Iwai & Co. Ltd. dates back to a general trading firm in Osaka dealing with foreign goods founded in 1862 by Bunsuke Iwai, the father-in-law of Katsujiro Iwai . Entering the company as an apprentice, Katsujiro Iwai learned about Western culture through his visits to the foreign settlement in Kobe. In 1896, Katsujiro Iwai set up business on his own and founded Iwai & Co. Ltd. He was always dissatisfied with the unequal trade practices in the settlement, and so he became the first businessman in Osaka to start trading directly with foreign firms. At the time, trading accounts with foreign trading houses were often paid via the Spanish dollar system. However, Iwai approached Korekiyo Takahashi, the then-Vice-President of the Yokohama Specie Bank who would go on to become Prime Minister, and received approval to import goods directly via trust receipt—a first for an individual business owner. Katsujiro Iwai began by primarily importing steel products, later becoming a wholesale dealer for Yawata Steel Works at the start of their operations.
Katsujiro Iwai advanced into the manufacturing business. When foreign imports stopped during World War I, he took the opportunity to develop a plan for imported goods to be produced domestically. The companies founded by Katsujiro include what are now Toabo Corporation, Nisshin Steel Co., Ltd., Daicel Corporation, Tokuyama Corporation, Kansai Paint Co., Ltd., and Japan Bridge Corporation. These companies continue, even today, to maintain contact through the “Saisho-kai,” an association of companies affiliated with Katsujiro.
Katsujiro foresaw the post-World War I recession, cautioning his employees “not to speculate,” “to focus on the balance between human beings, capital and management” and “remember that ‘it is far better to do few things well’” in an effort to practice solid management. He dedicated himself to Zen, and it is said he was able to overcome the recession and subsequent financial depression thanks to his management style, which introduced the spirit of Zen to corporate management. In his later years, Katsujiro founded the “Nagaoka Zen Juku,” a zen training center in the city of Nagaokakyo, Kyoto.
Iwai & Co. Ltd. changed its name to Iwai Sangyo Co. Ltd. during World War II and President Iwai Yujiro was later appointed as the advisor to the Trade Agency following the war. When Japan entered a period of rapid economic growth in 1955, Iwai Sangyo started to import iron ore from Brazil’s Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (currently, Vale S.A.). In 1962, Iwai Sangyo signed a 15-year contract with the Brazilian company regarding exports to Japan, which contributed to the supply of steel (called the “bread and butter of industry”) needed for Japan’s rapid economic growth. Iron ore continues to be Brazil’s largest export item today. In this sense, Iwai Sangyo can be said to have contributed to laying the foundation for Brazil’s iron ore industry.
In 1968, Iwai Sangyo merged with Nissho Co., Ltd., making a new start as Nissho Iwai Corporation.