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Family businesses need helping hand


Last weekend, I took an excursion to Japan. My destination was Shizuoka Prefecture, famous for its green tea. The region is similar to Korea’s green tea capital, Boseong County, South Jeolla. On the first night of my trip, I stayed at a traditional inn, Choseikan. Opened in 1889, the inn is a large structure with a pinewood corridor, 15-meter-long cedar beams, and delicate wall and window designs. It is designated as a cultural property of Japan.

The old structure is bound to gather the moss of history. Choseikan is no exception. Lee Geon (1909-1990), the eldest son of King Uichin, the fifth son of Emperor Gojong, once stayed at this inn. The grandson of the emperor and nephew of King Yeongchin served as a Japanese army officer, and after the liberation of Korea, he became naturalized in Japan in 1955. He changed his name to Kenichi Momoyama and ran small businesses such as a stationery store and red bean porridge shop before ending his checkered life. The inn was also frequented by major politicians of modern Japan, such as Tsuyoshi Inukai (1855-1932), Shinpei Goto (1857-1929) and Yukio Ozaki (1858-1954). A calligraphy was hanging on the room on the second floor, where I had my dinner and breakfast, and it was written by former Prime Minister Inukai, who was killed by nationalist soldiers for pursuing a civilian administration.

But 124 years of history is not considered very long in Japan. I stopped by at the nearby Shidaizumi Sake Brewery, which was established in 1882. Choseikan Inn’s owner is continuing the business for the third generation, and the Shidaizumi Brewery’s owner is continuing the family business for the fourth generation. According to a 2010 survey, 22,219 companies in Japan are more than 100 years old. More than 1,200 had a history of over 200 years, and 39 were more than 500 years old. In Korea, only a handful of companies - Doosan Group, Dongwha Pharmaceutical and Mongo Food - survived more than a century. What made the difference in the tradition of family businesses in the two countries?

The division of tradition and modernization, the turbulent modern history of the 1910-45 Japanese occupation and the 1950-53 Korean War, and radical social changes are the major factors. It would have been great if the cause was the entrepreneurship to start up a new business rather than continuing the family tradition. Moreover, many small businesses are closing in the sluggish economy, and the proportion of the small business owners among the total employed population has fallen to the lowest level in history. Next year, the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education is introducing a special admission for family business successors to give middle school students continuing the family business a priority at specialized vocational high schools. The new admission criteria must not be misused, but I hope it will encourage family businesses to continue over generations. The tradition of 100-year-old companies is accumulated year by year.

* The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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