Kankichi Yukawa

Author: Teruaki Sueoka


Kankichi Yukawa, the fifth director-general of the House of Sumitomo, visited the United States in March 1897 as an official of the Ministry of Communications (present-day Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications) to attend a Universal Postal Congress of the Universal Postal Union. A tour of the Homestead Steel Works during the trip prompted him to comment: “My initial delight at seeing the manufacture of steel plates for Japanese warships gave way to the realization that Japan having to order steel from abroad despite its domestic mines was by no means praiseworthy.” He felt the inability of Japanese industry to fabricate the basic materials for a warship was truly lamentable. Eight years later he joined Sumitomo.

Early life

Kankichi Yukawa was born on May 24, 1868, the eldest son of Kansai Yukawa, a retainer of the Kishu Shingu Domain (present-day Shingu City, Wakayama Prefecture) who served as a physician, and his wife Yae in Shingu-machi (present-day Chiho 1-chome, Shingu City). He had two younger brothers and a younger sister. Shingu was a temple town that had grown up around Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine, one of the three Great Shrines of Kumano (Kumano Sanzan), and also a castle town under the lordship of the 35,000-koku Mizuno clan, one of the principal allies of the Kishū-Tokugawa family. The Yukawa family had long been a source of physicians serving the Shingu Domain. Kankichi’s grandfather Kanchu and father Kansai were both physicians. His uncle Geido Yukawa was a follower of Heihachiro Oshio, the leader of a rebellion against the Tokugawa Shogunate, and was the editor of the Japanese classic Tankaku-sosho.

After four years at the Shingu Elementary School, Kankichi Yukawa entered the Wakayama Middle School but subsequently he left to study at the German School Tokyo. His father Kansai wanted his eldest son Kankichi to carry on the family tradition by becoming a physician. Kankichi attended the Yobimon (Preparatory School) of the University of Tokyo and was on track to proceed to medical school. Instead, however, he went to law school, studying in the newly established department of German law. When asked about this change of direction, he commented that he had taken the decision without discussing the matter with his father.

As his decision to pursue legal studies was in defiance of his father’s wishes, his father stopped supporting him financially. He showed considerable grit, earning a little here and there while getting by as best he could as an impecunious student.

Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine
Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrine
One of the Kumano Sanzan, along with Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine and Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine. The prime location for worship of the tutelary gods of Kumano. “Shingu” meaning “new shrine” alludes to the transfer of the spirits of the tutelary gods from Kamikurayama, a mountain, to the place where the town grew up.
Shingu (Tankaku) Castle ruins
Shingu (Tankaku) Castle ruins
View of the Kumano River and the mountains from the site where the castle keep stood.
Shingu prospered as a port from which timber and charcoal were shipped.
Site of the house in which Kankichi Yukawa was born
The principal residence of the Yukawa family once stood at Shingu-machi 841, on the right in the photo, overlooking what is now National Route 42. Chihogamine, a mountain, is in the background. The narrow frontage indicates it was a machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse.

From the Ministry of Communications to Sumitomo

Ministry of Communications
The original building (Source: “Reference Materials for the 100-year History of Post and Telegraph Services”)

Kankichi Yukawa graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in July 1890, joining the Ministry of Communications on July 14. In 1894, during the Sino-Japanese War, he served as the postmaster of a field post office. In August 1895, he was appointed the principal of Tokyo Post and Telegraph School where he fostered many excellent staff. In March 1897, he travelled to the United States to attend a Universal Postal Congress of the Universal Postal Union. He was appointed counsellor of the Ministry of Communications in 1897 and director of Tokyo Post and Telegraph Office in 1898. He concurrently served as a counsellor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1899 and was appointed director-general of Tokyo Post and Telegraph Administration Bureau in 1903. Although Yukawa wanted to establish a communications system in Japan modeled on the German system, the Japanese government was lukewarm about the idea and Yukawa felt his prospects would be bleak if he remained in the bureaucracy.

On the recommendation of Masaya Suzuki who had been Yukawa’s senior at university, Yukawa joined Sumitomo on February 17, 1905. He emphasized the Sumitomo Spirit prioritizing the alignment of business interests with the public interest and, in light of what he had seen in the United States, he was convinced of the the need to establish manufacturers of steel plate and electric wire in Japan as a matter of urgency. Appointed general manager of Head Office, Yukawa’s task was to assist Director-General Suzuki. In April 1910, Yukawa was promoted to director, becoming No. 3 in the corporate hierarchy, following Suzuki and Nakada.

