Mitsui Bussan K.K.
Mitsui Bussan K.K.
Incorporated: 1947 as Daiichi Bussan Kaisha, Ltd.
Sales: ¥ 18.08 trillion (US$ 90.06 billion)
Market Value: ¥ 464.4 billion (US$ 2.313 billion)
Stock Index: Luxembourg Amsterdam Frankfurt Hong
Kong Tokyo Osaka Nagoya Hiroshima Niigata
Fukuoka Kyoto Sapporo
The Mitsui family traces its ancestral lineage to about 1100 A.D., and for its first several hundred years produced successive generations of samurai warriors. By 1650, however, the role of the samurai had changed. Sokubei Mitsui, head of the family, became a chonin, or merchant. He established a soy and sake brewery whose products first became popular in the red-light district of Edo (Tokyo). The business, which passed to his son Takatoshi, later expanded to include a dry-goods store, a pawnshop and a currency exchange which later evolved into a bank. The dry-goods store (named Echigoya in honor of an ancestor) operated on an innovative “cash only” basis with non-negotiable prices. The bank introduced the concept of money orders to Japan. The various Mitsui business ventures continued to grow through the end of the 17th century, particularly the bank, which was selected by the Tokugawa government to be its fiscal agent in Osaka. In the ensuing 150 years Mitsui enterprises prospered in the cities of Edo and Kyoto as well as Osaka.
During the 1860’s the Mitsui financial reserve was nearly depleted. The family took the unprecedented step of hiring an “outsider” named Rizaemon Minomura away from another company in Edo. Minomura was a promising young executive who had demonstrated his talents and had a proven record of success. As an orphan and childhood drifter, he had no allegiance to family or prejudice to social status. Minomura also had a close personal relationship with Kaoru Inoue, a Japanese statesman with considerable influence in government circles. When Mitsui was forced to lend 350,000 ryo (the old Japanese currency) to the failing Tokugawa government Minomura, through his government contacts, managed to secure a government remittance of 320,000 ryo. Having saved the company from ruin, Minomura was promoted to “head clerk,” or chief executive, and given near dictatorial power.
Through an efficient information network, Minomura learned of the impending financial collapse of the Tokugawa government. He redirected support to the opposition Restoration party, a political movement which vowed to reinstate the Meiji government. In return for its support, Mitsui was appointed to manage the party’s finances. After the battle of Tobu-Fushimi in 1868, the feudal government fell and the Meiji emperor Matsuhito was restored to power. Mitsui severed its ties with the Tokugawa rebels and continued to develop intimate relations with Meiji politicians. Mitsui became the official Meiji government banker, a position which greatly increased its influence and ability to expand.
Minomura urged that Mitsui relocate its headquarters from Kyoto to the new capital of Tokyo. He encountered strong resistance from the Mitsui family and the people of Kyoto. Arguing that the company needed to be located at the center of activity in order to survive, Minomura eventually won his point and moved the company to Tokyo in 1873.
In Japan at this time, capital and talented entrepreneurs were concentrated in the hands of a few large, well-diversified companies called zaibatsu, or “money cliques.” The four largest zaibatsu were Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, and Yasuda, all of which controlled large banks. In turn, the banks were directed to provide lowcost capital for financing the zaibatsu’s numerous industrial ventures. In 1874 Mitsui, as the de facto Ministry of Finance, held about ¥3.8 million and US$460,000 for the government, free of interest with no minimum reserve level.
The Meiji government initiated an extensive program of national modernization. Students were sent to the United States and Europe to study modern industrial production methods and bring them back to Japan where they would be applied to government-sponsored enterprises. The modernization program encountered difficulties because the government companies were unable to generate capital for investment and lacked managerial expertise. The zaibatsu companies, which had money and talent, were invited to participate in the modernization program by managing several of the various state enterprises. While still diversified, Mitsui remained primarily involved in banking, Mitsubishi established a shipping empire, and Sumitomo became a major copper producer.
