Brian Burke-Gaffney is the leading Western expert on the history of Nagasaki and one of the most prolific foreign writers in Japan. A second-generation Canadian from Winnipeg, Burke-Gaffney first came to Japan in 1972 and trained for nine years as a Zen monk. A resident of Nagasaki since 1982, he has published numerous books and articles on the city’s history, including Starcrossed: A Biography of Madame ButterflyNagasaki: The British Experience, 1854–1945, and Holme, Ringer & Company: The Rise and Fall of a British Enterprise in Japan, 1868–1940. He is a professor of cross-cultural studies at Nagasaki Institute of Applied Science.


Can you tell us something about the nine years you spent as a Zen monk in Kyoto?

Like many of my generation, I developed a deep interest in Buddhism and Hinduism as a university student and took a year off to travel to India. Instead of returning as planned, I continued eastward toward Japan, consumed with a desire to knock at the door of a Zen monastery. Various auspicious encounters led to my initiation in the Rinzai Sect and ordination as a monk. I spent nine years in that realm and learned everything from how to compose ge (28-character Chinese poems) to the best way to cultivate radishes. I was fortunate enough to participate in a lifestyle still mostly untouched by modern appliances and influences. I left it all behind because I wanted my independence back, but everything I’ve done since then has been grounded in those experiences. My impassioned search through historical materials for glimpses of Nagasaki’s past is a continuation of the inquiry into the truth of Zen that first brought me to Japan.


How has Nagasaki changed since you first arrived in 1982?

Nagasaki is similar to other Japanese cities in that it has whitened, meaning that buildings of plastic and cement showing little regard for history or context, particularly high-rise condominiums, have popped up all over the place and replaced swaths of traditional wooden townscape. Nagasaki nevertheless retains much of its old atmosphere and still wears its eclectic history in a uniquely un-self-conscious manner, but unfortunately the main reason may be the city’s stagnant economy, not any inclination toward historic preservation.


Despite its stunning geographical setting and a fascinating history, Nagasaki seems relatively little visited and written about. Is this mostly a result of the Nagasaki’s association with the atomic bombing on August 9, 1945 overshadowing other aspects of the city?

There is an expression Hiroshima wa ikari, Nagasaki wa inori (In Hiroshima, anger; in Nagasaki, prayer). This of course alludes to the different reactions to the atomic bombing. But it also points to the fact that, while Hiroshima speaks out vociferously and receives a commensurate amount of attention worldwide, Nagasaki tends to keep quiet and remain unnoticed. Ironically enough, however, Nagasaki is better known for the atomic bombing than for any aspect of its colorful cosmopolitan history, such as its role as a Christian hub in the Portuguese era and Japan’s only open port in the more than two-century-long Edo Period. Another factor in Nagasaki’s relative obscurity is its geographical location. Until the advent of air travel, Nagasaki was Japan’s closest port to China, a stopover and coaling station on the well-travelled ocean route from Hong Kong to Vancouver and San Francisco via Shanghai, Kobe and Yokohama. Today, aside from a few cruise ships that stop by carrying Chinese shoppers, it is the remote terminal on Japan’s westernmost train line. Tourists can’t visit Nagasaki on the way to somewhere else; they have to make a special point of it.


You appeared in Neil Oliver’s 2012 BBC history series “The Last Explorers” for the episode on the daring Scottish businessman, Thomas Glover. How was that experience (and apologies for asking but did the exposure translate to book sales)?

It was a lot of fun. I had a great time drinking sake with Neil and his crew after hours, talking about Glover’s legacy and the history of Scottish-Japanese relations in Nagasaki. I thought the finished program was interesting and historically accurate. I was particularly grateful that BBC Scotland followed my advice and (mostly) steered away from the absurd suggestion that Glover somehow inspired the Madame Butterfly story. I received positive comments about the program from various friends and colleagues, except for a group of American students who complained—when I showed them the video—that they couldn’t understand Neil’s accent. Did the exposure translate into book sales? Well, not enough to take a holiday in the Scottish highlands or anything.

