Shunnosuke Furuta

Author: Teruaki Sueoka


From the past through to the present, everyone working at Sumitomo has traditionally shared a common ethos, placing integrity and honor at the heart of the business. This ethos, inherited by each successive generation, became the Sumitomo business philosophy. Shunnosuke Furuta, the seventh director-general, embodied Sumitomo’s ethos in the unprecedentedly challenging years following World War II. Furuta served as the last director-general of Sumitomo before the dissolution of Sumitomo Head Office abolished the position.

Early life

Shunnosuke Furuta was born on October 15, 1886 the fifth son of Kazuma Inoue and his wife En. Furuta’s father was a samurai affiliated to Tojiin, a Buddhist temple in Kinugasa-mura, Kadono-gun, Kyoto Prefecture (present-day Tojiin-kita-machi, Kita-ku, Kyoto City). A member of a large family, Shunnosuke had four older brothers, two older sisters, and one younger sister. He was a bookworm who excelled at school. Upon graduation from the Hirano elementary school (present-day Kinugasa Elementary School), he received an award from the governor for his academic achievements. In 1899, Shunnosuke was adopted by Keitoku Furuta who owned Osaka Seisajo, a manufacturer of chains and anchors for ships, in Fukushima, Kita-ku, Osaka City, and he entered the Osaka Prefectural Daiichi Middle School (present-day Kitano High School).

Allowed by his adoptive parents to pursue his education, Shunnosuke entered the Sixth High School in Okayama Prefecture, which was where the Furuta family originally came from, and then the Faculty of Engineering of Tokyo Imperial University. His adoptive parents were strict and life was not always easy for Shunnosuke. During his second year at university, Shunnosuke married Masako who was an adopted daughter of Keitoku. Ordered by Keitoku to quit the university and join the family business, he refused to comply and so his father stopped paying his tuition for a while.

The house where Shunnosuke Furuta was born
For some 400 years, the Inoue family was prominent in the community of Tojiin, Kita-ku, Kyoto City. This house retains the atmosphere of the time when Shunnosuke lived there.
Hidari Daimonji in Kinugasa and Tojiin Temple
Hidari Daimonji in Kinugasa and Tojiin Temple
Hidari Daimonji on the mountain to the north of the Inoue family’s residence. Tradition has it that each summer during the Obon festival the spirits of ancestors visit the household altars of their descendants in this world. Shunnosuke would have seen the huge bonfire that guides them on their return journey to the spirit world. At Tojiin Temple (Rinzai Sect Tenryuji School), also to the north of the residence, is the tomb of Ashikaga Takauji, who was the founder and first shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate, as well as wooden sculptures of other Ashikaga shoguns.

University graduate starts out as foundry worker

On graduating from Tokyo Imperial University in July 1910, in deference to his adoptive parents’ wishes, Shunnosuke Furuta sought a job in Osaka. Partly because prior to graduation he had experienced practical training at Shisakajima Smelter, he joined Sumitomo Head Office, which assigned him to Sumitomo Copper Plant in Ajigawa.

Kankichi Yukawa, who subsequently became the fifth director-general, was general manager of Sumitomo Copper Plant. Highly prizing a hands-on approach, Yukawa ordered Furuta, the possessor of a bachelor’s degree in engineering, to first acquire the casting skills of a foundry worker. Under an English foreman named Hathaway, Furuta uncomplainingly applied himself to this task for three years. Glistening with sweat and shrouded in dust, he learned to handle crucibles brimful of molten alloy, pouring the contents into casting molds. During these years spent on the lower rungs of the job ladder, Furuta honed his engineering skills and developed his character.

Shunnosuke Furuta, university graduation photo
Shunnosuke Furuta, university graduation photo
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Freshly minted graduate of Tokyo Imperial University Faculty of Engineering in 1910
Report on practical training prior to graduation at Shisakajima Smelter
Report on practical training prior to graduation at Shisakajima Smelter
In the summer of 1909, Furuta spent about 10 weeks on Shisakajima island undergoing practical training in metallurgy, which was his major.
The experience he gained and the skills he learned are detailed in this 300-page report.