During a Tokugawa rebellion at Satsuma the government commissioned Mitsui to provide about two-thirds of the army’s provisions. Within a year the company’s wealth had grown from ¥100,000 to ¥500,000. Hachiroemon Mitsui, the head of the family, was appointed by the government to at least 15 managerial positions in state enterprises. In the meantime, Inoue helped Minomura to consolidate his position in the company by informing him of impending changes in government policy. But while Hachiroemon Mitsui took credit for many of the company’s new ventures, it was actually Rizaemon Minomura who planned and executed them.
It is not true that Mitsui was only as successful as it was because of its close relationship with the government. Two other wealthy families from the Tokugawa period, Ono and Shimada, encountered financial difficulties and later collapsed. Mitsui was successful because it was well organized and did not retain incompetent managers just because they were family members.
After Mitsui began to trade internationally in 1874, its business took a turn for the worse. It was unprepared to compete with larger foreign companies which had established trading networks and the benefit of protected colonial markets. By 1876 Minomura considered closing the international venture.
At this time Kaoru Inoue, who had previously left government service to pursue a career in industry, decided to return to politics. In order to avoid an explicit conflict of interest he was forced to sell Senshusha the company he established in 1872. Senshusha did a great deal of business with the government, which was considered an excellent customer. It was also managed by a respected administrator named Takashi Masuda. Inoue offered to sell Senshusha to Mitsui (which was certain to continue funding his political aspirations). It was also considered a personal favor to Minomura. Mitsui, after all, badly needed the talents of Masuda, who had gained considerable experience in international trade while working for an American company.
In July of 1876 Senshusha was merged with Kokusangata Karihonten, the Mitsui “temporary” head office for domestic trade located in Tokyo, and renamed Mitsui Bussan Kaisha (the Mitsui Trading Company). Takashi Masuda was placed in charge of the Bussan, and the following year took over as head clerk when Minomura died at the age of 56.
Shortly before Minomura died, Mitsui Bussan was appointed as marketing agent for high grade coal from the government’s Miike mine, which it later purchased. In order to facilitate the profitable export of coal to China, the Bussan established a small office in Shanghai, its first foreign outpost.
In 1877 Mitsui Bussan was asked to supply military provisions to government forces in Kyushu during another samurai rebellion called the Seinan War. The conflict generated a ¥200,000 profit for the company, which was later used to finance the opening of additional Bussan branch offices in Hong Kong (1878) and New York (1879).
In 1882 Takeo Yamabe, an agent for the Osaka Textile Company, chose Mitsui to handle a purchasing transaction with two British textile machinery companies. Over the next few years the Bussan continued to purchase British textile machinery, primarily from Platt & Company. It became the exclusive Japanese agent for Platt in 1886. The Bussan’s imports of textile machinery (mostly spindles) averaged between ¥25,000 and ¥46,000 in the years 1885-87, but rose to ¥270,000 in 1888.
In order to meet the sudden demand for cotton in Japan, Mitsui began to import cotton from Shanghai in 1887. When less expensive cotton of a higher quality became available from India, Mitsui dispatched an agent to Bombay, where a representative office was opened in 1892. By 1897 Mitsui accounted for over 30% of Japan’s cotton imports. In 1900 the Bussan began to import American cotton through its New York office.
Mitsui relied heavily on the shipping services of Mitsubishi. Since it operated a monopoly in maritime transportation, Mitsubishi was free to charge highly inflated rates for its services. Companies such as Mitsui, which were heavily dependent on shipping, suffered greatly at the hands of Mitsubishi. When Eiichi Shibusawa, an “enemy” of Mitsubishi’s founder Yátaro Iwasaki, decided that he would no longer tolerate the monopoly practices, he proposed to Masuda that Mitsui help him to establish a rival shipping company. What ensued has been described as one of the most publicized and deadly episodes of competition in Japanese economic history.
In 1880 Mitsui participated in the establishment of the Tokyo Fuhansen (Sailing Ship) Company. A year later it appeared that Mitsubishi had succeeded in driving Fuhansen out of business. Determined to prevail, Shibusawa enlisted additional support from Masuda and Kaoru Inoue. In 1882, they arranged the formation of a new company called Kyodo Unyu (United Transport) in which Fuhansen was merged with a number of smaller shipping companies. The previous year Mitsubishi lost its “protector” in the government, Count Okuma. Iwasaki’s enemies in government seized upon the Count’s death as an opportunity to retaliate against Mitsubishi. The government provided Kyodo Unyu with trained shipping crews and increased the company’s capitalization by 75%. Over the next two years fares on the Kobe-Yokohama passenger route dropped from 5.5 to 0.25 yen.
