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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Japanese words for taste sensations (食感を表す日本語の表現)

Japanese film classic Tampopo is a joyful celebration of Japanese food culture. In a famous scene there (see above), an old sensei jokingly winds up a young ‘un by making up, with a deadpan face, overly complicated rules of eating a bowl or ramen. Eventually, everyone present bursts out laughing at the sheer ridiculousness that the sensei‘s “rules” reach.

Food in Japan, however, is a serious business that requires quite an evolved vocabulary to deal with. Apart from the basic words such as 美味しい/おいしい (tasty) and 不味い/まずい (bad-tasting), Asian cuisines in general and Japanese one in particular are concerned with the balance and quality of the Seven Tastes:

・ 甘い あまい sweet
・ 酸っぱい すっぱい sour
・ 塩辛い/しょっぱい しおからい/しょっぱい salty
・ 辛い からい spicy
・ 苦い にがい bitter
・ 渋い しぶい tart
・ まったり(とした)or コクがある full of umami

Umami うま味/うまみ is the savoury taste of naturally occurring MSG, e.g., the taste of double cream or bone marrow broth. Many people in one way or another are aware of this taste but most languages do not have a specific word for it.

Japanese also has a slew of expressions to describe various nuances of tastes, textures, and flavours. For example:

・ 後味 あとあじ aftertaste
・ 口直し くちなおし eating something nice to compensate for something bad-tasting you’ve just had
・ 隠し味 かくしあじ ”hidden taste”, elevating or underlining the main taste by using a supporting ingredient such as a pinch of salt in a sweet cake, or cocoa powder in a beef stew
・ 甘口 あまくち mild
・ 辛口 からくち dry (wine)
・ ツンとした pungent (wasabi)
・ ピリッとした pungent (cheese)
・ まろやかな smooth or mellow (whiskey)
・ 甘酸っぱい あますっぱい sweet and sour (pork)
・ 甘塩の あましおの lightly salted (salmon)
・ ほろ苦い ほろにがい  slightly bitter (beer)
・ 濃い こい thick, intense (stew)
・ 薄い うすい thin, watery (broth)
・ 味がしつこい heavy-tasting
・ あっさりとした light and simple tasting
・ 味気ない あじけない bland, insipid
・ 生温い なまぬるい lukewarm
・ こってり thick (e.g., udon noodles)
・ 歯応えがある はごたえがる (pleasantly) chewy
・ 噛みにくい かみにくい (unpleasantly) chewy
・ 甘ったるい  あまったるい  sickly sweet, saccharine
・ ふわふわ fluffy (cake)
・ とろとろ (pleasantly) oily, creamy (e.g., tuna belly sashimi)
・ もちもち viscous like mochi
・ ほかほか (pleasantly) hot (temperature) like freshly steamed rice
・ ぷりぷり plump (e.g., shrimp)
・ しゃきしゃき crisp or crunchy (salad or vegetable stir-fry)
・ からっとした or さくさく (pleasantly) dry and/or not-oily
・ かりかり  (bacon or fish skin) crisp

I know dozens, or even hundreds more, especially onomatopoeic ones. Let me know in the comments if you want me to extend this list further.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Private Japanese language lessons
Want to learn Japanese? I am a PhD-educated Japanese language tutor with a university degree in teaching and 27 years of experience teaching all levels of Japanese. Available globally. Read more here or email me any questions.

Multisensory workshops, media-enhanced talks, and interactive lectures
Culture, history, anthropology, food, travel, science… I blend my academic training, my polycultural background, and my passion for all things beautiful and meaningful to give talks, lectures, and workshops online and in-person. Read more here or email me any questions.

Training in Effective Communication Across Cultures
How do you navigate cultural barriers to do business abroad? I put my experience of living, working and studying in 5 countries through the lens of my PhD in Social Sciences and my International House Certificate in Cross-Cultural Communication to provide highly engaging interactive workshops on life and work in Japan, United Kingdom, Russia, Thailand, and the Netherlands. Read more here or email me any questions.

Academic Skills Training and Mentoring
Baffled by your university coursework? Don’t know how to begin an essay? Missing submission deadlines all the time? I give interactive Academic Skills workshops for university students and provide individually tailored mentoring for all kinds of coursework.
Read more here or email me any questions.



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