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1909 Business Mission
Shibusawa Eiichi and the Great Kanto Earthquake

Honorary Commercial Commissioners of Japan to the United States of America

What was the 1909 Business Mission?

Shibusawa Eiichi and the 1909 Business Mission

Photo: Shibusawa Eiichi
Shibusawa Eiichi

Often regarded as the father of modern Japanese capitalism, Shibusawa Eiichi played a prominent role in Japan’s modernization and its opening to the outside world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He started and/or helped to found some 500 companies and organized business associations including the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce. With a belief in the importance of harmony between ethics and economy, he was also involved in building a modern society in such fields as education, social welfare, labor relations, and urbanization.

At the start of the 20th century, the US-Japanese relationship had reached a new stage with Japan as an emerging power in the Pacific. In order to ease the tension between the two countries, a delegation of U.S. businessmen from along the Pacific coast visited Japan in 1908. Shibusawa was a central figure in receiving this group and headed the reciprocal visit by the Japanese business delegation the following year.

The business mission’s purpose was threefold: 1) to deepen understanding of American entrepreneurship and philanthropy; 2) to explore ways of improving US-Japan relations and partnership between the two countries in tackling global issues, and 3) to cultivate young Japanese business leaders and to encourage them to establish networks with their American counterparts through dialogue with distinguished American political, business and societal leaders.

Shibusawa was not only a leader in the business and financial worlds, but was also a pioneer in the spheres of Japanese philanthropy and civil society. Therefore it is fitting that the 1909 business mission, which did so much to advance US-Japanese understanding, became a powerful symbol of non-governmental diplomacy and set the stage for subsequent business missions that helped build up enduring networks of formal and informal communication between the two countries. Shibusawa continued to play an active and important role as a bridge between the two countries for the rest of his life.

Three-months in the U.S.

Shibusawa led the first large-scale business mission to the United States in 1909 at a time of tense US-Japan relations. The mission included more than 50 of Japan’s most prominent business leaders and notables. They sailed to Seattle on the American ship the Minnesota. After landing on September 1 they traveled from coast to coast and visited various U.S. cities, receiving a warm welcome wherever they went.

The mission made news across the U.S. as it traveled to 53 cities over the course of three months. They traveled in the specially outfitted “Million Dollar Train” that had been provided by the American industrial community. The mission visited chambers of commerce, factories, power plants, fire departments, port facilities, mines, farms, schools, universities, libraries, theaters, churches, hospitals, and many other facilities and sites. Along the way they met with many distinguished American leaders such as President William Howard Taft, Thomas Alva Edison of General Electric, and James Jerome Hill of Great Northern Railway. Through receptions and parties in big venues and private homes, they gained first-hand knowledge of American life.

When they left San Francisco for Japan on November 30, they carried with them fresh information on a wide range of industries in the cities and regions they had visited. This newly gained knowledge of contemporary industrial America was published in a thick report upon their return to Japan.

Photo: President William Howard Taft
William Howard Taft, 27th president of the U.S.

Significance and Impact

Photo: Commercial Commissioners
The Commercial Commissioners in the U.S.

Shibusawa acutely understood the impact of the United States on Japan’s modernization, and he believed that a comprehensive understanding of the U.S. was essential for constructive mutual exchange between the two countries. Therefore, he used the business mission to create opportunities for Japanese business leaders to learn about American society and economics from various points of view. This provided for an atmosphere that was conducive to the revision of the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between Japan and the United States in 1911.

The impact on individual businessman was immeasurable both in how it affected the way they conducted business and their views on the U.S. Furthermore, because of the trip Japanese business leaders became aware of the social role of businessmen and began contributing to the building of social and/or educational institutions. They also realized the value of international understanding and contributed to the promotion of international exchange.

Japan’s position in the international community changed dramatically following the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. These changes required Japan to strengthen friendly relations with the U.S. by solving the trade dispute and proceeding with the further development of trade and commerce. The Honorary Commercial Commissioners of Japan to the U.S.A., made a significant contribution to this end, building connections between the business worlds of the two countries.

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Updated on Dec. 22, 2010

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