Part 5

Author: Teruaki Sueoka

8. Teigo Iba Assigned to the Besshi Copper Mines

Shinagawa Shishaku (Source: “Shinagawa Shishaku Den”)

The next major problem Teigo Iba had to contend with was at the Besshi Copper Mines where adversarial labor relations boiled over into open conflict in 1893 (26th year of the Meiji era). Although Iba left no paper trail documenting his emotional and cerebral responses to that issue, much can be gleaned from documents relating to Yajiro Shinagawa archived in the Modern Japanese Political History Materials Room of the National Diet. About 10 years ago, among letters addressed to Yajiro Shinagawa, I found one from Teigo Iba dated January 5, 1896 (29th year of the Meiji era). The letter is notable as a rare instance of Iba expressing discontent. Indeed, to my knowledge, it is the only surviving letter in which he gives vent to his frustration. In your mind’s eye you likely see Teigo Iba as a man full of self-confidence but this letter reveals his inner struggle. He writes: “My dear friend Shinagawa, allow me to express my dissatisfaction.” Reading his lengthy letter to Shinagawa, I recalled a poem Iba composed in Niihama: “Like dew on morning glory climbing on a trellis, I live in a simple rustic abode.” Iba likened himself to dew on a profusion of morning glory, which afforded me an insight into his feelings of impermanence and isolation.

Sobiraki Smelter in Niihama

In the letter to Shinagawa, Iba relates that his efforts to find a capable person to dispatch to the Besshi Copper Mines in 1894 (27th year of the Meiji era) had been in vain because everyone was so fearful of what might befall them at the Besshi Copper Mines where tensions were running high. Moreover, at the Besshi Copper Mines, the conflict between Sumitomo and farmers was intensifying because the pollution caused by sulfur dioxide gas contained in the smoke from Sobiraki Smelter in Niihama was ruining crops. To make matters worse, within the company, a factional dispute had broken out between pro-Hirose executives and anti-Hirose clerks, as well as conflict between clerks and miners. Thus, in view of all this trouble inside and outside the company and with no other suitable person willing to undertake a mission to resolve the disputes at Besshi, Iba, almost 50 years of age, decided to go there himself. Taking a calculated risk and willing to be held accountable, he headed for Besshi. As Iba put it, “A leader should shoulder responsibilities and grapple with difficulties and then, once the difficulties are overcome, step back and make way for the next generation.” I think this attitude of never turning tail when confronted by difficulties is the hallmark of a true leader.

In the same letter, Iba also writes: “The disputes at Besshi are rooted in a lack of communication, which, figuratively speaking, has given rise to a plague of locusts that will gobble up the mines unless we take effective action. I must go to Besshi to get rid of these bugs and cultivate fruitful communication with farmers and our employees.” He continues: “This all arose because Hirose and the entire executive team neglected communication. I will assume responsibility for that and go to Besshi to communicate with all the constituencies.” On his feeling about going to Besshi, he writes: “If one resolves to devote oneself to the task in hand, unencumbered by wife, children, home, and possessions, one can attain a free and active state of mind. I should be able to get rid of the bugs at Besshi.” Rinzai Roku (sayings of Zen Master Linji Yixuan), a copy of which Gazan gave Hirose upon his decision to head for Besshi, contains a memorable statement alluding to just such an attitude of mind: “If you meet a Buddha, kill him. If you meet a patriarch of the law, kill him. If you meet an arhat, kill him. If you meet your parents, kill them. If you meet your relatives, kill them. Then, you will attain emancipation.” Such thinking must have resonated powerfully in Iba’s mind as he embarked on his mission.


Determined and calm, Iba was able to take effective action. At Besshi, unaccompanied by his family, he lived alone. One day, his wife Ume visited him in Besshi. Ume had married Iba following the death of his first wife, Matsu. This strong-minded lady was the daughter of a samurai of the Hikone Domain. When she married Iba at the age of 17, she accompanied him to Hakodate although he urged her not to do so. Upon Iba’s departure to Besshi in 1894 (27th year of the Meiji era), she assured him she would take good care of the house and the household and that he should not worry about her. But she was anxious about Iba and came to see what he was up to. She asked him, “What have you been doing since you came here?” Iba told her: “I go up the mountain and feel delighted, seeing the mining, but feel sorry, seeing the sweat-drenched toiling miners. I go down the mountain and feel delighted, seeing the output of smelting copper, but feel sorry, seeing clerks working so hard.” Ume roared with laughter, saying, “Your work sounds so simple.” Iba replied: “I think my work is simple. But I like simple work. Because there are many clever people around, I do simple work shunned by others. Simple work is sometimes useful,” and he laughed too and went to bed. Iba related this to Shinagawa. In the letter Iba asked Shinagawa to burn it after reading it, but Shinagawa kept the letter, which is why we are able to know of the circumstances at that time.