By 1885 the resources of both Mitsubishi and Kyodo Unyu were almost completely depleted. It was at this point that Shibusawa proposed that the government impose regulation of the industry. Unknown to him, however, Yátaro Iwasaki had secretly purchased over half of the shares of Kyodo Unyu. He merged the company with Mitsubishi and renamed it the Nihon Yusen Kaisha (Japan Shipping Company), or NYK. Both Shibusawa and Masuda, who remained major shareholders or NYK were denied managerial roles in the new company, and both felt humiliation from their failure to defeat Mitsubishi.
Mitsui Bussan also emerged from the battle with Mitsubishi financially exhausted. Once again Masuda approached Inoue, who managed to secure a government loan to the Mitsui Bank on the condition that Masuda would be replaced by Hikojiro Nakamigawa, a former English teacher at Keio College who had quickly risen to become president of the Sanyo Railway Company. Masuda accepted Inoue’s conditions, but remained with the company.
In the meantime, Eiichi Shibusawa continued to challenge NYK by organizing subsequent shipping companies, all of which failed. However, the Oji Paper Company, which he established in 1875, had become quite successful. Shibusawa persuaded Nakamigawa to increase the Bussan’s investment in Oji Paper until it acquired a majority in 1890. Almost completely by surprise, Nakamigawa had Shibusawa and his talented nephew Okawa removed from the company. Mitsui took over control of Oji Paper and Shibusawa, defeated a second time, retired.
Chosen to reform Mitsui, Nakamigawa had the company’s charter amended in 1896 to include shipping. Two years later several other transport-related operations were added, including warehousing and insurance. Although Nakamigawa died in 1901, his plans for Mitsui to enter maritime transport continued under Masuda. In 1903 a separate division for shipping was established. By the time the Bussan was formally incorporated in 1910, it had entered a number of new businesses; it was no longer just a trading company.
Mitsui Bussan profited greatly during World War I. On several occasions the Mitsui Bank called in outstanding loans from other creditors in order to finance the Bussan’s numerous ventures. In 1917 the company created the Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding Company which manufactured many ships for the transport division.
As a result of numerous international treaties signed after the war, Japan became a more influential power in Asia. Only 50 years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan began to imitate the industrialized West in another way by “exporting” capital (or making large capital investments in its colonial possessions) to Formosa (Taiwan), Chosen (Korea), and Manchukuo (Manchuria). Mitsui was an active participant in the development of these areas by helping to establish an industrial infrastructure.
Takashi Masuda, who was advancing in age, relinquished his responsibilities to Takuma Dan, a former government engineer from the Miike coal mine. Although he was not trained as a businessman, Dan was a highly disciplined manager. During the 1920’s the number of companies under the Bussan’s control quadrupled. Toward the end of the decade, however, extreme rightwing militarists initiated a terrorist campaign against the traditional establishment. Mitsui, the largest zaibatsu, was frequently attacked because it came to symbolize the democratic capitalist establishment in Japan. In 1932 Takuma Dan was assassinated by a rightist “young officers” group.
Mitsui elected Seihin Ikeda to succeed Dan, but this did not prevent further attacks. Right-wing militarists subsequently assassinated hundreds more moderate politicians, industrialists, and military officers. Perhaps under threat, Mitsui ceased trading a number of agricultural products and offered a substantial amount of stock in its subsidiaries to the public. In 1933 the Bussan established a ¥30 million fund for the promotion of social services and relief of the “distressed.” After the February Incident, an isolated but serious mutiny of rightist officers in 1936, the Mitsui family announced that it would cease to participate in the management of the Bussan.
In order to appease critics of “democratic industrialism” who were rapidly coming to power, many of the zaibatsu openly participated in the development of a Junsenji Keizai, or “quasi-war-time economy.” As a result, several zaibatsu directly benefitted from the government’s increased investment in heavy industry. The military/industrial establishment grew rapidly after Japanese forces invaded China in 1937. That year Mitsui launched the Toyota Motor Corporation and Showa Aircraft Industry Company. Mitsui Bussan had become the largest and most powerful conglomerate in the world, employing 2.8 million people.