Establishment of the manufacturing business

In May 1910 Yukawa also became general manager of Sumitomo Copper Plant (the predecessor of Sumitomo Metal Industries, Sumitomo Electric Industries, and Sumitomo Light Metal Industries). Yukawa was resolved to position Sumitomo as a leading contender in Japanese industry.

Firstly, from 1910 to 1911, he focused on the pipe-making business of Sumitomo Copper Plant. Although the Japanese Navy launched the Eight-Eight Fleet Program in 1907 to expand its naval forces, at the time Japan lacked the expertise to manufacture high-grade items, such as boiler pipe and condenser tubes, being reliant on imports. Yukawa invited engineers from the British Naval Ordnance Department and in May 1912 Sumitomo became the first Japanese company to manufacture seamless pipe successfully.

Secondly, in August 1911, Yukawa established Sumitomo Electric Wire & Cable Works (the predecessor of Sumitomo Electric Industries) by spinning off the electric wire and cable business from Sumitomo Copper Plant. In light of his experience at the Ministry of Communications, he foresaw expanding demand for electric wire and cables. Sumitomo started full-scale manufacturing of sheathed electric wire and cables, for both communication and electricity distribution, establishing an industrial base for these products in Japan. In 1920, with an eye to communication cables, Sumitomo took an equity stake in Nippon Electric (NEC) and launched a communications equipment business.

Having become a director of Sumitomo Steel Foundry (the predecessor of Sumitomo Metal Industries) in 1915, Yukawa was appointed chairman of the board in 1925. Sumitomo Steel Foundry began manufacturing steel products, such as hubcaps, wheel axles, gears and bogies for naval and railway use. The frustration he felt years before at the American steelworks had been dispelled.

Sumitomo Copper Plant’s seamless pipes in 1926
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Seamless pipes remain a mainstay Sumitomo product.
Sumitomo Electric Wire & Cable Works’ cable plant in 1926
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
20-kilometer submarine cable laid from Niihama to Shisakajima in October 1922, the world’s longest at that time.
Sumitomo Steel Works’ wheel plant in 1926
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Sumitomo had the top market share in Japan for railway bogies and wheels.

Financial internationalization

Tokyo Branch of Sumitomo Bank (present-day SMBC Nihonbashi Chuo Branch)
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Completed in October 1917
Sumitomo moved its Tokyo headquarters here from the previous premises in Kabuto-cho. Having survived the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the bombing in 1945, it was rebuilt in 1972.

Yukawa was a director when Sumitomo Bank was reorganized as a joint-stock company in February 1912. In a speech upon taking office as managing director, effectively the bank’s chief executive, in 1915, he stated: “I will be in charge of the bank from today. In my opinion, it is important to cultivate transactions with foreign countries.” In 1916, Sumitomo Bank established branches in California and Hawaii to meet the needs of Japanese immigrants to America wishing to make remittances. They were the first overseas branches of a Japanese bank. While working at the Ministry of Communications, Yukawa had been involved in introducing a simplified insurance system based on a Belgian scheme. And moreover, his experience as a Postal Money Order and Postal Savings Administration manager had convinced him of the crucially important role of international finance. Subsequently, in 1921, he assumed office as chairman of Osaka Note Exchange. Amid the Showa Financial Crisis of 1927, he strove to stabilize the financial sector and advocated establishment of a system to provide guarantees for export notes. He also clarified a policy of providing greater financial support, particularly for small and medium-sized commercial and industrial enterprises. He urged, “Look after them more than ever and provide loans.”

Assumption of office as director-general

Kankichi Yukawa assumed office as the fifth director-general of the House of Sumitomo on October 1, 1925. In May 1926, in an inauguration speech at a gathering of management, Yukawa expressed his resolve thus: “The House of Sumitomo’s policy emphasizes the need for the most careful consideration when contemplating embarking on a new business. Nevertheless, I urge you to be energetic in proposing improvements to existing businesses and in identifying sound and beneficial new businesses.”

