Japan and the world’s oldest companies (日本の老舗)

A few years ago I attended a concert celebrating 450-year anniversary of British Marines. Yes, England had marines in the 17th century. Britain is rightly proud of its long-standing traditions and institutions. The go-to place for men’s underwear and quality food Marks & Spencer was founded in 1884. Tea-lovers’ haunt, Fortnum and Mason dates back to 1707. Cambridge University Press, the world’s oldest publishing company,was founded in 1534. Oxford University claims to have had teaching activity as early as 1096.

However, there is another rarely conquered overcrowded island just off the Eurasian coast that gives Britain run for its money when it comes to the continuity of its companies and organisations. The sheer age of Japan’s oldest surviving companies defy any imagination. The global-brand soya sauce producer Kikkoman was established in 1630. A traditional hotel in the mountainous Yamanashi Prefecture, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan (西山温泉慶雲館) has been in operation since 705, while the construction company Kongō Gumi (金剛組) dates back to 578! Even the video game maker Nintendo (任天堂) goes back to 1889, although it started off manufacturing playing cards.

Home to more than a half of the world’s companies older than 200 years (as of 2008), Japan has a special word for such establishments, shinise (老舗) .They occupy a special place in public imagination, possessing a halo of respectability and and aura of sophistication.

Three factors are behind such admirable institutional longevity. Firstly, early literacy and bureaucracy. The Japanese adopted the Chinese ways of governance and administration in early AD, so there are written records from very remote times. Secondly, the Japanese custom of adopting son-in-laws into the family to continue its name. That made possible for a company to stay owned by the same families for centuries and even millennia. And, last but not least, Japan had never been conquered by a foreign power until 1945, which made the survival of institutions a relatively easier matter than on the mainland.

Another important business cultural factor, shared by other Confucianist countries, is long-termism. It often allows not only planning way head of time but also a mindful adaptability to change: neither falling headlong for transient fads (like Toyota’s cautiousness of a wholesale switch to EVs) nor headstrong resistance to change, like in the case of many Japanese companies that became successful by switching to producing a novel product, not completely in line with their original business. Toyota started as a lawn-mower maker, while Toshiba was a lamp manufacturer.

Of course, there is no “unique Oriental secret” of longevity and adaptability to change. Once seen past the “survivor bias”, Japanese history is full of blunders, failures, and utter silliness – just like any other nation’s past. However, worthwhile lessons can be learnt from the successful survivors too.


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