It earns more than Coca Cola Co., has operations in as many countries as Starbucks Corp., boasts a payroll almost as long as Google Inc. and has been around longer than Philadelphia. Yet many consumers outside of Japan probably haven't heard of it.

This is the great Japanese trading house of Mitsui & Co., whose roots go back almost 400 years to entrepreneur Hachirobei Mitsui, who turned his dad's sake and soy sauce shop into a company that sold whatever people needed at the time. Over the centuries, Mitsui group made everything from silk kimonos to skyscrapers, and spun off better-known brands like Toshiba and Sapporo Beer. It even funded a small cotton-loom business called Toyota that years later decided to make cars.

Now the current incarnation of the trading house is having a bit of an identity crisis. With its stock limping behind the Tokyo benchmark index, its brand all but unknown outside Japan, and analysts struggling to even categorize the company, Mitsui is asking itself a coming-of-age question: Who am I?