Teigo Iba: Part 1

Author: Teruaki Sueoka

Shozo Tanaka’s praises Sumitomo

The environment has risen to the top of the global agenda in the 21st century. In Japan, it was around 1900 that environmental pollution first emerged as a pressing issue, brought to national attention by environmental degradation caused by the Ashio Copper Mine in Tochigi Prefecture and smoke pollution issuing from the Besshi Copper Mines in Ehime Prefecture.

On March 23, 1901, at the 15th Imperial Diet, Shozo Tanaka*1, known for his activism in seeking to remedy the environmental degradation caused by the Ashio Copper Mine, commented favorably on the Besshi Copper Mines, in particular praising management’s decision to relocate the smelter from Niihama to Shisakajima, an uninhabited island in the Seto Inland Sea.

Tanaka commented: “The Besshi Copper Mines in Iyo is owned by Sumitomo. Since Sumitomo is sensitive to ethical considerations, people’s feelings, and the wider interests of society, it does not view business as synonymous with self-interested moneymaking.”

It was Sumitomo’s second director-general Teigo Iba who decided to relocate the smelter to Shisakajima Island and championed a major reforestation drive to restore the ravaged Besshi mountains. He used the pseudonym Yuo in later life.

From the judiciary to Sumitomo

Born on January 5, 1847, Teigo Iba was the eldest son and heir of Sadataka Iba, a local administrator, in Nishijuku in the Gamo District of Omi Province (present-day Shiga Prefecture). His childhood name was Konosuke. His mother Tazu was a sister of Saihei Hirose, Sumitomo’s first director-general. Toward the end of the Edo period, Iba studied the Sonno philosophy of revering the emperor. His mentor was Yoshisuke Nishikawa, a kokugaku scholar in Omi-hachiman, on whose recommendation Iba served the Meiji government by pursuing a career in the judiciary.

In September 1877, Iba was promoted from the Hakodate Local Court to serve as a judge at the Osaka Superior Court. Following the Satsuma Rebellion, the free and open atmosphere of the Meiji Restoration disappeared. A bureaucracy where one had to jettison one’s principles and flatter superiors to secure preferment was no place for Iba, a man determined to work for the benefit of the nation. Considering his next move, he even contemplated returning to his hometown to enter local politics. However, a visit to his uncle Saihei Hirose at the House of Sumitomo in December 1878 pointed him in a new direction. At Hirose’s suggestion, Iba decided to pursue a career with Sumitomo. Accordingly, Iba resigned from the judiciary and joined Sumitomo on February 4, 1879 at the age of 33. His monthly salary was 40 yen, less than half his remuneration as a judge. Although his wife Umeko had regrets about the financial impact, Iba’s embrace of Sumitomo’s business principles emphasizing the public and national interest trumped monetary considerations.

総理事時代のTeigo Iba
Director-General Teigo Iba.
This photo was taken in Osaka.
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

*1 Shozo Tanaka
Shozo Tanaka was a politician in the Meiji era. Born in present-day Sano City, Tochigi Prefecture, in 1841, Tanaka founded the Tochigi Shimbun Newspaper in 1879. Active in the Freedom and People's Rights Movement, he was elected to the prefectural assembly in 1880 and to the chairmanship of the assembly in 1886. He stood as a candidate in the first election to the House of Representatives in 1890, eventually serving six terms as a diet member. From 1891, Tanaka devoted himself to activism concerning the environmental degradation caused by the Ashio Copper Mine.

Reforestation of the Besshi mountain

In order to restore the ravaged Besshi mountain to their original verdant state, Teigo Iba hired a technical expert and drafted an ambitious reforestation plan. The number of saplings planted annually had soared from around 60,000 to more than 1 million by 1897. The flourishing forested slopes of the Besshi mountain today attest to the resounding success of Iba’s project.

