The World’s Oldest Family Businesses

As an economist, Boyfriend loves a great business story. Throw in some sociological analysis and a few cultural traditions, and the academically-inclined coffeehouse intellectual in him bounces out to the surface. Last night over dinner, we were discussing the predicament of an Indian friend, whose parents want him to quit his job in the US and return to the motherland so he can join the family business. We care a lot for this guy, so it was a pretty serious discussion. But Boyfriend paused it for a few minutes anyway, for this:

“Did you know that in Japan there are businesses that have been in the same family for more than fifty generations? They manage to do that by adopting adult men as sons, in the event that the family itself doesn’t have a suitable heir to the business. Oh, and sometimes these adopted sons marry the owner’s daughter, so they also become blood relatives.”

Hmm. Interesting, I thought. Of course, I didn’t let on that I was thinking this. I pretended to ignore him and continued talking about our friend. But I did make a mental note to look this up later on.

Turns out, it’s actually very interesting. The oldest Japanese business to have stayed in the same family is Kongo Gumi, a temple building company that dates back 1400 years. No, I didn’t add an extra zero by mistake. 1400 years is correct. Kongo Gumi started in 578 AD, and continued in an unbroken chain until it capitulated to economic pressures in 2006.

Kongo Gumi workers from the early 20th century (source: Wikipedia)

Kongo Gumi workers from the early 20th century (source: Wikipedia)

The second oldest business (the oldest business in existence in the world today, after Kongo Gumi was sold in 2006) is Zengoro Hoshi’s hot spring inn, which he started in a village in the Ishikawa prefecture of Japan in 717 AD. It has stayed in the family in an unbroken chain, with each successive owner taking the name of Zengoro Hoshi. And yes, quite like in the case of Kongo Gumi, here too several adult men have been adopted into the family, and have become sons-in-law to the owners.

Obviously, there is a name for this practice. An adult man who is adopted into a family, takes on the family’s surname, and sometimes marries the daughter, is called Mukoyōshi. If there isn’t a daughter to marry, the family can adopt an adult man along with his wife, the Fufuyōshi. Among the well-known companies to have practiced this custom several times are Suzuki, Toyota, and Kikkoman.

As expected, social scientists, economists, and cultural theorists have all weighed in on the matter. Some observers have attributed the robustness and longevity of some of Japan’s businesses directly to this practice – businesses are passed on based on merit rather than blood ties, thus always ensuring it is in capable hands. Others have criticized how, despite the absence of any particularly patrilineal customs of inheritance, these businesses are seldom passed onto daughters, wives, mothers, aunts, or nieces. I see the logic in both observations. As for the latter, I’m sure Aiko, Princess Toshi would have something to say about it.

Princess Aiko: Oh, come on! Not these antiquated, patrilineal traditions again!

Princess Aiko: Urgh!! Screw patriarchy!

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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