Solutions for Self-Reliance

How To Keep a Family Business Running for 1,300 years (And Build a Lasting Civilization)


Owned by the same family for 1,300 years, the Japanese inn Houshi Ryokan is a marvel of tradition and resilience. This ryokan (a traditional japanese style hotel) was built over a natural hot spring in Awazu in central Japan in the year 718.

For 46 generations the ownership and management of the business has been passed down within the family, which just goes to show how strong the institution of the family can be. All the owners have taken the name Zengoro Houshi, after the adopted son of the Buddhist monk who founded the ryokan.

Its buildings were destroyed by natural disasters many times, but the family has always rebuilt. The garden as well as some parts of the hotel are over 400 years old. As one can imagine, Houshi Ryokan has been visited by the Japanese Imperial Family and countless great artists over the centuries.

Something that jumped out at me was when the owner said: “Only one thing hasn’t changed: Houshi’s hot springs has always been flowing.”

Within this sentence I think a key lesson can be found.

Mere mortal humans of flesh and blood come and go, but the forces of Nature are permanent.

So the only way to build the institutions that make up a lasting civilization is to build them upon this permanence of Nature.

If, on the other hand, we build institutions that are not in harmony with Nature then they are destined to fail, and so is the civilization.

Case in point, many of the biggest and most glorious empires of history are no longer with us; the Sumerians, Ancient Egypt, the Greeks, the Roman Empire, etc. Their greatest monuments are buried in sand under deserts and their greatest treasures are gathering dust in museums, because their institutions were not built with permanence in mind.

The agricultural practices of many of these dead civilizations created deserts, much like our “modern” agriculture is creating deserts today in the US, in China, and in many other places. History repeats itself, and if we don’t change our ways a good guess is that we’ll end up in the dustbin of failed civilizations sooner or later.

(On the flip side there’s a lot we can learn from these civilizations too. Their civilization might be gone, but some of their buildings are still standing so in the architectural department we can learn a thing or two!)

So how do you keep a business running for 1,300 years?

You build it upon the permanent forces of nature. In the case of Houshi Ryokan, they built it upon the geothermally heated groundwater that’s constantly flowing from the Earth’s crust. Food, water, energy, shelter, these are all things that can be produced in harmony with Nature, or extracted by destroying Nature.

In a family business you also need strong family traditions to get the next generation to carry on your legacy, and my feeling is that it’s harder than it sounds to create such traditions. I think there’s a reason for why so many of the world’s oldest companies can be found in Japan, a country where the institution of the family has and still is very strong.

Traditions can of course be both a blessing and a curse from the perspective of individual freedom, but overall I think the value of family traditions is greatly undervalued in the West today. In just the past century so much has been lost when it comes to passing down traditional knowledge, wisdom and common sense.

I can only guess, but I figure they’ve also done their best to stay out of debt during these 1,300 years. Just imagine the gargantuan amount of rent they would’ve paid to banks over the centuries if they’d been heavily indebted! When you have a long-term outlook and want to build a lasting institutions that spans the generations it makes sense to strive for debt freedom, because then you ensure freedom from debt-slavery not only for yourself but for all future generations.

Systems theorist Buckminster Fuller said that you should strive to change the environment instead of trying to change people. Because when you create lasting change in the environment, the behavior of people will also change. For example, instead of trying to get people to stop stealing food a more effective way would be to design an environment that creates such an abundance of food that there’s no need for stealing it in the first place! But if your main focus is on trying to change behavior, which often is the case in politics, you’ll never get lasting change.

So if you want to create a better world for yourself and the next generation, don’t just teach them how to get a job or how to forage for wild edibles in the wilderness, also improve the environment. Plant a food forest for them and for the seventh generation. Dig swales, terraces and ponds. Create the institutions that will enable them to thrive without a 9-5 job. Wouldn’t that be a worthy legacy to leave behind?

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