Sumitomo's starting point


Wooden Statue of Masatomo Sumitomo

Sumitomo started its business in 17th century Kyoto, where Masatomo Sumitomo opened a shop selling books and medicines. Masatomo wrote a book titled Monjuin Shiigaki, in which he clarified the basics of business. Masatomo's words in that book constitute the basis of the Sumitomo philosophy.

At about the same time, Masatomo's brother-in-law, Riemon Soga, was running a copper refining business and a copper workshop (under the name Izumiya) in Kyoto. After repeated trial and error, he finally developed technology for separating silver from unrefined copper, by applying technology he had learned from Europeans.


Wooden Statue of Tomomochi Sumitomo

Tomomochi, the first son of Riemon Soga, married a daughter of Masatomo and joined the Sumitomo family. He expanded the business to Osaka and, in cooperation with Riemon, disclosed the refining technology to their competitors, who in turn began to respect Sumitomo/Izumiya as a head family of copper refining. At that time, Osaka became Japan's copper refining center.

During the Edo era (1603 – 1868), Japan was one of the world's major copper producers. Tomomochi became a trader in thread, textiles, sugar, drugs etc., in return for copper. Furthermore, the branch family started an exchange house business. Izumiya became so prosperous that people said, "No one is comparable to Izumiya in Osaka."

Besshi Copper Mine 01

Later, Izumiya began copper mining, managing copper mines in the Ohu region and at Yoshioka in the Province of Bicchu. In 1690, Izumiya obtained information that there was good copper ore in Besshi in Iyo, and began investigating. He obtained government approval to mine copper in the following year. This is how the Besshi copper mine began. Besshi continued to produce copper for 283 years (a total of 700,000 tons), supporting Sumitomo's business as its backbone.

Official Record on Besshi Copper Mine
Part of official request to open the mine

Development into a modern company after the Meiji era

Hakusuimaru, a steamship purchased from Britain

Saihei Hirose (later head of the board of directors), then general manager of the Besshi copper mine, and his fellow workers continued to operate the mine during the turmoil of the Meiji Restoration (1868).They introduced technologies and equipment from abroad at their earliest opportunities, dramatically increasing productivity.

Each time they suffered disastrous damage from typhoons, smoke pollution caused by copper refining, and all other types of difficulties, they resolved all resulting problems.

With the introduction of Western technologies, the copper production rate increased even further.In addition, new related businesses arose, one after another.

Meanwhile, finance and related business conducted in Osaka developed into a banking business.The warehouse section, originally incorporated in the financial business, became also independent.

Thus, Sumitomo developed into a modern zaibatsu (financial combine) centered on mining, manufacturing and finance.

World War II

After World War II

In line with zaibatsu (financial combine) dissolution after the war, each of the companies originally belonging to the Sumitomo zaibatsu became independent, and began to go its own way. The establishment of new companies (including trading companies) and the completion of mergers led to the current Sumitomo Group.

Each of the companies conducts its own business independently in its industry, but the corporate philosophy that originated in Masatomo's memorandum titled Monjuin Shiigaki is still being observed by all Group companies.

Origin of Sumitomo Emblem (Parallel Cross Pattern)

Sumitomo emblem on entry pass to a Shimizu family business office(1830-43)

Sumitomo's emblem, symbolizing the frame of an old well, originated in 1590 when Riemon Soga opened Izumiya (literally "spring shop") copper refinery and copper works in Kyoto. At that time, the pattern of the well frame was chosen to represent "spring." Since many other merchants used similar emblems on the curtains hung outside the entrances to their shops, it was necessary to differentiate Sumitomo's emblem from all the others. Accordingly, in 1913 Sumitomo decided upon the original figure and dimensions of the emblem, which has been used ever since.

Masatomo Sumitomo (1585 – 1652)

Born in 1585 in Maruoka, Province of Echizen (now Maruoka-cho, Fukui Prefecture), Masatomo, the second son of a samurai family, went to Kyoto at the age of 12.
It was a long-cherished dream of his parents for Masatomo to become a disciple of the priest Gyui Shonin Kugen, who was then leading a new sect of Buddhism called Nehan. Masatomo was named Kuzen, and practiced asceticism, acquiring the title of Monjuin. Later the Nehan Sect was deemed by the government to be one of the sects of Tendai. Displeased with this Masatomo left the priesthood, opening a shop for books and medicines under the name of Fujiya in Kyoto. This was during the Kan-ei era (1624 – 43), when Masatomo was 45 years of age.

