Masatsune Ogura

Author: Teruaki Sueoka


On July 5, 1941, a gentleman traveled to Nishijyuku in Gamo (present-day Omi-hachiman City), Shiga Prefecture, on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa. He was Masatsune Ogura who had resigned from his position as the sixth general-director of Sumitomo in April 1941 to take office as the minister of finance in the third Konoe cabinet. The villagers wondered why a minister had come all the way to their secluded rural community. Ogura was there to visit the grave of Teigo Iba, Sumitomo’s second director-general, to report his appointment as a cabinet minister.

Ogura quit his career as a government official and joined Sumitomo in May 1899 at the age of 24. As Ogura was about to embark on a business trip to Europe and North America in March 1900, Director-General Teigo Iba told him: “Sumitomo is not sending you to Western countries purely for the sake of the business. We also want your experience overseas to benefit society. After returning to Japan, if you think you could have a greater impact outside Sumitomo, you should pursue your aspirations elsewhere.” 42 years later, Ogura was conscious of a profound debt to his benefactor as he bowed deeply before Iba’s grave.

Masatsune Ogura扁額「敬和」
This calligraphic work by Masatsune Ogura depicts keiwa, meaning harmony and respect (presented by Ogura to Wakamiya Shrine in Omi-hachiman)
The tutelary deity of the Iba family is enshrined in Wakamiya Shrine, which is next to the site in Nishijuku where the family’s residence once stood.

Early life

Masatsune Ogura was born on March 22, 1875, the eldest son of Masamichi and his wife Koto at Daijyume in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture. He had an elder sister, a younger brother and a younger sister. Serving the Nishio clan (4,000 koku) of Kanazawa Domain (fiefdom of the Maeda clan, 1 million koku), the Ogura family had once been retainers but became indirect vassals who were not entitled to audiences with the head of the clan.

In March 1877, when his father Masamichi, a judge, was assigned to a court in Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture, the two-year-old Masatsune remained with his grandparents in Kanazawa. Studying the Chinese classics with his grandfather Nagamasa every day was the origin of his lifelong love of Chinese literature, which enabled him to deepen relationships with Chinese counterparts during his distinguished career. In 1880 he entered the Kanazawa Yosei Elementary School (present-day Baba Elementary School). Among his classmates were Kyoka Izumi and Shusei Tokuda, both of whom became notable novelists. Though enthusiastic about literature, Masatsune found mathematics difficult. Yet by making great efforts, he managed to enter the Fourth Junior High School in Kanazawa and later the Faculty of Law of Tokyo Imperial University in 1894.

Masatsune’s favorite book was Records of the Grand Historian or Shiki by Sima Qian. Inspired by the magnificent historical records of China, Masatsune noted that “According to Sima Qian, one develops through encounters with distinguished individuals,” and so he took every opportunity to meet renowned people after he came to Tokyo.

Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa was a castle town of the Maeda clan (1 million koku).
Masatsune Oguraの生家跡と浅野川
Site of the house where Masatsune Ogura was born overlooking the Asano River
The house where Masatsune Ogura was born was in Daijyume (present-day Moriyama 1-chome, Kanazawa City) on the right bank of the Asano River.
The two houses in the foreground stand on the site where Ogura’s house once stood. At the Baba Elementary School nearby are monuments to the novelists Kyoka Izumi and Shusei Tokuda, classmates of Masatsune.

From the Home Ministry to Sumitomo

Masatsune Ogura and Sumitomo executives
Masatsune Ogura and Sumitomo executives in 1911
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Masatsune Ogura is at the center at the back. Kinkichi Nakada is to Ogura’s right. Tomoito Sumitomo (right) and Masaya Suzuki are in the foreground.

Upon graduating from the university, Ogura joined the Home Ministry on the recommendation of a senior in July 1897 and was appointed counsellor of Yamaguchi Prefecture in December 1898. Despite his lofty ambition to do his utmost to serve the nation and the region, as a newly minted 22-year-old official his duties largely consisted of entertaining high-ranking officials and attending local events and receptions. As a man inspired by a deep-seated moral seriousness, Ogura was repelled by such a life.

It was at this juncture that Masaya Suzuki, who had been Ogura’s senior at the Home Ministry but was now general manager of Besshi Mine Office, suggested that Ogura embark on a career with Sumitomo. Having met Kichizaemon Tomoito, the head of the Sumitomo family and the owner, and Teigo Iba, the senior executive, Ogura was impressed by their characters and decided to make the move, joining Sumitomo in May 1899 at the age of 24. Although, given his youth and consequent limited experience, such a career move might seem premature, Ogura had no doubts about his decision. Ogura later described the background to his decision as follows: “Just as a family has its own traditions and style, a business enterprise has its own atmosphere and values, reflecting the attributes and stance of the head of the firm. The character of the leader informs the character of the enterprise. Sumitomo has indeed been fortunate over the years in that its owners and leaders have been thoughtful individuals, all of whom have possessed great integrity.”

