Ships dropping off rice. Ships being laden with rapeseed oil. The sun has barely risen, yet the wharfs in front of the han (“domain”) warehouses, stretching from the tip of Nakanoshima up the riverfronts, are already bustling with laborers packing cargo and merchants supervising the loading and unloading of goods.
Osaka—home of Sumitomo—is crisscrossed by canals that connect to the Yodogawa, a river that flows into Osaka Bay to the city’s west. In the early 17th century, after regular maritime transport to Edo (now Tokyo) began and shipping routes were opened to the cities along the Japan Sea coast, Osaka grew in importance as a supplier of goods to Edo. Edo was becoming a major demand center, making Osaka more prosperous with each passing day.
Taking over from Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), who built Osaka Castle, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616) established a new shogunate in 1603. A mere 10 years after he first set foot in the isolated village of Edo, it had blossomed almost overnight into the center of government. Edo continued to expand rapidly, and by around 1700 it had grown into the world’s largest city, with a population of over a million.
Edo’s growth was so rapid that the agricultural regions surrounding it could not possibly support its burgeoning population. The Osaka region filled the gap, and grew in importance in people’s minds as it supplied Edo with staples like soy sauce, oil, and sake. Before long, recognizing how Osaka was supporting Edo, people began to call it “Japan’s kitchen.”
Of course, Osaka was much more than a distribution center. As we discussed in Part II of this series, the shogunate decreed that copper produced in any region of Japan had to be refined in Osaka if it was to be exported. Osaka became a center not just for copper refining, but for a number of other processing industries as well. These included working rapeseed into lamp oil and turning raw cotton into fiber for use in cloth.
As Osaka’s economy expanded in its role as “Japan’s kitchen,” some of its merchants also rose to prominence, accumulating both reputation and capital. Sumitomo is by no means the only major Japanese firm that traces its origins to this period of Osaka’s history: Konoike invented sake brewing and then moved into money changing; Mitsui started in dry goods; and Takeda started in medicine trading, all at around this time.
As trade links such as these became established between the three main cities—Osaka, Edo, and Kyoto—and extended to castle towns throughout the country, institutions to support commerce were also established. For example, in Osaka, a business called ryogaesho (“money changing”) evolved to support trade, which was being conducted using bills of exchange and promissory notes. The Italian word banco, a root of the English word “bank,” means a table or bench used for weighing coins. In Japan, although merchants who charged fees for exchanging money in this way first emerged in the latter half of the 15th century, the economic developments of the 17th century propelled their business to a higher stage of sophistication.
As the money-changing business developed, Osaka merchants kept less cash at their places of business, preferring to deposit extra cash with a money changer they could trust. The money changers, realizing that their reputation for trustworthiness was of prime importance, would only deal with merchants whom they felt were trustworthy as well. This relationship of mutual trust supported the growth of commercial credit, and like today’s banks, money changers came to take deposits, issue loans, and cut drafts.
In 1670, just as business in Osaka was beginning to prosper in earnest, the government chartered 10 of Osaka’s money changers to handle its accounts as a way of making the financial system, the basis of commerce, run smoothly. Tomosada (1648–1696), the younger brother of the third Sumitomo patriarch Tomonobu (1647–1706), was among those 10.
Exactly 40 years after the second head of the House of Sumitomo, Tomomochi (1607–1662), had moved the Sumitomo base of operations from Kyoto to Osaka, the company was growing along with the flourishing commercial metropolis it nestled in, expanding its foothold from copper refining to imports and on into financial services.