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This article is about Japanese industry. For the fictional organization, see Grand Theft Auto 2#Gangs.
Marunouchi Headquarters for Mitsubishi zaibatsu, pre-1923

Zaibatsu (財閥?, literally financial clique) is a Japanese term referring to industrial and financial business conglomerates in the Empire of Japan, whose influence and size allowed control over significant parts of the Japanese economy from the Meiji period until the end of World War II.


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 subsubsidiary 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 70% of the commercial stock exchange.[citation needed]

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 labour 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.[citation needed]

History and development[edit]

Big Four[edit]

The Big Four zaibatsu (四大財閥?, shidai zaibatsu) of, in chronological order of founding, Sumitomo, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and Yasuda are the most significant zaibatsu groups. Two of them, Sumitomo and Mitsui, have roots stemming from the Edo period while Mitsubishi and Yasuda trace their origins to the Meiji Restoration. Throughout Meiji to Showa, the government employed their financial powers and expertise for various endeavors, including tax collection, military procurement and foreign trade.

New zaibatsu[edit]

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 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 in that they were not controlled by specific families, and not in terms of business practices.

Postwar dissolution[edit]

Seizure of the zaibatsu families assets, 1946

The zaibatsu had been viewed with some ambivalence by the Japanese military, which nationalized a significant portion of their production 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 corporatism (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 1947 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 (which later took the name Panasonic), 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.[1]

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.[2] 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[edit]

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[who?] 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 (系列?). Keiretsu, meaning "series" or "subsidiary", could be interpreted as being suggestive of this difference.

List of zaibatsu[edit]

Popular culture[edit]

The term zaibatsu has been used often in books, comics, video games, and films, referring to large and usually sinister Japanese corporations, who are often involved in shady dealings and/or have connections to the yakuza. Examples include the Mishima Zaibatsu, which is prominently featured in the Tekken series, the "Zaibatsu" criminal group in Grand Theft Auto 2, and various writings of pioneer cyberpunk author William Gibson. 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 Before Flowers who are the sons and heirs of the four (fictional) biggest corporations in Japan; this is a reference to the Big Four.[original research?]

  • In the Tom Clancy book Debt of Honor, a group of zaibatsu seize control of Japan and invade the US-held Mariana Islands.
  • The Itoshiki family from Sayonara Zetsubō Sensei owns a zaibatsu to accentuate their heavy economic and political background.
  • 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".
  • The roleplaying game Mage: the Ascension uses the term "The Zaibatsu" to refer to Japan's branch of the magic-suppressing technocracy. Its members use undetectable spells to predict business information and defeat rivals in order to maintain control of Japan and defeat the shen (supernatural creatures), including other mages.
  • The anime Ouran High School Host Club states that the fictional Otori Group adopted the zaibatsu system as its corporate model for their health care and hospital administration businesses several generations ago, and has since prospered greatly while advancing the field of medicine to unprecedented heights.
  • The video game Grand Theft Auto 2 features a gang called the Zaibatsu that the player can take jobs from. It is the largest gang in the game, and the eventual final enemy.
  • The video game Grand Theft Auto 3 features radio ads referring to a fictional "Zaibatsu Corporation."
  • Karin Kanzuki, a character from the Street Fighter series, is the heir to the Kanzuki zaibatsu.
  • In the manga Gantz, there is a group of Zaibatsu who control multiple black balls and launch an attack on the alien ship twice.
  • In the manga and anime Cheeky Angel, the character of Miki Hanakain is the heir to a traditional zaibatsu, compared with her friend Megumi Amatsuki whose profitable family business is smaller, less traditional, but as a result more nimble and able to adapt to the modern world.
  • In the 1993 movie RoboCop 3 Omni Consumer Products was under control of a zaibatsu named the Kanemitsu Corporation, which bought a controlling stake in the organization.
  • The popular YouTube group "Two Best Friends Play," often refer to themselves as the "Best Friends Zaibatsu," and have merchandise that refers to them as such.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Morck & Nakamura, p. 33
  2. ^ In his 1967 memoirs, Kennan wrote that aside from the Marshall Plan, setting the "reverse course" in Japan was "the most significant contribution I was ever able to make in government." George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-50 (Boston, 1967), 393.
  3. ^ While chaebol is often viewed as the Korean cognate to zaibatsu, both the Korean and the Japanese words are composed of loans from Chinese, and thus are not cognates in the true sense of the word.[citation needed]


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