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The Mitsui Zaibatsu Tenkō, 1932-1936 : a diversified analysis of the multi-level reforms Lynn, Hyung Gu


In the prewar Japanese economy, the most dominant business entity was the Mitsui zaibatsu. This diversified, multi-corporate conglomerate was successful in business terms and in influencing government decision-making. In March 1932, the head executive of Mitsui, Dan Takuma, was assassinated amidst the waves of anti-zaibatsu reactions and the rise of ultranationalism. The assassination gave rise to the Mitsui zaibatsu tenkō (conversion) of 1932-1936, a series of reforms conducted by Dan's successor, Ikeda Seihin, which were intended to fulfill the public relations, business and political needs and objectives. Previous studies on the Mitsui tenkō have focused most of their attention on one or two of the specific aspects, such as the business angle or the political implications. The six tenkō policies were designed to meet at least three objectives, and reflected the influence of Mitsui's historical precedents, long-term trends and developments, and abilities and predispositions of Ikeda. Therefore, the specialized approaches have accumulated to give a somewhat distorted view of the Mitsui tenkō. This paper is an attempt to analyze the six tenkō policies in all their implications and significances, through a multi-layered approach which involves an examination of the internal and external environment of 1932-1936, a chronological comparison with past precedents and influencing factors in Mitsui's history, and a comparison with other zaibatsu and Western big business. The data available indicates that the Mitsui tenkō was caused primarily by external pressures, as opposed to internal financial difficulties. The six policies were, for the most part, dependent on precedents and Ikeda's abilities and experiences. The six policies were influenced by precedents in Mitsui's past, and by Ikeda's assessment of the external environment. Although the specific strategies were effective in meeting the three objectives of (1) improving public image; (2) maintaining growth while retaining maximum ownership of subsidiaries; and (3) reorganizing political connections, as the objectives themselves were incompatible with the long-term self-interest of the firm when sustained under the prevailing external environment, the success of the strategies paved the way for the eventual breakdown of the zaibatsu holding company system. In addition, from the analysis of the tenkō, evidence and patterns were derived which indicated the tendency to lump all zaibatsu together, to treat 1932-1940 as one period, to exaggerate the differences between the objectives of Western and Japanese big business, and to downplay the role of the individual, were in varying degrees misleading for the further study of Mitsui and Japanese business history in general.

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