The Mitsui enterprise made its debut in 1673 when Mitsui Takatoshi (1622–1694), son of a sake brewer, established Echigo-ya, a dry goods department store in both Edo and Kyoto. Meeting with great success, Takatoshi extended his services to moneylending and exchange. In 1691 the Mitsuis were officially chartered as merchants of the Tokugawa shogunate which ruled during that time. Three years later the family members set up their first constitution, which included details about the amount of property due to each branch as well as the duties of the family council, a periodical assembly that controlled business and other personal matters.
In the late Edo period, the Mitsuis were the richest and most eminent family in Japan, their business being thoroughly encouraged by the government of the time. After the Meiji Restoration, the family switched allegiance to the Meiji government.
In 1909, a Mitsui controlled holding company took over the business, with Mitsui thus becoming a zaibatsu of more than 150 companies operating financial, industrial and commercial industries.
As part of the Japanese plans for the exploitation of China, during the 1930s and '40s the subsidiary tobacco industry of Mitsui zaibatsu had started production of special "Golden Bat" cigarettes using the then-popular in the Far East trademark. Their circulation was prohibited in Japan and was used only for export. Local Japanese secret service under the controversial Imperial Japanese Army General Kenji Doihara had the control of their distribution in China and Manchuria where the full production was exported. In the mouthpiece of each cigarette a small dose of opium was concealed, and by this subterfuge millions of unsuspecting consumers became drug addicted simultaneously creating huge profits. The mastermind of the plan, Doihara, was prosecuted and convicted for war crimes before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, sentenced to death in ".. pursued a systematic policy of weakening the native inhabitants' will to resist (. . . ) by directly and indirectly encouraging the increased production and importation of opium and other narcotics and by promoting the sale and consumption of such drugs among such people."; but no actions ever took place against the company which profited from their production. According to testimony presented at the Tokyo War Crimes trials in 1948, the revenue from the narcotization policy in China, including Manchukuo, was estimated in 20 to 30 million yen per year, while another authority stated during the trial that the annual revenue was estimated by the Japanese military at US$300 million a year, a colossal amount for the time.
During World War II several of the Mitsui group companies, including Mitsui-Miike mining, used Allied prisoners of war as slave labor, during which the prisoners were subjected to brutal treatment and torture, while some of them were permanently maimed by Mitsui employees. One of the surviving prisoners, United States citizen Lester Tenney, sued Mitsui in 1999 for punitive damages and compensation. Federal judge dismissed the case, citing the 1951 peace treaty between the U.S. and Japan that barred private claims against Japan.
By the end of the war the Mitsui group included more than 270 companies. After the group was dissolved by the occupation forces at the end of war, the companies started to reassociate again in 1950, creating a corporate grouping, or keiretsu.
A multinational group
Today the group counts dozens of multinational companies in fields such as trade, banking, shipping, construction, mining, oil and gas, insurance, chemicals and real estate development. The three main branches are:
- Mitsui & Company (a trading company)
- Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (the first private bank in Japan)
- Mitsui Mining Company (formerly the largest coal producer in Japan)
- The Opium Empire: Japanese Imperialism and Drug Trafficking in Asia, 1895–1945, John M. Jennings, p.102, Praeger, 1997, ISBN 0275957594
- Mitsui: Three Centuries of Japanese Business, pages 312–313, John G. Roberts, Weatherhill, ISBN 978-0-8348-0080-9 1991
- Encyclopedia of espionage, p.315, Ronald Sydney Seth, ISBN 978-0-385-01609-4, Doubleday, 1974
- Unfinished Business, Foreign Policy, June 28, 2010
- Takami Hanzawa, "U.S. professor recalls Bataan Death March horror," Kyodo News Service, reported in The Japan Times, May 2, 2007, p. 3.