Mitsui Bussan and the Manchurian soybean trade: Geopolitics and economic strategies in China’s Northeast, ca. 1870s–1920s

Hiromi Mizuno, Ines Prodöhl

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article examines how soybeans became a global commodity, by focusing on the intermediary role of the Japanese trading company Mitsui Bussan. In the early twentieth century, soybeans were almost exclusively grown in Northeast China, also known as Manchuria. Their global commodification was a result of complex imperial rivalries among China, Japan, and Russia in northeast China as well as the rapid rise of vegetable oil consumption in Europe. We demonstrate how Mitsui Bussan navigated the shifting geopolitical terrain by taking advantage of the competition between the Russian and Japanese empires, utilizing Chinese middlemen effectively, and securing support from the Japanese government and military. By placing the soybean trade in a geopolitical context, we shed light on how global commodity markets, trade, and international relations were intertwined.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)880-901
Number of pages22
JournalBusiness History
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

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In 1907, the soybean trade went global, and Europe emerged as the most important destination for Manchurian beans outside Asia. Until then, the soybean was not a familiar crop in Europe. It was the industrialized West’s relentless search for cheaper vegetable oils that brought Manchurian soybeans into the spotlight of global trade. In turn-of-the-century Europe, vegetable oil was in high demand for the production of a wide variety of products, primarily margarine, shortening, and soap. The need for these products had grown tremendously since the late nineteenth century, as technical developments enabled the wide industrial use of vegetable oil with lower cost. Additionally, improved living conditions and higher expectations for personal hygiene led to higher consumption of fat in human diet and more sales of soaps. Fats and oils also came to be used in products newly invented through latest technologies and chemical processes, such as ink, glue, linoleum, waterproof clothes, and dynamite. Meanwhile, centuries-old techniques continued to rely on fats, oils, and waxes to make candles and oil lamps in areas electricity had not yet reached (Prodöhl, 2016 ). European manufacturers searched for all sorts of vegetable oilseeds and animal fats. Since manufacturers such as the Dutch margarine producer Unie and the British soapmaker Lever Brothers (merged to Unilever in 1929) could not keep up their production by using only domestic supplies of lard and flaxseeds, they sought palm kernels from Guinea and Sierra Leone, coconuts from India, and peanuts from the Senegal. From the 1880s onwards, European manufacturers also used American and Egyptian cotton seeds (Péhaut, 1999 , pp. 475–476). Organic fats and oils were more or less interchangeable in the production of a wide range of consumer products. More important than their chemical characteristics was often their price, and European oil mill facilities were thus set up to process a wide range of oil crops. While the price seemed to be the most driving factor for customers of fats and oils, crops like copra, palm kernels, peanuts, sesame seeds, flaxseeds, and cottonseeds varied widely in their oil yield. Traditional sources of vegetable oil like copra produced an oil yield of 60 percent to 75 percent by weight, poppy seeds and peanuts were approximately 50 percent oil. Contemporary varieties of soybean yielded oil at a rate of only 13 to 21 percent, but this figure compared competitively to cottonseed (about 17 percent) and flaxseed (16 to 30 percent) ( Statistics of fats , 1928, p. 13). Cotton and flax seeds and – as we shall see – also soybeans were favoured in Europe, because their price was most economical, even though their yield was comparatively low. The policy of importing raw materials from abroad and manufacturing at home was typical of late imperialism and world economic structures at this time. To protect domestic industries, metropole countries typically placed high duties on the importation of processed products such as organic fats and oils. The residue of the milling process was often offered to farmers as feed and fertilizer. Seeing an opportunity in the vegetable oil market, Mitsui Bussan requested a Liverpool manufacturer to try soybeans. A sample batch of 100 tons of soybeans was sent in May in 1907 and arrived in Liverpool in August. Whether soybeans would survive transport undamaged in humidity over the Indian Ocean was a big concern, as an earlier shipment from 1905–06 was a failure due to bad packaging. The May 1907 shipment, however, proved its feasibility as well as its usability. The Liverpool manufacture