Today’s biggest, best-known companies are mostly mere teenagers in the history books of business. For example, Microsoft was not born until 1975; even General Electric cannot trace its roots further back than 1876. We know that corporate longevity is highly unusual. One-third of the firms in the Fortune 500 in 1970 no longer existed in 1983 – killed by merger, acquisition, bankruptcy or break-up. But there are some companies exist for more than a millennium.
The first thing that comes to mind when people mention Japan is the futuristic looking cities that are present there. Japanese cities look like futuristic versions of the way all cities will look one day. They are clean, non-violent, and very well organized. Tokyo is known for its neon lighting and electronic stores. If you’re looking to get the latest cell phone, computer, or other electronic device, you’ll want to head to Tokyo to find it. That could be the impression of Japan for most of the foreigners. This is true for one aspect of Japan, but there is another aspect of Japan, ‘tradition’.
You may know that the Japanese soy sauce company ‘Kikkoman’ . Kikkoman says ‘over 300 years of excellence’. I got curious what is the oldest company in Japan and in the world . And I googled it and found a Wikipedia page for List of oldest companies. To my surprise, Japan dominates that page. Japan has 3,146 firms that are over 200 years old. In comparison, the second place is Germany with 837 firms.
The oldest one is a Japanese onsen hotel, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunnkan(慶雲館), founded in 705. the second is also Japanese onsen hotel, Houshi Ryokan(法師旅館) founded in 717. I googled more and found even older than Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan. Yes, it is Japanese company. Kongo Gumi(金剛組), the Japanese temple builder, founded in 578. Kongo Gumi was the world’s oldest continuously ongoing independent company, operating for over 1,400 years.
How do you make a family business last for 14 centuries? Kongo Gumi’s case suggests that it’s a good idea to operate in a stable industry. Few industries could be less flighty than Buddhist temple construction. The belief system has survived for thousands of years and has many millions of adherents. With this firm foundation, Kongo had survived some tumultuous times, notably the 19th century Meiji restoration when it lost government subsidies and began building commercial buildings for the first time. Another secret of Kongo Gumi’s 1,428 year run was its flexibility. For example, when the temple building business suffered during World War II, the company responded and switched to building coffins.
Another factor that contributed to Kongo Gumi’s extended existence was the practice of sons-in-law taking the family name when they joined the family firm. This common Japanese practice allowed the company to continue under the same name, even when there were no sons in a given generation..
Unfortunately, even these factors could not protect this historic firm from the downturn in Japan’s economy. When the company’s borrowings had ballooned to $343 million in 2006, the firm was acquired by Takamatsu, a large Japanese construction company, and Kongo Gumi was absorbed into a subsidiary.
There are 7 Japanese firms which exist longer than 1,000 years. There are more than 22,219 firms in Japan that are over 100 years. 39 of them are longer than 500 years. Only 650 Japanese firms were born after 1975. Though China has longer history than Japan, the oldest Chinese firms was a pickles company founded in 1538 and only 5 firms that are over just 150 years.
Well known Japanese companies globally are like Toyota, Nissan, Sony, Panasonic, Canon, Nikkon, and so on. But there are only teenager of history books of business in our country.
Kimokame was just born in this year, and we hope we can be one of those Japanese companies remain in the business for centuries.