Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation Osaka Head Office Building: Reminiscences

Why did Sumitomo design the Sumitomo Building in house? How Sumitomo’s Construction Department came to be established and its subsequent development make for a fascinating narrative.

Teigo Iba, the second director-general of the House of Sumitomo
Magoichi Noguchi, chief engineer

Establishment of Sumitomo Building and Repairs

From the Meiji Restoration onward (1868), most of the business groups spearheading Japan’s emergence on the global stage had their own organizations responsible for construction, extension, repair, and refurbishment of buildings.

The mission of these organizations was to equip business groups with the buildings they needed to accommodate their expanding operations while also handling the repair and refurbishment of premises. Most of them entered into partnerships with third-party architectural practices.

Sumitomo established an organization responsible for construction and repair, but unlike other business groups, Sumitomo hired architects and equipped itself with an organization capable of executing projects in house. Thus, Sumitomo Building and Repairs was born, an organization that numbered among its staff distinguished architects whose names figure prominently in the history of architecture in Japan. Sumitomo Building and Repairs’ involvement in projects extended beyond the Sumitomo Bank’s head office building and branch buildings to include buildings for clients outside the Sumitomo Group. Projects executed by Sumitomo Building and Repairs resulted in buildings of architectural distinction that have elicited widespread praise and been cherished over the years. How did this organization come to be established?

The Rules Governing the House of Sumitomo, whose principal business had been mining since the Edo period, accord prime importance to integrity and sound management while eschewing the pursuit of immoral business. Adhering to these rules, Sumitomo steadily promoted modernization of the Besshi Copper Mines but was cautious about entering the banking sector at a time when financial markets were still in their infancy.

However, having judged that establishment of a bank was a prerequisite for responding to the needs of the new era, Teigo Iba, who later became director-general of Sumitomo, convened a jyuyakukai (executive board) meeting of the House of Sumitomo at the Onomichi Branch in 1895 (28th year of the Meiji era). The agenda included establishment of the Sumitomo Bank and construction of the head office building. In October 1895 the Sumitomo Bank was founded. The proposal for construction of the head office building states: “The building should be sufficiently robust to endure for a century or more, even though construction may take several years.” This statement is very much in the Sumitomo Spirit, emphasizing safety and security. For a building to accommodate both the head office of the House of Sumitomo responsible for all the businesses of the group and the head office of the bank responsible for custody of customers’ assets, everything possible was done to ensure business continuity and the safeguarding of assets.

In 1900 (33rd year of the Meiji era), the Construction Section was established at the Sumitomo Head Office and set to work, starting with the construction of branches. Magoichi Noguchi played a central role in architectural design. Following his recruitment in 1899, Noguchi spent a year or so touring Europe and North America to research western architecture. Upon his return to Japan, the Sumitomo Head Office Temporary Architecture Department was established, with Noguchi serving as chief engineer.

Group of renowned architects

Osaka Library (present-day Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library) after construction of the extension in 1922 (11th year of the Taisho era)

Noguchi’s first commission, Osaka Library (the present-day Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library), made him well known throughout Japan. This well-proportioned building executed in a classical style reminiscent of a Greek temple is notable for its meticulous design, which is evident in the tiniest details. This building exhibits Noguchi’s deep sympathy with western architecture and the expertise he had nurtured by immersing himself in its traditions and techniques for some 20 years.

Yutaka Hidaka, who had followed in Noguchi’s footsteps as a student at the Imperial University, joined Sumitomo upon establishment of the Temporary Architecture Department, becoming Noguchi’s right-hand man. He was in charge of the project to extend Osaka Library in 1922 (11th year of the Taisho era). Identical right and left wings were connected to the main building of the library. These wings enhanced the overall integrity and dignity of the library. The splendid harmony with the main building designed by Noguchi shows what a good combination Noguchi and Hidaka were.

Led by Noguchi and Hidaka, the Sumitomo Head Office Temporary Architecture Department (renamed the General Head Office Building and Repairs Section in 1911) constructed a series of Sumitomo buildings over a period of 14 years. This was the period during which concept of the Sumitomo Building took shape.

In 1909 (42nd year of the Meiji era), Eikichi Hasebe joined Sumitomo. Hasebe was a true artist of the architectural profession. Indeed, the buildings he designed are noted for their nobility and aesthetic flair, qualities that may well reflect his personality. His design of the exterior of the Sumitomo Building is powerfully influenced by the classical orders, as was common for bank buildings of that era. The classical tradition is particularly evident in the façade whose thick walls are accentuated by a series of deep-set windows.

