Name In Japanese : 坂本竜馬
Pronunciation : iwasaki yatarō
Period : 1835 to 1885
Yataro was born in a provincial farming family in Aki, Tosa province (now Kochi Prefecture). His great-grandfather had sold his family’s samurai status to pay off their debts, but the samurai spirit was strong in the family. Local people still like to mention that the young Yataro trained himself in mind and body by running up a significant mountain a short distance from his home.
The Tosa clan had business interests in many parts of Japan, and Iwasaki began his career as an employee of the clan. Aged nineteen, he went to study in Edo, but he returned to Aki when his father was seriously injured in a dispute with the village headman. When the local magistrate refused to hear his case, Iwasaki accused him of corruption, for which he was sent to prison for seven months. After his release, Iwasaki found work as a teacher.
This was a time of social upheaval, with the Shogunate coming under criticism for failing to protect Japan from the encroachment of rapacious western imperialism. Returning to Edo, Iwasaki socialised with political activists and studied under the reformist Yoshida Toyo, who influenced him with ideas of opening and developing the then-closed nation through industry and foreign trade. Through Yoshida, he found work as a clerk for the Tosa government, and with his savings, he bought back his family’s samurai status. He was promoted to the top position in the trading office of the Tosa clan in Nagasaki. A domestic arms race was then under way between the various clans and the Shogunate, and Iwasaki was responsible for trading camphor oil and paper to buy ships, weapons, and ammunition.
In 1868, the Shogun was forced to cede power to the Emperor in the Meiji Restoration, an event in which Iwasaki’s clansman Sakamoto Ryoma had played an illustrious part. With the Shogunate’s business interests in disarray, Iwasaki moved to Osaka and leased the trading rights for the Tosa clan’s Tsukumo Trading Company. The company changed its name to Mitsubishi in 1873, adopting an emblem recombining the three overlapping lozenges of the Iwasaki family crest into the trefoil shape of the Yamauchi family who lead the Tosa clan. Iwasaki became president of Mitsubishi in March 1870.
In 1874–1875, Iwasaki was contracted by the Japanese government to transport Japanese soldiers and war materials. The Japanese government purchased a number of ships for the Japanese Expedition of 1874 to Taiwan against the Paiwan Aborigines in southeast Taiwan, then a colony of Japan, and these ships were later given to Mitsubishi when the expedition finished in 1875. This created strong links between Mitsubishi and the Japanese government, ensuring the new company’s success. In return, Mitsubishi supported the new government and transported troops who defeated the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. In this way the success of Mitsubishi became intertwined with the rise of the modern Japanese state. Iwasaki became highly adept at the political game, spending lavishly on entertainment for government officials who reciprocated with favours.
Subsequently Iwasaki invested in mining, ship repair, and finance. In 1884 leased the Nagasaki Shipyard, allowing the company to undertake large-scale shipbuilding.
Iwasaki died of stomach cancer aged 50 and was succeeded as the head of the family business first by his brother, and later his son.
Today, employees of Mitsubishi still make pilgrimages to Iwasaki’s well-kept childhood home in Aki, to wonder at his humble beginning and gaze in awe at his huge statue whose plinth is adorned with high-relief plaques documenting his many business triumphs, not omitting the company’s prowess at building machines of war.