Far-reaching plans

The impact of three innovations

The late 19th century renewal of the Besshi Mine—annual production from which had fallen to just 430 tonnes—was made possible by technological innovations in all three of mining’s essential components: extraction, smelting, and transport. The adoption in 1882 of dynamite to blast open mine shafts dramatically accelerated progress, while the introduction in 1891 of a rock drill enabled the extraction of large quantities of ore. Steam provided the compressed air to power the rock drills of this era, which meant operation was hardly easy. But when contrasted with the hand-wielded hammers that Besshi miners used during the mine’s first 177 years (from its 1691 opening), this rock drill was truly revolutionary. In 1888, Sumitomo completed a western-style smelter at Niihama, which overlooks the Seto Inland Sea, to smelt large quantities of ore, and in 1893 the company opened a dedicated rail line to connect the mine with the new smelter.
In the years surrounding the Besshi mine’s 200th anniversary, it re-emerged as one of the largest copper mines in the world, with annual copper production exceeding 2,000 tonnes.

Restoring the environment

Spurred on by such innovations, Sumitomo acquired mining rights to a large number of additional lots, multiplying the land area it had mining rights to by over 40 times in just 20 years. Such expansion, however, entailed a price—before long almost all of the trees in the vicinity of the mines had been cut down. Trees were required to reinforce mine shafts to protect miners, and no matter how many were cut, there were never enough. And the need for large quantities of charcoal and firewood exacerbated the wood shortage. To make matters worse, smelter smoke damaged both crops and trees.
Seeing the impact the mines were having on their surroundings, Teigo Iba (1847–1926), who became general manager of Besshi in 1894, initiated a massive tree-planting program. Sumitomo had planted no more than 50,000 trees in the five years prior to Iba’s appointment. In contrast, in Iba’s first year alone, the company planted no fewer than 110,000. In 1897, it planted 1.2 million, the first time the company had ever planted over a million trees in a single year. In the first decade of the 20th century—the peak of this effort—the company planted 21 million trees and started 11.9 million seedlings—an average of 5,700 tree plantings and 3,260 seedling starts a day. Considering that the people of the time had not yet so much as imagined the mechanization of tree planting and that workers were planting Japanese cypress and cedar seedlings with care so that the trees could take root and flourish—and were doing so on steep, uneven ground—those are astonishing numbers.
Late in life, Iba—looking out over the vast stretches of forest that his project had brought back to Besshi—said, “If you want to know what my real work has been, this is it.” His words tell us of the conviction with which he undertook this task.

Launching related businesses

Iba also took steps to address the smoke damage from the expansion of Sumitomo’s smelting operations. Despite the many challenges Sumitomo faced in the aftermath of the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895)—particularly inflation, which dramatically increased expenses and forced revisions to business plans—Iba oversaw the completion of a smelter on an isolated island some 20 km off the coast of Niihama.
Iba also worked to transform Sumitomo’s overall business structure and organization. To bring the intentions of Sumitomo’s various business units into alignment, the top-level decision-making function was unified under the directors of the House of Sumitomo and, in 1895, Iba and five other directors held the company’s first board of directors meeting. At this historic meeting, the directors set the long-term direction for the company in a number of areas including the founding of Sumitomo Bank, the expansion of foreign trade, entry into the coal business, and employment reform. With the capital Sumitomo raised in the boom that came after the first Sino-Japanese war, the company branched out into a number of related businesses through both start-ups and acquisitions.
In 1899, floods devastated the Besshi mine and worker’s quarters. As the 20th century dawned, Sumitomo moved its businesses from the mountains of Besshi to the coast at Niihama. Just as Japan was joining the club of the world’s advanced countries, Sumitomo was also poised to launch into a new period of its own history.