Large capitalist enterprises of pre-World War II Japan, similar to cartels or trusts but usually organized around a single family. One zaibatsu might operate companies in many areas of economic importance; all zaibatsu owned their own banks, which they used as a means for mobilizing capital. After the war the zaibatsu were dissolved: stock owned by the parent companies was put up for sale and individual companies were freed from the control of parent companies. After the signing of the peace treaty in 1951, many companies began associating into what became known as enterprise groups; these differed from zaibatsu primarily in the informal manner that characterized policy coordination and in the limited degree of financial interdependency between member companies. Modern-day keiretsu are similar.
Learn more about zaibatsu with a free trial on Britannica.com.
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.
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.
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.
The character Karin in the Street Fighter series belongs to the "Kanzuki Zaibatsu".
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/
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".