Engineer with a great sense of responsibility

Interior of Sumitomo Copper Plant’s tube mill at Ajigawa circa 1910
Interior of Sumitomo Copper Plant’s tube mill at Ajigawa circa 1910
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
On the left is a Schwartz rotary furnace with a hood and, on the right, pipes are laid across the factory floor.
Office of Sumitomo Copper Works
Office of Sumitomo Copper Works in Ajigawa in 1917
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
The office was a modern western-style building.

In January 1914, the Siemens Scandal sent shockwaves through the Japanese Imperial Navy. This case of bribery involving high-ranking naval officers and trading companies developed into a major political scandal, and several executives of trading companies were arrested. The fact that Sumitomo was not involved in this scandal prompted Furuta to tell a close friend, “I didn’t know Sumitomo was such a great company. I am so proud to be working for Sumitomo and also feel a great sense of responsibility.”

In March 1918, Furuta was appointed manager of the manufacturing department of Sumitomo Copper Works where he began devoting himself to research on duralumin, an alloy with great potential for application in aircraft construction. But disaster struck in November 1922 when the furnace for producing duralumin at Ajigawa Plant exploded, causing loss of life and injuries. When a prosecutor investigated Furuta to clarify responsibility for the incident, Furuta told him, “As the manufacturing manager, the responsibility rests entirely on my shoulders,” making no attempt to pass the buck to his superior or subordinates. As a result of the investigation, the prosecutor decided not to bring a case against Furuta, concluding that it was an accident. The prosecutor also stated that his decision took into account the fact that the accident occurred in the course of a difficult project of national importance, namely, Japan’s first attempt to produce duralumin, and moreover Furuta had shown an exemplary attitude and sense of responsibility.

Relocation of Sumitomo Copper Works

In February 1925, Furuta was promoted to general manager of Sumitomo Copper Works. Yet this year was also marked by personal tragedy for Furuta as his wife Masako died, leaving him the sole parent of a young family comprising two sons and two daughters. Two years later, the elder daughter died suddenly. At that time, as the general manager of Sumitomo Copper Works, Furuta demonstrated his outstanding leadership skills in the relocation of Ajigawa Plant whose site would become Osaka’s public wholesale market. This complex task, involving simultaneously relocating the steel pipe operations to Amagasaki and the non-ferrous metal operations to Sakurajima in Osaka (present-day Shimaya, Konohana-ku, Osaka City), had to be accomplished without any interruption in production of military materiel. Under the plan, the relocation was executed in phases over a period of more than three years. In 1926, Sumitomo Copper Works, which had been directly managed by Sumitomo, was reorganized as Sumitomo Steel Tube & Copper Works. Furuta became a director of Sumitomo Steel Tube & Copper Works and remained in charge. In November 1928, Sakurajima Plant was completed and was honored with a visit by the emperor.

Many years later, Furuta told a subordinate, “If your heart is broken, find a task to which you can devote your life and then tackle it with all your vigor.” He was in deep sorrow because of the loss of his beloved wife and elder daughter.

Sakurajima Plant of Sumitomo Copper Works in 1928
Sakurajima Plant of Sumitomo Copper Works
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
A modern factory surrounded by canals, facing Osaka Bay and with the Rokko Mountains in the background
The Showa Emperor’s visit to Sakurajima Plant
The Showa Emperor’s visit to Sakurajima Plant in 1928
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Shunnosuke Furuta escorting the Showa Emperor at the center of the photo

Traveling to Europe and North America on business and launching new ventures

Zero carrier-based fighter
Zero carrier-based fighter
Source: “100 Years of Sumitomo Metal Industries: People and Technology”
The famous Zero fighters of the Imperial Japanese Navy used extra super duralumin developed by Sumitomo Steel Tube & Copper Works for their airframe and a variable-pitch propeller manufactured by the company.

In August 1928, Furuta was appointed managing director of Sumitomo Steel Tube & Copper Works and the following month he traveled to Europe and North America on business. Furuta negotiated with Aluminium Limited (present-day Alcan Aluminium Limited) of Canada and returned to Japan in May 1930 with a proposal to establish a joint-venture company with Alcan. In August of that year, Masatsune Ogura became director-general, with Furuta reporting to him. In April 1931, Furuta established Aluminium Sumitomo Limited (present-day Toyo Aluminium K.K.), a joint-venture company with Aluminium Limited of Canada in Hachio, Osaka, which began production and sales of aluminium sheet and foil.