What was the inspiration for Starcrossed: A Biography of Madame Butterfly?

I simply wanted to determine historical facts and satisfy my own curiosity. The displays at the former Glover House in Nagasaki drew a connection between Scottish merchant Thomas B. Glover and the opera Madame Butterfly, but no solid evidence was available. It did not take long to realize that the whole thing was a sham construed to attract tourists to the house. Also, Nagasaki was strangely silent on the subject of its famous daughter, despite all the tourist hoopla. In the book I tried to clarify the historical background of the novel and opera, that is, the history of liaisons between foreign men and Japanese women in Nagasaki and the way they emerged into the limelight of foreign literature. I also wanted to put things straight regarding Thomas Glover and his famous house. My conclusion is that the association of the former Glover House with Madame Butterfly arose, not from any connection between the opera and Thomas Glover or his family, but from the nickname “Madame Butterfly House” applied by the American Occupation personnel who requisitioned the house in the post-war period without any knowledge of local history.


Your Nagasaki: The British Experience, 1854-1945 was published in 2009 and then a few years later you followed this up with Holme, Ringer & Company: The Rise and Fall of a British Enterprise in Japan, 1868-1940. Was moving to a more specific topic just a matter of pursuing personal interest?

It is remarkable how little attention has been paid to the former Nagasaki Foreign Settlement, despite its importance in Nagasaki’s modern-day tourist industry. The narrative of local history usually continues from the Christian Century to the Edo Period when Nagasaki was Japan’s only open port but then drops off around the Meiji Restoration when Yokohama and Kobe gained the lion’s share of foreign trade and communication. Nagasaki: The British Experience takes the story up where most other historians have left off, describing the life and work of the Britons who contributed to the development of Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but who faced the disintegration of British-Japanese relations and finally the calamity of the Second World War. As opposed to this general description, Holme, Ringer & Company focuses on the story of the Ringer family, the most prominent British presence in Nagasaki at the time. Even though the former Ringer House is a National Important Cultural Property, no formal research had been conducted in any language on the subject of its former inhabitants. As a result, I had considerable incentive in pursuing the topic. Moreover, I was fortunate enough to establish contact with Ringer descendants in England and through them to unearth a wealth of photographs and personal anecdotes. Herein lies one of the rewards of research into the former foreign settlements: the researcher is able not only to shed light on a neglected chapter of history but also to restore human connections severed by war.

What are some underrepresented areas of Japanese culture and history which you think would be rewarding for writers or graduate students to explore?

My pet topic: the people, culture and stories of the former Nagasaki Foreign Settlement. This is by far the most disregarded aspect of Nagasaki history. I think there are still many opportunities for research in various aspects of the meeting of Japan and the West in the wake of the Meiji Restoration. I look forward with special anticipation to the work of young Japanese scholars, who I hope will look at the former foreign settlements, not as unwanted foreign interventions, but as an interesting and important interlude in Japanese history.


Can you recommend any novels set in Nagasaki?

There are not too many out there, but one highly acclaimed recent work is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) by British author David Mitchell. Another is A Pale View of Hills (1982), by British author and Nagasaki native Kazuo Ishiguro. Still another I might recommend is Madame Chrysanthéme (in English translation Madame Chrysanthemum) published in Paris in 1888 by Pierre Loti. An account of the author’s actual month-long stay in Nagasaki in the summer of 1885, the book is more of a diary than a novel—and it is rife with prejudice and colonial chauvinism—but it provides an enchanting picture of Nagasaki in 1885 and various insights into the saga of Madame Butterfly, which it inspired.


I greatly enjoyed your The Glover House of Nagasaki: An Illustrated History (2015). Many of the illustrations in the book are from your own collection. Can you tell us something about your collection and also the main sources for the other illustrations?