immediately ordered more than 1000 tons of soybeans from Mitsui Bussan, and more in the following month (Hamada, 1910 , p. 7). The following year, when the price for cotton seeds rose due to poor harvest in the US, Mitsui Bussan exported 1.2 million tons of soybeans in November, and an additional 260,000 tons in December 5 to various manufacturers in Europe ( Nōgyō zasshi, 1909, p. 399; Bronson Rea, 1910 , p. 456; Montague Bell & Woodhead, 1913 , p. 49; Shaw, 1911 , p. 20; Soya Bean and Products , 1909, p. 29). Mitsui’s success immediately triggered fierce competition with European trading firms. They included Jardine, Matheson & Co., the largest trading company in the Far East founded by two Scottish men in 1835; Samuel & Co., the forerunner of Royal Dutch Shell; and Butterfield & Swire, a London-based trading company. These European firms had become large and powerful in the nineteenth century by trading such goods as cotton, opium, and tea, and establishing offices in treaty ports such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and later in Yokohama (Japan). By the fall of 1909, the European firms were collectively exporting 162,000 tons of Manchurian soybeans to Europe ( Nōgyō zasshi , 1909, p. 399). According to a 1910 account by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, the largest contenders of ‘the soy bean battle in Manchuria’ were Mitsui Bussan and Samuel & Co. Added to the two were Jardine Matheson & Co. and Healing Co., operating out of Changchun (Katsube, 1910 , p. 36). 6 The ‘soy bean battle’ was held in Changchun exceptionally fiercely. Changchun was the major soy collection point located at the northern end of the SMR in central Manchuria, about half point between Harbin and Dairen, where soybeans from the richest soil in Manchuria were gathered. All the major trading companies had an office there to buy up soybeans as soon as they were brought by Chinese farmers and middlemen (Wu, 2018 , p. 101). From there, soybeans were diverted into either Vladivostok via the Russian CER or Dairen via the Japanese MSR to be shipped to Europe. Quickly, vessels loaded with Manchurian soybeans came to be regularly seen in the British ports of Liverpool and Hull. In the first two years alone (1907–1908), about 1 million tons of whole soybeans reached Great Britain each year (Hoshino, 1920 , after p. 218; Shaw, 1911 , p. 20). 7 A typical large European port specializing in oil seeds – such as Liverpool, Marseille, Hamburg, and Rotterdam – imported only slightly more raw materials per season (Péhaut, 1999 , p. 460). In other words, during the first two seasons of soy exports to Europe, Manchurian soybeans alone almost entirely served British needs for vegetable oils. The Economist – one of the first periodicals to report on the newly established soy trade – supports this assumption; according to its 1909 article, many large British mills had devoted their entire plants to crushing soybeans, at the exclusion of other oleaginous seeds (Oil and cake manufacture, 1909, p. 1144). After the initial success of the first two seasons, the East-West soybean trade slowed down, but the soybean had nevertheless firmly established its place in the European market. In the years prior to World War I, trade statistics reported the exportation about 300,000 US tons of soybean annually from Manchuria alone to Europe (Hoshino, 1920 , after p. 218). Mitsui Bussan maintained its place as the most successful firm in the soy trade competition, handling about two thirds of all soybeans shipped to Europe (Hamada, 1910, p. 8). The company’s success can be attributed to three important factors. First, Mitsui Bussan’s partnership with Chinese merchants played out well from early on. European firms lost a fortune by investing in advanced purchases from Chinese farmers, who failed to fulfill contracts during harvest season. The news of Mitsui Bussan’s success with the trial shipments to Europe raised the price of soybeans in 1908. In August 1909, the price went up further when it became clear that that year’s harvest would be poor. Many Chinese brokers and foreign traders had paid Chinese farmers in the spring in order to secure the fall harvest, but their contracts were often not fulfilled by the farmers; the farmers either could not deliver the contracted amount of the crop or refused to deliver it because they wished to sell at the market price that became higher than the contracted price back in spring. Samuel & Co., which made quite aggressive deals with banking on future harvests, lost a fortune this way, and so did numerous Chinese farmers and merchants. The sudden fame of soybeans as a lucrative global commodity created ‘extreme chaos’ and numerous lawsuits in Manchuria. Mitsui Bussan remained cautious about risky advanced purchases and only worked with the trusted Chinese brokers using the partnership and network it had