InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Jan 2001
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SAMURAI ON WALL STREET: Miyamoto Musashi and the Search for Success

by G. Cameron Hurst III

First published 1982, UFSI Reports #44. Copyright © G. Cameron Hurst, 1982, 2001. All rights reserved

Editor's introduction: Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings has been touted by its American publishers as a "masterpiece of winning strategy," the key to Japan's business success. Does this slender tome by a seventeenth-century samurai really have something to offer contemporary Americans -- or Japanese? Hurst analyzes both the "search for secrets" literature in the United States and Japan's own explanations of its economic success and national character.


The tremendous success of James Clavell's Shogun, both as a book and a television miniseries, demonstrated the popular appeal of the Japanese samurai to modern-day Americans. Since Clavell's book appeared, fascination with the samurai has become something of a phenomenon, as revealed in a string of popular novels in the corner bookstore and on racks at the supermarket:

Of perhaps more significance, however, is the sudden popularity in the United States of Miyamoto Musashi, skilled swordsman and noted painter of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Japan, precisely the tumultuous era described by Clavell in Shogun. Yoshikawa Eiji's novel, Miyamoto Musashi, has delighted millions of Japanese readers since its first publication in serial form in the 1930s. Recently translated and published in English, Musashi runs to almost a thousand pages, rivaling Shogun in both length and excitement. It, too, should find avid readers, for Musashi's name was already rather well known in North America, thanks to the rather curious ways fads arise in the United States.

Near the end of his life Musashi wrote a slight volume on military strategy called Gorin no sho. Translated by Victor Harris and published by Overlook Press in 1974 as A Book of Five Rings, the publisher's name perhaps accounts for the book's initial non-impact: though adequately translated and attractively packaged (illustrations included reproductions of Musashi's art), Five Rings attracted little attention outside the martial arts community.

Then, as Japan began to challenge America's position as the world's pre-eminent economic power, Musashi came off the shelf. A retired Japanese professional baseball player -- actually a Korean resident of Japan -- mentioned Gorin no sho to a New York ad man who suggested, half in jest, to some businessmen that reading Musashi's little book was the key to understanding Japanese success. The rest is history.

Prompted by the apparent bewilderment of some US businessmen trying to come to grips with Japanese economic competition and thanks to a disappointingly consistent American view of the Japanese as somehow unique and mysterious, Musashi has gone mainstream, making the pages of such august publications as the Wall Street Journal and Time. This approach to Japanese business -- what I call "the search for secrets" -- has fortunately not totally replaced reliance upon more serious works that analyze Japanese management practices or the nature of the Japanese business community.

The publishers of Gorin no sho, on the other hand, have overlooked nothing to publicize the book. To appeal to businessmen instead of martial artists, they have added a new banner to the dust jacket, proclaiming Five Rings "Japan's Answer to the Harvard MBA: The Classic Guide to Strategy Corporate America is taking into the Boardrooms." The back cover goes even farther in confirming the canonical stature of the work. "The Japanese entrepreneur," we are told, "is not nurtured at an Asian equivalent of our Harvard Business School. Instead he studies, works, and lives according to an almost-mythic tome written in 1645 by the great Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi." This incredible statement, which surely deserves some sort of award for creative hyperbole, would have us believe that Five Rings is a Japanese equivalent to Chairman Mao's little red book.

More important for scholars of Japan, it suggests that despite all the federal and private money poured into programs of Japanese studies, despite all the efforts of groups like the Japan Society, despite all the student exchange programs and the like, Americans still regard the Japanese as unique, special, and motivated by some mysterious medieval logic which we Westerners cannot quite grasp -- unless, of course, we have the book that lets us in on "THE SECRET."

