The origin of Mitsubishi goes back to 1870 when the founder, Yataro Iwasaki, started a shipping firm with three aging steamships. Yataro's brother, son and nephew expanded the business into various fields during their respective terms as president and set the foundation of the Mitsubishi companies. After WWII, the original Mitsubishi organization was disbanded to become the independent companies they are today.
The Early Years
The history of "Mitsubishi" parallels the story of modern Japan. The founder, Yataro Iwasaki was from the prefecture of Kochi on the island of Shikoku, which was the home of the powerful Tosa clan. He worked for the clan and distinguished himself in managing its Osaka trading operations. In 1870, he set up his own shipping company, Tsukumo Shokai, with three steamships chartered from the clan. This was the beginning of Mitsubishi.
The company grew rapidly while undergoing a number of name changes including Mitsukawa Shokai, Mitsubishi Shokai, Mitsubishi Jokisen Kaisha (Mitsubishi Steamship Company), Yubin Kisen Mitsubishi Kaisha (Mitsubishi Mail Steamship Company).
Mitsubishi Mail Steamship Company inaugurated service to China and became the first Japanese company to open an overseas route. But the political winds shifted against Mitsubishi in the early 1880s, and the government sponsored the establishment of a competitor. The ensuing competition nearly bankrupted both companies.
Yataro died of cancer in 1885 and his younger brother Yanosuke succeeded him as president of Mitsubishi. The feud between Mitsubishi and its competitor ended with a government-arbitrated merger the same year, which created Nippon Yusen--today's NYK Line.
While competition was escalating on the sea, Mitsubishi was diversifying ashore. The company purchased the Yoshioka copper mine in Okayama and Takashima coal mine in Nagasaki. It leased and then purchased the Nagasaki Shipbuilding Yard from the government in 1884 and later engineered Japan's first domestically produced steel steamship there.
In 1885, Yanosuke Iwasaki succeeded his elder brother, Yataro, as head of the Mitsubishi organization.
After the independence of NYK, Mitsubishi continued to grow and diversify under the autocratic leadership of Yanosuke. He bought up more mines to provide resources for Mitsubishi and Japan's growing industries.
He also incorporated the Mitsubishi organizations as a modern corporation. Yanosuke set about rebuilding the organization around its mining and shipbuilding businesses. He expanded the organization's positions in banking, insurance and warehousing, and thus laid the foundation for future growth and development.
In 1890, he purchased 80 acres of the land next to the Imperial Palace now known as Marunouchi.
Yataro's son, Hisaya, assumed the presidency in 1893. The University of Pennsylvania graduate restructured Mitsubishi to support increasingly diverse business operations. He set up divisions for banking, real estate, marketing, and administration, as well as for the original mining and shipbuilding businesses.
Some of Hisaya's private investments are part of today's Mitsubishi companies. He purchased the Kobe Paper Mill, which is today's Mitsubishi Paper Mills, and he backed the founding of Kirin Brewery. His cousin Toshiya founded Asahi Glass (current AGC), Japan's first successful manufacturer of plate glass.
Hisaya insisted on the observance of firm ethical principles in business dealings. After the outbreak of WWI in 1914, he called on all the Mitsubishi employees to redouble their commitment to integrity and fairness.
Philanthropy was a lasting emphasis for Hisaya. He donated to the city of Tokyo two expansive Japanese gardens - Rikugien and Kiyosumi-Teien, and established Toyo Bunko, a library for housing oriental works.
Modernization and Dissolution
Koyata Iwasaki, the son of Yanosuke, took over the presidency from Hisaya in 1916 at the age of 38. Like Hisaya, he had studied abroad and was a graduate of Cambridge University. He led the Mitsubishi organization for nearly 30 years and played a pivotal role in shaping the development of Japanese industry.
Under Koyata, Mitsubishi was modernized further as the divisions were incorporated into semiautonomous companies. Koyata steered Mitsubishi to leadership in such sectors as machinery, electrical equipment, and chemicals. The companies that later became Mitsubishi Heavy Industries developed automobiles, aircraft, tanks, and buses. And Mitsubishi Electric also became a leader in electrical machinery and in home appliances.
The Iwasaki family relinquished some of its control over Mitsubishi through a public offering of shares in the core holding company. By the end of World War II, outside investors held nearly one-half of the equity.
Koyata encouraged his managers and employees to stand above the xenophobia that swept Japan during the war years. "We count many British and Americans among our business partners," he reminded Mitsubishi executives shortly after the outbreak of hostilities. "They are our friends who have undertaken projects together with us and who have shared interests with us. Should peace come again, they should again become our partners."
After the war, the allied occupation forces demanded that Japan's big industrial groups disband. The last Mitsubishi president, Koyata Iwasaki, resisted conforming to the demands but unfortunately passed away in 1945. Mitsubishi Headquarters disbanded on September 30, 1946, and many of the Mitsubishi companies subsequently split into smaller enterprises.
A New Beginning
The old Mitsubishi organization ended in 1946. The Mitsubishi holding company was dissolved while the trading house fragmented into hundreds of independent enterprises. Most of the Mitsubishi companies abandoned the name and emblem under pressure from the occupation forces.
In 1952, the San Francisco Peace Treaty was concluded and Japan regained a welcome place in the international community.
In 1954, more than 100 companies that had been part of the trading house, Mitsubishi Corporation, merged to reestablish that company. Similarly, the principal components of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries reunited in 1964. Mitsubishi companies that had abandoned that name after the war began using it and the three-diamond mark again.
Japan was the scene of unprecedented economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Mitsubishi companies were very much a part of that growth in their established industries and in new ones.
To commemorate the centennial anniversary of the founding of the first Mitsubishi company, the Mitsubishi companies established the Mitsubishi Foundation in 1969. The companies are also active individually in supporting worthy causes through their own charitable foundations and in other ways.
Mitsubishi pavilions have been highlights of expositions in Japan since the historic EXPO'70 in Osaka in 1970. In every way, the companies take part actively in the life of the community they serve.