I woke up this morning to an article about not letting go that caught my attention, even though it typically wouldn’t. Cos it had something to do with business, and being most ‘un-business-like’, I usually skim these headlines and move on.
Also, I’m unfortunately a product of this generation of speed-everything, including reading. Tragic, considering I’m a writer who supposedly reads long-form since young for the sheer pleasure of it.
Yet, if I’m honest about it, my attention span for reading has fallen on hard times. I confess that even as the year draws to a close (the best time to sit down with a good book), I’m still hard-pressed to read lengthy stuff. Even though the desire is still there.
But I digress.
Not letting go of something so old
The article in question centred on century-old businesses in Japan that have stood the ravages of time, including recessions, pandemics and environmental disasters.
In fact, the article claimed that Japan holds the record in the world for having businesses that old – more than 33,000 to be precise. It would seem Japan holds the record for over 40% of such businesses worldwide. And some, like the article’s featured business Ichiwa, has lasted for over 1,000 years.
No mean feat for sure!
No surprise too that many of these are family-run. Some, like Tanaka Iga which produces Buddhist goods in Kyoto since 885, have been helmed by at least 72 generations of leaders.
What accounted for such longevity, especially in today’s world where start-ups come and go like our daily change of wardrobe?
Not letting go – longevity as a purpose
According to research by the article’s writers, these companies typically keep their core business front and centre, hardly deviating from what they’ve provided since inception, and almost never expanding beyond to either multiple income streams or opening more outlets.
Logic that seems to fly in the face of economic growth and expansion typically pursued by corporations and governments everywhere.
But I like it.
The idea that small is beautiful has always resonated with me. No need for bells and whistles, fireworks that are seen for miles around. Keep it small, simple and even silent is what I say.
Daily life is after all lived out in the small moments in between the big events.
But even that theme was not what captured my attention with this article. It was the parting shot at the end that made me sit up and muse (yes I confess that, to save time, I like to read the start and the end of a piece first. Then I’ll decide whether or not to read the whole thing!).
The article ended with this parting shot from the current owner of Ichiwa:
But Ms. Hasegawa, 60, admits she sometimes feels the pressure of the shop’s history. Even though the business doesn’t provide much of a living, everyone in the family from a young age “was warned that as long as one of us was still alive, we needed to carry on,” she said.
One reason “we keep going,” she added, is “because we all hate the idea of being the one to let it go.”
Letting go or not? The answer lies in…
Letting go’s probably one of the hardest things to do in life. Worse still when you’ve been in business for over 1,000 years. So to a certain extent, I can sympathise with Ms Hasegawa.
But look again at what she said: the “business doesn’t provide much of a living”, yet everyone in the family’s been warned from young that it needs to carry on, “as long as one of us was still alive.”
What a mantra and purpose for living! To keep something going for the sake of keeping it going.
Not how I want to live for sure. If you asked me two years ago my thoughts on such a reason for longevity and continuation, I would say heck it! My career choices in the past years have proven that I don’t subscribe to this philosophy.
Yet, with the tumult that were 2020 (for the world) and 2019 (for me), there’s now a mellowing inside me I’m still trying to comprehend.
I sense that even though the prospect of keeping tradition for over 1,000 years feels almost morbid to my person, I also have a renewed admiration for the “quiet success” such businesses represent.
That’s not to say I would subscribe to keeping something alive for the sake of keeping up appearances. I’m wise enough to see the tragedy in that kind of staid life.
But the new me is also wondering that maybe there is something in that confession by Ms Hasegawa. Maybe, in their small corner of the universe, and their seeming-resistance to change the status quo, they are showing us a “new-old” way.
Maybe it really doesn’t matter whether you’re doing something to innovate or to stay still.
The key question is do you know why? And is this ‘why’ strong enough to hold you to it year after year after year? And in Ichiwa’s case, century after century after century?
If so, then you’ve found a purpose worth pursuing. And therein probably lies what we all desire of our mortal lives – true contentment and fulfilling.
It’s how I see my writing life now. And no doubt how Ms Hasegawa sees her family business too.
So the ultimate take-away I got from this article is the question I now pose to you, my dear reader, as this insane and history-making year of 2020 draws to a close:
What’s your purpose?