The following words were written in 1726 by Shichibei Izumiya, the former manager of Sumitomo Head Office, in a memorandum to Tomomasa, the fifth head of the Sumitomo family. “The way of trading emphasized by the family ancestors is for master and retainer to discuss each day as they consider local market prices, not only of copper that has arrived at wholesale merchants from elsewhere in Japan, but also of tin, lead, and scrap copper, and for clerks to determine the firm’s day-to-day profits by seeking opportunities to purchase even small amounts at auction at an attractive price. This is the time-honored way of the Sumitomo family.” This refers to respect for free and frank expression of opinion, even between master and retainer, a business philosophy that has guided Sumitomo since its founding. It is typical of Sumitomo that Shichibei, who was in charge of day-to-day business management, should express his opinion to the family head in this way.
Although subsequently Sumitomo’s household affairs were reformed and house codes were developed to keep pace with the times, this philosophy was never lost. In 1750, Tomotoshi, a brother to fifth family head Tomomasa, notified the employees of the Osaka head office of the house codes, consisting of 19 provisions. One provision admonishes, “Rather than worrying about whether you are right or wrong, if you think there may be a better way, speak up without reservation. Be neither humble nor reticent in making proposals related to business.”
In 1828, Tomohiro, the ninth head of the family, himself wrote: “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.”
The notion of respecting employee autonomy and welcoming the opinions of employees of all ranks or positions is deeply rooted at Sumitomo Group companies.