|The End of Rule by the Samurai
A Man for the Times
|A Man for the Times|
|With the arrival of the U.S. Navy, the shogunate found itself embroiled in the colonial disputes of 19th century capitalism. It tried to break out of its own deadlocked situation by strengthening national unity, but the effort backfired. The long-running system of absolute control by the shogunate and absolute obedience by the daimyo began to break down, giving rise to chaos.
The pace of change accelerated in 1854 when the shogunate yielded to American demands and opened the country to trade after over 200 years of forced seclusion. Export demand for goods such as silk, tea, and food products expanded rapidly, suddenly stretching a production system that was structured to supply only the domestic market. Prices climbed, and the economy fell into disarray. Finally, the weakened shogunates attempts to change this situation led to the outbreak of a civil unrest that challenged its supremacy. Japan descended still deeper into chaos.
Of course, there was no way Sumitomo could have escaped this turmoil unscathed. With the 1867 change of governments, it appeared that Sumitomos rights to operate the Besshi mine might be requisitioned. The situation looked bleak enough that within the organization some Sumitomo leaders put forward the idea that the mine should be sold and the proceeds used to provide for the future of the House of Sumitomo. The transformations of the time were so extreme that it was extraordinarily difficult to determine the best course of action. Even wealthy business people who ought to have been in a strong position to weather the storm were unable to escape bankruptcy.
Sumitomos ability to survive this crisis hinged on the outstanding leadership of Saihei Hirose (18281914) who had managed the Besshi mine from 1865. He pressed the case that Sumitomos mining operations had long contributed to the national wealth and he negotiated vigorously with officials of the new government. At the same time, he overcame the problems that had been plaguing the mine and brought new life into its operations.
During this excruciating transition in Japanese history, the period known as the Meiji Restoration, Hirose both preserved Sumitomos rights to the Besshi mine and reinvigorated it, earning him the sobriquet restorer of the fortunes of Sumitomo. In Part VII of this series, we will look at how he modernized the mine and rejuvenated it as a source of Sumitomo wealth.