It would not be so bad if that were the end of it. Certainly no one can fault Overlook for trying to sell its book. But Five Rings did not stop there; Time magazine's long article (October 19, 1981), while expressing some bemusement over its success, quoted many people who found Five Rings useful. An IBM executive in New York, for example: "If you look at the list [of Musashi's homilies], they are really clichés. But when they come to you through the aura of history, it's a more dramatic way to present them." The work also found its way into the Book of the Month Club and the Fortune Book Club, along with other "guides" to success in these uncertain economic times -- Paper Money, Getting To Yes, Reaganomics: Supply Side Economics in Action, and even the highly overrated Theory Z. For those who wished to order the book (no. 176 on their list) the club emphasized that it "will also help you figure out why the Japanese do so well in business." [EN1]

We even have "samurai warfare" in America -- among publishers. As Overlook rushed to get out its paperback edition of Gorin no sho, paperback giant Bantam cashed in with a version of its own, since the original has long been in the public domain. Despite a million dollar lawsuit by Overlook, Bantam has carefully rendered its translation as The Book of Five Rings ("the," not "a") and added background on the samurai class, Zen Buddhism, and Confucian philosophy. They also deleted the fine art work, went to a cheap paper and cover, a format of only 107 pages, and held the price to $2.95 (vs. $5.95 for Overlook's trade paper edition).

Bantam makes no bones about its market. Juxtaposed opposite a dramatic samurai figure from a woodblock print is an American executive in similar pose. Wearing a raincoat and wingtips, with an umbrella under one arm, our US corporate samurai has a briefcase in one hand and a Wall Street Journal raised high in the other, and his menacing glare shows him more than ready to do battle with his Japanese opposite. The jacket explains it all: "Now, the secret of Japanese success in business can be yours. It lies within the pages of this age-old masterpiece of winning strategy." The subtitle of the book? The Real Art of Japanese Management. It seems that Time may have been right. "When Musashi speaks, people listen."

Why? How many Japanese even gave him a passing thought before he was brought to their attention by marketing hyperbole? More important, how useful is the samurai image in understanding contemporary Japan, corporate or otherwise? Who is Musashi and why are people saying these things about him?

The Real Musashi

Accurate historical information about Musashi is sparse, but it seems he was born in 1584 in the province of Mimasaka, modern-day Okayama, in the western part of Japan's central island, the son of a minor warrior best known as Shinmen Munisai Taketo. [EN2] Munisai was a master of the jitte, a short truncheon, as well as a noted swordsman who was once praised by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki as "Japan's peerless martial practitioner." [EN3]

Late in his life Munisai became involved in a rather messy business which affected Musashi's career. His lord ordered him to kill the house elder, Hon'iden Gekinosuke. Although he initially protested the order, Munisai ultimately carried out the murder. Rewarded, he nevertheless secluded himself and later moved to Miyamoto village where he remained incognito. Although some feel he died there when Musashi was about six years old, it may well be that he left the village and went to Kyushu, Bungo and then Nakatsu, where he established relationships with both the Kuroda and Hosokawa houses, most likely as a fencing instructor. He died about 1607. [EN4] If his father did live this long, it would help explain how Musashi learned his swordsmanship at such a precocious age, for we have no other record of a teacher. Musashi's own account records that he killed his first opponent in a duel at the tender age of 13.

