zaibatsu [Jap.,=money clique], the great family-controlled banking and industrial combines of modern Japan. The leading zaibatsu (called keiretsu after World War II) are Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Dai Ichi Kangyo, Sumitomo, Sanwa, and Fuyo. They gained a position in the Japanese economy with no exact parallel elsewhere. Although the Mitsui were powerful bankers under the shogunate, most of the other zaibatsu developed after the Meiji restoration (1868), when, by subsidies and a favorable tax policy, the new government granted them a privileged position in the economic development of Japan. Later they helped finance strategic semiofficial enterprises in Japan and abroad, particularly in Taiwan and Korea. In the early 1930s the military clique tried to break the economic power of the zaibatsu but failed. In 1937 the four leading zaibatsu controlled directly one third of all bank deposits, one third of all foreign trade, one half of Japan's shipbuilding and maritime shipping, and most of the heavy industries. They maintained close relations with the major political parties. After Japan's surrender (1945) in World War II, the breakup of the zaibatsu was announced as a major aim of the Allied occupation, but in the 1950s and 1960s groups based on the old zaibatsu reemerged as keiretsu. The decision on the part of these groups in the post-World War II era to pool their resources greatly influenced Japan's subsequent rise as a global business power.
is a Japanese term referring to industrial and financial business conglomerates in the Empire of Japan, whose influence and size allowed for control over significant parts of the Japanese economy from the Meiji periods until the end of the Pacific War.


Although zaibatsu existed from the 19th century, the term was not in common use until after World War I. By definition, the "zaibatsu" were large family-controlled vertical monopolies consisting of a holding company on top, with a wholly-owned banking subsidiary providing finance, and several industrial subsidiaries dominating specific sectors of a market, either solely, or through a number of sub-subsidiary companies.


The zaibatsu were the heart of economic and industrial activity within the Empire of Japan, and held great influence over Japanese national and foreign policies. The Rikken Seiyukai political party was regarded as an extension of the Mitsui group, which also had very strong connections with the Imperial Japanese Army. Likewise, the Rikken Minseito was connected to the Mitsubishi group, as was the Imperial Japanese Navy. By the start of World War II, the Big Four zaibatsu alone had direct control over more than 30% of Japan's mining, chemical, metals industries and almost 50% control of the machinery and equipment market, a significant part of the foreign commercial merchant fleet and 60% of the commercial stock exchange.

The zaibatsu were viewed with suspicion by both the right and left of the political spectrum in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the world was in the throes of a worldwide economic depression, the zaibatsu were prospering through currency speculation, maintenance of low labor costs and on military procurement. Matters came to a head in the League of Blood Incident of March 1932, with the assassination of the managing director of Mitsui, after which the zaibatsu attempted to improve on their public image through increased charity work.

History and development

The Big Four

The of Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Yasuda are the most historically significant zaibatsu groups, having roots stemming from the Edo period. During the Tokugawa Shogunate, the government employed their financial powers and expertise for various endeavors, including tax collection, military procurement and foreign trade, which the zaibatsu often provided free of charge in exchange for the privilege of managing government funds. The practice continued after the Meiji Restoration overthrew the Tokugawa in 1868.

The new zaibatsu

Beyond the Big Four, consensus is lacking as to which companies can be called zaibatsu, and which cannot. After the Russo-Japanese War, a number of so-called "second-tier" zaibatsu also emerged, mostly as the result of business conglomerations and/or the award of lucrative military contracts. Some more famous second-tier zaibatsu included the Okura, Furukawa, and Nakajima groups, among several others.

The early zaibatsu permitted some public shareholding of some subsidiary companies, but never of to the top holding company or key subsidiaries.

The monopolistic business practices by the zaibatsu resulted in a closed circle of companies until Japanese industrial expansion on the Asian mainland (Manchukuo) began in the 1930s, which allowed for the rise of a number of new groups (shinko zaibatsu), including Nissan. These new zaibatsu differed from the traditional zaibatsu only that they were not controlled by specific families, and not in terms of business practices.

Postwar dissolution

The zaibatsu had been viewed with some ambivalence by the Japanese military, which nationalized a significant portion of their product capability during World War II. Remaining assets were also highly damaged by the destruction during the war.

Under the American occupation after the surrender of Japan, a partially successful attempt was made to dissolve the zaibatsu. Many of the economic advisors accompanying the SCAP administration had experience with the New Deal program under American President Roosevelt, and were highly suspicious of monopolies and restrictive business practices, which they felt to be both inefficient, and to be a form of corporativism (and thus inherently anti-democratic).

