Local Partners and Big Business in Tokugawa Japan – an example from the archive of the Nakai Genzaemon merchant house

Big businesses always need local partners. During the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), large-scale merchant houses had particularly good reasons to cultivate local connections. Early modern Japan was divided into around 260 semi-autonomous domains, with a panoply of guilds in control (in name, if not in practice) over the circulation of goods within each jurisdiction. It presented a decidedly difficult environment for merchant enterprises that wanted to trade over long distances without the cooperation of local agents and mediators.
In spite of this, the Tokugawa period is well known as an age that saw the rise of many major merchant houses. My research focuses primarily on one of the largest and wealthiest of the period: the Nakai Genzaemon. Founded in 1734, the Nakai rapidly expanded over the course of the late 18th century, establishing over 20 stores across the Japanese archipelago. At the center of their business was their store in Sendai, set up in 1769 for their highly profitable trade in spun cotton and used clothing (Egashira Tsuneharu, Ōmi shōnin Nakai-ke no kenkyū (Yūzankaku, 1965)).
To get to Sendai, goods went on a long journey through many ports and markets. Commodities like spun cotton and used clothing were purchased from across the country – mostly from western Japan, but also from the capital of Edo and even sometimes at local markets in Japan’s northeast. The majority of the goods sold by the Nakai in Sendai were shipped first to Edo. There, they awaited transport to Ishinomaki on large boats used for the transport of domain rice to the capital. In Ishinomaki, local shippers then transferred the goods onto smaller boats for the journey to Shiogama, the main port of Sendai castle town. Once in Shiogama, the goods were stored in warehouses managed by the agents of Sendai merchants. A short journey by canal or road separated Shiogama from the castle town.
Abe-ya Sanemon served as the goods consignment agent (nimotsu donya) in Shiogama for the Nakai’s Sendai store. In charge of warehouse management and storage for the merchant house, Sanemon was one of the many local partners essential to the Nakai’s business.

But Sanemon had a problem, a big one: he was a drunk. When the head of the Nakai visited him in Shiogama, Sanemon was frequently so intoxicated that “when undoing his sandals, he often crashed into things” (“Abe-ya Sanemon koto” in Sendai mise-mise yōyōki Nakai Genzaemon-ke monjo #8584, Shiga daigaku keizaigakubu fuzoku shiryōkan collection, below same). His drinking habits soon became a risk to the Nakai.  An 1834 entry in the Nakai’s Sendai store diary records that “once, at a festival, he got extraordinarily drunk and started arguing with officials,” causing a minor scandal.
In response, the Nakai decided to strip the Abe-ya of their status as consignment agents, forcing Sanemon into retirement. After a series of petitions by Sanemon’s relatives, however, the merchant house allowed his adopted son Sanshirō to continue in the role. Still, the Abe-ya continued to try to restore Sanemon to his former position. At the succession of a new head of the Nakai in 1834, Sanshirō, swearing that his father “had quit drinking entirely, and has settled down quietly,” asked permission from the house for Sanemon to resume business with the Nakai’s Sendai store.
At first, Sendai store staff declined Sanshirō’s request. Due to his mishandling of a donation of paving stones to Shiogama temple, something, it seems, that had a negative impact on the Nakai’s own reputation, the staff believed that he was not in any position to ask for clemency on behalf of his father. They sent him packing, but three other local merchants – Katana-ya Mohachi, Ebisu-ya Chūbe, and Kaga-ya Sanemon, all business partners of the Nakai in Sendai and Ishinomaki – repeatedly interceded on Sanshirō’s behalf.
After almost half a year of petitions, the Nakai finally relented. Abe-ya Sanemon was allowed to appear with a relative at the Nakai’s Sendai store. Signing a solemn oath, he received the right to do business with the Nakai again under the condition that he give up “excessive drinking and outrageous behavior.”

This episode highlights two distinctive aspects of doing business in Tokugawa Japan. One is the difficulty of cutting off well-established relationships with local partners. Wealthy businesses like the Nakai could not so easily replace one of their partners without the consent of local merchants. The other is the importance of people outside of the strict confines of the Nakai’s own organization – often independent merchants in their own right – to the continued operation of the Nakai’s business. While not formally employed by the Nakai, Mohachi, Chūbe, the Sanemons, and Sanshirō all fulfilled important functions for the merchant house, and could shape its internal decision-making process. For big businesses in early modern Japan, these partners were indispensable. Even if some of them drank too much.

(John D’Amico, PhD Candidate, Yale University Department of History)







Rikuzen no kuni Shiogama Matsushima shinkei zenzu. Hachiya Toma. Meiji 25 [1892], C. V. Starr East Asian Library, University of California, Berkeley (link)