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Toshiya Iwasaki

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Second Son of a Second Son

Toshiya Iwasaki

Toshiya Iwasaki
(1881-1930)

Two brothers, Yataro and Yanosuke Iwasaki, and their eldest sons, Hisaya and Koyata, led the Mitsubishi organization from its founding in 1870 to its dissolution after World War II. But other members of the family also played important roles, especially Toshiya, the second son of Yanosuke and younger brother of Koyata. He established Asahi Glass, the first manufacturer of flat glass in Japan and now the largest in the world.

Toshiya Iwasaki was born in Tokyo in 1881. Born to privilege, Toshiya learned from his strict father the importance of combining an aristocratic bearing with the common touch. The boy eschewed ostentatious attire and even frequented the local public bath. He exerted himself well in athletics and could swim four kilometers (2.5 miles). But his impressive performance in academics, especially in science, is what suggested early that the young Toshiya was destined for great things.

After a year of higher education in Tokyo, Toshiya studied applied chemistry for three years at London University. The knowledge and skills he gained there would shape his later career and would figure large in the story of Japanese industry.

Toshiya launched Asahi Glass at the age of 26. The chemical industry, including glass manufacturing, was an important emphasis for Japan in its race to catch up with the West. Glass manufacturing was a technologically demanding endeavor that had brought several entrepreneurs to ruin. Toshiya relished the challenge but was alert to the possibility of failure. He left "Mitsubishi" out of his company's name so as not to embarrass his family if he proved unsuccessful.

Toshiya threw himself into his work. He seemed to spend all his time in the workplace, discussing product and manufacturing technologies with his engineers. Visitors to the foundry often found him covered head to toe with sand and dust.

Asahi Glass had a predictably difficult beginning and was in the red for its first seven years. Toshiya was too proud to accept government aid but was receptive to imported technology. Asahi Glass used Belgian technology, for example, to produce Japan's first sheet glass. The company also introduced the Lubbers process for glass making from Europe, which promised to help raise quality and productivity in mass production. Toshiya built a plant in Kyushu to put the Lubbers process to work--a bold investment for an entrepreneur who had yet to turn a profit. Even Mitsubishi Bank had refused additional credit as Asahi Glass accumulated losses.

Toshiya's enterprise broke into the black as the new production technology proved successful and as the outbreak of World War I choked off imports of glass. Success emboldened Toshiya Iwasaki and encouraged him to end his company's reliance on imported technologies. He established a research institute to explore original technologies for glass and related chemical products. Asahi Glass published much of the research institute's findings to contribute broadly to industrial development in Japan. Toshiya personally donated large sums to schools and individual researchers. He and his company thus inaugurated the tradition of philanthropy that Asahi Glass continues with its Blue Planet Prize for scientific work on environmental topics.

As Asahi Glass grew, it expanded overseas. China was a rich source of raw materials for glass and a natural site for production. Japanese investment in industrializing Manchuria, where Asahi Glass built its plant, accompanied a regrettable phase in Sino-Japanese relations. But Toshiya earned a reputation for fair and equitable treatment of all employees. He insisted that his managers display the same respect to the local workers that they extended to their fellow expatriates.

Toshiya devoted an increasing portion of his time to Zen Buddhist meditation in his later years. A sign, "Now meditating," often hung outside the door to his personal quarters. He passed away in Kyoto in 1930 en route back to Tokyo after engaging in meditation at a temple in Fukui Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan.