Houses of Mitsui and Mitsubishi

Houses of Mitsui and Mitsubishi
Houses of Mitsui and Mitsubishi

Before the conclusion of World War II, Mitsui and Mitsubishi were two of the four major zaibatsu (family centered banking and industrial combines) in Japan; the others were Sumitomo and Yasuda.

The term zaibatsu refers to a particular economic and social arrangement characteristic of large capitalist enterprises in Japan in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Each zaibatsu was controlled by a single family that owned companies in many different spheres of economic activity, including banking and industry.

The zaibatsu developed after the Meiji restoration in 1868, when the government wanted to encourage industrial development. The zaibatsu were a very strong economic and political force in early 20thcentury Japan.

For instance, in 1937 most heavy industry and one-third of all bank deposits in Japan were directly controlled by the four major zaibatsu. After Japan's surrender in World War II, the Allied occupation authorities ordered the zaibatsu dissolved.

This meant that officially individual companies were freed from the control of their parent companies. However, many reformed their ties later in a less-formal arrangement, so some aspects of the control and coordination of the zaibatsu lived on in reality if not in law.


Mitsui is one of the largest publicly traded companies in contemporary Japan. The origins of Mitsui date back to the House of Mitsui, a merchant house of the Tokugawa period (1603–1867). Mitsui is thus the oldest of the four leading zaibatsu of early 20th-century Japan. The history of the House of Mitsui begins with the enterprises of Mitsui Takatoshi (1622–94), who opened a number of successful textile shops in Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto.

House of Mitsui in Edo
House of Mitsui in Edo

He later expanded his enterprises into financial services, including moneylending. In 1691 members of the Mitsui family were granted the status of gyo shonin (chartered merchants) by the shogunate, which gave them considerable influence within the government.

The Mitsui family drew up a "constitution" in 1694, detailing matters such as the duties of the family council and the amount of property due each branch of the family; these arrangements remained in force into the 20th century.

In 1876 the Mitsui bank became the first private bank in Japan. Minomura Rizaemon (1821–77), an orphan who worked his way upto the top position in the Mitsui exchange brokerage, became president of the Mitsui bank and helped launch Mitsui into other enterprises that allowed it to succeed in the changing financial world of modern Japan.

The Mitsui family owned more than 270 companies by the end of World War II. Although the Mitsui zaibatsu was officially broken up in 1946, many of the companies involved formed themselves into keiretsu in the 1950s. The name Mitsui means "three wells," and the three wells are represented in the company logo.


The Mitsubishi group's origins lie with Yataro Iwasaki (1835–85), who founded the shipping firm the Mitsubishi Commercial Company in 1873. This company grew to be Japan's largest shipping firm, partly due to financial assistance from the Meiji government.

The second and third heads of Mitsubishi were family members: Yataro was succeeded by his brother, then by his son. The family expanded into many industries, including coal mining, shipbuilding, banking, insurance, paper, steel, oil, and real estate. In 1893 the holding company Mitsubishi, Ltd., was created to organize these diverse business interests.

The principal arms of the company in the early 20th century were
  1. Mitsubishi Bank, founded in 1919 and currently part of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, the largest bank in Japan; 
  2. Mitsubishi Corporation, founded in 1893, which provides internal financing; and 
  3. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which includes the photographic equipment company Nikon and the Mitsubishi Motor Corporation. 
Mitsubishi was an important military contractor during World War II, building warships and the Zero aircraft used in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

After the zaibatsu were required to disband in 1946, the companies forming the Mitsubishi zaibatsu became independent entities. However, some voluntarily recombined after the outbreak of the Korean War and formed a keiretsu known as the Mitsubishi group.

The name Mitsubishi means "three diamonds" and is not a family name. Rather, it refers to the three stacked diamonds of Yataro Iwasaki's family crest, which appear in the Mitsubishi trademark.