Kongō Gumi, the world’s oldest business … how Korean immigrant carpenter Shigemitsu Kongō found a 1400 year opportunity to build Buddhist temples in Japan

May 12, 2023

In 578 BCE, Japan’s Prince Shotoku invited three immigrant Korean carpenters to build his country’s first Buddhist temple, Shitenno-Ji.

Buddhism was growing rapidly in Japan at the time, however the Japanese had no experience of building Buddhist temples, so they looked overseas for help. Shigemitsu Kongō was a renowned temple builder, and the royal family commissioned him to build the temple, which still stands today in Osaka.

Kongo saw an incredible opportunity. Buddhism was catching on fast, and he knew he could be kept busy for decades building temples. It turned out to be centuries. Over 14 centuries, in fact.

His construction company Kongō Gumi was founded in 578 AD, the oldest surviving company in the world.

In fact Kongō Gumi, still based in Osaka, traded as an independent firm until 2006 with the motto “Inheritance of techniques from 1,400 years ago to the future”.

It still exists today, building and maintaining Buddhist temples by hand with the Kongō family’s involvement, now as a subsidiary of construction giant Takamatsu.

In over 1400 years, that’s 40 generations of family leaders, the company was never left behind, never encountered a competitor it couldn’t match, and never made a single fatal mistake. The average modern company lasts for only 21 years. By contrast, Kongō Gumi outlasted Genghis Khan, the bubonic plague, the rise and fall of the shogunate, the industrial revolution, two world wars and Japan’s aggressive modernisation, to reach the dawn of the digital era.

It would be wrong to assume that the family firm, steeped in ancient Buddhist carpentry practices, somehow stayed still for all this time. Agility is nothing new – the ability to rapidly and effectively respond to opportunities and threats without losing the company’s coherent sense of long-term direction.

An example of this agility came during the Meiji restoration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the pro-Shinto authorities cracked down heavily on Buddhist practices, threatening the company’s traditional core business. Kongō Gumi responded by diversifying into commercial and residential construction, a smart move in a country that was modernising so quickly.

When the firm’s 37th leader Huruichi Kongō committed suicide in the interwar Shōwa depression, his widow Yoshie took the helm, breaking 1,300 years of uninterrupted male leadership. Faced with extreme financial pressure, she instituted key western-influenced reforms like separating managerial from practitioner roles.

Yoshie also found an ironically lifesaving new revenue stream during the Second World War, building wooden coffins. Even in the late 20th century, the business continued to adapt when circumstances required, becoming the first to use computer-aided design and concrete in traditional wooden temple construction. It was only when the Japanese property crash of the late 1980s saddled Kongō Gumi with unsustainable debt – at a time when donations to temples were also drying up rapidly – that the company finally faced a situation it was unable to survive.

What these episodes had in common was that Kongō Gumi’s leaders recognised major threats and opportunities, understood how important they were and what changes they required, and acted swiftly and decisively in response.

Kongō Gumi stayed committed to traditional construction of extraordinary quality, maintaining trusted and reciprocal relationships with customers over many years, and the good name of the family – not just building temples.

For Kongō, the Meiji Restoration wasn’t a headwind, it was an existential threat. Critical thinking also allows agile firms to figure out an effective response by clarifying ideas, testing assumptions and probing weaknesses.

How much should we diversify? Should we focus our efforts here or there? What needs to be true for this plan to work, and how will we find out whether that’s the case? What happens if it doesn’t work as expected?

While it’s easy to associate the visionary reinventions of agile firms solely to visionary leadership – and Kongō was ruthless in its approach to succession, passing over eldest sons for more effective sons-in-law when required – they depend just as much on organisation-level capabilities such as these.

Doing so may not guarantee you’ll last a thousand years or more like Kongō Gumi, but it will at least give you a fighting chance of making it to the next century, through all the profound changes that will entail.

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