built since the time of the first Yingkou office (Endō, 1928 , p. 20; Hamada, 1910 , p. 7; Katsube, 1910 , p. 25). While Mitsui Bussan’s stratety to abolish the Chinese middlemen was well known and copied by other Japanese traders, it did not mean that the company stopped using Chinese partners all together. Around 1900 Mitsui Bussan stopped using compradors, or baiben 買弁, the Chinese middlemen hired by foreign trading houses to transact business with Chinese farmers and merchants. European trading houses had all depended on compradors in their operations throughout East and Southeast Asia. Established compradors had contracts with multiple (and competing) foreign traders and held quite influence among Chinese merchants. Mitsui Bussan’s branch offices in China too initially relied on compradors, but they added hefty costs and sometimes troubles to the business. In order to compete with powerful Western trading houses by cutting operation costs wherever possible, Mitsui Bussan decided to let go of Chinese compradors from most of its Asian branches (with generous monetary compensations in order to stay connected) and began training its Japanese employees in Chinese language and customs instead. At the same time, as a recent study shows, the company continued to rely on Chinese by hiring them directly as its own employees and entrusting them with the broker business that had previously been outsourced to Chinese compradors. They were hired as store managers and sales representatives, highly paid positions for Chinese. This worked especially well when Mitsui Bussan expanded its business in central and northern Manchuria where, unlike the Kwantung Leased Territories, established and reputable Chinese partners were difficult to find. When Mitsui Bussan opened its Changchun office in 1906, for example, it had a Chinese manager and several Chinese employees whose job included collecting market information, dealing with Chinese middlemen, and checking their reputations. Mitsui Bussan’s in-house Chinese employees were highly effective for at least three reasons: they were familiar with complex currency and credit systems in Manchuria; they, as Chinese citizens, had the rights to open businesses outside of the treaty ports; and they could mitigate anti-foreign sentiments among local Chinese. In the 1910s, Mitsui Bussan also started to hire Chinese college graduates in Dairen and other major cities and provided them with Japanese language training. Chinese employees at all ranks from managers to coolies were so valuable to Mitsui Bussan that the company mandated its Japanese employees to treat them with respect. The policy was strictly imposed so that, unlike Western trading houses known to look down on Chinese, Mitsui Bussan would earn loyalty from Chinese employees and the community at large (Wu, 2018 , p. 7–21). Another very important factor for Mitsui Bussan’s success was that the company made a conscious effort to stay closly connected with the Chinese merchant communities in Manchuria and Japan, by adopting their customs in commerce, and gaining their trust. This was necessary to conduct business especially without compradors, but it became even more important when Mitsui Bussan’s commercial success began to threaten and agitate Chinese merchants. Powerful Chinese merchants posed a difficult challenge to even established foreign trading houses. For example, Jardine, Matheson & Co. was forced to close its soybean oil processing factory in Yingkou within two years due to their strong obstruction (Wu, 2018 , p. 35). Mitsui Bussan’s Chinese language and apprenticeship programme produced generations of Japanese employees who could intermingle with Chinese merchants. They functioned as effective mediators when anti-Japanese boycotts happened in China. When the first major anti-Japanese boycott took place in Guandong Province in 1908, the head manager of the Mitsui Bussan Hong Kong office was able to act as the mediator between Chinese and Japanese businesses, because he went through the Chinese apprenticeship programme and was deeply familiar with the local custom, language, and those responsible for the boycott campaign (Wu, 2018 , pp. 85–6). Mitsui Bussan itself often became the target of boycott. For example, in 1913 Chinese merchant associations in Changchun held a boycott campaign against Mitsui Bussan, whose Japanese workers had turned in Chinese employees of a Changchun soy wholesaler to the SMR police after a fraudulent conduct was discovered. The SMR police tortured one Chinese to death. In addition to monetary compensations, the Chinese associations demanded Mitsui Bussan to settle such matters through the merchant associations, rather than the Japanese authorities, in accordance with the Chinese custom. Mitsui Bussan accepted all the demands and issued an apology. The Japanese community in Changchun was not happy about