Inspirational Business Lessons From Historic Japan

Normally business stories are shared for one of two reasons. Either it’s a new company showing fast growth, or an establish company dominating the market place. But when expansion is unsustainable it can lead to problems or even bankruptcy. And there can only be a small number of massively dominant companies in a single niche. Which is why I think there are some inspirational business lessons from historic Japan. Because they’re about different ambitions entirely.

Of the oldest companies in the world still operating, the majority are all from Japan. And the oldest trio that have not been absorbed into another country re the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, Koman and Hoshi Ryokan hotels. The first was founded in 705AD, with the others in 717AD and 718AD respectively.

Which means the Nishiyama Onsen Kieukan has been open for 1,313 years. And has been operated by 52 generations of the founder Fujiawara Mahito. It’s not particularly expensive compared to a spa hotel in most countries around the world, costing around £300 per night. And with 37 rooms, it’s not particularly big.

Inspirational Business Lessons From Historic Japan

There are two elements of Japanese business and tradition that stand out. Other countries have businesses running from similar dates, Sean’s Bar, the oldest pub in Ireland dating back to 900 AD, and The Bingley Arms in England (905-953AD).

The first is that the Japanese hotels are still managed by the families of the founders. Which means they’ve been sustainably owned and cared for throughout the 1,300 years. Rather than the current trend to build quickly, sell and move on.

It’s why we’re seeing more people come to respect businesses like Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals), who aimed for sustainable growth. Or why the recent decision of the founders of Wistia to take on $17 million in debt to regain control and continue building their company is so interesting.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, or wanting to build something and sell it. But it’s not the only way. As anyone who has run any type of business will probably share, a worthwhile aim will help you enjoy the journey, especially as it’s inevitably harder than you might have expected.

Business Climbing

The second point is the idea of evolution and rebuilding. There’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Ise Jingu grand shrine in Mie Prefecture. Even if you don’t know it by name. Every 20 years local people will tear it down and rebuild it anew. And have done so for at least 1,300 years. The actual rebuilding takes eight years to prepare, including four years for the timber. So why do people willing go through it?

The act of taking apart the temple and rebuilding helps to preserve the original design, but also keeps the traditional skills alive. And at the same time it reinvigorates the spiritual and communal bonds.


Using This Inspiration For Yourself:

Hopefully you can take a couple of things from the oldest businesses in the world. The first thing it’s reminded me is that I can work hard to create and achieve something other than the next Google or Facebook. And that it’s not important whether I’ve achieved the fastest ever growth for 12 months or 24. Part of my inspiration for continuing to run my own business is the idea that perhaps my son, or one day, maybe his children might take it on.

Doing that necessitates strong foundations, philosophies and things other people can carry with them. Which also means I’m better prepared if exponential growth did occur.

It can also mean something that goes outside your immediate family. For example the philanthropy of people like Andrew Carnegie or Rockefeller in the past. And the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet today.

The second is a little less literal. I’m not proposing every business tears down their shop or factory every 20 years. I suspect most business leases actively discourage it! But what you can do is regularly tear down your strategy, plans and business philosophy, and then rebuild it to ensure you’re working in the right way, and still pursuing the right goals.

It’s easy to stick to an aging plan, or drift from your original strategy, and not even realise in the daily grind. Then it stretches to weeks, months and years. And you don’t take a step back and see that you’re potentially doing the wrong things to achieve your ambition.

The value of doing that can be seen in a number of companies. For instance, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard explains eloquently in his book ‘Let My People Go Surfing‘ how at times the company slipped and had to refocus. It’s a great book, by the way, and is one of a number that are helping me refocus what I’m working on.

We’ve seen a lot of upheaval in the UK, and in the U.S in recent months and years. And I definitely wonder how differently in might have been if politics, business and personal ambitions were more about how decisions would matter for the next 500 or 1,000 years.