By “simple work,” Iba seems to have meant “putting aside his own desires and feelings.” Iba was always aware of the importance of good communication. When Iba moved to Besshi, many employees at the Besshi Copper Mines thought they were sure to be punished because Iba was the nephew of Hirose. However, Iba did not punish anyone. He won the hearts of the people and the tense atmosphere at Besshi gradually relaxed. Ill feeling cannot be dispelled by punishing people or revising the rules. The impact of such measures is only temporary. To get at the roots of problems, you need to cultivate a sound environment conducive to definitive solutions. Therefore, Iba intervened in the disputes and endeavored to communicate constructively with all the people involved. At that time, Iba’s nephew Shigetane Kitawaki was working at the Besshi Copper Mines. He wrote a reassuring letter to Iba’s mother Tazu: “Since Uncle Teigo came to the Besshi Copper Mines, things have calmed down. Everyone shows great consideration to him, urging him not to climb the mountain in cold weather but to stay at the foot of the mountain. It is almost as if he were regarded as a saint.” In his nephew’s eyes, Iba’s saintly demeanor helped settle the problems at Besshi.

Hirose’s impending retirement was a source of concern to Iba. Hirose submitted a letter of resignation in November 1894 (27th year of the Meiji era). The letter, retained by the heads of the Sumitomo family (Tomoito, the 15th head, and Tomonari, the 16th head), was recently discovered. Although the letter was in an envelope addressed to Iba, at Hirose’s request Iba handed it to the head of the Sumitomo family. Iba expressed his admiration for Hirose’s attitude, saying, “You are following the way of heaven by retiring after achieving success and winning fame,” and offered his heartfelt congratulations to Hirose on his retirement.

9. Relocation of the Smelter to Shisakajima

Drawing attached to the proposal on relocation of the smelter to Shisakajima in 1895 (28th year of the Meiji era)

The next big problem Iba had to address was the smoke pollution caused by sulfur dioxide gas emitted from the copper smelter. Usually, compensation for damage will be considered when smoke pollution occurs. We recently translated the Besshi Copper Mines Masterplan formulated by French mining engineer Louis Larroque and were surprised to find that back in 1875 (8th year of the Meiji era) he had anticipated smoke pollution. The Masterplan states: “If the smelter is moved to Sobiraki, it is certain that damage will be caused to agricultural produce. It is estimated that 3,000 yen should be set aside every year as compensation for damage.” So, smoke pollution came as no surprise to Larroque. However, it seems that Sumitomo’s management did not read this section. There is no evidence indicating that Iba anticipated the pollution. Larroque seems to have thought the damage would be minimized by locating the smelter in Sobiraki. But the pollution did occur.

So Iba wondered what to do. His first idea was to relocate the smelter to a site further up the mountain. Iba contacted Monnosuke Shiono, who was working at the Ashio Copper Mine, to ask his opinion. Sumitomo hired Shiono to be an interpreter for Larroque. Following Larroque’s departure, at Shiono’s request Sumitomo sent Shiono to France to study. On his return to Japan, he set about constructing a smelter in Sobiraki. However, Shiono had a difference of opinion with Hirose and left Sumitomo. He moved to the Ashio Copper Mine where he was subsequently responsible for establishing Japan’s first Bessemer converter. The Besshi Copper Mines occupied a special place in Shiono’s heart and he wrote to Iba and to a son of Hirose, requesting them to permit his return to the Besshi Copper Mines, even expressing a willingness to work there without pay. One of Shiono’s recommendations was to relocate the smelter to an island so that ore could be shipped in from other mines for smelting. Smelting at a coastal site makes it easy to ship in fuel and raw materials. The idea was that, even if the Besshi Copper Mines were exhausted, smelting could continue with ore procured from other mines. In light of Shiono’s recommendation, Iba decided to relocate the smelter to Shisakajima, an island 20 kilometers offshore from Niihama, with the aim of solving the problem of smoke pollution. In fact, this year is the centenary of the Shisakajima Smelter.

Shisakajima Smelter

Relocation of the smelter to Shisakajima was actually an extraordinary undertaking. As you may have learned at school, industry needs easy access to plenty of water, convenient transport links, and ample labor. But what did Shisakajima offer? The island was uninhabited. So, Sumitomo had to start by establishing a community from scratch by constructing houses, schools, and a hospital. It cost a lot of money. Next, since there was no source of water on the island, water had to be shipped to the island. The only condition satisfied was convenient transport links. Coal was shipped from the Chikuho Coal Mine in Kyushu. Ore was sourced from the Besshi mountains. If the Besshi Copper Mines were eventually exhausted, ore could be procured from other mines in Japan or overseas. Indeed, smelting continued at Shisakajima Smelter until 1976 (51st year of the Showa era). Convenience of transportation was a decisive factor in the relocation of the smelter to the island. (To be continued)

Proceed to Part 6