Musashi lived a rather lonely boyhood. When his parents divorced, his mother returned to her family home near the Mimasaka border, taking Musashi with her. He later returned to spend time with his father, and since his mother's home was not far away, he could go back and forth rather easily. He appears to have been a rather rambunctious boy, and quite large for his age. Musashi left Miyamoto at age 16 to develop his martial skills, a not uncommon practice that reached its height during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in Japan. He had already had his first encounter, described in a perhaps apocryphal story, with a Shinto-ryu swordsman named Arima Kihei. [EN5] Musashi was living with his uncle. One day, while returning from calligraphy class with other children, he came across a signpost erected by Arima, saying he would fight anyone who would accept his challenge. Musashi wrote on the placard that the next day Miyamoto Bennosuke (his childhood name) would appear for a duel. That night a messenger from Arima visited the uncle's house, and Musashi's uncle tried desperately to get Musashi out of the promise, since he was just a boy. Arima was understanding, but claimed that he would lose face if he didn't go through with the duel. So if the uncle showed up for the match, Arima said, and explained the situation to everyone, he would forget the matter and not lose face. The next day the uncle went off to explain, and it seems that quite a crowd had gathered outside Arima's inn. While the uncle was explaining the situation, Musashi, carrying only his short sword and a six-shaku [foot] stick, opened the door, identified Arima, and started to hit him. Arima jumped up and a struggle ensued; Musashi threw away the stick, and after grappling awhile, picked Arima up over his head and threw him to the ground. He proceeded to strike his opponent until he died. The story is probably an exaggeration, but Musashi was already rather adept when he left on his quest to polish his skills in 1599.

The second phase of Musashi's life covered a period of 16 years during which he received training and engaged frequently in major duels with martial practitioners of various schools. It ends in 1615, when he participated in the Battle of Osaka Castle, the summer campaign, at age 32. He himself claims to have fought more than sixty duels during this period, never meeting defeat. He also saw action in three important battles, all in 1600, his seventeenth year: Fushimi, Gifu, and Sekigahara, where Tokugawa leyasu by his victory determined Japan's future course. Among the most famous of his encounters of this period, celebrated in novel, film, and television drama, were the three fights against the Yoshioka fencing school, whose founder, Kenpo, had once dueled and lost to Musashi's father. The most famous encounter, however, occurred when Musashi was 29, at the small island of Ganryu-jima lying between northern Kyushu and western Honshu. His opponent was Sasaki Kojiro, a skilled fencer who was an instructor for Hosokawa Tadaoki, lord of Kokura in Buzen. His victory over Kojiro, using a wooden sword he had fashioned from an oar, is certainly the most dramatic moment in all the Miyamoto Musashi films and is indelibly printed on the minds of Japanese when Musashi's name is mentioned.

The third phase of Musashi's life covered roughly the next twenty years, until he was about 50. It was again a period of wandering, but he engaged in no more major duels, although he fought a few matches; in the main, he devoted his time to further mastery of technique, teaching his own students, and striving to discover the deeper meaning of military arts. It is believed that this is when he came to discover the secrets which he explained in Gorin no sho. Since he also must have studied Zen and became proficient in a variety of cultural forms -- painting, calligraphy, poetry composition -- this was obviously the most creative period of Musashi's entire career.

At age 57, Musashi went to the Hosokawa fief at Kumamoto, where he accepted a post and served until he died five years later, in 1645. Besides serving as a military adviser he devoted his time during this period to poetry, painting, calligraphy, and tea; and here he wrote Gorin no sho, explaining the teachings of his style of swordsmanship. Not long after he arrived in Kumamoto, however, Musashi suffered a great loss when his lord Hosokawa Tadatoshi died. [EN6]

Japan had changed totally by the time of Tadatoshi's death. The continual warfare of Musashi's youth was a thing of the past. In fact, Musashi had little alternative to relying on the good graces of Tadatoshi, which was probably why Musashi accepted an appointment in Kumamoto after a lifetime as a ronin (masterless warrior). After Tadatoshi's passing, Musashi seems to have largely abandoned the world, devoting all his energies to cultural pursuits.

It was in such a frame of mind that he secluded himself in a small cave in the nearby mountains and committed his ideas to writing in Gorin no sho. This he passed to his student Terao Nobuyuki, and thereafter it was handed down among the members of his school as a secret text. The audience for which it was intended was thus quite limited.

Thus the facts of Musashi's life are few; even the biographical data presented here are subject to disputes. It matters little, however, because Musashi is really a legendary hero in Japan. He has more in common with Robin Hood than with King John. Some people know him best as swordsman, others as an artist; but most people know of him through drama, novel, and film.