1877 (Meiji 10) 27,560
1878 (Meiji 11) 238,801
1879 (Meiji 12) 220,211
1880 (Meiji 13) 52,195
1881 (Meiji 14) 123,396
1882 (Meiji 15) 20,888
1883 (Meiji 16) 64,528
1884 (Meiji 17) 35,113
1885 (Meiji 18) 23,610
1886 (Meiji 19) 80,166
1887 (Meiji 20) 77,064
1888 (Meiji 21) 82,350
1889 (Meiji 22) 41,500
1890 (Meiji 23) 41,800
1891 (Meiji 24) 26,800
1892 (Meiji 25) 61,620
1893 (Meiji 26) 32,520
Teigo Iba moved to Besshi as the general manager of the Besshi Copper Mines.
1894 (Meiji 27) 117,150
1895 (Meiji 28) 275,000
1896 (Meiji 29) 406,200
1897 (Meiji 30) 1,217,001
1898 (Meiji 31) 1,353,605
Teigo Iba returned to Sumitomo Head Office.
1899 (Meiji 32) 1,450,930
1900 (Meiji 33) ――
1901 (Meiji 34) 2,270,000
1902 (Meiji 35) 1,941,267
1903 (Meiji 36) 2,454,330
1904 (Meiji 37) 2,194,104
1905 (Meiji 38) 2,439,945
1906 (Meiji 39) 1,969,469
1907 (Meiji 40) 2,051,195
1908 (Meiji 41) 2,484,500
1909 (Meiji 42) 1,784,292
1910 (Meiji 43) 1,521,428
1911 (Meiji 44) 1,552,162
1912 (Taisho 1) 1,640,754
1913 (Taisho 2) 1,233,140
1914 (Taisho 3) 1,181,516
1915 (Taisho 4) 1,286,566
1916 (Taisho 5) 918,482
1917 (Taisho 6) 976,026
1918 (Taisho 7) 922,186
1919 (Taisho 8) 620,107
1920 (Taisho 9) 739,803

To the Besshi Copper Mines, away from home

On May 1, 1879, Iba was appointed general manager of the Osaka Head Office. As Saihei Hirose’s right-hand man, he was deeply involved in the House of Sumitomo’s business and the wider business community. In May 1893, smoke pollution at Niihama, where sulfur dioxide gas contained in the smoke was ruining crops, became intolerable. In September 1893, local farmers were in uproar. Amid calls for Saihei Hirose to resign, the Besshi Copper Mine was wreathed in metaphorical, as well as actual, dark clouds of smoke.

On July 4, 1894, Iba bade his wife and children farewell and moved to Besshi as the general manager of the Besshi Copper Mines. He was quick to grasp that the pollution issue was rooted in the lack of communication between management and clerks, clerks and miners, and Sumitomo and the farmers. Iba toured the mines, taking every opportunity to speak with the miners. He recognized the need for management to visit the site and engage in dialogue with the people working there in order to soften the harsh adversarial relationships that had previously prevailed. Considering the conventional wisdom of those days, Iba was open to the charge of naivety, but in a letter to his intimate friend Yajiro Shinagawa, Iba wrote, “I like simple work.” He knew that work that at first sight might seem simple could be of crucial importance, depending on the time and circumstances. Iba’s conciliatory approach gradually relaxed the tense atmosphere at the Besshi Copper Mines, creating an opportunity for cooperation and stability.

Relocation of the smelter to Shisakajima

Viewing the ravaged Besshi mountains, Teigo Iba declared, “We must restore the mountains to their original verdant state and return them to nature.” He formulated a policy of forest stewardship. First of all, it was necessary to stop smelting in the Besshi mountains, since this was the source of the sulfur dioxide gas, and replace firewood and charcoal with coal. But expanding the Sobiraki Smelter in Niihama might make a bad situation even worse by expanding the footprint of the pollution to include Niihama, stoking opposition to Sumitomo among the local inhabitants. Paying compensation and opting for a policy of appeasement would not go to the root of the problem. Judging that nature would not be restored by such measures, Iba decided to relocate the smelter to a place where its impact would be minimal.