I must admit I have a fetish for printed words and images. I began to collect materials as part of my research on the modern history of Nagasaki. The postcards published here in the early 20th century particularly caught my attention with their great variety, spontaneous scenes and rich colors. Nagasaki was the cradle of early photography in Japan and the subject of numerous picture postcards for sale to visitors from abroad. My deltiology (postcard hobby) really took off about twenty years ago when Nagasaki-related postcards became available in large numbers on Internet sites such as eBay and Delcampe Auctions. In 2005, I published (from a Japanese publisher) a bilingual work entitled Nagasaki: A History in Picture Postcards. The book became a local bestseller and stirred up an interest in postcards as a historical resource, but unfortunately it is no longer in print. I continue to make use of the postcard images in books and articles and to lend them out to the media, etc. And I continue to collect old postcards, photographs, advertisements and the like, despite my wife’s protests that, “You already have hundreds of them!”

You’re a professor at the Nagasaki Institute of Applied Science. What does this involve?

I’ve been teaching full time at NIAS since 1996, mostly subjects related to Nagasaki history and cross-cultural studies. I also moonlight as honorary director of Glover Garden, a historic theme park in Nagasaki where the former houses of the Glover, Ringer, Alt and Walker families are preserved—all subjects of my research on the former Nagasaki Foreign Settlement.


You first came to Japan in the 1970s and have spent almost all your adult life there. Were you ever tempted to move back to Canada?

I hit a fork in the road when I left the Zen monastery in 1982. I thought of retracing my steps to India and studying there. I also considered the possibility of returning to Canada, but my mother had died the previous year, sharply reducing any motivation I might have had in going home. As Yogi Berra famously instructed, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. I decided to visit Nagasaki, which had fascinated me during a brief stopover a few months earlier. My plan was to stay until my visa expired, learn more about Nagasaki, and reflect on how to use my newfound freedom. As you can see, Nagasaki captivated me—in every sense of the word.


Your most recent book, Same Road Different Tracks (2016), is a travelogue describing a road trip from Vancouver to Toronto. It includes digressions on various subjects such as your early days in Japan. What are main themes you explore in the book?

The manuscript was many years in the works, traveling back and forth from desk to shelf. I wanted to look closely and objectively at my homeland while at the same time describing my (for me, dramatic and significant) “journey to the East.” Taking a hint from Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro, I decided to tell the two stories simultaneously, inserting a series of flashbacks into an account of a solo drive from Vancouver Airport to my mother’s grave in Toronto. I arranged the material in ten chapters headed by the “Ten Ox-herding Pictures.” The theme of the book is the search for truth: on one hand, an long-time expatriate’s search for the essence of his homeland; on the other, the spiritual inquiry undertaken by a young Canadian who left home and came to Japan bewitched by the images of truth and beauty conjured up by the Pied Pipers of the Sixties.


What are you working on at the moment?

I have several projects underway, in addition to my vegetable garden. The above The Glover House of Nagasaki: An Illustrated History (2015) was the first book from Flying Crane Press, a publishing house I established as a vehicle for information on Nagasaki. As a second endeavor, I am working on a manuscript about the history of the Nagasaki British Consulate, the first consulate to open in Japan (in 1859) and the last to close after the outbreak of the Second World War. The latter has given me a chance to learn more about ebooks and the use of CreateSpace and other online services. I am also working on what I call an “architectural biography,” that is, the story of the former Alt House in Nagasaki, the people who lived there over the years, and all the convolutions in the background. Still another project is a non-fiction book tentatively entitled The Road from Nagasaki to Unzen, looking at the popularity of Unzen (a mountain spa near Nagasaki) as a summer resort for the Euro-American community of East Asia during the prewar decades. On top of that, I have a regular column in Nagasaki’s local newspaper demanding an 800-character article in Japanese every month. So, at the end of the day, my poor carrots and string beans suffer from neglect.


Brian Burke-Gaffney blogs occasionally on historical matters at Nagasaki Perspectives.

If you’re visiting Nagasaki, Glover House is a must-visit. Before you go, be sure to get yourself a copy of The Glover House of Nagasaki: An Illustrated History. 

Starcrossed: A Biography of Madame Butterfly is published by Eastbridge Books, and is also available from and other retailers.