Mitsubishi Corporation

vol.2 Mitsubishi's Foundations Underpinned by Strong Sense of Honor

Our Roots A history of rising to the challenge

vol.2 Mitsubishi's Foundations Underpinned by Strong Sense of Honor

Iwasaki Family Tree - Yaziro Iwasaki / Yataro(Founder of Mitsubishi) / Hisaya(Third President) / Yanosuke(Second President) / Koyata(Fourth President) Photos courtesy of the Mitsubishi Archive

Our Roots talked with Mitsubishi History Analyst and former Mitsubishi Corporation (MC) employee Seiichi Narita about Mitsubishi Founder Yataro Iwasaki and the values that were passed on at Mitsubishi over the generations.

Remarkable Foresight Set Yataro Apart

Interest in Yataro Iwasaki has been growing due to the popularity of NHK's historical drama Ryoma Den ("The Tale of Ryoma Sakamoto*").

Many people I know are not very pleased with the way that Yataro has been portrayed in Ryoma Den, but a drama is a drama, and as such it is not required to stick to historical facts.

* Ryoma Sakamoto is a heroic figure from Japanese history during the days leading up to the Meiji Restoration.

What was Yataro really like?

He cannot be described in a single word. Yataro was extremely sharp and driven to learn; he was tenacious, unyielding and had an indomitable spirit. He hated to lose, but also possessed a broad outlook. However, what was most amazing about Yataro was his remarkable foresight. For example, he sent his brother Yanosuke to study in the U.S. at a time when Christianity was strictly forbidden in Japan. After having interacted with foreign traders in Nagasaki and learning the great scope of the world, Yataro sensed the wave of impending change and therefore sought to equip his successor with international sensibilities. Yataro had been raised in extreme poverty, but under the influence of his mother, he set his sights on academic pursuits and eventually secured a chance to go to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). People were struck by the ravenous appetite he had for learning. One former classmate left the following testimonial: "He read everything he could get his hands on; no one could match his powers of concentration".

When did Yataro get the opportunity to demonstrate his aptitude for business?

Yataro's studies in Edo were cut short because of some problems involving his father. After that, Yataro went through some tough times, but he caught a break in 1867 when he was sent to work in Nagasaki for the second time. This was also when he met Ryoma Sakamoto. Two years later, he was sent to Osaka and placed in a position of overseeing Tsukumo Shokai, a trading company established by the Tosa Clan. Yataro took an active role in managing the business, and in 1873, he changed the company's name to Mitsubishi Shokai. The turning point really came the next year. The government was having trouble finding someone to transport troops and supplies to Taiwan when Mitsubishi was finally chosen for the task. Mitsubishi accepted the job, despite the risks, based on the belief that the company owed its very existence to the nation. The operation was a success, thereby earning Mitsubishi the confidence of the government. Mitsubishi grew further to become Japan's leading shipping enterprise after continuing to support the government during the Satsuma Rebellion. Still, Yataro was not satisfied. "Out of ten things I set out to do, I have only accomplished one or two," said Yataro, before dying of cancer at the young age of 50. Yataro's oldest son Hisaya was still quite young, so Yataro's brother Yanosuke stepped in to run the company like a "one-out reliever" until Hisaya was ready.