Part 1

Author: Teruaki Sueoka


The traveling exhibition “Achievements of Saihei Hirose and Teigo Iba” will visit Niihama, Otsu, and Tokyo during the period from August to December 2005. I was responsible for planning and supervising this exhibition. In the 21st century, economic activities and environmental issues are increasingly subject to international scrutiny and expected to satisfy global standards of conduct. This year was the centenary of the start of operations at Shisakajima Smelter, constructed on an island in the Seto Inland Sea with a view to solving the smoke pollution problem of the Besshi Copper Mines caused by sulfur dioxide. It struck me that the centenary would be a great opportunity to introduce the principles and achievements of Saihei Hirose and Teigo Iba, who led Sumitomo during the tumultuous Meiji era of dramatic change, in the context of contemporary themes, such as the quest for harmony between the industry and the environment and the ever-sharper focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Thanks to the cooperation extended by the Sumitomo Group Public Affairs Committee and the museums related to Hirose and Iba, namely, Hirose Memorial Museum in Niihama City, Otsu City Museum of History, and Sen-oku Hakukokan Museum (Sumitomo Collection), we are able to mount an exhibition of artifacts that have never previously been on public display. I would like to express my heartful appreciation to all the people who have made this exhibition possible.

Hirose Memorial Museum

Hirose Memorial Museum opened in 1996 and for more than 12 years since its construction I have been involved in the planning and running of the museum. I think that this travelling exhibition is the culmination of what we have achieved so far.

Now, from the vantage point of the fourth year of the 21st century, the years from the late 1990s to the early 2000s are dubbed the lost decade. It was a period of uncertainty following the bursting of the Japanese economic bubble. The economy has been showing indications of renewed vigor, albeit somewhat tentative, this year and you are probably wondering what the future has in store for Japan. Looking at the people gathered here today, I conclude that most of you enjoyed Japan’s postwar prosperity. During the 20th century, and especially in its concluding decades, we kept going, pursuing affluence. Ultimately, we have come to enjoy a considerable measure of affluence, but I think none of us is free of anxiety when contemplating the future and wondering what lies beyond this affluence. I believe that reviewing what happened 100 years ago here in Niihama at the Besshi Copper Mines can help us navigate a course not only in the contemporary world but also illuminate a path for subsequent generations journeying a 100 years into the future.

What was Japan’s economic situation over 100 years ago in the closing years of the Tokugawa shogunate and during the Meiji Restoration? In the Edo period (1603-1868) when the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled the country, the sakoku policy strictly limited trade and other relations between Japan and other nations. During this period, an indigenous Japanese style of management held sway undisturbed by foreign countries. Merchants formed guilds called kabunakama, which were entrusted by the shogunate to manage their respective trades and were allowed to enjoy monopolies. Although Tokugawa coinage of a unitary and independent metallic monetary system was established, with gold coins (koban), silver coins (chogin), and copper coins (Kan'ei Tsūhō) issued by Tokugawa shogunate, hansatsu, scrips issued by feudal domains, were also used. Furthermore, enterprises operated by feudal domains had monopolies. This sequestered Japanese economy was suddenly plucked from relative obscurity and thrust into an unforgiving globalized commercial environment by the Perry Expedition. How did people in the Meiji era cope with this dramatic change? Let me address this question by offering some observations about the Besshi Copper Mines.

1. Japanese Copper Underpinning the Monetized Economies of East Asia

The world-renowned Besshi Copper Mines opened in 1691 (4th year of the Genroku era) and closed in 1973 (48th year of the Showa era). By 1697 (10th year of the Genroku era), just six years since the inauguration of the Besshi Copper Mines, Japan had become the world’s foremost source of copper with annual production of 6,000 tons. The Besshi Copper Mines produced about a quarter of all the copper exported from Japan. School textbooks tell you that Japan traded with the Dutch and the Chinese at Dejima in Nagasaki, but they do not tell you what they wanted from Japan. It was copper. And it was copper from Besshi that propelled Japanese copper to global preeminence. Besshi was in fact connected to the world. Blister copper carried by nakamochi (porters) from the Besshi Copper Mines was transported to Osaka via kuchiya (warehouses) in Niihama and refined in Osaka, and then refined saodo copper bars (ingots) were transported to Nagasaki and exported from Nagasaki to China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and Europe. In fact, Japanese copper was circulating worldwide. In particular, it was highly prized for the beautiful rosy sheen attributable to the oxide film formed by casting in hot water. Around the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, an Englishman called Morris gained a patent for this Japanese copper casting method and copper cast in Britain using the method was exported as “Japan copper.” So Japanese copper was indeed famous and much sought after. Copper from Japan was used for coins in China and Vietnam as well as for coins issued by the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie: VOC). Copper was a major product. So the head of the Dutch Trading Post traveled all the way to Osaka to visit the refinery where ore from throughout Japan was refined. In trade with Korea conducted via the Tsushima domain, copper from Besshi was the only copper whose export was permitted. So coins in Korea were made of copper from Besshi. Thus, copper from Besshi not only supported the local economy but also played an important role in the Japanese economy and even in the world economy, notably in the economies of East Asia.

So the Besshi Copper Mines in the Edo period were far less provincial than one might imagine. The world was certainly not a closed book to those running the mines in the Besshi mountains. Not only were they well aware that the copper from Besshi was exported from Nagasaki and Tsushima, but they also sought information about foreign countries, just as foreigners sought information about the Besshi Copper Mines. In the archive entrusted by the Shoji family, which is a part of the archives of the Fukushima Prefectural Archives, there is a fusetsugaki (documents about foreign countries submitted by the Dutch Trading Post to the Tokugawa Shogunate) of 1844 (15th year of the Tempo era), which appears to have been copied at the Nagasaki branch of Izumiya (Sumitomo) and sent to the Edo branch, indicating that Sumitomo obtained intelligence about the international situation through copper trading. (To be continued.)

Drawing of the Besshi Copper Mines
Saodo copper bars (copper exported from Nagasaki)

Proceed to Part 2