In November 1932, Isoroku Yamamoto, chief of the Technical Department of the Imperial Japanese Navy Aviation Bureau, who later became commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet, paid Furuta a visit. Sumitomo had been a supplier of duralumin for use in the construction of aircraft. Yamamoto wanted Sumitomo also to supply the navy with duralumin propellers and secured Furuta’s support for this new project. In February 1933, Sumitomo began constructing a factory at Sakurajima in Osaka to manufacture Hamilton Standard propellers made of duralumin. Installed on Zero fighters of the Japanese Navy, these propellers were notable for their excellent propulsion performance. Thus, Furuta and Yamamoto began an enduring friendship. Yamamoto expressed his gratitude to Furuta, “You extended invaluable cooperation in terms of the research and manufacture of duralumin for the benefit of the Imperial Japanese Navy.”

From the pinnacle of Sumitomo’s metal business to general-director

Inauguration of Director-General Furuta
Inauguration of Director-General Furuta in 1941
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Magnification of a group photo taken on the roof of Sumitomo Head Office building.
On the right of Furuta is Masatsune Ogura, the former director-general, who became Home Minister

In January 1933, Furuta was appointed senior managing director of Sumitomo Steel Tube & Copper Works. At Sumitomo, though on paper the ultimate boss of an affiliated company was the head of the Sumitomo family, in practice the senior managing director of the affiliated company was in charge. In September 1935, Furuta was appointed senior managing director of Sumitomo Metal Industries, formed through the merger of Sumitomo Steel Tube & Copper Works and Sumitomo Steel Works. He was also appointed senior managing director of Manchuria Sumitomo Metal Industries, which was established in September 1934. Furuta became the leader of Sumitomo’s entire metals business.

In May 1936, Jun Kawada, who was expected to become the next general-director, left Sumitomo and Director-General Ogura appointed Furuta director of Sumitomo Head Office so that he could familiarize himself with Sumitomo’s entire operations. In March 1937, Sumitomo Goshi Kaisha (limited partnership) was reorganized as Sumitomo Honsha, Ltd. (Sumitomo Zaibatsu). Furuta was appointed senior managing director of Sumitomo in January 1938 and the seventh director-general in April 1941. Since the days of Saihei Hirose, the first director-general, Furuta was the first person who had spent his entire working life at Sumitomo before become director-general. Ever since Ogura appointed Furuta director of Sumitomo, he had formed a high opinion of Furuta’s personal qualities. As Ogura put it, “Furuta embodies Sumitomo’s tradition and policy. He is a man of virtue, not just capabilities.”

Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of present-day Panasonic Corporation, who was a customer of Sumitomo Bank, was so delighted when Furuta became the director-general of Sumitomo that he greeted him with the words, “I have great expectations for the future of Sumitomo under your leadership.” Matsushita later recalled that his encounter with Furuta inspired him to develop his principle, “The basis of management is respect for customers.”

Tough times during the war

Wakayama Steel Works before the war
Wakayama Steel Works before the war
Source: “100 Years of Sumitomo Metal Industries: People and Technology”
Sumitomo acquired a 4.3-million-square-meter coastal site in Wakayama in 1940. Although plans called for construction of a steel mill equipped with a blast furnace, only an open hearth furnace and an electric furnace were constructed. It was not until 1961 that a blast furnace was constructed on the site.
Toro Ruins
Toro Ruins
This archaeological site in Takamatsu, Shizuoka City, was discovered in 1943 during the construction of a propeller factory of Sumitomo Metal Industries. From 1947, remains of paddy fields dating back to the 1st century CE were uncovered, illuminating the rice-farming culture of the Yayoi period (circa 10th century BC to 3rd century AD).

