Masaya Suzuki : Part 1

Author: Teruaki Sueoka


In 1878, Masaya Suzuki, who later became the third director-general of the House of Sumitomo, was still a student of the Yobimon (Preparatory School) of the University of Tokyo. His classmate Yoshimasu Kawamura, who went on to become a judicial official and a member of the House of Peers, recalled: “Soon after coming to Tokyo, Suzuki entered the Preparatory School of the University of Tokyo. He already had a vision and was eager to contribute to the nation and society. He got on well with other aspiring students who came to Tokyo from all over Japan.” By joining Sumitomo, Suzuki was able to fulfill his aspirations. We need to go back to his childhood to find out about his character.

Monument where the house in which Masaya Suzuki was born once stood. It commemorates the four brothers.


On February 24, 1861, Masaya Suzuki was born in Takanabe in Hyuga Province (present-day Takanabe Town, Miyazaki Prefecture), the fourth son of Taneyo Akizuki, who was the chief retainer of the Takanabe Domain, and his wife Hisako. Masaya’s eldest brother Turutaro was a follower of the imperial faction in the closing years of the Tokugawa shogunate. His second eldest brother Chohei, who was adopted by the Kuromizu family, relatives of the Suzuki family, was active in local industrial development. And the third eldest brother Satsuo was a diplomat. At the site where the family house once stood is a monument commemorating the four brothers.

The Meiji Restoration coincided with a period of much turbulence and hardship for Masaya, then just eight years old. On February 5, 1868, his older brother Turutaro died at the age of 25 of an illness he had contracted in prison. He had been arrested by the shogunate in 1867 while on his way to rescue feudal retainers of the Satsuma Domain who were in hiding at the Takanabe Domain’s residence in Edo. On June 9 of that year, Masaya’s mother, Hisako, died suddenly at the age of 45. On August 26, his maternal great uncle Takafusa Suzuki died at the age of 75 and later that year Takafusa’s adopted son Morifusa died at the age of 27, having fought and perished in the Boshin War, a civil war between imperial and shogunate forces. On April 2, 1869, with a view to restoring the fortunes of the Suzuki family, Morifusa posthumously adopted Masaya.

Masaya’s biological father Taneyo wrote of the sorrow he felt upon the loss of his wife Hisako: “Satsuo was eleven and Masaya was eight. On her deathbed, Hisako repeatedly asked our maids to take good care of the children. Her words still ring in my ears.” Taneyo was opposed to the participation of the retainers of the former Takanabe Domain in the anti-government forces because he believed they would be stigmatized as traitors. He was incarcerated by the rebels during the Satsuma Rebellion, fell ill in prison, and died on June 23, 1877 at the age of 64.

Masaya’s childhood was overshadowed by the deaths of his brother, his father, and other close relatives—all of whom lost their lives in an honorable cause.

House in Takanabe where Masaya Suzuki was born
House in Takanabe where Masaya Suzuki was born

From officialdom to Sumitomo

Niihama in 1890, some 200 years after the opening of the Besshi Copper Mines
View of the smelter chimney from the wharf at Sobiraki
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Forest at Shiiba Village in Miyazaki Prefecture

In 1873, Masaya visited a medical school in Kagoshima Prefecture with his brother Satsuo. After attending Miyazaki Middle School under the old educational system until March 1876, Masaya proceeded to Keimei School in Kanazawa in June 1876 but left in 1877. He entered the Preparatory School of the University of Tokyo in February 1878. Upon graduation from Imperial University in July 1887 at the age of 27, he joined the Ministry of Home Affairs and was assigned to Ehime Prefecture as a secretary in May 1889. His first encounter with Sumitomo was when he was invited to Niihama as a guest for an event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Besshi Copper Mines in May 1890.

Having been transferred to Osaka Prefecture as a secretary in August 1890, Masaya was invited to the 200th anniversary reception at the Sumitomo Head Office in Osaka in October. On this occasion, he was asked to say a few words: “Though the House of Sumitomo is not an arm of the government, it is operating copper mines in Iyo with integrity and the people of Ehime Prefecture heartily admire Sumitomo for that.” Saihei Hirose, the first director-general of the House of Sumitomo, declared “I will devote myself to encouragement of new industry and share the benefits with tens of millions of people.” Teigo Iba, the second director-general, adopted the policy that “Sumitomo’s business must benefit the nation and society as well as Sumitomo itself.” Masaya experienced Sumitomo’s business philosophy in action while assigned to Ehime and Osaka Prefectures as a government official. At that time, Tomoito, the 15th head of the Sumitomo family, and Director-General Teigo Iba, were seeking talented people in sympathy with Sumitomo’s values. They thought Masaya Suzuki was a person to whom they could entrust the future of Sumitomo.

In May 1896, when approached by the House of Sumitomo, Suzuki responded: “I am an official and know nothing about business… I will put virtue first, and profit second. I aim to gain profit through virtue. If that is agreeable to you, then I accept your offer.” Suzuki’s values were synonymous with the business policy of the House of Sumitomo. On joining Sumitomo at the age of 36, Suzuki was appointed deputy general manager of Osaka Head Office. Tradition has it that his aunt Somako cried all night because she did not want her nephew to become a merchant. Forsaking the constraints of officialdom, he joined Sumitomo, attracted by Sumitomo’s business philosophy. According to Banri Ebara (who was an assistant professor at Tokyo Imperial University after working at Sumitomo and later became a Christian preacher), Suzuki expressed his disappointment about officialdom and recalled, “Joining Sumitomo was a blessing in that it meant I could be true to myself.”

