Tomomochi, the second head of the family, planted Sumitomo in the fertile soil of Osaka

The life and achievements of Tomomochi, the second head of the Sumitomo family, were shaped by the influences of two men: His biological father Riemon Soga, the inventor of the nanban-buki copper refining technique, and his adoptive father Masatomo, the founder of the House of Sumitomo, whose spiritual sensibility is evident in the precepts that constitute the foundation of Sumitomo’s business philosophy to this day. With great respect for the teachings of these two father figures, Tomomochi shifted the center of gravity of the business from Kyoto to Osaka, thus firmly planting Sumitomo in the dynamic commercial city with an eye to opportunities in Japan and around the world.

The previous section in this series focused on Masatomo, the founder of the House of Sumitomo whose probity was rooted in his lifelong adherence to Buddhism, and Riemon Soga, the pioneer of copper refining. Both men left their mark on the history not only of Sumitomo but also of Japan.

Riemon was born in Osaka (probably in the Senshu Sakai quarter of the city). In 1590, aged 19, he moved to Kyoto, where he opened the Izumiya copper refining and coppersmithing business at a site near the present-day Gojo Bridge spanning the Kamo River.
In the same year, Hideyoshi brought the whole of Japan under his rule. With its traditional grid pattern of streets, rising population, and vibrant commercial and cultural life, Kyoto was booming, as evidenced by the many new buildings popping up all over the city. For the ambitious, highly motivated Riemon, the inventor and promoter of the nanban-buki technique, Kyoto was a great place to be.

Tomomochi was born in 1607 in Kyoto, the son of the 34-year-old Riemon and his wife, Masatomo’s older sister. In the course of the second half of the 16th century, Kyoto’s population tripled to 300,000.
With an eye to an eventual successor, Riemon shared his knowledge of the nanban-buki technique with his eldest son, the youthful Tomomochi. From Masatomo, Tomomochi would have received encouragement and instruction in both practical and spiritual matters.
Under these beneficial influences since his early childhood, Tomomochi grew to become a fine young man. Not only was he the adopted son of Masatomo, but he also married one of his daughters. Tomomochi opened a copper refinery and a shop selling copper items in Magohashi-cho near Sanjo in Kyoto (adjacent to the present-day Sanjo Keihan Station) under the “Izumiya” trade name.
Like his mentors Masatomo and Riemon, Tomomochi was highly intelligent and an astute decision maker. In particular, he decided to shift the business from Kyoto, which lacked a port, to Osaka whose port offered access to other parts of Japan and to the world for Sumitomo’s growing business. Copper refining required lots of water and ships would be the most convenient and efficient means of transport for refined copper. Evidently, Tomomochi was taking a long view of Sumitomo’s business, with copper trading at its core.
In 1623 when Tomomochi first made his presence felt in the business world, he was only 17 years old. It was a shrewd decision on his part to move the business from Kyoto to Uchiawaji-machi (east of Hiranobashi Bridge over Higashi-yokobori River) in Osaka.

Sumitomo’s copper refinery once stood here in Osaka
Sumitomo’s copper refinery once stood here in Osaka

Both the father Riemon and the son Tomomochi were precocious. Riemon was only 19 in 1590 when he started the copper refining and coppersmithing business in Kyoto, just as Toyotomi Hideyoshi was cementing his control over the city.
Riemon’s son Tomomochi moved to Osaka, the vibrant up-and-coming commercial hub, at the age of 17, two years younger than his father Riemon had been when he went to try his hand as a young entrepreneur in Kyoto. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It seems likely that Tomomochi’s ability to grow the business by catching the current of the times owed much to the examples of Riemon and Masatomo, and the instruction he had received from them as a lad.

Many Followers of Nehan, the Buddhist sect to which Masatomo adhered, were to be found across northern Kyushu, including samurai who were in charge of security at Nagasaki, the port that was Japan’s window on the world. It is probable that Tomomochi was well informed about what was happening overseas through relationships with his spiritual brethren. Recognizing that the world market offered much better prospects for copper trading than the domestic market, Tomomochi began transactions with foreign customers via the Dutch Trading Post at Dejima in Nagasaki.

Reflecting the influence of Masatomo, Tomomochi was a devout Buddhist. His largess included construction of the main hall of Seiryo-ji Temple in Sagano, Kyoto. Tomomochi himself copied a Lotus Sutra in gold on a blue background, which has survived.

Operation of copper mines and discovery of mineral wealth in the Besshi mountains

“The operation of copper mines is a task of national importance, transcending the interests of a commercial enterprise.” This conception has shaped the actions and aspirations of the House of Sumitomo since the Edo period.

Having moved the business from Kyoto to Osaka, the efforts of Tomomochi, the second head of the Sumitomo family, to expand operations met with great success. In these undertakings, Tomomochi benefited from the advice of Riemon Soga. He opened a large copper refinery in Shimanouchi, on a site virtually surrounded by water at the confluence of the Higashi-yokobori and Nishi-yokobori rivers and Dotonbori and Nagahori canals. The copper refinery was subsequently expanded and in 1690 the head office and the main residence of the Sumitomo family were relocated to this area, making Shimanouchi the base of modern Sumitomo.
At its peak, more than 100 people worked at Sumitomo’s copper refinery, which covered about 2,500 square meters (750 tsubo), making it one of the largest copper refineries in Japan. Among the more than 10,000 members of the Osaka copper-casting guild, there was great respect and gratitude for Tomomochi, since Sumitomo had made the nanban-buki technique available to them. Thus, Sumitomo’s preeminent position in the guild was in large measure owing to Tomomochi’s invention of the nanban-buki technique.

Sumitomo’s copper refinery frequently hosted eminent visitors, including high-ranking officials of the Tokugawa shogunate and the heads of the Dutch Trading Post at Dejima, Nagasaki, en route to Edo Castle. Among the foreign visitors was Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, a German physician who introduced Western medicine to Japan. Capitalizing on these relationships, Tomomochi increased copper trading with the Netherlands and China. As a consummate merchant, he used profits from lucrative copper trading to build up a flourishing business as an importer and purveyor of thread, textiles, sugar, medicinal herbs, and a host of other items.

Despite his success in trading, he did not personally fulfill his long-cherished ambition of owning a copper mine. Aware of considerable activity in the mining sector in the Ou region (present-day Tohoku region), he felt impatient. Perhaps because coppersmithing was so prominent in his family background, he had a conviction that copper would eventually play a crucial role in a resurgent Japan.

Tomomochi’s dream of owning a copper mine eventually came true thanks to the efforts of his eldest son Tomonobu, the third head of the Sumitomo family. Tomonobu retired at the age of 39 and his son Tomoyoshi, the fourth head of the Sumitomo family, vigorously developed the copper mines. In 1681, he began operations at the Yoshioka Copper Mine in Bicchu (Okayama) while also operating the Mogami and Sachiu Copper Mines in Dewa (Yamagata). However, since mining was so capital- and labor-intensive, Sumitomo encountered difficulties.

Besshi Copper Mines
Besshi Copper Mines
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Forestry Co., Ltd.

1690 was a watershed year for Sumitomo. A mineworker at the Tatsukawa Copper Mine (northern sector of what would eventually be the Besshi Copper Mines) in Iyo (Ehime Prefecture) discovered an exposed copper vein on the trackless southern slope of the Besshi mountains, which upon investigation was found to be part of a rich deposit. Established to exploit this mineral wealth, the Besshi Copper Mines became the foundation of Sumitomo. With copper as its mainstay business, Sumitomo prospered despite inevitable fluctuations in its fortunes over the years, eventually becoming today’s Sumitomo.