"Since 1630" reads the label. "Unbelievable!" I think to myself. Kikkoman Soy Sauce has been around since 1630! The next thought is "How?" Soy sauce seems like a commodity product, how has a company not only remained in business, but also remained successful, for 371 years? Enter the wonderful world wide website of Kikkoman. Some interesting facts:

  • "Kikkoman is naturally brewed and aged for full flavor, just like a great wine." In fact, one step in the brewing process lasts for several months
  • Kikkoman has more than 265 flavor and aroma components
  • Kikkoman even makes powdered soy sauce for the super busy chef
  • Kikkoman uses the same logo since its inception.
  • "The Kikkoman story began in the 1600s in Noda, Japan, not far from present-day Tokyo, when the founding families began making quality food seasonings." The amazing part is it still operated by descendants of those founding families! Family operated for more than 371 years makes their story even more intriguing, and again begs the question of "How?"
  • Their global website makes mention of the fact that "in December 1917, eight family companies merged to form the predecessor of Kikkoman Corporation, Noda Shoyu Co., Ltd." So technically, the entity of Kikkoman is only about 82 years old, though the business of Kikkoman is much older...

These are all interesting facts; you can find more on their company history, the making of soy sauce and even a screensaver at their site. But the site is very sparse on details of the company’s history. For that, I discovered the perfect book at Amazon.com, titled The Kikkoman Chronicles: A Global Company With a Japanese Soul. (Interestingly, the first editorial review of this book describes it as "An excellent resource for people who want to understand how personal computers work and how to fix them when the fail." I believe that review is just a bit misplaced...) The 2nd editorial review describes the book as

the fascinating story of how Kikkoman changed the course of international marketing, shrewdly adapting to 20th century realities while never turning their backs on centuries of tradition; how one man envisioned the future of global enterprise, spearheading the first Japanese manufacturing plant of any kind on U.S. soil; and how generations of Mogi family leadership have produced one of today's most formidable global competitors.

Excellent! Exactly what I’m looking for! But the intrigue doesn’t stop there; the author, Ronald E. Yates, includes a brief but fascinating synopsis of why he pursued this topic. An excerpt:

I spent 18 years working as a foreign correspondent in Japan and other parts of Asia between 1974 and 1992. It was a period of great upheaval throughout the region. The war in Vietnam ended. Democracy movements in places like The Philippines, South Korea, China and Taiwan changed the political and social face of these countries. Japan's bubble grew and grew and just when everybody thought Japan could do no wrong, the bubble burst.

During all of this the Kikkoman Corporation kept doing what it has done for more than 360 years: It kept producing soy sauce and even more important, it continued to find markets for a uniquely Japanese/Asian product in unlikely places (the U.S., for example).

But more than that, Kikkoman proved that it could function almost anywhere using a set of business principles and an ancient family code that dates back to a time when warlords and shoguns ruled Japan.

It seems Mr. Yates was driven by the same questions I am. This is definitely a book I’ll have to pick up to quench the rampant curiosity within me.

Naturally all these thoughts concerning the longevity of Kikkoman leads to the question: "what is the world’s oldest company?" I remember in grade school learning about how The East India Company (founded 1600) came close to ruling the world; but I’m unsure of the scale and scope of their current operations. They have a UK website that seems to sell goods, and a more general website detailing the company’s history. But information on their current operations was hard to find.

Founded as a fur trading company in the 1670s, the Hudson’s Bay Company seems to be the overwhelmingly popular favorite for world’s oldest, continuous commercial enterprise, showing up in many search results. The company is now a popular Canadian department store retailer. For more information, the Canadian government has established a historical website about the company.

These companies are children compared to Sweden's Stora Enso, which lists 1288 as its inception year. And they’ve kept it simple ever since: they are a paper manufacturer. Actually, the company is the product of a 1998 merger between Stora and Enso. Enso has been around since 1872; its the older Stora that claims birth in 1288.

But all strict definitions aside, to discover the current winner (in my sparse research), we return to Japan and the land of Kikkoman. Kongo Gumi, a trading company, was founded in 578 by Buddhist Monks. Unfortunately, I can’t read their website, and information on the internet is sparse.  But I think their lead is safe, considering they've got a good 700 year headstart on Stora.

But in my opinion, the oldest company in the world is the Catholic Church. Think about it...

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