this outcome, but Mitsui Bussan prioritized improving the relationship with Chinese merchants (Wu, 2018 , pp. 106–111). While Mitsui Bussan’s ambition and strategies were generally aggressive, it also made various efforts to follow local customs in order to operate its business efficiently. The third contributing factor to Mitsui Bussan’s success was that it could use the SMR and other railways to its advantage. The SMR’s revenue was higly dependent on Mitsui Bussan’s soy business. Soybeans transportation was the most important source of income for the SMR, as it amounted to 40–50 percent of the company’s revenue (M. Yamamura, 1976, p. 43). The SMR increased its cargo capacity by thirty to forty times and lowered the freight rate to ensure and increase Mitsui Bussan’s use of the SMR for soybean transportation. Nevertheless, Mitsui Bussan did not rely solely on the SMR for its soy business. It also used the Russian CER, the competitor of the SMR. Since beans were the most lucrative commodity in Manchuria, its transportation was a crucial source of revenue for all railroad companies there. In 1902, and thus before the SMR existed, Mitsui Bussan approached the CER administration and successfully negotiated lower freight rates in exchange for the delivery of all soybeans it collected from farmers (Asada, 2008 , p. 50). Even after the SMR took over the port of Dairen and the railways, Mitsui Bussan continued to use the CER and the port of Vladivostok for its soy trade. It made most sense for Mitsui Bussan, because the area in central and northern Manchuria around the Russian city Harbin developed into the most productive soy producing region with richer soil and larger arable lands available, compared to south Manchuria. It is often assumed that Mitsui Bussan’s soy trade was limited to the port of Dairen. This was the case only for the soybean cake; in fact, Vladivostok was rarely used to export soybean cake to Japan by Mitsui Bussan or any other companies. If we look at the whole bean trade, however, the picture is completely different. Mitsui Bussan exported a much larger amount of whole beans from Vladivostok to Europe and Japan than from Darien. In 1912, from Vladivostok, it shipped 954,067 tons of soybeans to Europe and 229,378 tons to Japan; from Dairen, merely 104,315 tons to Japan and no beans to Europe (Hoshino, 1920 , after p. 218). This was despite the fact that the competition with European trading houses was so much tighter in Vladivostok than in Japanese Dairen. Mitsui Bussan’s share in the whole soybeans trade in Vladivostok in 1912 was 23 percent, while in Dairen the company had a virtual monopoly of 78.6 percent share (M. Yamamura 1967, p. 39). At the Russian port, Mitsui Bussan was supported by the Japanese-owned Bank of Korea. The only yen-using banking institution in Vladivostok, the Bank of Korea was nonetheless the third largest financial institution there, following two Russian banks (the Siberian Commercial Bank and the Bank of Russia). This demonstrates the powerful presence of Mitsui Bussan and its soy trade in the Russian port city (Chōsen ginkō, 1915, p. 17). Trade figures fluctuated depending on the year and price of the soybeans and oil, but overall they clearly show that Mitsui Bussan used both the Russian and Japanese ports and railways to maximize its profit, while enjoying a virtual monopoly at Dairen. In other words, SMR, CER, and the smaller Chinese Railways depended on the soybean trade, and Mitsui Bussan maneuverered skillfully to take advantage of their competition. Together with coal, soybeans and its by-products were the largest freight revenues of all Manchuria railway-shipped commodities, be they domestic or imported (Chou, 1971 , p. 69). After losing Dairen to Japan in 1905, Russia invested heavily in the development of the port of Vladivostok and the Ussuri line – an extension of the Trans-Siberian railway under the management of the Russian-controlled CER – to make Vladivostok the major hub for the area’s ocean trade. According to historian Asada, Russian archives reveal that St Petersburg’s policy to develop the lucrative global whole soybean trade at Vladivostok conflicted with the local administration’s interests in developing a soybean oil processing industry. These conflicts often led to incoherent policies, disadvantaging the CER and adjacent Russian lines in their competition with the SMR (Asada, 2008 , p. 51). Yet, at the expense of the local oil crushing industry, Vladivostok emerged as the major trading port for whole soybeans. In late 1907, about 11,500 tons of whole beans destined for Europe were shipped from Dairen and only about 9,500 tons from Vladivostok. But then, Vladivostok caught up; Dairen shipped 271,000 tons in the 1908/09 trading season and 270,000 tons in 1909/10, while Vladiovstok shipped 238,000 and 276,000 tons in the same trading seasons respectively. Thereafter