Ōmi Merchants

Ōmi Merchants

Humble merchants whose ethical business approach made them a global commercial force

place Area: access_time Published: 2020.03.19

Name in Japanese: 近江商人
Pronunciation: ōmi shōnin

The Ōmi merchants are merchants from Ōmi and Shiga Prefecture who were active from the Middle Ages to modern times. They were one of Japan’s three major groups of merchants, along with merchants from Ōsaka and Ise. Even today, entrepreneurs from Shiga Prefecture are sometimes called Ōmi merchants, and the businesses they established are still thriving today. As a matter of terminology, only merchants from Ōmi who pursued business outside their home region were called Ōmi merchants. They’re popularly depicted as men in traveling clothes with straw sandals, striped capes, and cone hats, with small bundles on a carrying pole, but they were as likely to be found on board ocean-going ships or hunting bears in Hokkaidō.

The origins and specialties of Ōmi merchants

Merchants didn’t arise from all over Ōmi – there were particular the areas where these traders emerged. There were also differences in the timing and area of their activities, and the items they handled.

Takashima merchants from Ōmizo, Takashima-gun pursued their business in Kyoto and the Tohoku region from the end of the Sengoku period to the Edo period. They played a major role in the formation and development of Morioka as a castle town.

Hachiman merchants were from Hachiman, Gamō-gun. The construction of the castle town of Hachimanyama Castle began with the gathering of merchants formerly based around Azuchi Castle. They developed the production and sale of tatami mats and mosquito nets as a local industry. They pursued their business in Edo from early times and were also involved in the development of remote parts of the country such as Hokkaidō. They focused their energy on establishing big shops in major cities throughout Japan which were known as Hachiman Department Stores.

Hino merchants were from Hino, Gamō-gun. Hino, the castle town of the Gamō clan flourished through commerce and industry from the Middle Ages, but it declined with the transfer of the clan to another region, and the merchants began to make a living by peddling specialty merchandise such as Hino bowls and pharmaceutical products. Many people also later ran brewing businesses. They opened many small stores in regional cities, particularly in the northern Kantō region.

Kotō merchants were from Inukami-gun, Echi-gun, and Kanzaki-gun. In the late Edo period, farmers began making sales trips during the off-season in accordance with the economic policy of the Hikone Domain, which encouraged hemp fabric production and permitted commercial activities by farmers. Their business model involved selling products purchased in urban areas to buyers in the provinces and selling local specialty products purchased in the provinces. This was known as the “saw business”, because it cut in both directions. The scarcity and rarity of the products in the respective markets allowed the merchants to charge premium prices.

In Ōmi, where the main roads such as the Nakasendō and Tōkaidō pass, fairs and guilds emerged from early times along the roads, and there was active commerce from the Middle Ages.

In the Edo period, merchants from Ōmi gradually expanded their areas of activity and business throughout Japan, and some of them operated red seal ships trading based on letters patent from the Shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. These armed merchantmen sailed around the coasts of east Asia, carrying products to and from Japan.

After Japan chose the path of isolation, some merchants established themselves in the three major cities of Kyoto, Ōsaka and Edo as brewers and financiers to the feudal lords, and as traders in Ezo, today’s Hokkaidō. The confusion from the end of the Edo period to the Meiji Restoration proved ruinous for some merchants, but there were many who survived and developed by adapting to the modernization of society. The genealogy of many of today’s large companies can be traced back to the Ōmi merchants of that time.

The business and social philosophy of Ōmi merchants

The business sense of Ōmi merchants was admired by the business class of Edo and other merchants, but along with the Ise merchants, the Ōmi merchants were commonly condemned as thieves and beggars. However, the Ōmi merchants were pious Buddhists, many of whom practiced self-disciplined morality and performed good works in secret, without expectation of praise or benefit. The various guilds developed systems of discipline and morality, and behavioral philosophies were codified and passed down from generation to generation. There are many stories of successful Ōmi merchants donating major assets to shrines and temples and investing in local public works.

The commercial code of the Ōmi merchants is considered revolutionary for the thoroughness of the rationalization it introduced. At the time, the Hino merchant Nakai Genzaemon used the world’s most sophisticated double-entry bookkeeping. The Hino merchants established accommodation along their commercial routes that were the forerunners of contract hotels. The Ōmi merchants actively opened new stores and branch stores, similarly to the current chain store concept. So the innovations of the Ōmi merchants form the backbone of much of today’s commerce.

The phrase sanpō yoshi or thee-way benefit is particularly associated with the Ōmi merchants. It means keeping three stakeholders happy at the same time – the sellers, the buyers, and the public. Rather than doing business just for the benefit of the seller, the buyer must be truly satisfied, and the transaction must also contribute to the development and welfare of the community.

The oldest historical document describing sanpō yoshi is a family precept written by the Higashiomi merchant Nakamura Jihē in 1754. However, the expression sanpō yoshi was only introduced after the war as a slogan that sums up the philosophy, and the Ōmi merchants never had a succinct phrase for it. The life of Kameya Sakyō, a late Edo period merchant, reflects the ethos.

The Ōmi merchants stressed purposeful thrift without waste. This meant that expensive investments were permissible, but only if they were merited from a long-term perspective. Serious and sincere effort was required in every endeavour. They believed that the only worthy profits were those that arose from honest trade, without speculation or collusion.

Companies founded by the Ōmi merchants

Many of today’s biggest department stores, trading companies, and transportation businesses arose from the commercial activities of the Ōmi merchants. Similarly, companies selling the products that they traded, particularly medicines and textiles, are notable for their Ōmi merchant DNA. Sometimes the connection isn’t entirely obvious – Japan’s car industry is largely a spin-off of its textile industry, so there’s a link there too. Financial services such as insurance also sprang from aspects of the Ōmi merchant businesses.

Visiting Ōmi merchant heritage sites

Physical reminders of the Ōmi merchants can be found all over Ōmi in the form of private homes, warehouses, and sake breweries. Many of these are open to visitors as museums or service businesses.

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