Musashi as Legend

Less than a century after his death, Musashi was already the subject of a play, written in 1737 by Fujikawa Banzaburo and performed in Osaka. A year later the play, called Vendetta at Ganryu-Jima (Katakiuchi Ganryu-jima) was a great success in Edo (Tokyo) at Ichimura-za where the chief writer was Fujimoto Banzaburo and the main actor Bando Hikosaburo. [EN7] Musashi remained a popular subject for various forms of drama, including puppet plays. One scholar has calculated that between its first performance in 1737 and one in 1907 in Tokyo's Miyatoza, Vendetta was performed 77 times in 170 years, or once every 26 months. [EN8] In addition, many great writers of the Edo period, including Jippensha Ikku, Hiraga Baisetsu, Tsuruya Nanboku the Fourth, created their own Musashi plays.

In these dramas Musashi is a one-dimensional figure, a swashbuckling swordsman of peerless ability. Such characterization was typical of an age that demanded a hero, the victory of good, and the defeat of evil. It took a modern writer, Yoshikawa Eiji, to create the now familiar Musashi: the rambunctious young man off on a quest to polish his skills as a swordsman, but also to seek the truth, to perfect himself, forsaking the woman who loves and pursues him, not yielding to the demands of the flesh as he struggles to find the "way" to conquer himself.

First published serially between 1934 and 1939 in the Asahi newspaper, his story later became a best selling novel (the collected works of Yoshikawa have sold in the tens of millions, with Miyamoto Musashi the most popular). [EN9] Perhaps its greatest popularity came in the late 1930s when, in a period when little entertainment was available, people delighted in the weekly radio series in which Tokugawa Musei, the famous voice of silent screen days, read all the parts. From there it went to at least three movies plus more plays and television series than one can remember. [EN10] Musashi is truly the King of popular culture in Japan.

The Yoshikawa novel deals only with the first thirty years of Musashi's life, when he was essentially a wandering swordsman, and adds a moral and ethical dimension that none of the early plays contained. Since we know that by the end of his life Musashi had mastered many of the cultural forms of the day and had seemingly arrived at some measure of "Understanding," Yoshikawa may well be presenting in fictionalized form a process through which Musashi actually passed. Truth is mixed skillfully with fiction to give us a new and more empathetic Musashi. The Musashi at the beginning of Yoshikawa's novel is an orphan -- rough, rowdy, independent, stubborn, and mischievous -- a Tokugawa version of a rural kid going bad, a budding juvenile delinquent for whom one nonetheless feels sympathy.

The real moral force in the story is provided by the introduction of an historical character, the famous Zen prelate Takuan, for whom the even more famous Japanese pickled radish is named. Takuan is responsible for curing Musashi's violent temper, first by hanging him in a tree for several days and then by confining him in the donjon (dungeon) at Lord Ikeda Terumasa's Himeji Castle for three years with appropriate books to train his mind. When he emerges -- in "The Birth of Musashi" chapter --Musashi has begun to understand what life is all about and Takuan has thus prepared him for the "Quest for Self" that occupies the rest of the book.

Yoshikawa includes many of the famous battles Musashi actually fought, plus a few encounters with fictional characters as well as Takuan, who re-emerges periodically to attest to Musashi's progress. In fact, the way this handful of real and fictional characters encounter one another "by chance" in Edo, Kyoto, and everywhere else in Japan is almost comic.

The legendary Musashi thus improves his swordsmanship through continuous battles against wily opponents and his character through the spiritual guidance of Takuan. To account for his cultural development, Yoshikawa inserted another historical figure of great renown to introduce Musashi to art and poetry -- Hon'ami Koetsu. Koetsu meets Musashi, entertains him as a guest in Takagamine in Kyoto, and takes him along on his visits to the gay quarters where he entertains several courtiers of distinguished lineage. Together, Koetsu and friends introduce Musashi to painting, tea ceremony, calligraphy, song and dance. In the last connection, he becomes the target of the affections of Yoshino Daiyu, a famous courtesan of the day.