Like nearly all Japanese companies, Mitsui played an active role in the Japanese war effort, helping to develop shipping, railways, mining, chemical and metallurgical industries, and electrical generation. The company was active in every country under Japanese occupation. By 1943, however, it was realized that Japan had no chance of winning the war. When the mainland of Japan became exposed to aerial bombings, major factories and industrial enterprises were primary targets.
When the war ended in September of 1945, Japan had been almost completely destroyed. All of Mitsui Bussan’s major facilities were severely damaged. The entire nation was placed under the command of a military occupation authority, called “SCAP,” for Supreme Commander of Allied Powers. Representatives of the zaibatsu convinced President Truman’s envoy John Foster Dulles that, if properly administered, a “generous” peace treaty would ensure that Japan would become a reliable American ally in the Far East. Nonetheless, SCAP reorganized Japanese industry on the American model of organization and enacted an “Anti-Monopoly Law.” Since they were considered monopolies, the zaibatsu were ordered dissolved. Mitsui Bussan was broken into over 180 separate companies, none of which were allowed to use the prewar Mitsui logo.
Mitsui Bussan was divided into the “new” Mitsui Bussan (called the Nitto Warehousing Company), Daiichi Bussan, Nippon Machinery Trading, Tokyo Food Products, and a dozen smaller firms. The Mitsui Bank, which during the war was merged with the Daiichi and Daijugo Banks to form the Teikoku Bank, was split into two banks, Mitsui and Daiichi. Mitsui Mining was reorganized and renamed Mitsui Metal Mining. Nettai Sangyo and Mitsui Wood Vessels dissolved, and Mitsui Lumber was absorbed by the new Bussan. Affiliated companies such as Tokyo Shibaura Electric (later called Toshiba) and Toyota were made fully independent. Finally, all coordination of activities through a honsha, or parent company, was strictly prohibited.
Despite the various prohibitions, leaders of the former Mitsui zaibatsu companies remained in close contact; 27 of them formed a monthly luncheon group called the Getsuyo-kai (Monday Conference). The anti-monopoly laws were subsequently weakened by Japanese acts of legislation in 1949 and 1953. After the Korean War (1950-1953) the laws were further relaxed and many of the zaibatsu, including Mitsui, began to reform under the direction of their former subsidiary banks. Even the Mitsui logo (the Japanese character “three” surrounded by a diagonal square, representing “wellspring”) came back into use. Nitto Warehousing began to absorb some of its former component companies in 1951, and in 1952 adopted the name New Mitsui Bussan. Daiichi absorbed the remaining companies between 1951 and 1957, and in 1958 was itself merged with the New Mitsui Bussan, which dropped “New” from its name.
The new zaibatsu, called keiretsu (banking conglomerates) or sogo shosha (trading companies), lacked the strict vertical discipline of the prewar organization. Mitsui completed its reassembly and transition into a sogo shosha by 1960.
As the Bussan’s various subsidiary industries consolidated their operations, their quasi-honsha parent company began to establish offices in many foreign countries, even ones with which Japan had no formal diplomatic ties. As it did before the war, Mitsui’s foreign offices functioned as unofficial Japanese consulates.
A second meeting group called the Nimoku-kai was established in 1960. Members of this group later included Toyota, Toshiba, and many of the Getsuyo-kai members. Together with the Getsuyo-kai, which included Toyo Menka Kaisha, Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries, Showa Aircraft, and Oji Paper, among others, the Nimoku-kai enabled Mitsui to coordinate the activities of the former zaibatsu affiliates.
In order to expand its heavy industry sector Mitsui purchased the Kinoshita Sansho steel company in 1965. Kinoshita’s operations were later merged with Mitsui’s Japan Steel Works, Ltd., which was established in 1907. During the 1960’s Mitsui helped to develop the Robe River mine in Western Australia, which provides most of the iron ore for the Mitsui steel mills in Japan. Other Australian ventures followed, including another iron ore mine at Mount Newman and a bauxite mine at Gove. These projects led to the creation of a larger joint venture with AMAX in 1973 called Alumax, which produces aluminum in the United States.