Despite his departure from the priesthood, many people wanted to follow Masatomo. He wrote many letters, such as Monjuin Shiigaki, Yuikai (instructions to descendants) etc. to his followers and family members. The teachings of Masatomo were to always keep in mind "honesty, mercy and purity" as primary morals, to respect gods and Buddha, to act with sufficient prudence and discreetness, and to be always frugal. These teachings, long handed down, form the basis of Sumitomo's corporate philosophy.

Monjuin Shigaki
Store signboard

Riemon Soga (1572 – 1636)

Young Riemon Soga mastered copper refining and copper work in Sakai. In 1590, at the age of 19, he opened a copper refinery and workshop in Gojo, Teramachi, Kyoto, under the name of Izumiya. Riemon married Masatomo's elder sister. All the members of Riemon's family were strong believers in the Nehan Sect, and followers of Masatomo. In those days, copper refining was still in its infancy. Copper was exported without extracting all the silver from the ore, granting the importers additional profit. Riemon learned from Europeans how to separate silver from copper, using lead. After long striving he managed to complete his copper refining technique. Reportedly this was during the Keicho era (1596 – 1615), and helped Izumiya prosper and enhanced its position in the copper industry.

Riemon's son, Tomomochi (who married a daughter of Masatomo and entered the Sumitomo family) and Riemon expanded their business to Osaka and disclosed their copper refining technique. From that time on Osaka became Japan's copper refining center. Under Tomomochi's leadership, Izumiya so successfully expanded its business to trading, money exchange and copper mine management that people said no one in Osaka was comparable to Izumiya.

This copper refinery in Osaka was visited by many people, including foreigners.
List of visitors that includes Philipp Franz von Shiebold
Copper bar for export

Nanban Buki (European Blowing or Copper Refining Method)

Nanban Buki or Nanban Shibori (European Squeezing) is a refining method of extracting silver and other substances from unrefined copper, using lead. First, lead and unrefined copper containing silver are melted together and cooled to make an alloy. This alloy is then heated to separate silver-containing lead, which melts at a lower temperature than copper. The lead is then heated on the ash, which absorbs the lead, leaving the silver. This process produces high purity copper and silver. Riemon learned the basics from Europeans, and developed his copper refining process as a result of much hard work. This was an epoch-making technique in the Keicho era (1596 – 1615) and continued in use until the end of the 19th century. The technique is described in detail in the Kodo Zuroku (copper beating pictorial record) issued by the Sumitomo Family at the beginning of the 19th century.

Illustration of copper refinery workshop
Illustration of a man weighing a copper bar

Besshi Copper Mine 02

The Besshi copper mine opened in 1691 and continued operation for 283 years until 1973, during which time it produced approximately 700,000 tons of copper as one of the leading copper mines in Japan.
During the Edo era (1603 – 1868), Sumitomo's business supported the Japanese economy by producing copper, an important export item (at that time, Japan was one of the world's largest copper-producing countries). Since the beginning of the Meiji era (1868 – 1912), Sumitomo has contributed to Japan's modernization and industrialization by providing copper as Japan's only private mining company. At the same time, Sumitomo diversified its business lines, further contributing to development of the national economy. Despite the wide variety of businesses Sumitomo is currently engaged in, Besshi Copper Mine remains important for Sumitomo, for all its businesses originated from the mining business.
Today the numerous remains of the copper mine, covering a wide area in Niihama City and Besshiyama village, Ehime Prefecture, are gradually returning to nature, but still draw attention as relics/monuments of modern industry. Besshi Copper Mine Memorial House, opened in 1975, exhibits and explains the history of the copper mine.

Entrance to the copper mine and attached bathroom
Railway along a steep cliff (around 1900)

Monjuin Shiigaki

Monjuin Shiigaki

Masatomo Sumitomo (1585 – 1652, who acquired the title Monjuin after becoming a priest of the Nehan sect) wrote this letter in his later years to Kanjuro, a member of Masatomo's family. The letter, indicating the Sumitomo philosophy, is a brief explanation of business rules based on the teachings of Buddhism, as well as Masatomo's thoughts about how to get along in this world. The preamble adjures that nothing should be treated lightly; that all should be treated with care and respect.