Yataro Iwasaki

The Man Who Started It AllYataro Iwasaki

Yataro Iwasaki (1835-1885)
Yataro Iwasaki (1835-1885)

Yataro Iwasaki was the bold and ambitious entrepreneur who started Mitsubishi. The son of a provincial farmer, Yataro began his career in the employ of the Tosa clan. The clan held business interests in many parts of Japan, which whetted the young man's ambition.

Yataro's great grandfather had sold the family's samurai status to cover debts. Although well off, the ambitious young man knew that the only way to gain true power was education. At 19, Yataro followed an official of the Tosa clan to Edo (Tokyo) to further his studies.

The serious injury of Yataro's father in a dispute with the village headman brought him home from Edo a year later. When the local magistrate refused to hear his case, Yataro accused him of corruption. That landed him in prison for seven months.

Yataro Iwasaki studied under the reformist Toyo Yoshida. It was Yoshida who influenced him with ideas about opening up the then-closed nation and of development and industry. Through his association with Yoshida, Yataro landed a position as a clerk for the Tosa government. He saved diligently and bought back the family's samurai status.

Yoshida's assassination in 1862 caused Yataro to lose his connections. It wasn't until Yoshida's nephew gained status that he was appointed to the clan's trading office in Nagasaki. Yataro rose to the top position at the office in only three months.

His job was to buy ships, weapons, and ammunition for the Tosa clan. Yataro exported camphor oil, Japanese paper and other products to finance those purchases.

The 300-year rule of the Shogunate ended with the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Osaka replaced Nagasaki as the main trading port and Yataro followed the action there. The new government forbid the clans to run businesses. Yataro took over the newly privatized Osaka office, know then as Tsukumo Trading Company, when the Tosa clan disbanded. He accepted part of the clan's debt in return for ships and trading rights.

The company adopted the name Mitsubishi in March 1873, when Yataro became president officially. "Mitsubishi" means the three-diamond crest which is a blend of the Tosa and Iwasaki emblems. He gradually acquired more ships and expanded its passenger and freight services. Yataro taught the sons of former aristocrats to put the customer first.

Expansion and diversification

Birthplace of Yataro and Yanosuke Iwasaki
Birthplace of Yataro and Yanosuke Iwasaki

Yataro Iwasaki was dutiful to the new Japanese government, as well as to his company. Mitsubishi provided the ships that carried Japanese troops to Taiwan. That earned him more ships and a large annual subsidy. He agreed, in turn, to carry mail and other government supplies. With government support, he was able to purchase more ships and increase Mitsubishi's shipping lines. That helped him drive two large foreign shippers out of the prosperous Shanghai route. The now-giant shipping company also carried troops to put down a rebellion in Kyushu.

Mitsubishi diversified fast. Yataro had the company invest in mining and ship repair. He started an exchange office, offering documentary financing.Yataro also leased the Nagasaki shipyard from the government, which was Mitsubishi's start in manufacturing.

The political winds turned against Mitsubishi when an influential patron in the government lost power. Competition with a rival Japanese shipping company nearly bankrupted both companies. The two companies agreed to halt their cutthroat competition in 1885 and they eventually merged to form NYK Line. Yataro, however, never saw the merger, as he lost his life to stomach cancer at the age of 50, just eight months before the merger.