Into the Industrial Century

World-class Technology

Paris was a scene of bustle and prosperity at the start of the 20th century as it hosted the Exposition. Running for seven months from April 1900 and attracting 50 million people from around the world, the fair was held during the height of the Art Nouveau period. The elegant exhibition hall replete with the popular soft line-art of the period, along with the 301-meter-high Eiffel Tower, exuded the prospect that the coming century could fulfill humanity’s dreams.
This excitingly unusual atmosphere was the setting for a competition in which the nations of the world showed off their leading technologies and innovations. The delegation from Japan brought not only arts and crafts, but also myriad industrial products incorporating the leading technologies of the period. Among these were Sumitomo’s copper plating, copper wire, and camphor products.
Sometime later, after the fair ended and the new century had begun, the Exposition sent Sumitomo the unexpected news that its copper plating and camphor products had won gold medals while its copper wire had won a silver medal. These accomplishments demonstrated that, despite over 200 years of virtual isolation from the West, Japan’s technological prowess had risen to a level competitive with the world’s most advanced countries.

Entering the Smokestack Era

In the third installment of this series, we discussed how Osaka was known as “Japan’s kitchen” for its role in supplying essentials to the capital, Edo (now Tokyo), during Japan’s feudal Edo Period (1603–1867). Osaka, at the center of the Japanese economy, had developed the infrastructure—including essential financing and commercial capital and a solid transport network—to support the next stage of economic growth. In 1867, a unified government emerged that made it possible to establish companies organized on capitalist principles. A mint and an arms factory were built in Osaka and as more-modern currency and financial systems were established, private-sector capital began to infuse new energy into commerce. A major spinning industry developed, particularly in Osaka, based on imported spinning machinery and steam engines.
Cotton-yarn and knitted-goods factories had to operate through the night to fill their orders. Fire safety concerns led many of these factories to replace oil lamps with electric light bulbs, which spurred demand for electrical power and machinery. Moreover, improvements to Osaka Bay in 1906 facilitated trade with China and Korea, making materials purchasing easier. More and more factories went up along the coast. With its growing industrial concentration, Osaka entered a new era in its role as the commercial heart of Japan.
As part of this movement, in 1897 Sumitomo built on its roots in the Besshi copper mine to establish Sumitomo Copper Rolling Works, the predecessor of Sumitomo Metal Industries, Sumitomo Electric Industries, and Sumitomo Light Metal Industries. The concern initially concentrated on manufacturing copper plates for ship hulls and copper building materials for roofs and eaves, but with the movement of the times found expanding opportunities in copper wire for electrical and communications lines. Among the results of the company’s copper rolling technology were Sumitomo’s awards at the Paris Exposition 1900.
On this foundation, Japan’s heavy and chemical industries put down roots in the Osaka area as the century of industry progressed, making Osaka the country’s largest industrial zone. Today, the smokestacks of Sumitomo Chemical, Sumitomo Metal Industries, and Sumitomo Electric Industries are visible from where the Ajikawa River empties into Osaka Bay. As the future unfolds, Osaka will see Sumitomo group companies onward through yet-to-be-written chapters of history.
Preparation of this article was overseen and photos provided by the Sumitomo Shi-ryo-kan.