During the occupation of Japan, sixteen zaibatsu were targeted for complete dissolution, and twenty six more for reorganization after dissolution. Among the zaibatsu that were targeted for dissolution in 1946 were Asano, Furukawa, Nakajima, Nissan, Nomura, and Okura. Their controlling families' assets were seized, holding companies eliminated, and interlocking directorships, essential to the old system of inter-company coordination, were outlawed. Matsushita, while not a zaibatsu, was originally also targeted for breakup, but was saved by a petition signed by 15,000 of its union workers and their families.

However, complete dissolution of the zaibatsu was never achieved, mostly because U.S. government rescinded the orders in an effort to reindustrialize Japan as a bulwark against Communism in Asia. Zaibatsu as a whole were widely considered to be beneficial to the Japanese economy and government, and the opinions of the Japanese public, of the zaibatsu workers and management, and of the entrenched bureaucracy regarding plans for zaibatsu dissolution ranged from unenthusiastic to disapproving. Additionally, the changing politics of the Occupation during the reverse course served as a crippling, if not terminal, roadblock to zaibatsu elimination.

Modern-day influence

Today, the influence of the zaibatsu can still be seen in the form of financial groups, institutions, and larger companies whose origins reach back to the original zaibatsu, often sharing the same original family names (for example, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation). However, some argue that the "old mechanisms of financial and administrative control" that zaibatsu once enjoyed have been destroyed. Despite the absence of an actualized sweeping change to the existence of large industrial conglomerates in Japan, the zaibatsu's previous vertically integrated chain of command, ending with a single family, has now widely been displaced by the horizontal relationships of association and coordination characteristic of . Keiretsu, meaning "series" or "subsidiary", could be interpreted as being suggestive of this difference.

List of zaibatsu

The Big Four

Second-tier zaibatsu

Bankrupt zaibatsu

Zaibatsu in popular culture

The term zaibatsu has been used often in books, comics, video games and films, referring to large, sinister Japanese corporations, who are often involved in shady dealings and/or have connections to the yakuza.

Examples include the "Mishima Zaibatsu" which is mentioned throughout the Tekken series and the "Zaibatsu" criminal group in Grand Theft Auto 2.

The character Karin in the Street Fighter series belongs to the "Kanzuki Zaibatsu".

In the Tom Clancy book 'Debt of Honor', a group of zaibatsu seize control of Japan and invade the US-held Mariana Islands.

In other cases zaibatsu are used simply to provide the background for a character from an influential family, such as in the case of the F4 in Boys Over Flowers who are the sons/heirs of the 4 (fictional) biggest corporations in Japan; this is an obvious reference to the Big Four.

The Itoshiki family from Sayonara Zetsubō Sensei owns a zaibatsu to accentuate their heavy economical and political background.

Sonoko Suzuki of Meitantei Conan is a daughter of the chairman of "Suzuki Zaibatsu", and, more prominently, Kaoru Hanabishi of "Hanabishi Zaibatsu" and Aoi Sakuraba of "Sakuraba Group" in Ai Yori Aoshi/

In William Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, 'Zaibatsu' is the generic term used for the megacorporations prevalent in the futuristic world in which the plot is set.

A similar use is also made in Robert Asprin's The Cold Cash War, where megacorporations of this name, dominating the world, are not specifically Japanese.

Lewis Shiner's 1984 novel "Frontera", anticipating the dissolution of the USSR, depicted the transformation of what were at the time of writing state-owned Soviet companies such as Aeroflot into "Zaibatsu" - the term being used in the broad sense of "a big privately-owned corporation".

See also


  • Alletzhauser, Albert J. The House of Nomura. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991. ISBN 0-06-097397-8.
  • Allinson, Gary D. Japan's Postwar History. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8014-3312-6.
  • Aoki, Masahiko & Hyung-Ki Kim. Corporate Governance in Transitional Economies: Insider Control and the Role of Banks Retrieved online 28 June 2004. Print edition: Washington, D.C.: World Bank Office of the Publisher, 1995. ISBN 0-8213-2990-1.
  • Morck, Randall and Masao Nakamura. A Frog in a Well Knows Nothing of the Ocean: A History of Corporate Ownership in Japan.
  • Morikawa, Hidemasa. Zaibatsu: The Rise and Fall of Family Enterprise Groups in Japan. Tokyo, Japan: University of Tokyo Press, 1992.

External links


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