In July 1927, Yukawa removed the Besshi Copper Mines—referred to in the Rules Governing the House of Sumitomo formulated by Saihei Hirose, the first director-general, as an “eternal asset” of Sumitomo through successive generations—from the direct control of Sumitomo Goshi Kaisha, and repositioned them as an affiliate supervised by Head Office. In Sumitomo’s Business Rules issued in June 1928, the reference to the Besshi Copper Mines was removed from the Business Principles. In accordance with Sumitomo’s philosophy, “Sumitomo’s business interests must always be in harmony with the public interest; Sumitomo shall adapt to good times and bad times,” Yukawa decided to transform Sumitomo from an enterprise reliant on copper mining into a comprehensive enterprise comparable to Mitsui and Mitsubishi.

Under Yukawa’s leadership, Sumitomo pursued diversification and its many affiliates included marine & fire insurance companies, Sumitomo Trust, Sumitomo Life Insurance, Sumitomo Warehouse, Sumitomo Bank, Osaka Hokko (North Harbour), Sumitomo Building, Sumitomo Ringyo-sho (forestry), Sumitomo Besshi Mine, coal mines, Sumitomo Steel Tubes & Copper Works, Sumitomo Steel Works, Sumitomo Electric Wire & Cable Works, Nippon Electric, Sumitomo Fertilizer Works, and Nippon Sheet Glass. Yukawa, however, did not neglect to remind people of Sumitomo’s overarching purpose: “Although Sumitomo is a profit-seeking enterprise, our longstanding commitment to benefiting the nation and society must inform everything we do.”

Yukawa’s interviews with candidates seeking careers at Sumitomo reflected his unique approach. He would discuss deeply with students and, seeking to point them in the right direction, refer to his own experience with such emotion that he would sometimes be moved to tears. Students were surprised to learn that the director-general of Sumitomo was such an affectionate father-like individual. Sincerity was Yukawa’s hallmark and he would never treat anyone lightly even if he were a student. It is as if Yukawa’s frankness, empathy, and broad perspective mirrored the mild climate of Shingu, his hometown looking out across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. He married twice but both his wives predeceased him, had seven children, and was a keen golfer throughout his life.

Notice of the issuance of Sumitomo’s Business Rules on June 14, 1928
Courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
The reference to the Besshi Copper Mines was removed from the Business Principles. This signaled Sumitomo’s diversification, adapting to the needs of the era.
Map of Sumitomo business sites in 1929
Courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
The map highlights Sumitomo’s diversification and growing international presence.

Grateful for the divine blessings

Director-General Yukawa toward the end of his life
Photo courtesy of Sumitomo Historical Archives
Kankichi Yukawa was a man of great empathy and frankness.
Yukawa was a pioneer of golf in the Kansai region. He became the first president of Ibaraki Country Club in 1923.
Kankichi Yukawaの墓所
Kankichi Yukawa’s grave
His soul rests with his family at Yanaka Cemetery in Taito-ku, Tokyo (From Nippori Station, walk up the hill and the cemetery is on the right just before Tennoji Temple.)

Although Yukawa reached 60, the retirement age, in May 1928, his term of office was extended for three years so that he could mentor Tomonari, the 16th head of the Sumitomo family, who was still young. Tomonari developed into a fine young man. Noting, “It is indeed a divine blessing that he has grown to be a just, ethical individual with a refined sensibility,” Yukawa resigned in August 1930 before the expiration of the extended term of office. After retirement from his post as director-general, he served as an advisor, capitalizing on his extensive knowledge and gentle personality. He also became a member of the House of Peers and was an important figure in Osaka business circles. However, on August 23, 1931, he suddenly died of pneumonia caused by influenza at the age of 64. The company-sponsored funeral was held on August 25 at a memorial service venue in Abeno, Osaka, in a modest and simple manner in accordance with the will of the deceased.

In his memorial address, Tomonari, the 16th head of the Sumitomo family, expressed his wholehearted appreciation of Kankichi Yukawa: “As well as giving prime importance to integrity and sound management in the conduct of business in accordance with the fundamental principles of Head Office, you strove to achieve improvement, always sensitive to the changing needs of the era. As a result, the House of Sumitomo has gained a greater presence in Japan and overseas. We are deeply indebted to you for your indefatigable efforts.”

Yukawa’s ashes were interred at the grave of the Yukawa family in Yanaka, Tokyo. Having accomplished his vision at Sumitomo, his farewell words were “I am truly grateful for the divine blessings it has been my good fortune to receive.”