Dairen’s share decreased rapidly, while Vladivostok exported more and more soybeans to Europe. In 1912/13, no soybeans left the port of Dairen for Europe (Hoshino, 1920 , after p. 218). According to another account, out of 309,000 tons of beans that Vladivostok shipped between September 1914 to June 1915, approximately 75 percent went to Europe, 19 percent to Japan, and 6 percent to Dairen ( Chōsen ginkō geppō, 1915, p. 74–75). All these sources clearly demonstrate that a pattern had emerged and was soon firmly established: Dairen exported soybean cakes to Japan, Vladivostok sent whole soybeans to Europe, and Yingkou beans and cakes were shipped almost exclusively to provinces in southern China. While it was the Russian city Vladivostok that became the main exporting port of soybeans trade to Europe, the main mover behind that was the Japanese company Mitsui Bussan. From early on, Mitsui Bussan was responsible for two-thirds of all Manchurian soybean that went to Europe – mainly Britain – primarily via the CER and Vladivostok (Hamada, 1910 , p. 8; Manshū daizu daihatten, 1909, p. 399). The proximity of the Russian port to Jilin and Heilongjiang Provinces, newly expanding and most fertile soy production areas, gave a definitive advantage to Vladivostok in the region’s trade. The CER, just like the SMR, had been in the soy trade game by lowering freight fares specifically for beans (Chōsen ginkō, 1915 , p. 72–75). Furthermore, soybeans from the north were considered of lower quality than those grown in southern Manchuria in the market, and the northern whole beans were therefore priced cheaper. This attracted more European buyers, as they were not concerned with the taste or texture of beans but rather merely the price for its oil (Nozaka, 1917 , p. 78). The combination of all these factors made Vladivostok more appealing for Mitsui Bussan and other companies trading with Europe. Vladivostok rose in prominence and importance around 1910, and Dairen started to lose its place as the premier soybean export port to Europe. The First World War and the Russian Civil War turned the balance of trade once again, this time to the disadvantage of Vladivostok. With the onset of the First World War in Europe, Russia lost its second largest trading partner, Germany, which was heavily interested in soybeans but now cut off from Russian and British supplies. In addition, as Russia prioritized transporting troops and military supplies on its railway lines, the resulting shortage of freight cars for non-military uses, such as soy beans, raised freight rates. This led to almost a 100 percent increase of freight costs for customers in Vladivostok, making this route highly unattractive (Bailey, 2017 ). As a result, more than 70,000 tons of beans were piled up unshipped at the port of Vladivostok and 15,000 tons of beans in Harbin (Asada, 2008 , p. 53). These beans were eventually re-routed to Japan. It became clear that as long as the war continued, the SMR and Dairen would have a clear monopoly over the soybean trade. The Russian Civil War made matters even worse. During the Civil War and the Allied Intervention in Siberia, the White Russian Army took over control of the CER whose poor management deteriorated its operation significantly. Many Chinese farmers chose the traditional cart over the CER as the safer mode of transporting their goods. They brought soybeans and other goods to the Changchun station of the SMR for further transport to Dairen and then abroad. For those soybeans still brought to Harbin and the Russian side of the railway system, the CER exported them back to the SMR, instead of shipping them to Vladivostok ( North Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway , 1924, pp. 275–276; 284–285; Manchurian beans, 1929, pp. 52–81). Overall, the SMR was able to absorb 60 percent of all soybeans in the market into its rail system, ‘a dream-like victory that Mantetsu [SMR] would love to keep forever’, reported contemporary observer and Soviet specialist Fuji Tastuma (Fuji, 1925 , p. 39). The dream didn’t last, however. The competition over the Manchurian soybean resumed as soon as the First World War and the Russian Civil War ended. The Manchurian soybean battle in the 1920s turned out to be as fierce as the one in the prewar decade. The total quantity of the three soybean products exported from Dairen remained higher than that of Vladivostok, but for the European trade market, Vladivostok still fared better. In 1922, roughly the same amounts of soybeans were exported to Europe from both ports (24,000 tons from Vladivostok, and 27,251 tons from Dairen), but in 1925, Vladivostok exported 577,000 tons, in contrast to Darien’s 200,000 tons. 8 Vladivostok even increased its share of soybean cake exportation for the Japanese market. In 1922, Vladivostok dealt with only 12 percent of cakes shipped to Japan, while Dairen