Wednesday, 2 January 2013

In Business - The Book of Five Rings

Corporate Kendo - Tips for the Marketplace (from Samurai Businessman, New York, June 29, 1981)

Back in the 1980’s, The Book of Five Rings was partly popularized by selling it to the business crowd – touted as the secret of Japan’s economic success, managers and executives of all stripes were encouraged to read it and benefit from the insights their competitors’ thinking.

I came to Musashi myself through a teenage interest in the exotic, of which martial arts were part, and this was certainly pretty far from its use for business, but Musashi’s popularity in the USA was, indeed, business driven. An article from a 1981 edition of New York Magazine makes for interesting reading, explaining that one of the early proselytizers, the advertising executive George Lois said:

"I have some advice for American businessmen who are trying to figure out why the Japanese excel in business. Buy and study a copy of Musashi's A Book of Five Rings."

It also includes the corrective from a senior correspondent for the Nihon Keizai Shinbun, who said that Japanese businessmen were “far too concerned with the future to be rummaging around in the past.” (Flippo, C. (1981) Samurai Businessman, New York, June 29, 29-31).

Interestingly, he was turned on to it by Kaneda Masaichi, a famous baseball pitcher. (perhaps it was in the air - Oh Sadaharu, a contemporary of his, practiced batto (drawing and cutting with the sword) to improve his batting).

I recently came across an article addressing historical sources of East Asian strategy and their application to business. It dealt with Gorin no Sho, the Three Kingdoms and Sun Tzu, highlighting connections between them and giving guidelines for using some of the key concepts they contain in business.

Here are the main points it presented with respect to Gorin no Sho:

1) Grasping relationships and multiple perspectives… To gain new knowledge or find innovative solutions, the student must avoid unilateral thinking and the limitations of a one-track mind.

2) Seeking knowledge and information. Victory may be achieved when the “rhythm of each opponent” is known.

3) Being patient. It is best to wait for the opponent to make the first move, according to Bushido (the way of military men).

4) Training and disciplining oneself.

5) Disguising emotions and intentions. “(A)lways be the same way in any situation, and keep your mind in the Middle Way attitude,” wrote Musashi… Furthermore, people should never reveal their honne (real intentions) and always “ act in such a way as to not reveal the depth of your spirit to others, “ Musashi stated.

6) Possessing flexibility. Despite Musashi’s advocacy of the middle-of-the-road approach, he emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional flexibility during a confrontation.

7) Using diversion. Wrote Musashi: “Once you have distracted {your opponent}, gain the advantage by following with your attack.” While promoting patience, Musashi also advocates swift action at the opportune moment… (here the author goes on to expand this point rather than talking about diversion).

8) Divide and conquer. “(W)hen you have seen that the ranks of the opponents have been disarrayed… push in and strike strongly without allowing any time to lapse.”

9) Assessing the terrain. Musashi’s analysis is analogous to Sun Tzu’s statement that “it is of utmost importance to force the opponent into a disadvantageous position.”

Tung, R.L. (1994) Strategic Thought in East Asia, Organizational Dynamics, Vol 22(4), 55-65.

This brings up a couple of interesting points.

Firstly, I’m not sure I would be able to reduce my understanding of Musashi’s work into only nine or ten points, but I find it interesting to see the ideas of someone who has done so, if only because examining someone else’s view of a work enables you to reassess your own view of that work. It gives you a tool to measure or assess your own understanding.

Secondly, it calls into question the value of works such as Gorin no sho, that were clearly written with regard to specific contexts, for a specific audience, and referenced things with which the average reader no longer has knowledge of. The concepts outlined above are not particularly profound – whether or not they are particularly useful in a business context, I am not qualified to say. I suppose they might provide some food for thought, especially for those involved in business with East Asian companies, who were not familiar with the culture.

Sun Tzu, which was also discussed in the article, is referred to much more commonly – despite the lack of a familiar context, it seems to have become a much used text in a variety of contemporary business and military contexts. There have been far more incisive and focused texts on strategy and tactics in these areas, but it has remained one of the most often cited works, famously quoted by Gordon Gecko and assigned as reading by the USMC for officer training. Perhaps the very fact it is so general that it allows for creative interpretation for its readers and broad applicability across a variety of fields and situations.

In Japan, too, Sun Tzu has been written about in a business context, but a quick perusal of the book shelves suggests that it is less often used as inspiration than The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other, home grown sources. In this latter category, it is not Musashi who features most often, but the generals of the Sengoku period, the Age of the War.

Yes, there's plenty of interesting material there!


  1. Great to see you posting again!

    Happy New Year!

  2. Thanks for your continued encouragement Rick!

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