The Father of Japanese Capitalism

Entrepreneur and business leader during the Meiji and Taishō periods


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Shibusawa Eichii (渋沢 栄一, 1840-1931) was born in the village of Chiaraijima in modern-day Saitama Prefecture. Although Shibusawa's family were small farmers with only a few hectares of land his father became the richest man in the village by dealing in indigo and silk. Influenced by Confucianism, he provided Eichii with a better education than usual for a man of his class.

Shibusawa's youth was affected by the political and social turmoil caused by the arrival of Commodore Perry's black ships in 1853. In 1863, he left his family, not only to join the sonnō jōi (尊皇攘夷, "expel the barbarians; revere the emperor") movement but also with dreams of becoming a person of influence. He enlisted as a samurai of the Hitotsubashi Domain, a branch family of the Tokugawa, in 1864, and, in 1867, became an aide-de-camp to the shōgun's younger brother Tokugawa Akitake (徳川 昭武, 1853-1910) who led the Japanese delegation to the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris. Visiting France, Shibusawa was so impressed by Western civilisation that he went back to Japan hoping to establish factories, banks, and corporate business in his own country.

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Shibusawa in 1864 as a Hitotsubashi samurai.

Upon his return to Japan a year later, he found himself a member of a deposed regime. Thanks to his knowledge of Western society, he obtained financial support of the Meiji government and founded a trading company, Shōhō Kaishō (商法海商), one of Japan's first joint-stock companies. In 1869, he was appointed as a ranking official of the Ministry of Finance. As a protégé of Ōkuma Shigenobu (大隈重信, 1838-1922) and Inoue Kaoru (井上薫, 1836-1915) he played a crucial role in establishing the government-operated Tomioka Silk-Reeling Mill as well as a modern bank system in 1872.

A year later, Shibusawa resigned from the Ministry of Finance, because his proposals to trim the budget had been rejected. As an assistant to the vice-minister, he had been able to secure the presidencies of the Dai-ichi Bank (株式会社第一銀行 Kabushiki-gaisha Dai'ichi Ginkō, later Dai-ichi Kangyō Bank) and the Ōji Paper Company, then known as Shōshi Kaisha (抄紙会社), both of which he had persuaded the Mitsui and other trading houses to set up as corporations. In the bank boom between 1877 and 1880, Shibusawa was consulted by other entrepreneurs, and other national and private banks emulated his business model.

In 1882, he founded the Ōsaka Cotton-Spinning Company (大阪墓石会社 Ōsaka Boseki Kaisha) by soliciting capital from leading business people and former daimyō. Employing 10,500 spindles, the new company made profits in the first year of its operation, while many smaller mills suffered from technical and financial problems. Companies modelled on the Ōsaka Mill and other ventures, such as railway companies, promoted by Shibusawa burgeoned between 1886 and 1890. During this period of rapid industrialisation, Shibusawa was involved in establishing more than 36 enterprises, including the Tōkyō Chemical Fertilizer Company, the first of its kind in Japan. During the second phase of industrialisation (1895-1897), Shibusawa was involved in founding over 23 companies. During his lifetime, he was associated with more than 300 enterprises, most of which were organised in corporate form, a model that Shibusawa firmly believed would benefit Japan most.

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Shibusawa Eichii in 1931 surrounded by his family (his eldest son Atsuji, third from the left).

Influenced by Confucian teachings and Christian values, Shibusawa has always been described as a decent human who believed that business should follow ethical principles. Impressed by the Christian concept of charity, he engaged in philanthropism and founded educational institutions and welfare projects. After the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, he was very concerned about the deterioration in Japanese-American relations. He attempted to improve the situation by heading a committee on bilateral ties and a goodwill mission to the United States. He kept close ties to the Tokugawa family during his lifetime but was, at the same time, honoured by the Meiji administration who awarded him the title of viscount (子爵 shishaku), Unlike many others who deserted Confucianism after the Meiji Restoration he adhered its teachings all his life.

In April 2019, the Japanese government announced that the new 10,000-yen banknote to be issued in 2024 would feature Shibusawa Eichii, a decision that was criticised by parts of the South Korean media who denounced Shibusawa as a representative of Japanese imperialism owing to his role in setting up the Gyeongin and the Gyeongbu Railways in Korea.

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The new 10,000-yen banknote to be issued in 2024 featuring Shibusawa Eichii.

References:

  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard 2005