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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大器晩成 (たいきばんせい) – “Genius matures late”

The Japanese expression 大器晩成 (たいきばんせい – taiki bansei) is used for people who achieve success later in life

https://yoji.jitenon.jp/thumb/777.png

The world-renown Japanese painter Hokusai created his, perhaps, most famous painting, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, in his early 60s. He changed his name four times and kept reinventing his style his entire life.

Although he gained fame early on in life, he truly blossomed in his autumn years. On his deathbed at 88, he reportedly exclaimed, ‘If only Heaven will give me just another ten years … Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.’

The Japanese expression 大器晩成 (たいきばんせい – taiki bansei) is used for people who achieve success later in life. It is credited to the Chinese sage Lao Zi, who is traditionally considered to be the mastermind behind Tao Te Ching, one of Taoism’s most revered texts.

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The origin of the Japanese word keizai (経済 ‘economy”)

https://pixta.jp/illustration/13193819

No, you won’t see this yojijukugo in common use, but it is the one that a the Japanese, Korean, and Chinese word for economy 経済, is thought to derive from.

When Japan opened to the rest of the world in mid-19th century, it had to learn to communicate a lot of new things. Despite the thousands years of both inherited Chinese and indigenous Japanese scholarship, Japanese at the time lacked words to convey many concepts. Names for new objects as well as for abstract ideas had to be invented. In those days, the Japanese did not rely as much on katakanese, so they put their minds to make up new kanji-based words. Most of times,  those would  be very clever renderings of the meanings deciphered from European words and then reassembled  in Japanese. For example, the word for society, shakai, would be made of two characters 社会 meaning “gathering in/around a Shinto shrine”, which rather neatly and with a hint of metonymy gets across how the contemporary Japanese would envision ‘society’. Swap the characters, and we got 会社 kaisha, “company” or “firm” (by the way, both société in French).

Economy in the sense of a discrete domain, (egregiously) thought to exist independently of everything else, such as society, environment, or psychology, is a relatively new way of thinking about the relations between money, commodities and labour. It was novel to the 19th century Japan (and, granted, just barely established in the West too). Understandably, there was no corresponding Japanese word for it. So Meiji intellectuals, well versed in Classical Chinese, digged out a wise maxim 經世濟民 keisei-saimin from The Book of The Master Who Embraces Simplicity, a 4th-century treatise by Ge Hong, a Jin Dynasty official.

The meaning of  the phrase can be interpreted  as “keeping the world in order will help out the people”. This idea shows a strong influence of the Chinese political concept of the Mandate of Heaven with its insistence that “moral government brings peace to the country”). That kind of understanding echoes well with the parallel, much later Western concept of political economy: every political decision will have economic repercussions (i.e., the  prosperity of the population).

Ancient Greeks, to whom we trace the two words, thought of them as separate domains. Politics was the matters of the polis, whereas economy was to do with the oikos, home affairs. The wise man was to keep the twain asunder.

Bizarrely enough, despite centuries of effort in political and social theory, the modern practice is still more in  line with that archaic separation of the domains. The latter-day Neo-Classical theory, the dominant one in policy making worldwide, understands economy as a self-contained entity. Its success is judged by arbitrarily chosen quantifiable attributes, such as growth, controlled inflation and an infinitely expanding slew of other numerical meta-entities. Everything else  – environment, society, psychology, humanity itself  –  is treated as “externalities“, well worth sacrificing to keep the basic economic indicators within the range considered desirable  (a.k.a. #GoodForTheEconomyShitForThePeople). That makes it possible, for example, for the Economist to comment gleefully and sincerely on Pakistan’s economic growth while the country was devastated by floods. The same kind of thinking governs the global development industry, bringing the never-ending misery to the Third World.

It is exactly the opposite of the spirit of the original Chinese expression that gave birth to the word 経済. Will economics ever manage to overcome this pernicious misunderstanding?

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Writing Thai with Chinese characters? Consider it done!

When I started learning Thai, I really missed characters to make sense of the language. Many ur-Thai words (not those of Sanskrit, Pali or Khmer descend) do have that East Asian quality of being short, expressing a conceptual meaning, and also being handy to use as morphemes to form word compounds with new meanings. So what I did, I assigned Chinese characters to Thai words with corresponding meanings! I was so proud of myself,  thinking I invented a new way to write Thai! Besides, it really helped me ease in into a new language. As my Thai got better and words started making sense to me, I stopped writing them with characters.

Twenty years later, almost to the day, I discovered that there has long been a very similar way to write a Tai language like that: Sawndip script of the Zhuang language. This fascinates me no end, so I thought I would share this  discovery with you.

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