In real life Musashi was linked with a woman of the gay quarters. Similarly Yoshikawa attempts to unite fact and fiction by introducing Jotaro and Iori, two young waifs that Musashi picks up along the way. Although he never married and had no children of his own, we know that Musashi adopted two boys, the eldest of whom, Iori, became a famous military adviser to the Ogasawara in Kyushu. [EN11] Furthermore, Yoshikawa had Otsu, Jotaro, and finally Musashi meet with Lord Yagyu Munenori, the shogun's fencing teacher and one of the noted military experts of the day. In fact, Munenori must have played a large part in Yoshikawa's thinking. Takuan, for example, was a confidant of Munenori, and wrote to him a very famous treatise on swordsmanship. [EN12] We have no record, however, that he or Munenori ever knew Musashi.

The climax of the story, in novel, film, and Edo-period drama, was the Ganryu-jima battle with Sasaki Kojiro. In the historical record, the two men met in the duel -- there are several versions of the result and a controversy over Kojiro's age -- but we do not know whether they had ever met previously. In both book and film, Kojiro patiently stalks Musashi, building suspense toward the battle we know will eventually take place. Kojiro is a skilled swordsman, perhaps even more adept than Musashi. As his character unfolds, however, we perceive that he lacks that understanding of life Musashi has been seeking. He remains proud, even arrogant, and seeks only to polish his technique: his soul remains uncultivated. Thus Musashi's victory is not only physical, a faster sword if you will; it is also moral.

Part of Musashi's popularity is certainly due to the heroic quality of his martial prowess -- skilled with wooden sword, staff, or blade, undefeated in more than sixty fights against a variety of opponents. Adding to that the moral qualities from the Yoshikawa Eiji version -- the rigorous and continual training and discipline, the search for physical and spiritual perfection, the conquest of self -- we have the strength of character, the masculinity which makes him in many ways an ideal "real man" for people today.

In his book on "the noble failure" as cultural hero in Japan, Ivan Morris noted certain requisite qualities: courage, unflinching loyalty, selflessness, willingness to die in the face of certain defeat, and perhaps above all, sincerity and purity of motive. [EN13] Virtually all the samurai in this heroic category -- Yoshitsune is the classic, but Kusunoki Masashige and Saigo Takamori also are included -- die by their own hand in a lost cause. Although Morris does not specifically discuss this point, it seems that in a society in which personal feelings are normally subordinated to group demands and individual initiative is stifled by an emphasis upon collegiality, individuals who go against the flow of history, who strike out on their own and follow that course regardless of consequence, are likely to be heroic figures.

Musashi in the novel (that is the Musashi known to Japanese today) has no lord, he is an orphan, he shuns those women who try to get close to him, and he single-mindedly pursues his goal. Although he starts out as a bully, Musashi grows over the course of the story, coming to embody the sincerity, selflessness, and purity of motive of the other heroes. He certainly shares their courage, although he does not employ it to demonstrate his loyalty to lord or sovereign, nor does he go down to defeat in a blaze of glory and take his own life. He is no failed hero in that sense. Rather, he is perhaps the classic example of the Japanese individualist, without family or even friends, ultimately "doing his own thing" regardless of the views of others. Thus Musashi is a seductive personality for many who feel bound by the rigid rules of a conformist society. Yet Musashi represents the last of his kind, the wandering swordsman seeking to polish his art in a world where the demand for that skill is rapidly disappearing.

The Book of Five Rings

Both the Overlook and Bantam translations treat Five Rings, one of three works Musashi wrote on swordsmanship, as a classic of military strategy and not solely as a guide to understanding Japanese business prowess. What, then, accounts for its popularity in the United States? Its brevity is certainly one factor. In the Overlook edition the translation runs to 55 pages, including a number of half pages, generous margins, and 54 footnotes, some of which are quite long. The Bantam translation, a smaller book in its overall dimensions, requires 74 pages, but the translators have added a "commentary" on each chapter to make it more readily understandable and "relevant" for contemporary Western readers.

