“Disobey your master’s order and benefit him. That is loyalty.”
“Gyakumei rikun, kore wo chu to iu”

  • # Sumitomo’s Business Philosophy
  • # Director-General
Calligraphy by Hirose in 1913, one year before his death (photo courtesy of Hirose History Museum in Niihama City)

“True loyalty is not unquestioning obedience to your master’s order, even if it is an order emanating from the state. If the order is contrary to the interests of the merchant house or the state that you serve, you should disobey it.” This favorite maxim of Saihei Hirose, Sumitomo’s first Director-General, originally appeared in Shuo Yuan, a Chinese classic known as the Garden of Stories, which also contains its obverse, “Obey your master’s order and make him sick. That is flattery.” Hirose’s conviction was that true loyalty, far from being the obsequious carrying out of orders, means raising objections to whatever is contrary to the interests of the house one serves.

Sumitomo has a long tradition of encouraging a vigorous exchange of views and listening attentively to people’s suggestions regardless of their positions in the hierarchy. The heads of the Sumitomo family respected this tradition. In 1828, Tomohiro, the ninth head of the family made this clear to the retainers: “At Sumitomo, regardless of age or rank, anyone with suggestions that they think may be useful for the house, should speak up. Even if your suggestion is not adopted, I will be grateful to you for your loyalty. So, do not hesitate to offer suggestions.” This was the culture in which Hirose embraced gyakumei rikun as his motto long before he became the first Director-General. In 1868, when executives at the Osaka head office insisted on selling the Besshi copper mine, Hirose, who was then the manager of the mine, vigorously objected. Only by engaging in a heated debate with the executives did he manage to stop the sale for the sake of the people working at the mine and for the sake of Sumitomo’s future. If Hirose had not raises an objection, the subsequent prosperity of Sumitomo may never have come to pass. Hirose practiced gyakushin rikun to further the interests of the house and the workers by expressing his opinion forthrightly to the executives, without trying to save his own neck.

Saihei Hirose
Born in Yasu in Omi (present-day Shiga Prefecture) in 1828, Saihei was adopted by his uncle Jiemon Kitawaki in 1834 who was working at the Besshi copper mine. Having moved to the Besshi copper mine when he was nine, at the age of 11 he was apprenticed to the House of Sumitomo and began working at the mine. The family of Hirose adopted Saihei when he was 28. He was appointed manager of the Besshi copper mine in 1865 and became the first Director-General of Sumitomo in 1877. His achievements included modernization of the Besshi copper mine and drawing up the Rules Governing the House of Sumitomo. Following his retirement in 1894, he published his autobiography. Saihei died in 1914 at the age of 87, having spent much of his life at the heart of commerce and industry in Osaka. He was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1892, the first private citizen to receive such an honor, together with fellow recipient the industrialist Eiichi Shibusawa.