions in Edinburgh,
notably in December 2011 when he read his work at a fundraising event for
victims of the Japanese tsunami which raised over £3000.
In November 2011 Spence was awarded Creative Scotland funding for a
research trip to Japan to further his work on Scottish-Japanese themes.
There he linked with two prominent scholars — Norman Waddell of Otani
University and Yoshizawa Katsuhiro of Hanazono University — both of whom
have since visited Scotland. On the same trip, Spence visited Kanda
University in Chiba and spoke to a group of professors and a class of
undergraduate students about his own work, Scottish literature in general,
and the teaching of Creative Writing. In January 2013 he was invited to
return to Japan to speak at a conference in Tokyo on Zen Art.
In Scotland, The Pure Land has helped to foster public interest
both in Glover and in the broader history of Scottish-Japanese relations.
The novel has featured in articles on the business pages of The
Scotsman and was discussed at a conference at Robert Gordon
University in Aberdeen (July 2008) in a panel on 'Glover Tourism' from
Japan to Aberdeen. Spence's work has also influenced a generation of
younger writers to explore Eastern spirituality in a Scottish context, and
Scotland in the light of Eastern philosophy. These include Anne Donovan,
Des Dillon and Kevin Macneil, all of whom acknowledge Spence's influence.
A young academic, Michael Gardiner, wrote a new biography of Glover (At
the Edge of Empire, 2008) inspired by the success of The Pure
Land. Spence's influence can also be seen in David Mitchell's novel
The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet (2010), which is set in
Nagasaki and acknowledges Spence in its afterword.
The impact of Spence's writing has been extended through his
collaboration with artists and musicians. These include public
performances with jazz musician Dick Lee, Japanese koto player Mio Shapley
and shakuhachi master Yoshikazu Iwamoto, as well as the creation of the
mini-opera Zen Story with composer Miriama Young, commissioned by
Scottish Opera and premiered in Glasgow on 26 May 2010. His collaborative
work with artist Dame Elizabeth Blackadder on Morning Glory was
presented at the WORD festival in 2010 and at the Global Pecha Kucha
`Inspire Japan' exhibition in Edinburgh in April 2011. These
collaborations underline Spence's role as a cultural mediator whose work
testifies to the importance of art in the relationship between the two
countries at a time when public fascination with the East is dominated by
economic concerns. The enthusiastic reception of Spence's new novel Night
Boat, launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2013,
is a further demonstration of his ability to capture and shape the public
imagination on Scottish-Japanese themes.
A final area in which the impact of The Pure Land is evident is
secondary education. Spence's work has long been used in Scottish schools,
and a study of two of his books was published by the Association for
Scottish Literary Studies in 2010. The author, Dr John Burns, is a teacher
at Dumfries Academy, and The Pure Land is among the other works
that he discusses in the study and teaches to pupils. Spence's novel
answers a widely felt need in the Scottish curriculum for contemporary
writing that is sensitive to cultural difference and issues of
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Public readings (The Pure Land, Morning Glory, Night
Boat): programmes for Edinburgh International Book Festival and
Aberdeen Word Writers Festival, 2006-2013 (scanned extracts).
Zen Story, Scottish Opera programme, May 2010.
- Reviews of Zen Story and Morning Glory 2010 (online,
- Global Pecha Kucha exhibition programme, Edinburgh, 16 April 2011.
- `Stand with Japan' fundraising event programme, Edinburgh, December
- Testimonial letter from Japanese Consulate, 25 September 2013.
- Contact details for Dr John Burns (Dumfries Academy).
- Michael Gardiner, At the Edge of Empire: The Life of Thomas Blake
Glover (Polygon, 2008).
- David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jakob de Zoet
- John Burns, Alan Spence's Its Colours They are Fine and
Way to Go (Scotnotes Study Guides, Association for Scottish Literary