After a brief autobiographical introduction, Musashi has divided his work into five short chapters -- Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Emptiness or Void. In the Earth chapter, he discusses his philosophy of heiho, referring both to swordsmanship and military strategy, but in a larger sense to his worldview, derived from long years of combat and study of numerous art forms. The Water chapter deals with winning. As in Taoism and other East Asian ways of thought, water for Musashi is a crucial element that permeates everything, fluid and flexible, ultimately adaptable to any environment. In his Fire chapter, Musashi discusses fighting, especially large-scale battles. He devotes the Wind chapter to an examination of other schools, some good, some bad (not surprisingly none are "true schools" like his own). Finally, the Emptiness chapter is a very brief summary. Overall, the book is an explication of his school of fighting, known as Ichiryu nito ("one school, two swords"), nito-ryu, or Niten-ryu after his art name, Niten. The greater portion of the book is devoted to very specific types of sword techniques of little interest to anyone today except practitioners of kendo and iaido.

What do the promoters of Five Rings mean when they tout this work as a "classic" or an "age-old masterpiece"? Certainly it would not be included among the great works of Japanese thought; it was also designed for a small audience. Musashi in his last years was employed by a Kyushu daimyo (lord); he did not write for the populace of Edo, Kyoto, or Osaka. Furthermore, the work was primarily passed on secretly within his school. Certainly none of the great figures of the day mentions Five Rings as compulsory reading. When it came to military strategy everybody read Sun Tzu, not Musashi. [EN14]

Another reason for Five Rings' failure to reach canonical status may be that it was an anachronism when it was written. Musashi was among the last of his type, a real swordsman in an age of peace. Pax Tokugawa was one of the longest periods of protracted peace in Japan's modern history, indeed in world history. Wandering swordsmen of Musashi's ilk were targets of government regulation. While warriors were urged to practice both the arts of war and peace, the latter took precedence. The Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-38, in which Musashi participated in a noncombatant role, was the last outbreak of substantial violence. Not until the coming of Perry would the samurai again display the concern for swordsmanship common to Musashi's early days. The samurai of Tokugawa Japan was more administrator and scholar than warrior, and more likely to read Mencius than Musashi.

Musashi's nine most clearly articulated pieces of advice have been extracted by the Bantam translation team and placed at the front of the book under the heading, "The Winning Strategy":

  1. Do not harbor sinister designs.
  2. Diligently pursue the path of Two-Swords-as-One.
  3. Cultivate a wide range of interests in the arts.
  4. Be knowledgeable in a variety of occupations.
  5. Be discreet regarding one's commercial dealings.
  6. Nurture the ability to perceive the truth in all matters.
  7. Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.
  8. Do not be negligent, even in trifling matters.
  9. Do not engage in useless activities.
Musashi constantly enjoins the reader to study hard, to develop an indomitable spirit, to understand timing, to be broadly based rather than narrowly technical, and to know one's self. Warning us that sleepiness and yawning are catching, that we should think big, or that "he who hesitates is lost," Musashi is hardly original or especially profound, certainly not very mystical, and not especially foreign to Americans. Only the enjoinder to practice the two-sword school seems a bit foreign to us, but modern Japanese will be no better off here either. While all the rest of the advice is sound enough, it is all too familiar from British and homegrown sources: Samuel Smiles, Benjamin Franklin, McGuffy's Reader, and the Boy Scout Manual.

