Our Sense of Era

At last, the new century has dawned. A century is more to us than just a way to divide time into 100-year increments. The significance of a century lies in the way it gives special shades of meaning and atmosphere to segments of the ongoing flow of time, as when we label the 20th century the “century of industrialization” or the “century of the computer.”
People around the world share the Christian calendar to mark eras, but there are also many nations and peoples—for example, the Islamic countries and the Jewish people—whose own calendars, based on milestone religious and political events, provide them with unique era markers and senses of history. Japan, too, is a nation with a distinctive sense of era.
In the Japanese calendar, 2001 is the year Heisei 13, which means the 13th year in the Heisei era. The practice of using Chinese characters for era names followed by a number to designate the year within an era spread from China to surrounding countries, such as Japan, that adopted Chinese characters to write their own languages. The first era in Japan that is designated in this way started in A.D. 645. From 701 to the present—for nearly 1,300 years—the chain of such eras has continued unbroken. To many Japanese people, these era names carry a stronger sense of the atmosphere and feel of historical periods than do Christian-calendar years.
In Part III of this series, we discussed how in the latter half of the 17th century, Sumitomo’s home city, Osaka, came to be called “Japan’s Kitchen” for its role as a center for processing industries and a major supplier of goods to Edo (now Tokyo), the largest city in the world at the time. The Genroku era (1688–1704) was at the center of this period, during which the unification of the country—an event that marked a shift from centuries of warfare to a time of peace—brought about a stable society, which set the stage for dramatic advances in commerce, the arts, and other cultural aspects.

Power of the Common People

For more than two centuries after Japan closed itself off to exchange with the outside world in 1633, special exceptions allowed trade with Holland, China, the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa Prefecture, but an independent kingdom into the latter half of the 19th century), and Korea. Over several months spanning the fourth and fifth years of Genroku (1691–1692), Engelbert Kämpfer, a German doctor who worked for the Dutch at their trading post in Nagasaki, traveled the route between Edo and Nagasaki, the only port open to specially permitted outsiders at the time. During this journey, he observed life in 33 cities and over 80 small towns and villages along the way. Writing his impressions in a travel diary, he commented that he could not understand how there could be enough buyers to provide a living for so many merchants.
The truth is, even at this early stage, a national distribution network had evolved in Japan with Osaka and Edo as its principal hubs. With such a vast consumer market to ship to, regions were able to specialize in rice and other products that they could produce competitively, leading to balanced economic development in both urban and rural areas. Amid this prosperity, the urban merchant classes accumulated wealth, which supported the development of the arts. Kabuki theater, the ukiyo-e genre of art, and haiku poetry, now known around the world, flowered brilliantly during the Genroku era.

Major Copper Vein Discovered

As we have already seen in this series, copper was Japan’s leading export under the administrative trading controls of the time, and Sumitomo took a leading role in its refining and export. Under the leadership of the third Sumitomo patriarch, Tomonobu (1647–1706), Sumitomo began developing copper mines throughout the country, accumulating experience and know-how, and became Japan’s largest player in the field. It was also during the Genroku era that Japan’s copper production grew to lead the world at about 6,000 tons. A major contributor to this global leadership was the Besshi mine, which was discovered by Sumitomo under the leadership of its fourth patriarch Tomoyoshi (1670–1719), in the third year of Genroku (1690).
The new copper vein was just below the surface. It was between 50cm and 8 meters thick, 1,500 meters wide, and 2,300 meters long—a mother lode on a scale rarely seen anywhere in the world. Over the next 283 years, the Besshi mine would produce about 650,000 tons of blister copper, making the mine a rich source of revenue that would take on a principal role in driving the development of the entire the Sumitomo group.