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Saturday, September 24, 2011

The oldest company in the world

This week a typhoon hit my area with full force after so long.The tsunami-hit areas were also flooded. The typhoon paralyzed our transportation system. In case of a typhoon, the trains usually start to run only hours after its direct hit. The typhoon No.15 has brought in a heavy rain across the country, from Okinawa to Hokkaido.

The peak of Asahi-dake in Hokkaido and Mount Fuji were capped with snow for the first time in the year.

Kongougumi(金剛組) was founded by Kongo Shigemitsu(金剛重光) who was invited from Baekje(百済, an ancient kingdom in southwest Korea) as a shirne carpenter in 578.  At the request of Prince Shotoku(聖徳太子, 574-622), the company built Shitenno-ji Temple(四天王寺) in Osaka in 593, Horyu-ji Temple(法隆寺) in Nara in 607.

The company had been in the employ of the temple until the end of the Edo period. The position of the company's owner had been passed down the members of the Kongo family, but an eldest child didn't always take over the family business.

Its owners controlled the groups of carpenters through master carpenters. The company had original technology. So it demanded loyalty of the master carpenters and bound carpenters to the company to prevent the leakage of the technology and refine their skills.

Several owner's assistants could suspend an owner from his position after mutual consultation. In case a candidate of the Kongo family was unqualified, a new owner was supposed to be choosen from the families of the assistants.

Shitenno-ji lost some or all of its buildings due to disasters and wars including a lightning strike in 836, a fire in 960, setting on fire by Oda Nobunaga in 1576, the Siege of Osaka in 1614, a lightning strike in 1801, Muroto typhoon in 1934 and the U.S. bombing of Osaka in 1945.
The company reconstructed the temple each time.

The exsiting buildings of Shitenno-ji were reconstructed of reinforced concrete by the company from 1957 to 1963. For your information, the exsiting buildings of Horyu-ji are thought to have been reconstructed around the end of the 7th century.

The temple had been under the protection of the authorities until the Edo period, but most of its grounds were diverted to a park during the Meiji Period. The company went through hard times.
In 1932, the 37th owner of the company killed himself before his family grave because of financial crisis. His wife served as the 38th owner. The five story-pagoda of the temple that was destroyed by Muroto Typhoon was reconstructed under the direction of the first female master of the company in 1934.

It got involved in the construction of reinforced concrete buildings such as hotels and apartments to increase sales during the so-called bubble economy, and it got caught in a price war. The company faced bankruptcy due to Severe price competition with major contractors.

In 2005, the company accepted an investment from Takamatsu Corporation, a construction company in Osaka. In 2008, it became a subsidiary of the corporation. The head of the corporation said that Kongougumi was the treasure of Osaka and not saving the company from the bankruptcy became a shame to all of Osaka's contractors.

The Kongo family left the management of the company, but the 39th head of the family is still staying on as a consultant. The company has many shrine carpenters and traditional Japanese construction methods, so it specializes in the construction of temples and shrines. A member of the company says temples built with traditional methods don't need extensive repair for about 200 years after its construction. It introduces a new technique called AIR aseismic base isolation system. Generally shrine and temple carpenters acquired higher skills than usual carpenters did.

A ritual called Chonna-hajime(手斧始め) is held at Shitenno-ji Temple on January 11th every year. Chonna(手斧) means an adze. Shrine carpenters kick off the first work of the new year with this ritual. The head of the family has performed the ritual for generations. It's closed to the public. The ritual is designated as an intangible cultural heritage of Osaka City.

Some of long-running construction companies moved into action to build Western-style buildings during the Meiji Period.

Takenaka Corporation (株式会社竹中工務店) is one of the five major construction companies in Japan. Takenaka Tobei Masataka (竹中 藤兵衛正高) started his corporation under the style of Okumaya(大隈屋) in 1610.

He served Oda Nobunaga who was the lord of a small province in the present Aichi prefecture as the supervisor of civil engineering work.  He changed from a samurai to an artisan after his lord's death. He went into the service of the Owari domain as a shrine and temple master carpenter owing to his unique technology.

The Owari domain was owned by a Tokugawa family branch, so he needed to contract for construction works all over the country. He assigned master carpenters throughout Japan to implement constructions as substitute for him. The head of Okumaya was not limited only to members of the Takenaka family. The family could choose an excellent successor by pursuing an adoption after mutual consultation.

Kajima Corporation (鹿島建設株式会社) is also one of the five major construction companies in Japan. Kajima Iwakichi(鹿島岩吉) started his corporation under the style of Oiwa(大岩) in Edo(present Tokyo) in 1840. He obtained his master carpenter certificate after training as a carpenter. The corporation built the Japan's first skyscraper "Kasumigaseki Building" in 1968 by adopting the flexible structure.

Long-running companies value the continuation of their family businesses more than the preservation of their blood lines.
Susumu Nomura(野村進) who covered long-running companies in Japan says that a series of innovation make tradition.  Companies sticking to observe tradition will die out, but branching out into jobs outside their fields will tend to fail. Many of long-running companies have developed innovations with the strength of their tradition.
He says a key to longevity is benefiting not only the seller and the buyer but society. It's important to be rated highly by society.

"The Tale of the Heikes" written around 13th century says, "The prosperous must decay" or "All things are in flux and nothing is permanent." It shows Buddhist influences. Despite that, Japanese people have found value in lasting long.

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