When Commodore Perry’s fleet arrived in Japan, the country had no modern industries to speak of. Later, Japan transformed into a creditor nation with a trade surplus, joining the ranks of developed countries. Sojitz’s three predecessor companies—Suzuki & Co., Iwai & Co., and Japan Cotton Trading— led Japan’s industrial revolution on a national scale over the Meiji and Taisho Eras with innovative ideas and entrepreneurial spirit to develop a range of businesses in Japan. Sojitz carries on this enterprising DNA. This story explores the history that defines Sojitz.
This historical account is based on archived materials from the companies and organizations involved.
While Sojitz strives for historical accuracy, certain expressions and depictions have been adapted for the manga.
In addition, character dialogue is fundamentally based on historic quotes, but also includes conjecture.
Naokichi Kaneko served as head clerk at Suzuki & Co., while Katsujiro Iwai became the first president at Iwai & Co. Both men frequented Kobe’s foreign settlement, where they became painfully aware of Japan’s lowly status. Kaneko and Iwai understood that Japan would need to industrialize in order to join the ranks of developed countries and be taken seriously. Inequities at the foreign settlement would become a springboard for future change.
Suzuki & Co. faced a major bankruptcy crisis after Kaneko pursued an unsuccessful futures contract for camphor with foreign merchants. Suzuki’s female business owner, Yone Suzuki, comes to the rescue. Kaneko is then even more motivated to work for the Suzuki family and better Japan.
Iwai begun trading directly with overseas trading firms for the first as an independently owned business in Japan without going through the foreign settlement in Kobe.
Despite inequities, both Kaneko and Iwai received an early introduction to celluloid, artificial silk, and other industrial products at the foreign settlement in Kobe. Eventually, Kaneko and Iwai developed a strong mission to move beyond imports and manufacture goods in Japan.
Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s political and economic center moved to Tokyo. A strong sense of crisis grew among Osaka’s merchants, who gathered together under Tomoatsu Godai known as the father of Osaka’s economy. Shingoro Hirooka, a wealthy merchant of Kajimaya, established Amagasaki Spinning (today’s Unitika Ltd.) together with other merchants in Osaka after a pivotal discussion with his wife Asako Hirooka. Shingoro Hirooka went on to become president of Amagasaki Spinning. Unfortunately, there were limited raw cotton supplies for the large-scale Western spinning machines. The heads of the cotton spinning industry approached prominent business leader Eiichi Shibusawa who spoke with the Minister for Agriculture and Commerce, Shigenobu Okuma. The minister then dispatched Tsuneki Sano to lead a cotton expedition to India. However, since the foreign settlement in Kobe controlled Indian cotton, Shingoro Hirooka and other cotton spinning executives joined forces with Osaka’s merchants to establish Japan Cotton Trading (later Nichimen Corporation) in 1892 as Japan’s first cotton trading company.
After the end of the Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan became a territory under the rule of the Japanese government. Suzuki & Co. subsequently entered Taiwan with the objective of extracting camphor from camphor trees. At the time, camphor was in high demand for use in explosives and as a plasticizer to manufacture celluloid, which was the world’s first plastic. Suzuki & Co. was granted the rights to sell Taiwan’s camphor oil by Count Shimpei Goto, Taiwan’s head of civilian affairs. In 1901, Suzuki & Co. set up a camphor factory (today’s Nippon Fine Chemical) in Kobe as its first manufacturing business. In the same period, Suzuki & Co. also established a menthol factory (today’s Suzuki Menthol) in Kobe after discovering an abundance of mint in Japan. Camphor and menthol eventually became Kobe’s leading exports.
Iwai & Co, which was a major importer of celluloid product and turned its attention to camphor in Taiwan. In order to domestically manufacture celluloid, Iwai & Co. established Nippon Celluloid and Artificial Silk Co., Ltd. (today’s Daicel Corporation) in Aboshi, Hyogo. Foreign engineers were invited to the factory and celluloid production began. However, the manufacturing process did not go smoothly. Iwai then successfully restructured the business with Japanese management. Celluloid would go on to become one of Japan’s major exports.
Japan Cotton Trading’s first president Tsuneki Sano attempted to procure cotton from India, but was frustrated by Japan’s dependence on foreign ships for transportation. In order to break free from these constraints, Sano worked with the influential Eiichi Shibusawa to negotiate with India’s Tata Group, and Japan Cotton Trading succeeded in establishing a direct shipping route operated by Nippon Yusen (today’s NYK Line) between Japan’s Kobe and India’s Bombay. Japan Cotton Trading’s second president was Ichibe Tanaka, who sent Matazo Kita—a young employee who had just joined the company—to India to organize cotton procurement for the company. Japan Cotton Trading eventually secured its status as the top importer of Indian cotton. Kita also embarked on an expedition to China and later convinced the board of directors at Japan Cotton Trading to establish a branch office in Shanghai. Under Kita’s leadership, the company took the initiative to begin cotton procurement from the world’s largest cotton supplier—the U.S.
Suzuki & Co. handled imported sugar from the time the company was first founded, procuring sugar domestically from Nihon Seito Corporation. However, Nihon Seito’s arrogant behavior was even more infuriating than the merchants at the foreign trade settlement. Suzuki & Co. therefore made the decision to manufacture sugar on its own, establishing the Dairi Sugar Refining Co. in the Dairi district of Kitakyushu.