Reforestation and smoke pollution countermeasures

大塚小郎(林業所主任)宛て馬左也書状(大正9年) 「林業ハ国家の大計ニ干与する」と記している。
A letter written by Masaya Suzuki to Koro Otsuka (deputy manager of the Forestry Office) in 1920
It states, “Forestry should be a major nationwide project.”
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

Appointed general manager of Besshi Mine Office on January 6, 1899, Suzuki proceeded to pursue a management policy based on ethics. In August 1899 Besshi was struck by an unprecedented disaster: a landslide triggered by torrential rain took the lives of 514 people and destroyed the mine facilities. Suzuki took charge of implementing remedial measures and attributed the disaster to deforestation brought about by clearcutting to secure sufficient timber for use in copper smelting. He said: “Since mining is work that damages the land, which is the nation’s heritage, we must engage in work that protects the land. The forestry business is an ideal way of atoning for the damage.” Succeeding to the ambitious reforestation plan of Teigo Iba, Suzuki decided to expand the scope of Sumitomo’s forestry activities from their origin in the Besshi mountains of Shikoku. In 1917, Suzuki launched the forestry business across Japan, extending from Kitami in Hokkaido in the north to Shiiba Village in Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyushu in the south, as well as in Korea. Suzuki said later, “Sumitomo’s forestry business should be a hundred-year project, and I want the flourishing mountain forests to be the expression of all that Sumitomo cherishes.”

Meanwhile, Sumitomo relocated the smelter to Shisakajima, an uninhabited island 20 kilometers offshore from Niihama, to solve the smoke pollution problem. The new smelter began operation in January 1905 but instead of solving the problem, smoke pollution extended to Nyugawa in Imabari on the coast of Shikoku as the smoke was borne on the wind. In 1909, Sumitomo and farmers’ representatives met in Onomichi. At the meeting, Suzuki declared his determination to solve the problem, “Sumitomo is researching possible solutions as a matter of great urgency... As soon as we have a practicable solution, we will install the necessary facilities without delay. Sumitomo will construct facilities to remove emissions at any cost. I am determined to do it even if the cost exceeds the compensation fees.” In September 1913, Sumitomo Fertilizer Manufacturing (present-day Sumitomo Chemical) was established to manufacture fertilizers such as monocalcium phosphate and ammonium sulfate from sulfur dioxide recovered from sulfuric acid gas. Suzuki aimed to promote both agriculture and industry. Sumitomo continued research with a view to eliminating smoke pollution until the issue was finally resolved upon completion of a plant for neutralizing sulfur dioxide gas in 1939.

Projects beneficial to the nation from a long-term perspective

住友肥料製造所 新居浜
Sumitomo Fertilizer Manufacturing in Niihama (early Showa era)
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Cable factory of Sumitomo Copper Plant (the predecessor of Sumitomo Electric Wire & Cable Works) (late Meiji era)
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives

In July 1904, at a youthful 44 years of age, Suzuki was appointed director-general of Sumitomo. Upon assuming office, he expressed his resolve: “Acting together with like-minded people, I intend to tread the path of justice and equity, undertaking projects beneficial to the nation from a long-term perspective.” Suzuki envisioned Sumitomo not just as a commercial enterprise but also as an organization whose activities contributing to a flourishing state and nation inspired respect and affection.

Adhering to his convictions, Suzuki established Sumitomo Electric Wire & Cable Works (present-day Sumitomo Electric Industries) in August 1911, the first manufacturer of telephone cables and high-voltage electrical cables in Japan. In May 1912, Sumitomo Copper Plant (the predecessor of Sumitomo Metal Industries and Sumitomo Light Metal Industries) began manufacturing seamless steel pipes and responded to the navy’s demand for condensate pipes. In 1913, he established Sumitomo Fertilizer Manufacturing (present-day Sumitomo Chemical), which heralded development of the chemical industry in Japan. In 1919, he established Osaka Hokko (the predecessor of Sumitomo Corporation) to develop a coastal industrial zone in Osaka. In the same year, he established Tosa-Yoshino River Hydro-Electric Power Company (present-day Sumitomo Joint Electric Power) to power the Besshi Copper Mines. Furthermore, in connection with reforestation at Shiiba in Miyazaki Prefecture, Suzuki also secured rights to the waters of Mimi River, which eventually led to the founding of present-day Shikoku Electric Power and Kyushu Electric Power.

He also energetically promoted joint ventures with foreign partners to fuel Japan’s technological development. For example, he established America Japan Sheet Glass (present-day Nippon Sheet Glass) in 1918 and invested in Nippon Electric (present-day NEC) in 1920, which came under Sumitomo’s management in 1932. Quick to grasp the role of electricity as the great enabler of economic development in the 20th century, Suzuki was committed to helping achieve Japan’s transformation into a leading industrialized trading nation. Businesses launched by Suzuki that would benefit the nation from a long-term perspective continue to flourish.