Trust people and make good use of them

The Kobe Office of Sumitomo Bank
The Kobe Office of Sumitomo Bank (late Meiji era)
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
The imposing, magnificent counter conveys the ambience of the era.

In 1905, Ogura returned to Japan, having completed his mission to Europe and North America. Ogura became the general manager of the Kobe Branch of Sumitomo’s banking and warehouse operations in 1906. One incident is illustrative of Ogura’s attitude and values. It happened that payment was made on a forged check. The person in charge of the section involved was mortified and shamefacedly told General Manager Ogura what had happened. Ogura asked him to bring the seal register, compared the seal on the forged check against the one in the register, and only said, “Well, I myself could have made the same mistake and paid.” Ogura believed that “People don’t learn by being reprimanded. They cannot improve unless they fully appreciate what has transpired.” It is better to patiently encourage their introspection, rather than rebuke them. Ogura’s maxim was: “Trust people and make good use of them.”

In June 1913 Ogura was appointed general manager of the General Head Office. All the important matters arising in each business operation were referred to Ogura, who prepared proposals for approval by the director-general. Ogura had a golden opportunity to absorb the fundamental principles of business. From the end of the Meiji era to the Taisho era, Sumitomo’s business expanded from the Besshi Copper Mines to include heavy industry and chemicals as well as banking and finance. In 1918 Ogura was promoted to director.

Development of the Konomai Gold Mine

A notable achievement of Ogura was his development of a gold mine. Sumitomo began production of electrolytic copper at the Besshi Copper Mines in Shikoku in 1919 to meet growing demand for electric cables. Silica stone, which contains gold and silver, was necessary as a flux in electrorefining, and an additional benefit was that the refining process yielded gold and silver. Facing the post-World War I recession, Ogura expressed his conviction that “An industrialist should have a gold mine as gold shines when times are hard.”

In 1917, Ogura was in charge of negotiations concerning mining rights at Konomai in Monbetsu, Hokkaido, to exploit the gold deposits discovered there. Having secured the approval of the head of the Sumitomo family and the director-general of the House of Sumitomo in advance, Ogura acquired the mining rights at the price asked for by the eight owners of the mining rights.

However, following the acquisition, no rich vein was struck and the mine was at risk of closure. However, Ogura had confidence in the judgment of the engineer in charge at the mine, made further investments and continued exploration, declaring, “It is important to press ahead in times of adversity and pull back in times of triumph.” An immense deposit was eventually discovered in 1925. The output of the Konomai Gold Mine was greater than that of any other gold mine in East Asia. Ogura developed the gold mine, positioning it as a reliable source of revenue for Sumitomo.

Kamimobetsu Ekitei
Kamimobetsu Ekitei
Built in 1926 beside the road from Monbetsu to the Konomai Gold Mine. An ekitei is a roadside facility, comprising accommodation, stables, and a post office, developed in Hokkaido in late 19th century and early 20th century. The well-preserved Kamimobetsu Ekitei is one of eight surviving ekitei in Hokkaido.
Former Konomai Gold Mine
Former Konomai Gold Mine
With the smelter chimney in the background, there used to be company housing and other facilities along the road.
Entrance to the Konomai Gold Mine
Entrance to the Konomai Gold Mine
No. 1 Adit of No. 5 Tunnel (Kucchannai No. 1 Adit) opened in 1931. The principal tunnel of what was once the most productive gold mine in East Asia. “Kucchannai No. 1 Adit” on the board above the entrance is executed in Masatsune Ogura’s brushwork.

Appointed director-general and fostering of capable people

Sumitomo Building in 1933
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Construction of this building started in 1922 and was completed in 1930. Sumitomo Head Office and affiliated companies were based there.
Nowadays, it is Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation’s Osaka Head Office Building.

In August 1930, Masatsune Ogura became the sixth director-general, succeeding Kankichi Yukawa. In his inauguration speech, Ogura said, “Sumitomo’s credibility and profile have been increasing step by step... Fortunately, I have been working for Sumitomo for many years and have a good grasp of the approaches pursued by former director-generals. I will recall their accomplishments and maintain the tradition.” Ogura declared his determination to shoulder his responsibilities as the inheritor of the business philosophy nurtured by his distinguished predecessors in their distinctive ways. He noted that the essence of the philosophy is “to serve not only for the benefit of Sumitomo but also for that of the nation and society.”