In 1915 (4th year of the Taisho era), Noguchi died of tuberculosis at the age of 46. Hidaka succeeded Noguchi and the head office building construction project, which had been put to one side in view of the construction of a temporary head office, went ahead under Hidaka’s leadership. In 1917 (6th year of the Taisho era), Kenzo Takekoshi joined Sumitomo. He had studied architecture in England and was also a talented etcher.

There is an anecdote attesting to the talent of Hasebe and Takekoshi. In 1918 (7th year of the Taisho era), Hasebe and Takekoshi of their own volition participated in a design competition for the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery in Meiji Jingu Gaien in Tokyo. Although they were not selected for the project, they were both prizewinners and this publicity resulted in wider recognition of the excellence of the architects working for Sumitomo Building and Repairs.

Fine example of the development of modern architecture in Japan

Construction of the Sumitomo Building started in 1922 (11th year of the Taisho era). Takekoshi was in charge of the floor plan, Hasebe was in charge of the façade, and Chief Engineer Hidaka had overall responsibility. Takekoshi, who was fluent in English, went to the U.S. to procure fixtures and materials, proving himself to be a shrewd negotiator. Such experiences honed Takekoshi’s practical skills and he went on to become the principal architect of Sumitomo Building and Repairs.

In addition to Takekoshi, Sumitomo Building and Repairs had many other talented architects and their energy and talent were harnessed in the construction of the Sumitomo Building, where the House of Sumitomo and its affiliated companies were to be based. Construction was completed in 1930 (5th year of the Showa era), three decades after the establishment of the Temporary Architecture Department.

Whereas most buildings constructed around the same time as the Sumitomo Building have already been, or are likely to be, demolished, the Sumitomo Building still stands proudly by the Tosabori River as originally conceived. Its endurance reflects the excellent engineering capabilities of Sumitomo Building and Repairs.

In those days, architecture in Japan generally lagged its counterparts in Europe and North America in terms of engineering quality. Yet, the House of Sumitomo did not consider hiring a foreign architect. This suggests that through the construction of a flagship building, the House of Sumitomo sought to enhance Japan’s engineering capabilities and culture.

Following the completion of the Sumitomo Building, Sumitomo Building and Repairs (renamed Construction Department of Sumitomo Goshi Kaisha in 1921) concentrated on construction of branches. Hidaka retired in 1931 (6th year of the Showa era) and the Construction Department of Sumitomo Goshi Kaisha was abolished in 1933 (8th year of the Showa era), as a consequence of the Great Depression. Hasebe and Takekoshi, who were in the leading positions in the Construction Department of Sumitomo Goshi Kaisha, established the Hasebe-Takekoshi Architects Office in 1933, which subsequently became Nikken Sekkei Construction Management, which is Japan’s largest architectural firm.

Today, many Japanese architects are active around the world. The Sumitomo Building is a fine example of the development of modern architecture in Japan.

Editor of the article on the Sumitomo Mitsu Banking Corporation Osaka Head Office Building

Katsuhiko Sakamoto
Katsuhiko Sakamoto
Professor emeritus of Kobe Design University. PhD in engineering. Born in Qingdao, China in 1926. He graduated from the Kobe Engineering High School (present-day Faculty of Engineering, Kobe University) and joined the Kobe City Office. Subsequently, he became a professor of Chiba University Faculty of Engineering and a professor of Kobe Design University. He was known for his study of the foreign settlement of Kobe and ijinkan Western-style houses in Kobe, which he started during his career in local government. He also investigated the damage to historical cultural assets caused by the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and contributed to restoration. Expert in modern architectural history and modern design history. His publications include “West Meets East: The Japanese Introduction to Western Architecture in 19th and 20th Centuries, Volume 5” (Sanseido) and “Ijinkan 1858-1912: Japan’s Western Architectures in Meiji Era” (The Asahi Shimbun Company). He received the 22nd Meijimura Award in 1996 and the Kobe City Cultural Award in 1998. Sakamoto passed away in 2020.
Teruaki Sueoka
Deputy Director of Sumitomo Historical Archives. Born in 1955 in Nagasaki Prefecture. Graduated from the Department of History, Faculty of Letters, Kokugakuin University, in 1978. Joined the predecessor of Sumitomo Historical Archives in 1978, became a Chief Researcher, and then Deputy Director. Since 1997, concurrently serving as Honorary President and Special Advisor of Hirose Memorial Museum in Niihama City. He has commented extensively on the historical significance of the former Hirose Residence, Sumitomo Kakkien, and the industrial heritage of the Besshi Copper Mines in reports on cultural assets. He is an expert on the history of Sumitomo. His numerous publications include “History of Sumitomo” (co-author, Shibunkaku), “History of Sumitomo Besshi Mine” (co-author, Sumitomo Metal Mining Co., Ltd.), and “The Environment and Development in the Early Modern Period” (co-editor, Shibunkaku).