Shisaka Plant is still in operation.
Photo by Hitoshi Fugo
Panorama of Shisakajima in 1906.
Shisakajima Smelter began operation in 1905.
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

In November 1895, Iba secretly acquired Shisakajima, an island some 20 kilometers offshore from Niihama, under his own name. On December 1, Iba submitted an application to the government for permission to construct a smelter on Shisakajima. This prompted municipalities adjacent to Niihama to lobby Sumitomo to establish a smelter in their areas. In March 1896, Saihei Hirose who had already retired from Sumitomo advised Iba to consider the following points: 1) damage other than smoke pollution, 2) issues concerning costs and community relations in the case of relocation from Niihama with its established infrastructure to an uninhabited island, 3) heavy expenditure on relocation should rather be used as compensation for damage, and 4) possibility that relocation would expand the pollution footprint.

Environmental measures transform the Besshi mountain

The former smelter in 1881.
Iba wanted to return the site to nature.
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
The same site as it is today.
Nature has made an extraordinary comeback.
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

Hirose’s advice was based on the commonsense management viewpoint in those days. Constructing a plant and port facilities on an uninhabited island without a water supply system and establishing company housing, schools, a hospital, and other social infrastructure seemed idealistic and impractical. However, Iba’s decision also reflected his judgment that the island would be convenient for smelting of ore purchased elsewhere if the Besshi Copper Mine was exhausted. Without being swayed by the opinions of others, Iba acted on his conviction and the smelter was relocated to Shisakajima. At the same time, he hired technical experts, formulated a reforestation plan, and began implementing it.

Whereas the number of saplings planted annually averaged less than 60,000 before Iba’s appointment as general manager of the Besshi Copper Mines in 1894, it soared to over one million. In November 1905, a facility for treating contaminated water drained from the mines was established and a 16-kilometer brick-lined drainage channel was built from Adit No. 3, 750 meters above sea level, to the seashore at Niihama so as prevent drainage into the Kokuryo River. The Shisakajima Smelter, whose construction commenced on February 8, 1897, entered operation in January 1905. The cost, initially estimated at 500,000 yen, had increased to 910,000 yen by the commencement of construction, and then ballooned to 1,730,000 yen by the time the project was completed, equivalent to net profits of the Besshi Copper Mines for 2 years. The amount of investment from around the time of Iba’s assignment to the Besshi Copper Mines through to 1905 reached 4,620,000 yen, half being for environmental measures, including the relocation of the smelter to Shisakajima, reforestation, and construction of the drainage channel.

Management with vision

In January 1905, the Shisakajima Smelter began operation. Contrary to Iba’s expectation, smoke pollution expanded to a greater area and became a major social issue. So Hirose’s misgivings proved to be well-founded. As Shozo Tanaka observed, “unexpected damage” was the hallmark of pollution in the early 20th century. In his speech inaugurating the Shisakajima Smelter, Iba said, “This is my final project. I conceived the plan and forged ahead with it.” Indeed, Iba was ahead of his time in his commitment to tackling environmental issues that only gained widespread recognition several decades later in the 20th century. Nevertheless, it took 34 years to achieve a definitive solution to the problem of smoke pollution caused by the Shisakajima Smelter. The issue was finally resolved when Sumitomo developed a process for neutralizing sulfur dioxide gas in 1939.

Iba did not live to see the definitive solution to the smoke pollution problem. Yet, throughout his career, he was inspired by a vision based on his conviction that, although business people inevitably encounter problems in the real world, management must always be true to its principles and ideals.

Addressing the Imperial Diet in 1901, Shozo Tanaka referred to Sumitomo’s policy in these words, “For Sumitomo, the mountains are a precious inheritance that it intends to bequeath to future generations.” In his final years, viewing the restored verdant mountains, Iba referred to the reforestation of the Besshi mountains as “My true calling.” His project anticipates the environmental initiatives of the present era.