Mitsui became a major petrochemical company in 1958. The chemical division, Mitsui Koatsu, sold not only its products, but its production technologies. The Iran Japan Petrochemical Complex at Bandar Khomeini (formerly Bandar-e-Shapur) was begun in 1973. Since 1980, however, it has been a frequent target of Iraqi air strikes. If and when it is ever completed, it promises to be the largest chemical plant in the Middle East.
Several of Mitsui’s former subsidiaries, while remaining associated companies, resisted amalgamation with the parent company because each company’s management board wanted to avoid interference from Mitsui; they did not want to be placed into a larger industrial scheme which would reduce their independence. Associated companies, such as Onoda Cement, Toyo Manka, Sapporo Breweries, and Oji Paper, which permitted a more embracing relationship with Mitsui, found the amalgamation difficult to bear. Managers of these companies were given subordinate positions in Mitsui and their opinions carried significantly less weight. In 1973 three other companies, Toshiba, Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, and Mitsukoshi, rejoined Mitsui by accepting membership in the Nimoku-kai. Other larger and more successful associated companies, such as Toyota and Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries, are not expected to join the Nimoku-kai as full members.
Mitsui has a strong presence in Brazil, where it is involved in the production of steel, coffee, soybeans, maize, and fertilizer. As an example of Mitsui’s diverse mix of products and geography, the company produces lumber and trawls for shrimp in Indonesia, raises chickens in Korea, manufactures chemicals in Belgium, plastics in Portugal, nylon in Kenya, paper in Singapore, refines sugar and makes automobile tires in Thailand, and mines copper in Peru and coal in Australia.
Despite the anti-monopoly laws (many of which are still carried on the books in Japan) Mitsui today has regained virtually all of its prewar grandeur. As one of the world’s largest commercial enterprises, Mitsui has both the resources and ability to develop and apply new technologies in any field it wishes to enter. The fact that Mitsui has survived the conditions it has experienced in the last 120 years indicates that it is likely to remain as successful in the future as it has been in the past.
Principal Subsidiaries: (Japan)
Toyo Shoji Co.; Toyo Wire, Ltd.; Toyo Officemation, Inc.; Mitsui Liquified Gas Co., Ltd.; Mitsui Oil Co., Ltd.; Kanto Denka Kaisha, Ltd.; Daiichi Reizo Co., Ltd.; K.K. Ichirei; Sangyo Kogyo Co., Ltd.; Mikuni Coca-Cola Bottling Co., Ltd.; Bussan Fudosan K.K.; Mitsui Lumber Co., Ltd.; Mitsui Bussan Forestry Co., Ltd.; Mitsui Concrete Industrial Co., Ltd.; Chita Futo K.K.; Daiichi Tanker Co., Ltd.; Kinoshita & Co., Ltd.; Bussan Credit Co., Ltd.; Fuji Works, Ltd.; Kokusai Oil & Chemical Co., Ltd.; Nihon Dennetsu Co., Ltd.; Mitsui Bussan Machine Tool Co., Ltd.; Kyoto Brass Co., Ltd.; K.K. Shinsei; K.K. Gumma Coil Center; Sanyu Foods Co., Ltd.; Mitsui Knowledge Industry Co., Ltd.
Principal Subsidiaries: (Foreign)
Thirty companies in ten countries, including: Mitsui-C. Itoh Iron Pty., Ltd. (Australia); Mitsui Iron Ore Pty., Ltd. (Australia); Mitsui Salt Pty., Ltd. (Australia); Mitsui Tubular Products, Inc. (USA); Ocean Packing Corp. (USA); United Grain Corp. (USA).
Sixty-seven in Japan, including: The Mitsui Bank, Ltd.; Mitsui Mutual Life Insurance Co.; Toyo Menka Kaisha, Ltd.; Taisho Marine & Fire Insurance Co., Ltd.; Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., Ltd.; Toshiba Corp.; Toyota Motor Corp.; Toray Industries, Inc.; Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd. Twelve in seven foreign countries, including Mitsui & Co. (USA).
Further Reading: Mitsui
Three Centuries of Japanese Business by John G. Roberts, New York, Weatherhill, 1973.