Lessons from Mitsui: How Shared Values Rebuilt a Japanese Giant

Japanese businessmen holding the puzzle pieces of their business group together in the ukiyo-e traditional Japanese art style
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Too many companies today believe they can predict and plan for the future. Their entire business model, down to how they train their people, is predicated on this false sense of certainty. But we can’t predict tomorrow’s market. We can only respond with the best answer we have when tomorrow comes. The single most powerful defense against uncertainty, therefore, is having a set of common values.

The remarkable story of Mitsui offers a shining example.

The remarkable story of Mitsui.

Founded as a drapery shop by the fourth son of a shopkeeper in 17th century Japan, Mitsui evolved into an official money exchange for the Japanese government by the 18th century.

By the 20th century, Mitsui covered almost every type of commercial, industrial, and financial activity through more than 100 subsidiaries.

Mitsui and Company logo
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Mitsui and Co is valued today on the Tokyo Stock Exchange at nearly half a billion dollars. This company is just one part of the Mitsui Group. Following the keiretsu tradition, the Mitsui group of companies is considered one of the largest corporate groups in the world.

But none of this might have happened had it not been for the founder’s action when the company was merely an infant.

A masterstroke by the shopkeeper’s son.

Before his death in 1694, founder Taketoshi Mitsui’s third son compiled a bound book of his father’s teachings called Shobai-ki.

The principles in the book were meant to leave a trail for future employees to follow.

Some excerpts:

  1. The essential role of managers is to guard the business of the House. They should give appropriate advice if their master’s conduct is not good and correct blunders that may be made.

  2. In order to select for managers, keep an eye on the young men and train promising candidates for that position.

  3. Farsightedness is essential to the career of a merchant. In pursuing small interests close at hand, one may lose large profits in the long run.

The ancient Japanese text Shobai-ki
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Source: Wikimedia

Taketoshi Mitsui believed that the common values in Shobai-ki would unify his company and prepare future generations for uncertainty and challenges. His belief was tested numerous times over 300 years, but never more severely than in 1945.

Mitsui faced its biggest challenge ever.

During the Allied occupation of post-WWII Japan, President Harry S Truman issued a directive.

All industrial banking groups like Mitsui were to be dissolved— holding companies were liquidated; family wealth was heavily taxed; trade names such as “Mitsui” were banned; and managerial capacity was restricted.

Mitsui as a collective was decimated — no central management nervous system, no money… no name.

Propaganda poster for Allied occupation of Japan
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Image from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Library

What could come from this corporate wasteland?

The Treaty of San Francisco ended The Occupation of Japan in 1952.

The signing of the Treaty of San Francisco
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Image by Jennifer Nodjak from the National Veterans Memorial and Museum

Although the top holding company was gone, former leaders held regular meetings for information exchange, and the bank they previously used fired up its central functions again. Eventually, the use of “Mitsui” as a name returned, and in 1959, the trading firms merged again, forming Mitsui Bank and the Mitsui & Co we know today.

Despite severe setbacks, the sense of belonging and collective identity remained intact.

This collective sense of self was even stronger than the ambitions and greed of the managers who were placed in charge of the individual companies after the dissolution. They could have gone it alone, and in the short run, they would have been successful. But they were too infused with Mitsui’s values to leave the name and the entity behind.

This resilience demonstrates how shared values can overcome even significant challenges, allowing companies not only to survive but also thrive despite drastic changes outside their control.

Taketoshi Mitsui’s set of organizing principles survived over 300 years of uncertainty, proving that common values can unify a company, and unity enables people in those companies to navigate challenges confidently with belief in one another.

Now I ask you, how are you preparing your team for future success?

Are you teaching them to plan, predict and perfect someone else’s methodology?

Are you equipping them to come up with their own answers?

If you want to learn more about shared values and shared vision, I have written a lot (here, here, and here) and spoken about it (here and here).

For more of Mitsui’s teachings, subscribe to our newsletter for my favorite lessons from Taketoshi Mitsui.


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