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Sunday, March 31, 2002

Corporate histories provide window on pioneering dreams


Staff writer

Katsuko Murahashi, librarian of the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren), used to believe that the "shashi" corporate histories published by Japanese companies to mark their anniversaries were too boring to be worth reading.

News photo
Katsuko Murahashi

But once she began studying them more closely, before her eyes corporate dramas began to unfold against the backdrop of remarkable periods in Japanese history.

"There are many fascinating stories about the foundation of companies, especially during the Meiji and early Showa periods," said the 57-year-old "shashi" researcher. "You'll find businesspeople and politicians in the old days had great dreams and ideals for this country."

Murahashi joined the Keidanren library when it opened in 1966. To promote the facility, over the next 20 years she organized seven exhibitions of publications detailing the corporate histories of Keidanren members. But it was only after she had been asked to write a series of articles on "shashi" for a magazine in 1992 that she began tackling the obscure field in earnest.

Murahashi has read nearly 10,000 corporate histories, spending weekends at Kawasaki Library in Kanagawa Prefecture delving into its hoard of 10,000 corporate history publications. Based on her research, she published a book, "Shashi no Kenkyu" ("A Study of Corporate Histories"), earlier this month.

In it, she lays out the fledgling years of many major companies. In the Taisho period for example, young lawyer Takeshi Yamashita joined a small trading firm called Tokiwa Shokai and earned the company huge profits through sugar trading. In appreciation, the firm's president asked Yamashita what he wanted as a reward for his efforts.

Yamashita said he wanted to set up a microscope manufacturing firm and needed startup funds. The president gave him 300,000 yen -- the equivalent of about 450 million yen today.

"That was the beginning of Olympus Optical Co.," Murahashi said. "It is amazing for a young man to request such an amount of money, but the president is equally astonishing -- knowing that the efficient employee would leave his company, he still gave him the money."

Murahashi said many people who tried to set up businesses in the old days had far higher aspirations than today's businessmen, who appear to care solely about profits. "Their goals, for example, were to make a poor society richer, or to nurture the manufacturing industry to make Japanese products competitive at a time when the domestic market was full of foreign goods."

In the case of major textile firm Kurabo Industries Ltd., it was the will of three men in their 20s that led to its foundation in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, she said. The local economy, which had flourished under the Tokugawa Shogunate, was on the decline by the early Meiji period, when the trio came up with the idea of starting a spinning industry.

One December day in 1886, they attended a meeting of some 100 influential local people, and one of them, Keijiro Komatsubara, the son of a samurai, spoke eloquently about their idea. "Rather than selling cotton, we should create a spinning factory and sell yarn. It would help our village grow," he reportedly said.

"The speech, backed by detailed data, moved people, including Koshiro Ohara, the richest man in the village, to help set up the textile company in 1888," Murahashi said.

Some corporate history publications also provide unique data related to their industries. The records of life insurance companies, for example, include valuable statistics from the past 100 years on matters such as death rates and average life spans.

The publications have also attracted Japanologists in the United States, similarly convinced of the importance of "shashi" in studying both corporate and general Japanese history. This interest has even prompted a group of Americans to establish the Shashi Consortium in Chicago last year.

"I really hope that people read their own company's history, how and why it was created," Murahashi said. "Through reading corporate histories, I want them to think about what one's job can really mean and to have ambition."



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