Iwasaki Yataro (1835–1885) was a Japanese financier and shipping industrialist, and the founder of Mitsubishi.
Iwasaki was born in a provincial farming family in Aki, Tosa province (now Kochi Prefecture), the great grandson of a man who had sold his family's samurai status in obligation of debts. The son of a provincial farmer, Iwasaki began his career as an employee of the Tosa clan. The clan had business interests in many parts of Japan, which whetted Iwasaki's ambition.
Iwasaki left for Edo (now Tokyo) aged nineteen in search of an education to further his ambitions. The serious injury of his father in a dispute with the village headman brought him home from Edo a year later and briefly interrupted his studies. When the local magistrate refused to hear his case, Iwasaki accused him of corruption and was sent to prison for seven months. After his release, Iwasaki was without a job for a time before finding work as a village school teacher. Returning to Edo, he socialised with political activists and studied under the reformist Yoshida Toyo, who influenced him with ideas of opening and developing the then-closed nation through industry and foreign trade. Soon, through Yoshida, he found work as a clerk for the Tosa government, and bought back the family's samurai status with the wages he saved. He was later promoted to the top position at the Tosa clan's trading office in Nagasaki, responsible for trading camphor oil and paper to buy ships, weapons, and ammunition. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which forced the disbandment of the shogunate's business interests, Iwasaki travelled to Osaka and leased the trading rights for the Tosa clan's Tsukumo Trading Company. The company changed its name to Mitsubishi in 1873.
The company adopted the name Mitsubishi in March 1870, when Yatarō officially became president. The name Mitsubishi is a compound of mitsu ("three") and hishi (literally, "water chestnut", often used in Japanese to denote a diamond or rhombus). Its emblem was a combination of the Iwasaki family crest and the oak-leaf crest of the Yamanouchi family, who were leaders of the Tosa clan which controlled the part of Shikoku where Yatarō was born.
Mitsubishi was later almost on its feet when the Formosan Incident occurred. Fifty-four Japanese fishermen died on the island of Formosa (currently known as Taiwan) but the Empire of the Great Qing government did not take responsibility. Yatarō's company was initially blamed but the situation eventually improved and Yatarō even won the right to operate the government ships and the transportation of men and material. The company began to flourish again.
Yatarō was dutiful to the new Japanese government, as well as to his company. Mitsubishi provided the ships that carried Japanese troops to Taiwan. This earned him more ships and a large annual subsidy from the government. He agreed, in turn, to carry mail and other government supplies. With government support, he was able to purchase more ships and increase Mitsubishi's shipping lines, which helped him drive two large foreign shipping companies out of the lucrative Shanghai route through the Mitsubishi Transportation Company which Yatarō founded. Later the now-giant shipping company also carried troops to put down a rebellion in Kyushu. Yatarō taught his subordinates to "worship the passengers" because they were sources of revenue.
Subsequently he invested in mining, ship repair and finance. In 1884 he took a lease on the Nagasaki Shipyard and renamed it Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works, allowing the company to undertake shipbuilding on a large scale.
In 1885, Yatarō lost control of his shipping company in the wake of a political struggle that had buffeted Japan's marine transport industry. The company merged with a rival and became Nippon Yusen (NYK Line), which would return to the ranks of the Mitsubishi companies years later.
Though Yatarō had lost his shipping company, he established other businesses (in banking, mining, newspapers and marine insurance) which formed the foundation for the Mitsubishi organization. His wealth exceeded one million yen. Yatarō was so confident of his power that he could allow himself to participate in many businesses. Mitsubishi Kawase-ten, for example, was a financial exchange house that also engaged in warehousing business. It was the forerunner of today's Mitsubishi Bank and Mitsubishi Warehouse & Transportation. Yatarō had also purchased a coal mine and a copper mine and had leased a Nagasaki shipyard from the government. He had participated in establishing the insurance company that now is Tokyo Marine and Fire. He even headed up the school that became the Tokyo University of Mercantile Marine.
Iwasaki Yatarō was a visionary businessman. He often gave dinners in the company of dignitaries, spending a huge amount of money on these occasions but he also making many friends who later helped him by doing many favors.
Yataro, however, did not lead the Mitsubishi organization in its new phase of growth. He died of stomach cancer aged 50, and was succeeded as the head of the family business first by his brother, and later his son, Hisaya.