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Large family-owned conglomerates known as zaibatsu have long been credited with leading Japanese industrialization during the Meiji period (1868-1912), despite a lack of empirical analysis. Using a new dataset collected from corporate genealogies to estimate entry probabilities, it is found that characteristics associated with zaibatsu increase a firm’s likelihood of being an industry pioneer. In particular, first entry probabilities increase with industry diversification and private ownership, which may provide internal financing and risk-sharing, respectively. Nevertheless, the costs of excessive diversification may deter additional pioneering, which may account for the loss of zaibatsu technological leadership by the turn of the century.