exportect 83 percent; with 32 percent in 1925, Vladivostok’s share in this trade had almost tripled in only three years (Dairen Urajio ryōkō no shōchō, 1926 , p. 99). These numbers clearly reflect spatial shifts in agricultural production in Northeast China. In the 1920s, the northern part of Manchuria became the largest soy producing area, with Heilongjiang Province producing more than twice as soybeans as Fengtian Province in southern Manchuria (Chūō keizai shinpōsha, 1928 , p. 204). From the mid 1920s onwards, the Russian CER and the Japanese SMR also faced severe competition from emerging Chinese railways. The so-called Fengtian clique, led by warlord Zhang Zuolin (1875–1928) and his son Zhang Xuelian (1901–2001), launched a substantial railway construction plan in 1925. While receiving Japanese support to retain its power in the region, the Fengtian Provincial Authorities were also divising ways to counter Japan’s colonial dominance. It built the port of Huludao in West-Yingkou and connected railway systems to reach the interior of Manchuria, almost parallel to SMR lines. Its objective was to facilitate possible military operations in the area, while also taking control of the soybean transportation business. Huludao was an ice-free port like Dairen, and the Chinese railways offered much lower freight rates than the SMR. Completed by 1930, the Fengtian railways had significantly damaging effects upon the SMR’s and CER’s freight revenue (Chou, 1971 , p. 77; Wells 2018, chapter 5). Other changes emerged in trade patterns in the 1920s as well. Germany became the largest importer of Manchurian soybeans, although Great Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands remained significant importers as well. The total amount shipped to European countries changed over time, as did the ratio of whole beans to oil, depending on European tariffs and the availability of other cheaper sources of vegetable oils. Rough numbers nonetheless confirm basic trading patterns with those European countries, which preferred to import whole beans rather than processed soy oil to protect their domestic procssing industry. Thus, whole bean exports from Manchuria to Europe skyrocketed throughout the 1920s, while that of soybean oil declined ( Third Report on Progress in Manchuria , 1932, p. 135). The Manchurian soy trade reached its peak at the end of the 1920s but declined in the 1930s and thereafter. The unstable international market caused by the Great Depression was one reason, but various scholars also attribute the sudden collapse of the Manchurian soy trade to other factors. First, Japan’s takeover of Manchuria and the establishment of a puppet-state, Manchukuo, affected the soy production and trade negatively. Japan’s military operations disrupted production, its economic restructuring caused financial dislocation, and limitations on Chinese immigration from the south led to agricultural labor shortage. The Manchukuo government, controlled by Japan’s Kwantung Army, favoured industrialization over agricultural development and producing sorghum and millet to feed the Japanese empire over trading soybeans with the world. Japan’s military takeover also sparked Chinese boycotting trade with Manchukuo, cutting down the soy export to China by half by the mid-1930s, which in turn reduced the overall soy cultivation in the area (Okabe, 2008 ; Young, 1998, pp. 208–210). Second, the aggressive soy cultivation in the previous decades depleted the soil in southern Manchuria, which led to a decline in productivity. Nazi-Germany very much felt the consequences of the declining yield. In the period between the two World Wars, Germany had become the largest importer of Manchurian soybeans. Political developments in the Far East in the 1930s had initially slowed economic relations between Nazi-Germany and Manchukuo, significantly reducing the imports of soybeans. However, Nazi-Germany was very short in fats and started importing soybeans in exchange for supplies for Manchukuo’s heavy industrialization. In 1936 Germany signed a trade agreement with Manchukuo in order to secure its supply, and the agreement was renewed in 1937 and again 1938; however, Manchukuo could not accomplish its soybean obligations due to crop failure (Bloch, 1978 ; Ratenhof, 1984 ; Rosinger, 1938 ). The Manchurian soy trade continued to decline throughout the 1930s and during the Second World War. When the war was over, Manchuria’s share of the world soybean production had fallen to mere 25.5, while the US emerged as the world’s largest soybean producer (Prodöhl, 2016 ).

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  • China
  • Europe
  • Japan
  • Manchuria
  • Mitsui
  • Russia
  • Soybean
  • global commodities
  • globalization
  • history
  • nineteenth century
  • trading companies
  • twentieth century


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