In order to foster truly capable people from the viewpoint of service to the nation, Ogura told new employees: “As you are entering the world of business, you must understand that there is far more to business than moneymaking. You have to be a person of integrity, one who painstakingly cultivates his personal qualities.” Housai Hyuga, who later served as president of Sumitomo Metal Industries, and Masao Kamei, who later served as president of Sumitomo Electric Industries), recalled how moved they were by the high expectations Ogura expressed in his speech. Ogura inspired subsequent generations of Sumitomo employees, and the values he emphasized are evident in the way Sumitomo tackled national projects, such as the construction of Kansai Airport and the privatization and reorganization of Japanese National Railways.

250th anniversary of the opening of the Besshi Copper Mines and stepping down from the position of director-general

Owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining
Painting commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Besshi Copper Mines in 1940. The plants of businesses whose roots go back to the mining business, such as chemicals, machinery, and aluminum, are depicted. Painted by Kosetsu Takeda, with text by Masatsune Ogura.

In May 1940, a large ceremony was held in Niihama to mark the 250th anniversary of the inauguration of the Besshi Copper Mines. Construction of the port of Niihama was completed in 1939 and the issue of smoke pollution of Shisakajima Smelter was resolved upon completion of a plant for neutralizing sulfur dioxide gas. In a speech at the ceremony, Ogura referred to Sumitomo’s development: “Sumitomo’s business covers almost all the industries of Japan...About 80,000 people work for Sumitomo.” During Ogura’s tenure as director-general, Sumitomo promoted reorganization of group companies. In March 1937, Sumitomo Goshi Kaisha (Limited partnership) was reorganized as Sumitomo Honsha, Ltd (Sumitomo Zaibatsu). The number of affiliated companies increased to 13, including those involved in metals, electric wire, chemicals, machinery, banking, trust banking, warehousing, and life insurance.

After becoming director-general, Ogura served as a member of the House of Peers and a member of the Cabinet Deliberation Council, offering recommendations on economic policy and moral education. In April 1941, Ogura was appointed Minister of state in the second Konoe cabinet. In the same month, he resigned from the post of director-general and was succeeded to by Shunnosuke Furuta who was managing director. Upon retiring from his post as director-general, he recalled, “I led Sumitomo for 11 years. When launching a new business, the ethics of the contemplated venture always took precedence over its projected profitability. That approach ensured Sumitomo’s probity and progress.” Overwhelmed by emotion, he said, “Although I am bidding farewell to Sumitomo, in my heart I will always be at Sumitomo.” Tomonari, the 16th head of the Sumitomo family, sent a poem to Ogura expressing his very best wishes: “You worked 42 years for us. Now, though full of years, you are shouldering heavy responsibilities in the service of the nation.”

Masatsune Ogura after Sumitomo

Inauguration of Konoe’s third cabinet in 1941
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Prime Minister Konoe at the center in the front row with Minister of Finance Ogura to his left. Ogura served as Minister of Finance in Konoe’s third cabinet in July 1941 and resigned from that position upon establishment of Tojo’s cabinet in October.
Masatsune Oguraの墓所
Masatsune Ogura’s grave
His soul rests with his family at Aoyama Cemetery in Minato-ku, Tokyo

In July 1941, Ogura was appointed Minister of Finance in the third Konoe cabinet. His principal task was to bring electric power under state control and establish nine power distribution companies based on the government’s ordinance to control power distribution. In October 1941, the Tojo cabinet replaced the Konoe cabinet. Tojo requested Ogura to remain but Ogura declined Tojo’s offer, saying, “I joined the cabinet because of Prime Minister Konoe’s earnest request. I have no reason or intention to remain in office.” During the Pacific War, serving as the supreme economic advisor to the Wang Jingwei regime (Reorganized National Government of the Republic of China) based in Nanjing, Ogura strove in vain for reconciliation between Japan and China and he returned to Japan in 1946. He subsequently continued his efforts to promote cultural exchanges between Japan and China. Ogura donated his collection of books on China to Aichi University (successor to The Tung Wen College, a Japanese private university based in Shanghai) in 1948. This collection is named Kansai Bunko. In 1955, Ogura established the Guo Moruo Bunko (present-day Asia-Africa Library).

Masatsune Ogura passed away on November 20, 1961, at the age of 87. His grave is in Aoyama Cemetery in Tokyo. Seishi Yamaguchi, a haiku poet, had worked for Sumitomo and Ogura had interviewed him during the recruitment process. On learning of Ogura’s death, Yamaguchi composed a poem, “Winter leaves in sorrow, missing Sumitomo’s parent.” Expressing his admiration for Ogura whose personal qualities made him beloved as a father figure by everyone at Sumitomo, Yamaguchi employed a metaphor, likening Ogura to winter leaves, which are vivid in color yet few in number.