During the Edo and Meiji periods of Japanese history, merchants known as Omi shonin were successful and active in every part of the country. Their success stemmed from their adherence to a spirit known as sanpo-yoshi, literally ‘three-way satisfaction,’ which advocated benefits to the seller, to the buyer and to the local community. So merchants understood that they owed their business success to their communities and they gave something back.
The idea is that business must benefit all people, not merely the seller and the client. This can easily be transferred to modern-day management philosophies.
The Omi merchants enjoyed thriving businesses through their famously good relations with customers and the local communities they worked in. They generously put their profits back into philanthropic activities that benefited the whole community, such as building bridges and schools.
Sanpo-yoshi is a valuable idea even in the context of modern society. The ‘three-way satisfaction’ it refers to means that what benefits you, should ultimately also benefit your partners and society at large.
It is our hope that more and more people will embrace the sanpo-yoshi spirit – to make the world a much brighter and happier place.
We ask for your cooperation in spreading the harmonious sanpo-yoshi spirit!
■Where did the Omi merchants get their start?
Prior to the Meiji Restoration, Shiga Prefecture was known as Omi. The traveling salespeople based in Omi who went around Japan selling mostly specialty products from the area came to be known as Omi merchants. The origins of the Omi merchants likely trace back to the Kamakura and Nanboku-cho periods (13th and 14th centuries), but their success took off in the end of the Sengoku period (16th century) when Oda Nobunaga, who controlled Omi Province, began establishing commercial bases—most notably rakuichi-rakuza (free market and open guild) in the town around Azuchi Castle.
The rakuichi-rakuza system allowed for free trade with the goal of encouraging people in the castle town to engage in commercial activity. Gamo Ujisato and other daimyo of the Sengoku period followed Nobunaga’s lead and began setting up rakuichi-rakuza markets in their own castle towns as well.
Nobunaga also continued to issue policies that favored the merchants, including abolishing the sekisho checkpoints that collected tolls from them when they traveled. Toyotomi Hideyoshi later carried on Nobunaga’s economic policies, and commercial activity in Omi Province experienced a great boom during this era as a result.
Towards the middle Edo period, Omi, by then becoming a commercial powerhouse, came under direct control of the shogunate as one of its tenryo territories. Direct shogunate control meant that the Omi merchants’ travel papers now bore the triple-hollyhock crest of the Tokugawa clan, giving them priority passage through the sekisho checkpoints that were scattered across the country. Listed as official purveyors to individual clans or to the shogunate, they were free to go where they pleased—which powerfully drove their commercial success. Omi merchants found their fortunes in different regions at different times, and carrying different types of products. Because of this, they were generally grouped based on where they came from; namely, as Takashima merchants, Hachiman merchants, Hino merchants, or Koto merchants.
The Takashima merchants traveled from the Takashima, Adogawa, and Shin-asahi districts of Takashima City to the Tohoku region. They have the longest history of all the Omi merchants. Relying on the connections established by their predecessors, they became highly influential particularly in Morioka of Iwate Prefecture. By the middle Edo period, Takashima merchants dominated commercial activity in the Nanbu clan’s territory, an area that had its hub in Morioka and spanned three prefectures (Aomori, Iwate, and Aikita).
The Hachiman merchants primarily came from present-day Omihachiman City, becoming active in the early Edo period. They consisted of two groups: those who worked in the territory controlled by the Matsumae clan, and those who worked in Edo. To this day, many of the shops around the Nihonbashi district in Tokyo still bear the name “Omiya”—a testament to the great success of the Hachiman merchants in that area.
These merchants came from Hino in the castle town controlled by Gamo Ujisato. They had fully established themselves in the northern part of Kanto region by the middle Edo period, and made their fortune selling Hino-wan lacquered bowls and medicines. The Hino merchants had far more shops than the other merchant groups, expanding their operations with another small retail shop, the story went, every time they managed to save a thousand ryo—which is how their shops came to be called the Hino no senryo-ten, or “the thousand-ryo shops of Hino.”
The Koto merchants primarily hailed from the present-day municipalities of Higashiomi City and Toyosato Town. They rose to prominence during the late Edo period and remained successful into the Meiji era. Although they reached their peak later than the other Omi merchant groups, they (in part due to their greater numbers) continued trading primarily kimono fabrics, linen, and other textile products into the Meiji era, thus laying the foundation for the modern textile industry.
■How the principle of sanpo-yoshi continues to guide companies today
The word sanpo means “three-way”, and the word yoshi means “good”. The sanpo-yoshi principle that guided the activities of the Omi merchants was a way of expressing their commitment to simultaneously doing good for themselves (the sellers), the buyers, and the wider community.
The first mention of the principle is thought to be the will that Nakamura Jihei, an Omi merchant who lived during the middle Edo period, left his grandchildren. He implores them to put their customers before themselves and value the wider community when doing business. He wrote, “Always put the customer first. When visiting other provinces, do everything you can to ensure that the people there feel good about using the products you bring.”
As the world has begun to demand greater corporate social responsibility (CSR), many modern businesses are also finding inspiration in the sanpo-yoshi idea that the Omi merchants held dear. The concept of “win-win” (where both the buyer and seller benefit) has been around for a long time in business circles, but it is harder to tie these exchanges to social good as well. In the process, more and more companies are incorporating sanpo-yoshi concepts into their management principles in order to kickstart their CSR practices.