The J-Files

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2000

Samurai Wisdom Still Revered in Corporate Japan

by William Adams

Every Sunday evening, millions of TV sets in Japan are tuned to the national network, NHK, for the latest episode of this year's current taiga (epic) drama -- a year-long production based on the ascent and early years in power of the Tokugawa clan, which ruled Japan from 1600 until 1868.

Be assured that many of those viewing will include Japan's top executives, for there remains a strong fascination in this country -- especially in high management circles -- with the days of the samurai and the legendary characters who stand out in Japan's turbulent and frequently dramatic history.

President magazine, a leading Japanese business monthly akin to Fortune, regularly features famous historical figures, analyzing their characters and actions. Despite the new role models of modern business, corporate Japan still looks for solutions and answers from the past. Samurai tactics, qualities of leadership, management styles, and organizational techniques are endlessly studied.

Earlier this year, as the taiga drama started off, President featured Tokugawa dynasty founder Ieyasu as the cover story and devoted almost 60 pages to an in-depth analysis of his style, as well as that of his two successors in the shogunate.

The Tokugawa shoguns are major league, but another enigmatic historical figure featured in past issues who still attracts attention today is a low-ranking samurai named Ryoma Sakamoto, hailing from Kochi on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. He emerged from bucolic obscurity to become a leading proponent of political change in the mid-19th century, as the Western barbarians began knocking at Japan's gate.

Early observers noted that Ryoma appeared to be several fish short of a full plate of sushi, but he was a good listener and observer, and he rapidly developed intellectually, changing from a foreigner-hating hick from the sticks into a man of high purpose. He realized the need for Japan to change politically and advocated the rapid assimilation of Western technology and know-how. He also dabbled in trade, mainly as an arms importer, gaining valuable entrepreneurial experience. Nothing demonstrates his achievements better than his visionary eight-point political program, referred to as Hassaku, which called for "the most able men in the country to become councillors." (We are still waiting.) Another point promoted the setting of exchange rates for gold and silver on global standards.

Alas, in the eyes of the Shogun's spies, he was perceived as a dangerous activist, and in 1867 Ryoma was assassinated at the age of 32. How he would have matured as a businessman or politician we cannot say, but he is greatly admired for his boundless drive, enthusiasm for a cause, and strong practical streak, and thus he has followers in today's corporate clans.

His unfulfilled promise further endears him to the Japanese, who care as much, if not more, for failed heroes than for successful ones. His memory lingers on, preserved in a highly prized brand of Kochi-brewed sake, named Senchu Hassaku after his political agenda. The label translates as "Aboard Ship 8-Point Plan" (perhaps he was making one of his many voyages around Japan when he composed it). So, all at the same time, we can drink to his memory, take a short lesson in 19th century Japanese politics, and get pleasantly inebriated -- very Japanese, very samurai. Heavy drinking was a noted warrior pastime, faithfully copied today by corporate warriors, many of whom can switch into song at the drop of a sake flask.

Ryoma, however, left the scene just before the time when samurai began beating their swords into equity shares. Another business hopeful active at the time was Sakamoto's fellow clansman and entrepreneur wannabe, Yataro Iwasaki, who had an eye on the main chance. He went on to found an outfit with the unprepossessing name of 3 Diamonds, which could be the name of a cheap saloon if you didn't know its Japanese translation: Mitsubishi.

Tough rice cookies, Ryoma. Still, he might be flattered that his approach to life has a following in corporate Japan well more than a century after his death. Japanese society may have gone through many changes, but the samurai spirit lingers on.

William Adams is a pen name chosen by the columnist, a corporate executive wishing to remain anonymous. The real Adams was an English sailor who became highly favored by the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa in the early 1600s; he was able to observe closely the inner workings of Japanese culture, especially commercial dealings.

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