Shipping industry is a fruitful field for business history studies. Earnings of shipping firms depend on the various factor such as the level of demand for the products carried, the effectiveness of competition on the structure of freight rates, the technical efficiency of the ship and the amount of shipping space on offer at a berth at any particular time in relation to the amount of cargo to be lifted. Over the past sixty years, the fluctuation of net earning from British shipping service has been very wide and the British shipowners maintained a competitive structure by building up reserves in good years from which to sustain building programmes during the poor years. By offering regular service, the Conference lines increased the commercial tempo of the countries which they served and safeguarded their capital by maintaining earning capacity, sustaining the efficiency of the shipping industry as a whole. Before 1939, the British fleets of cargo-liners were rebuilt twice. The first rebuilding, from 1885 to 1897, incorporated the change from compound to triple-expansion engines, the replacement of iron with steel, new system of ventilation and so on. The second reconstruction occurred between 1924 and 1929, switching from steam to diesel propulsion. The second change-over was less comprehensive because Britain was still a coal-based economy. For the shipping company which had a reasonably well diversified trade, it was still profitable to put capital into ships. If, however, a shipping line confined its activities to a limited number of routes, the investment of the company's resources in alternative enterprise would have been a prudent course to have taken.
The gate into modern industrial society is generally narrower for the follower than for the leader countries. Moreover, to catch up with the leader countries, the late-comers must pass this narrow gate more rapidly than did leader countries. Various segments and sectors in a backward economy are inevitably juxtaposed and the narrow gate forces all elements and sectors in the national economy. Therefore, the Meiji entrepreneurs in the course of industrialization tended to think and act rather with a broad and national horizon, considering the problems of various levels, sectors and units of the national economy. In short, the Meiji entrepreneurs were unable to secure their private profit unless those aspects of social interactions-social gains-were deliberated simultaneously. Such an organized aspect of Meiji entrepreneurship was particularly evident in foreign trade. Japan possessed no organization of foreign trade on the eve of industrialization. Therefore, the formation of powerful commercial enterprises had to precede the emergence of modern industrial production, and one of the results of such an evolution of commercial organization was the famous “general merchants” (sogoshosha), a unique feature in the modern industrial society of Japan. They had to perform the functions of bankers, exchange brokers, insurance brokers and sometimes even the function of shipping firms, and as such these multi-functional organizations gradually grew into big business. Through their world-wide network of branch offices, they explored the newest industrial techniques and surveyed market opportunities abroad. They proceeded at times to promote subsidiaries for the purpose of insustrializing the technology they imported and sometimes they purchased independent factories to assure the quantity of goods they were to export. Thus they truly became industrial organizers on a large scale. The “Zaibatsu” organization was the result of such an organized entrepreneurship executed by genral merchants.
Raw silk was one of the major items of Japanese export at the beginning of Meiji period and the Italian and French machines were introduced into Japan for the purpose of modernizing the silk reeling industry. The Ono Company started to operate a large scale reeling machines of Italian type at its Miyamada Works in 1872. But on account of the lack of skill needed for handling the sophisticated machine, the output was small and the cost of production was inevitably quite high. Unstable supply of cocoon was another source of trouble for the Miyamada Works which eventually fell into financial difficulties in 1874. Almost all the silk reeling works of Western model had to suffer the same kind of difficulties. But the cotton industry, another textile industry that had introduced foreign machines aggressively almost from England, had achieved a brilliant success in establishing modern mills which were sufficiently competitive in international market. What was the reason for this difference between the two textile industries?