When Ogura nominated Furuta to be the new director-general in April 1941, Furuta expressed a desire to serve as a chairman coordinating the various operations rather than as a hands-on director-general reigning over the directors. But his request was not approved. So, upon taking office as director-general, Furuta abolished the position of senior managing director and appointed three managing directors. He also introduced a management structure headed by a president at each affiliated company. These moves made it possible for Furuta to continue in his role as a coordinator of capable people. In his inauguration speech as director-general, he foresaw the difficulties with which Sumitomo would have to contend, “The signing of the Tripartite Military Pact means that the Japanese economy, long dependent on the US and Britain, must become self-reliant,” and emphasized the importance of human resources development, “The rise and fall of business depends on people.”

On December 8, 1941, Japan entered World War II. Sumitomo companies constructed several factories nationwide in the period to 1943, including Wakayama Steel Works. Incidentally, Toro, a notable archeological site, was discovered in Shizuoka Prefecture during construction of a Sumitomo factory.

In August 1943, the Ministry of Finance ordered mergers of financial institutions to put the financial sector on a war footing. Although a merger of Sumitomo Bank with Sanwa Bank was avoided, Sumitomo Marine & Fire Insurance merged with Osaka Marine & Fire Insurance to form Osaka Sumitomo Marine & Fire Insurance Co., Ltd. In January 1944. Sumitomo Mining, Sumitomo Metal Industries, Sumitomo Electric Industries, Sumitomo Chemical, Sumitomo Machinery Industries, Aluminium Sumitomo, Sumitomo Communication Industries (NEC), Sumitomo Joint Electric Power, Nippon Sheet Glass, and Sumitomo Synthetic Resin Industries were designated munitions suppliers and brought under government control. In September 1944, Director-General Furuta established the Sumitomo Senji Soryoku Kaigi (Sumitomo Wartime Council) to which power and authority of Sumitomo Honsha, Ltd. was transferred as a counterweight to government control.

Dissolution of Sumitomo Honsha, Ltd. (Sumitomo Zaibatsu)

A ceremony marking the dissolution of Sumitomo Head Office held on the roof of the head office building
A ceremony marking the dissolution of Sumitomo Honsha, Ltd. held on the roof of the head office building in 1946
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Shunnosuke Furuta is in the center of the third row from the front.

When World War II ended with Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, Director-General Furuta, as the person in charge, had to try to protect the interests of Tomonari, the 16th head of the Sumitomo family, and some 200,000 employees of 35 companies affiliated with Sumitomo. In talks with the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces (GHQ), Furuta maintained that “Sumitomo’s entire responsibility lies with me, and no one else.” Having decided to prioritize Sumitomo’s business and people over the House of Sumitomo, Furuta seized the initiative by dissolving Sumitomo Head Office in January 1946. His parting words to the presidents of affiliated companies were: “Sumitomo has an incomparable tradition of eschewing the single-minded pursuit of commercial gain and engaging in fair and just business activities. I want you to form a spiritual alliance so that, come what may, you never lose your sense of brotherhood.” Furuta urged that this business philosophy be shared, preserved, and handed on as corporate DNA even if capital relationships were to be dissolved.

Furuta in later life

Furuta was sincere and kind. He respected Teigo Iba, the second director-general, and distributed copies of Iba’s biography to his acquaintances.
Grave of Shunnosuke Furuta
Grave of Shunnosuke Furuta
His soul rests with those of his family at Manjidani Cemetery in Nishinomiya City.

Furuta did not return to Sumitomo even after the purge of public officials, business people, and the like was lifted in 1951. He always said, “Foster the younger generation. Old people should not remain in power.” Former presidents of the affiliated companies followed Furuta’s example. At Sumitomo’s affiliated companies, section managers went on to become presidents. The strength and vigor of youth maintained Sumitomo’s DNA and spurred postwar development. In June 1952, Furuta was appointed supreme advisor for economics to the Yoshida Cabinet. In view of his great experience and capabilities gained in the business world, this appointment gave rise to high expectations. But alas, he passed away suddenly on March 23, 1953 at the age of 68. The heavy burden he had shouldered during the war and in the immediate postwar years may well have taken a toll on his health.

Tomonari, the 16th head of the Sumitomo family, who was a poet under the penname Kokichi Izumi, composed an elegy for Furuta: “Even amid adversity following surrender, with all your might you strove to save us.” Furuta, the last director-general, fulfilled his heavy responsibility with integrity.