Nihon Day Twenty Six: Ancient Companies and Adult Adoption

Shitennō-ji, the first temple built by Kongo Gumi.

Shitennō-ji, the first temple built by Kongo Gumi.

In the last Nihon Day post, I briefly mentioned Kongo Gumi, the worlds oldest company, founded in 578. Kongo Gumi started when Prince Shotoku, a dedicated buddhist, brought some skilled builders from Baekje, Korea, to build Shitenno-ji temple. One of those builders decided to stay and founded Kongo Gumi, which would continue on building temples and castles for over 1,400 years. It seems completely crazy that a company could last that long, especially since it has been operated privately and by the same family, that whole time. Of course, we are talking about Japan, where the six oldest companies in the world reside, and has a total of 24 companies that were founded before 1300. These range from hotels, makers of religious goods, sake breweries, metalworkings, tea companies, and a few others. 

There are some other companies in the world today who were also founded before 1300. Like Stiftskeller St. Peter in Austria, the worlds oldest restaurant, founded in 803. Staffelter Hof, in Germany, seems to be the worlds oldest surviving winery, founded in 862. But Japan is definitely the champion of long living businesses, and one of the most interesting things is that most of these century old establishments have been run by the same family since the founding. How can that be possible? Well Japan has always been more liberally minded when it comes to adoption. In Europe, for most of history adoption has either been frowned upon or came with the condition that the adopted person had no real claim to inheritance. Japan, on the other hand, has been practicing adult adoption since the 1300s. 

Adult adoption is the practice of families without a male heir, or with an unreliable male heir, adopting a successor from another family. This is done either by marrying them to a daughter, or simply by taking them in as a son. The adult adoptee will then take on the family name and sever his ties to the old family. This practice came out of Pure Land Buddhism but over the years, and especially with the samurai class of the Edo period, it gained popularity. Europeans might have counted blood as the most important thing (and male blood at that), but in Japan the family name and role in society were deemed far more important.

Kongo Gumi workers

Kongo Gumi workers

Since adoptions usually took place between individuals from the same societal class, it was a good way for second sons to rise up to a first son (without resorting to murder). In Britain, for example, second sons often had to either go into the church or into the military, since they wouldn't split inheritances. In Japan, they could simply be adopted as the heir to another prominent family. The low birthrate among the higher classes of Japanese families probably also contributed to the prevalence of this practice. 

Adult adoption has continued to this day, with Japan having one of the highest adoption rates in the world. Over 81,000 adoptions took place in 2011 and around 98% of all modern adoptions in Japan are for the purpose of securing an heir. Though children or adults can now serve this purpose, it is most common to adopt a childless male in his 20s or 30s. Often the male who is adopted is married to the adopter's daughter, and he becomes the Mukoyoshi, or adopted husband. In the twentieth century, being a Mukoyoshi had become embarrassing to modern males, but as the practice gained popularity in the corporate world, it became a more prestigious role. Today it is a somewhat sought after position, and there are even "dating sites" set up specifically for men looking to become Mukoyoshi. 

What is the role of adult adoption in corporate Japan? Many Japanese companies have taken on this custom in order to keep the company in the family. It is most common when the head of the company has no male heir, their heir is incapable, or their heir doesn't want to take over the business. When this happens the company head will often seek amongst his employees for a suitable heir to adopt. For example, Suzuki Motor Corporation's CEO, Osamu Suzuki, is the forth adopted head of the company. The former CEO adopted Osamu and passed over his biological son, whom he saw as unfit to run the company. While this might make for awkward holidays, the company will probably benefit from the decision, and stay in the family. Imagine if this were the practice of royal families? No more crappy roles on the monarchy dice. I bet that today many more countries would still be using the system. Other well known companies currently using this system include Canon, Kikkoman, and Toyota.

But male adoption isn't only used as a "make your own heir" practice. Perhaps the strangest way that adult adoption has been adapted to modern life is for same sex couples. Since gay marriage is still illegal in Japan, many same sex couples have taken advantage of the adult adoption laws to be able to legally tie themselves together. Since you only need to be one year younger than your protective adoptive parent, for many couples this works pretty well. (Though I'm sure they'd appreciate being able to do something a bit more normal). 

Osaka Castle, built with the help of Kongo Gumi in  1583

Osaka Castle, built with the help of Kongo Gumi in 1583

As for Kongo Gumi, unfortunately they ran into some hard times in the early 2000s and had to be absorbed by Takamatsu Construction Group in 2006. The last president was the 39th Kongo to head the company. However, inside of Takamatsu, Kongo Gumi continues to do what it's done for 1,400 years, build things of beauty. 

If you enjoyed this look at the logistics of ancient companies, you might enjoy this post, about one man's struggle to bring the modern candy industry to Japan. Or perhaps this post, about how Nintendo started out hand painting mulberry bark playing cards and ended up becoming the largest video game distributor in the world. 

My question for you today is, what do you think about adult adoption? Do you think the west should adopt (no pun intended) this practice? Let me know in the comment section below.

Until next time, support your local family run companies, you never know where they're heading!

P.S. August 4th is Washoku Day's 1 year anniversary! If you're in the Blue Hill area, stop by Blossom Studio and Gallery between 10 and 5 to get a free Japanese dessert!