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The rise of Zaibatsus and Industrial Japan: To start, I should briefly cover a phenomenon in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was the influx of Western ideas about self-improvement and initiative which was encapsulated in a man called Samuel Smiles with his Smiles magazine.

This first started to gain traction from missionaries and foreign officials expressing ideas that soon became a national curiosity among the young men of Meiji Japan. To the radical Meiji aristocrat, this was a perfect idea to foster creativity to push economic growth further.

A great example comes when a Japanese University student talks about him and his friends challenging themselves to read the most books within a set amount of time. The contest became so intense that they would lose sleep just to keep up with their friends who stayed up reading.

Nevertheless, it should be stated that this merit ideal was also underpinned by the spiritual and familial merit and for the upper class to hold certain positions rather than lower classes.

The argument being that the tradition of a certain duty is divinely ordained for certain people along with their preparation going beyond mere education as it encapsulates their upbringing which only dies off when a decline is evident. So merit and freedom with limits.

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A modernizing Japan is a nation that requires more industry and with the many Meiji aristocrats forming the Zaibatsu clique of corporations, a bigger labour force is required to run these industrial sectors. Image
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Due to the modest size of Japan’s cities, the Zaibatsu and Meiji aristocrats relied on cooperating with hamlets (village communities) to bolster the ranks with said agreements being determined years before a boy reaches manhood. Image
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This meant a controlled and systematic growth of the cities with these young people being promised the paternal guidance of the ambitious Zaibatsus. This guidance consisted of an entire living package as each worker had free housing, sick day, basic medical support, etc. Image

It has even been reported that some young men who work as secretaries to Zaibatsus may even get a hand in marriage to one of his daughters and usually if offered a hand in marriage, it was either a yes or yes in that situation.

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For most though, a young man’s marriage was determined by their hamlet community who would marry him to a young woman from either the same hamlet or sometimes elsewhere. Whatever the previous personal relationship the couple had didn’t mean too much in the final decision. Image

Although arranged, they were extremely close as the isolating nature of a new city made them more intimate than any other coupling in Japanese history. Beyond work, the man wouldn’t associate with others so the comfort of your wife and vice versa made some of them inseparable.

This was the start of the nuclear family structure as this structure was never the norm as most Japanese would live close to relatives. For a young woman, that arrangement was especially stressful since her in-laws usually were very inquisitive to see if she was a good match.

Now with them being cut off from the hamlet, the relationship could flourish beyond just an arrangement. This also had the effect of children being much closer with their parents as they would never see relatives aside from ceremonies and funerals.

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Back on the main topic, the workplace of these Zaibutsus and more generally urbanized jobs were very cohesive. When a boy is recruited to Mitsubishi, he’s now a man of Mitsubishi and would commit his loyalty to it as he would within his hamlet. Image

The company is now his new extended family which is best exemplified with simple gestures like sake after work with coworkers and in some cases, the boss.

Despite the Industrial leaders’ main goal being of course a drive for wealth, he also had unprecedented moral conduct where he saw himself an almost father figure to the boys he trained in his factory along with knowing their families. He felt it was his duty to lead them.

As touched on before with offerings of marriage by Zaibatsus, this familial comradery also went so far as ceremonial duties. It wasn’t rare for a worker to attend a wedding or funeral of a close coworker or your boss and vice versa.

This also came with the tradition of gift-giving which became a determining factor for promotions and goodwill from your boss.

But gifts weren’t just a material exchange, they were also a show of respect. An interesting point about this is that during holidays when gift-giving was done, some companies would use this as a time to give out holiday bonuses which was the equivalent to an official payment.

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To zoom out a bit, it’s also good to mention a couple Political shake-ups that directly benefited the Zaibatsus. These were the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War which secured Japanese economic interests over East Asia. Image

The Zaibatsus played a key supporting role for Japan which gave them free expansion beyond Japan into Taiwan, Korea, and parts of China for the explicit goal of exploiting raw materials for the ever-growing domestic industry.

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With these developments in play, what we can see is an ever-changing and growing Japan that after centuries of stagnation has taken up a renaissance which is an unprecedented event in human history. The Sun rises ever higher. Image

Ohh yes!! One thing I forgot to explicitly mention is the sheer size of the Zaibatsu corporations. According to stats from the Oriental Economist from 1961, the Zaibatsus controlled over 70% of all heavy industry along with sizable control over other sectors in 1945.

If you read to the end, I must thank you for your support and interest. It really means a lot to me!

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