Selective History: Mitsubishi Estate and Ex-Zaibatsu Marketing

Open up The Economist and one will find an abundance of adverts in all shapes and sizes. The range of institutions, companies and even governments that advertise within the newspaper is astounding, reflecting, one must suppose, the breadth of its readership. In fact, these marketing strategies are subjects for analysis in themselves and attention paid to the advertising campaigns in The Economist should not be underestimated. Hence, a full-page advert for Mitsubishi Estate, a company under the same umbrella as the more famous (in the Western world) motor vehicle manufacturer, stands out distinctively, but for the wrong reasons (Economist, 23/02/2013).

The Advert

The imagery is appealing. Centre stage is the depiction of the skyline of a would-be global city, full of skyscrapers, similar to the now-standard shots of London, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Singapore etc. The difference here is that the skyscrapers are in fact actual bricks, assumingly pointing to the idea of an identity-less metropolis. The prose surrounding the image says the rest:

“Cities aren’t built in a day. Mitsubishi Estate took a wilderness in 1890 and developed it into one of the world’s leading business hubs, Tokyo’s Marunouchi district. Now Mitsubishi Estate is bringing its accumulated development expertise to the historic cities of London, New York and Singapore.” (Economist, 23/02/2013)

These statements would be all very well and justified, if they didn’t ignore the 120 years of history between today and a time when the great Zaibatsu, of which Mitsubishi was one, were formed as government monopolies on economic activity during the period of empire. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Mitsui, Sumitomo and Yastsuda also held huge economic power as ‘financial cliques’ – the literal translation of ‘zaibatsu’ (Reischauer, 1977, p. 304).

Selective History

There is a narrative, existing in much historiography, depicting the Zaibatsu as a contentious area of study. It is reasonably common, in the interests of contemporary international political and economic relations to do away with pre-1945 history, acknowledging the political change that has occurred in Japan and working towards a peaceful global future. But Zaibatsu companies such as Mitsubishi have existed as corporations through incredibly diverse conditions, domestically and internationally. It is difficult, when presented with a marketing strategy that draws on historical ideas, not to highlight the supposedly deliberate tactic of omitting perhaps over fifty years of contentious history. These conditions are perhaps best summarised by the following sub-periods: Japanese governmental development of the Zaibatsu firms during World War One and pre-World War Two, the Asia-Pacific War-time effort, and finally American/Allied support of the Japanese economy post-World War Two and Japan’s subsequent economic success. It is doubtful that Mitsubishi would ever want to highlight much of the following in their marketing campaigns; it is not hypocritical to omit such, but it is certainly interesting to note their use of historical rhetoric at the risk of digging up more than they bargained for.

Zaibatsu as Monopolies

True, Mitsubishi Estate and other Zaibatsu firms helped to develop Tokyo’s, and indeed Japan’s, infrastructure around the turn of the 20th Century (Beasley, 1990, pp. 109-111). There are, however, several slightly dark ideas surrounding the rise of the corporation, and indeed the other Zaibatsu firms (Odagiri and Goto, 1996, pp. 24-25). The economic strategies implemented by the Meiji (1868-1912) and then Taisho (1912-26) Emperors were prickly to say the least, as the governments granted the Zaibatsu monopolies in the Japanese markets. This in turn not only allowed corporations like Mitsubishi to manipulate the Japanese economy, but also allowed the effects to snowball, by which every actor in the Japanese economy became dependent on one or more Zaibatsu firm (Beasley, 1990, p. 216). Thus, the suggestion in the advert that Mitsubishi Estate built Tokyo’s Marunouchi district out of a wilderness in 1890 is certainly open to contention among economic historians, as it did so with considerable indirect political and economic aid.

Zaibatsu and the US

Mitsubishi also owe a great deal of their success post-1945 to the United States, another ‘complication’ swept under the carpet in their marketing campaign by ignoring such a huge chunk of history. During the American occupation between 1945 and 1952, the Japanese economy was effectively propped up and redeveloped by the allies with an aim to nurture Japan back in to the League of Nations (subsequently the United Nations) (Beasley, 1963, p. 304). There is historiographical debate, however, as to how Japan was able to bloom so incredibly in the world economy in the years following the American occupation. Some argue that Japanese war-time infrastructure and technology should take the credit, as indeed, the Japanese economy was used to operating at an incredible capacity (Beasley, 1963, p. 302). Others highlight American strategies such as the ‘Dodge Line’ of 1949 – a financial contraction policy in which the Yen was pegged at 360 to the US Dollar – as key to Japanese economic development; Japan subsequently gained unrivalled access to the American markets (Beasley, 1990, p. 244). Either way, the notion of Mitsubishi self-sufficiency and maturity becomes rather abstract if one analyses its path as a corporation through the economic turmoil of the 20th Century.

Conclusion

These are examples of how Mitsubishi as a Zaibatsu firm has benefitted from both Japanese and American economic policy, and is not as pure as the Economist advert makes out. If one were to think about purity, however, then one would be driven mad that Zaibatsu were ever allowed to continue to exist. The contribution of Mitsubishi to the Japanese war effort in the Asia-Pacific region was enormous (Beasley, 1990, p. 27). Similar to the role of Rolls-Royce for Great Britain, Mitsubishi made very high quality air craft used for kamikaze missions. There is no suggestion here that Mitsubishi as a corporation should cease to exist, nor that every marketing campaign should highlight the history of the company to its full extent. But it is necessary to be aware of the ignored period between 1890 and the present day. The Mitsubishi Zaibatsu may have begun as a successful enterprise, branching into many different fields in the same way that, say, Richard Branson’s Virgin has done in the UK. But it has benefitted enormously from Japanese economic and then political war-time policy, and American foreign policy during the early Cold War. If the Mitsubishi Estate marketing team want to play the history game, they are in for a rough ride if they think that they can pick and choose the precise years that present the corporation as a benevolent and development-orientated multinational.

Bibliography

Beasley, W.G., 1963. The Modern History of Japan. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Beasley, W.G., 1990. The Rise of Modern Japan: Political, Economic and Social Change since 1850. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Economist. London. Februrary 23rd 2013-03-03

Goto, Akira, and Odagiri, Hiroyuki, 1996. Technology and Industrial Development in Japan. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Reischauer, Edwin O., 1977. The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity. Cambridge, MA: Belknapp Press of Harvard University

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