JAPANESE SAMURAI / IWASAKI Yataro

JULY 2021 (VOL. 165)

岩崎弥太郎 IWASAKI Yataro

1835 – 1885

An entrepreneur who got No.1 in the shipping industry in just a few decades

Young Yataro was Mischievous and Intelligent

Iwasaki Yataro was born in 1835 in Tosa no Kuni (Kochi Prefecture).  His family was originally a low-ranked samurai and had been suffering from poverty that Yataro’s great-grandfather even had to sell his social class as a samurai to make money to live.  Since then, Yataro’s family became part of the lower-ranked status called Ronin.  Ronin is a group of people who do not have a job nor masters.  When Yataro was a kid, he was a naughty and mischievous boy.  His nickname was “WaruTaro,” which meant “a boy who only does bad things.”  He messed up fields while playing with friends, surprised neighbors by making a fuss that he had seen a ghost, and almost caused a forest fire when he lit the straw for a trap to catch a raccoon.  On the other hand, there also are heartwarming stories about Yataro.  One day, when he heard rumors that someone was stealing firewood from the village, Yataro went out saying he would get them punished.  But then he found out the criminal was a poor old woman and ended up helping her pick up firewood and sent her to the house.  Yataro was a troublemaker that irritated others, but he also was merciful and had a kind heart.  He started to have an interest in studying when he was seven.  He was good at history and Chinese poetry.  He had gotten a prize by writing poems praising the Lord.

Sold Mountains to Study, and Study Even in Prison

At the age of 15, Yataro started to pursue his desire to study.  He always dreamed of going to Edo(the capital of Japan at the time) so he could get a better education.  When Yataro was 20, one of Yataro’s friends, Okumiya Keisai, was elected to transfer to Edo.  Taking this as a great opportunity, Yataro asked and convinced him to take him with him.  Yataro’s parents sold their ancestral mountain to make expenses for Yataro’s study trip to Edo.  Although Yataro’s home was poor, his parents, driven by Yataro’s passion for studying, were very supportive.  Yataro studied extremely hard without taking a break, even during the holidays in a private school called Kenzan Juku in Edo.  He wanted to get ahead in business.  However, a year later, he was informed that his father had been seriously injured, so he had to return to Tosa.  His father got involved in a dispute between the headmen of the village and the peasants and was beaten by the headmen of the village.  Yataro immediately appealed to the magistrate’s office that his father didn’t deserve to get injured.  Sadly, no one listened to him, so he was angry and scribbled on the wall of the magistrate’s office, saying, “They must be getting a bribe.”  Then, they put Yataro in prison.  In prison, Yataro learned math and commercial law from a merchant that he met.

Getting Promoted Through Failures

Yataro finished his prison life in Tosa, and still had a passion for studying.  This time, he decided to enter the cram school of Yoshida Toyo, the central figure of the Tosa domain.  Toyo liked how Yataro was studying hard and made him work as an official of Tosa Domain.  Moreover, Yataro was appointed to go to Nagasaki (a bigger town than Tosa) to work.  It was a BIG promotion that suddenly came to Yataro.  However, one day, Yataro spends all the money that Tosa asked him to manage, for women.  Yataro got fired and forced to return to Tosa.  Yataro was so disappointed in himself, that he gave up his studying career and began work on cotton cultivation and selling mountain trees.  Opportunities easy go, easy come! Shojiro Goto, who studied together at Toyo’s cram school, took up a key position in the Tosa domain and hired Yataro to work together at Kaiseikan, trading gate.  Shojiro noticed Yataro’s business talent and knowledge, which he learned from the merchant in prison.  Yataro was even appointed as the person in charge of the Nagasaki office.  Yataro’s job was to negotiate with foreigners to raise funds.  Around this time, Yataro met Sakamoto Ryoma and was also working as an accountant for his company.

Established a Private Company

As the center of trade business moved from Nagasaki to Osaka, Yataro, who worked in Nagasaki, also moved to Osaka to work as the person in charge at the Osaka office.  During this era, companies, which managed directly by the domain, could be banned by the government anytime, so Yataro renamed this Osaka Office, and it was reborn as Yataro’s sole proprietorship, called “Mitsubishi Shokai.”  Mitsubishi mainly worked in the shipping industry where there had a strong rival.  This rival was receiving a lot of investment from the big merchants, and even the government was supporting them.  To confront this powerful rival, Yataro put an effort into educating employees.  He made all the employees who still had the pride as samurai wear Mitsubishi happi coats, and taught them “Don’t think you go down on your knees for people, think it’s for money.”  It sounds like he was a strict CEO, but Yataro actually was merciful and thoughtful of the employees.  Yataro was the first to give a bonus in Japan when Mitsubishi won the price competition with a foreign company, saying that “this victory is the result of the efforts of you all.”  Mitsubishi is still one of the largest companies in Japan.

Beat the Rival and Became the Pirate King!

In 1874, Japan needed ships to send troops to Taiwan.  While the rival company refused to provide ships because the reward was too small for the risk, Yataro accepted this job.  In the end, Mitsubishi made a huge success by lending ships and got offers from the government that Mitsubishi was free to use 13 government ships.  In terms of the number of ships and the spirit of service, Mitsubishi overwhelmed its rival.  Subsequently, Mitsubishi also challenged foreign companies.  Yataro and his employees persistently cut the cost to take clients away from their rivals, even with reducing their salaries.  Mitsubishi succeeded in making a huge fortune in just a few years, so it invested in many other businesses and became a large industrial capital.  Eiichi Shibusawa, also known as the father of Japanese capitalism, decided to unite with several other shipping companies to beat Mitsubishi.  The battle got tangled to the point where both of them almost went bankrupt.  Meanwhile, Yataro suffered from stomach cancer and died at the age of 50.  After Yataro’s death, the two companies eventually merged into one.

Suspicion of an Assassin?!

The assassination of Ryoma Sakamoto is one of the biggest mysteries in Japanese history.  The person who allegedly assassinated Ryoma Sakamoto is still unknown, and there is a theory that it was Yataro.  Ryoma was from the Tosa domain, the same as Yataro.  He ran a trading company called Kaientai and needed someone to help this company, and Yataro took that part.  Yataro lent money to Ryoma and Kaientai and undertook negotiations as an accountant.  Yataro was too busy helping Ryoma and his company to do his job for his company.  After Ryoma got assassinated, Kaientai disbanded.  After that, Yataro set up his own company and went straight to the path of success.  From this, it is said that Yataro was profitable from the death of Ryoma.