Diairi Sugar Refining Co. quickly got on track, and the company began taking over Nihon Seito’s share of the market in no time at all. Alarmed, Nihon Seito offered to buyout the company, and Suzuki & Co. sold Dairi Sugar Refining Co. to make a huge profit and acquire sales distribution rights. Later, Nihon Seito faced a financial crisis. Despite Eiichi Shibusawa offering Kaneko the post of president to implement reforms to the company, Kaneko surprisingly refused the offer.
Katsujiro Iwai of Iwai & Co. developed an admiration for steel and Western-style clothing during his travels to the West. Iwai & Co. would go on to use imported yarn to begin a jersey manufacturing business (currently Toabo Corporation). After the government-operated Yahata Steel Works began operations, Iwai & Co. started to participate in management of Osaka’s Zinc Co., Ltd. (Zinc Co., Ltd. was later renamed Nisshin Steel Co., Ltd. before becoming today’s Nippon Steel Corporation), and Katsujiro Iwai would go on to become president of the company.
Suzuki & Co.’s Naokichi Kaneko established Kobe Steel. Kaemon Tamiya was selected to manage Kobe Steel, but the company remained in the red. Naokichi Kaneko used his connections in Tosa and Satsuma to successfully receive an order from the Kure Naval Arsenal, which successfully launched the business on a path to success.
After successfully establishing the Dairi Sugar Refining Co. in Kitayushu, Suzuki & Co. established the Dairi Flour Mill (currently NIPPN Corporation) in anticipation of the Westernization of the Japanese diet. An accomplished milling engineer joined forces with Suzuki & Co. Additionally, Suzuki & Co. established Imperial Beer (currently Sapporo Beer) as well as the Dairi Sake Brewery (currently Nikka Whisky Moji factory) for producing shochu and other alcohol.
Later, Suzuki & Co. expanded its portfolio of businesses to include salt, tobacco, and even life insurance. Suzuki finally possessed its own ships to travel the seven seas.
Meanwhile, in the city of Yonezawa, Itsuzo Hata and Seita Kumura were deeply immersed in research on the production of artificial silk. Sample products were finally completed. However, there would be a long road ahead to commercialization that would require further dedication and the support of Naokichi Kaneko.
The Taisho Era would follow.
After traveling around the world, Japan Cotton Trading’s Matazo Kita returns to Japan. He directs the company to expand exports to include not only cotton thread, but cloth as well. Due to the outbreak of WWI, the market takes a downturn. The cotton spinning industry is forced to cut back on operations, and exports from Europe decline. Japan Cotton anticipates a substantial increase in orders with Europe embroiled in the war, which proves to be an accurate prediction. This opportunity helps to propel Japan’s spinning industry forward.
When wool imports from Australia are banned as a result of the war, Kita dispatches his Japan Cotton Trading employees across the world to Argentina and Uruguay. At the time, German ships frequently appeared on the east coast of South America to threaten Allied steamers. Employees from Japan Cotton Trading therefore entered Chile via the Andes Mountains, where they succeed in procuring wool ahead of other countries. Kita correctly predicts a protracted war and encourages his team to focus on India in the east and Burma and Africa in the west.
When WWI breaks out, the celluloid factory in Hyogo Prefecture’s Aboshi comes under military rule. Katsujiro Iwai recognizes the importance of celluloid and decides to establish a new celluloid factory that will be independently run by Iwai & Co.
Iwai establishes Sen’i Kogyo Co., Ltd. (currently Daicel’s Kanzaki Plant) in Kanzaki, Amagasaki. When the war disrupts imports of galvanized sheet iron, Iwai also establishes a new factory (later to become Nisshin Steel Co., Ltd.) in Yamaguchi Prefecture’s Tokuyama to domestically manufacture previously imported sheet iron.
Suzuki & Co. had dispatched its best talent to countries around the world to create its own independent network. With the outbreak of WWI, Naokichi Kaneko uses the telegrams from Suzuki employees around the world to assess the global situation and actual demand. Kaneko famously issues the command to “buy any steel at any quantity and any price!” With this procured steel, Suzuki commissions ships to be built and Kaneko consults Kojiro Matsukata, the president of Kawasaki Shipbuilding Corporation, on how Suzuki should make its entry into the shipbuilding business.
Suzuki establishes Harima Dock Co., Ltd. in Aioi, Hyogo Prefecture.
Kokichiro Mikimoto (the “Pearl King”) requests that Suzuki take on a new project, and Suzuki thus acquires Toba Shipyard (today’s Sinfonia Technology Co., Ltd.) The ships built by Suzuki go on to sail around the world as part of the fleet of Teikoku Kisen Kaisha.
Naokichi Kaneko is perplexed when Kobe’s foreign merchants ask him to collect large volumes of fish oil. Kaneko enlists Shiro Kubota, a new employee at Suzuki & Co., to investigate. Kubota finds that the Westerners are making a fortune by adding hydrogen to the fish oil in order to create candles, soap, glycerin, and oleic acid. Kaneko directs Kubota to research how Suzuki might begin its own domestic production of fish oil-based products. Suzuki invests a vast sum of money into the research and establishes Suzuki & Co.’s Hyogo Oil Refinery (currently NOF Corporation). Suzuki eventually succeeds in as the first company in Japan to mass produce hydrogenated oils.
Kaneko also meets the world traveler Shozo Yorioka. Together, they begin a rubber tree cultivation business in Sarawak (today’s Malaysia). Suzuki establishes a rubber manufacturing plant in Minume, Kobe. The plant goes on to become Nippon Ringyo Company (today’s Nichirin Co., Ltd.)