Shinise: Long-established businesses

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yoshihiko Takubo

    Main guest

    Previously worked for a leading think tank and IT solutions firm, conducting surveys and research and consulting for various energy firms and government agencies. Currently runs an MBA business school, while also studying the management style of long-established businesses.

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August 4, 2016

Shinise: Long-established businesses

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Business. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. And nowhere is that more true than in Tokyo’s uptown Shibuya neighborhood, with its high rents and discerning customers. For those who work in the area, the rise and fall of new businesses is part of the fabric of everyday life.

A visual fanfare of flowers and balloons signals the grand opening of a new cafe, boutique, or salon -- and then almost before you know it, you'll see shop fittings on the sidewalk as workers move in to change the interior to the next tenant’s specifications. Like Japan’s iconic cherry blossoms, the brief life of many Tokyo stores is a poignant symbol of impermanence.

Yet the average lifespan of a business in Japan is considerably longer than in most countries: roughly 30 years compared to 18 or so in the US. Contributing to this statistic is Japan’s abundance of long-established businesses. So many of these companies exist, in fact, that there is a special word for them: shinise.

Japan has around 26 thousand companies with a century or more of history. Of these, more than a thousand have passed the bicentenary mark, and a handful have battled through for a staggering thousand years or longer.

One Osaka construction firm is recognized as the longest-running business in the world. The company’s astonishing pedigree dates back over 1,400 years to 593 and the construction of Shitennoji, a temple commissioned by Prince Shotoku, an early Japanese pioneer of Buddhism.

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Peter Barakan and Yoshihiko Takubo ponder why Japan is home to so many long-established businesses.


Many shinise are family affairs, and while several now number among Japan’s biggest and best-known corporations, this week’s expert Yoshihiko Takubo tells us that one key to longevity is to know your market and specialize to satisfy it, finding comfort in low-level growth without overreaching: “The goal isn’t doing great business,” he says, “but staying in business.”

In contrast to quickly changing Shibuya, a high density of long-established businesses can be found in the old heart of Tokyo, and in particular Nihonbashi. When the Tokugawa shogunate began to thrive in the 17th century, Nihonbashi (literally “Japan bridge”) was the main staging post for merchants traveling in and out of the city.

As local tour guide and shinise expert Haruki Kawasaki tells Matt Alt, Nihonbashi became even more attractive for entrepreneurs in the mid-19th century, when the imperial court relocated from Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto), and modern Japan began to emerge in Tokyo ("eastern capital"), the city that replaced the Edo of the shoguns.

This was the start of the Meiji era, a time of rapid change for a country that had been mostly shut off from foreign influence. Western science and culture were enthusiastically embraced, as were various imported items such as clothing and musical instruments, and some of the shinise in Nihonbashi and nearby Ginza began as purveyors of such exotic items.


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Haruki Kawasaki offers guided tours of the long-established businesses in central Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district.

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Nihonbashi’s oldest store was founded in 1566, and made its name selling bedwear and mosquito nets.

Indeed, while Ginza is mainly seen as an exclusive district whose wide promenades are flanked with the flagship stores of luxury brands, if you know what to look for, a quick stroll through the area reveals dozens of businesses with a century or more of history, including the area’s two best-known department stores.

Head along the left side of Chuo-dori from Shinbashi in the direction of Nihonbashi, and after only a block you will find the (recently rebuilt) premises of one of Japan’s best-known cosmetics firms, founded in 1872 by a former apothecary to the Imperial Japanese navy, and among the first stores in Japan to offer a US-style soda fountain and ice cream.

Carry on down the street and you will pass an optician’s founded in 1895. Further along, a purveyor of incense, calligraphy supplies and washi paper in business since 1663. Cross over Harumi-dori, and the aroma of sweet, bean-filled buns and other pastries will lead you to Japan’s oldest bakery, opened here by a former samurai in 1874.

You're in shinise central. Look around and you'll find a jewelry shop that has been based here since 1899, a bookshop that first opened its doors to sell Christian texts in 1885, and two music stores: Japan’s first dealer in Western musical instruments (1874), and another relative newcomer that has been offering organs and pianos since 1892.

As you turn to face the two venerable department stores on the other side of the street, you are standing on the most expensive real estate in all of Japan. The sophisticated atmosphere generated by Ginza's shinise surely contributes to that premium value.

Prospective entrepreneurs take note: it’s a marathon not a sprint, but good things come to those who wait!


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Rather than expanding its business with multiple branches nationwide, this Kyoto inn is one of many shinise that have chosen to focus on the quality of service offered at its original location.



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This Kyoto sake firm, founded in 1637, preserves its historic buildings as cultural facilities.

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Many shinise have been using the same techniques and equipment for generations.


Also appearing

Haruhiko Okura

The 14th-generation head of a Kyoto sake brewery founded in 1637.

Akemi Nishimura

The sixth-generation head of a traditional inn founded in Kyoto in 1818, Nishimura’s establishment prides itself on service that is high caliber even by the standards of the ancient capital.

Haruki Kawasaki

An expert on long-established businesses in the Tokyo and Nihonbashi areas, where he has offered guided tours for many years. 

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