Is there something more? According to Bradford Brown, head of Nihon Services Corporation and one of four Bantam translators, what on the surface appears simple hides finer meanings. When Time reviewed Harris's Overlook translation, Brown was already planning his own version that would lay out the subtleties for us, in "at least 200 exhaustive pages." Well, either the subtleties proved too difficult to capture in words or were never there in the first place: the Bantam book ended up only half that long with a few cursory comments on the background and several pages of discussion on the five chapters to help us grasp the meaning. Except for the last section on ku (Emptiness or Void), the reader will find little that is esoteric.

One might argue that swordsmanship is simply a metaphor for life and thus all the specific information Musashi gives us about swordplay -- and well over half the book details offensive and defensive tactics -- needs to be seen in this light. As Time quoted Dean Robert Allio of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: "The message is very clear. Business needs to be approached as though one were a warrior. You can't win by dabbling or playing the role of the dilettante."

Is the message really as inscrutable as Time and the Rings advocates would have us believe? It is inscrutable only if you try too hard to apply it to the modern corporate game. Five Rings is undeniably the product of the mind of a man who lived through a turbulent and bloody era that demanded a highly realistic approach to life. If for some Japanese and Americans modern business competition may seem fully as turbulent and bloody as the politics of Japan's sengoku period, then Musashi might, by a stretch, be relevant today.

That brings us to the $64,000 question: Do the Japanese, as the two publishing houses would have us believe, really see Five Rings as some sort of corporate Bible, Koran, or little Red Book to guide their business lives? Some businessmen have surely read Five Rings and profited from it. My answer to the general question, however, is an unambiguous no. One can find Japanese managers who will swear that Zen Buddhist meditation -- by themselves and their workers -- accounts for their success. Others will sing the praises of Pure Land Buddhism, Soka Gakkai, their Christian faith, hard work, or the training they received at Tokyo University or the Stanford Business School. Matsushita Electric has PHP. Musashi, if anything, is one very minor deity in a corporate pantheon.

Five Rings can be rather hard to come by in Japanese bookstores. When I first sought it out in the late sixties, the most easily accessible versions were as sections of a collection on Japanese thought. In the most readily available one, the entire text is not reproduced, just a selection. [EN15] Moreover, most of these editions have the text in the original Tokugawa language: this is not quite analogous to Americans reading Beowulf in the original, but increasingly fewer Japanese are able to read such difficult texts. Thus Five Rings was simply not the kind of book one picked up at the corner bookstore. It was a highly specialized work not too well known outside the academic and martial arts communities.

Ironically, American promotion has increased the book's readership in Japan. The first popular paperback edition, a modern translation designed for broader appeal, became available in 1980. [EN16] The volume also includes the translation of another important military treatise of the day, Heiho kadensho by Yagyu Tajima no Kami Munenori, the fencing instructor and primary military adviser to the Tokugawa shogunal house. The Japanese translator finds that while Musashi deals mainly with technique, Munenori is instead discussing "spiritual control" in combat situations. The translator, Okochi Shoji, gives a brief historical background and discussion of both texts. He devotes but one sentence to their possible implications for the Japanese of today: "Can't we say that The Book of Five Rings has somewhat suggestive and attractive elements for today's competitive society?" [EN17]

Read for the right reasons, the reasons for which Musashi presumably wrote the book, it is a useful tome. Historically, it is also an important expression of an age. But Japanese companies in great numbers do not put all their trainees to work mastering this text. Indeed, looking at Five Rings as a text, and at the career of Miyamoto Musashi, one can see reasons why the book might not be a good guide or Musashi an especially good model for Japanese companies to follow.

First, Musashi has virtually nothing to say about those human traits that we associate with Japanese companies and their workers: loyalty, harmony, group cohesiveness, dependence, mutual support, and the like. For all but the last years of his life, Musashi was a ronin, a masterless samurai whose only loyalty was to himself. His parents died when he was young, and he himself never married (although he did adopt two sons). Thus he spent little of his life in the company of others to whom he was connected by moral and ethical ties. He was outside the web of giri and ninjo, or duty and human emotion, which provide the audience interest in virtually all Tokugawa and modern drama. He is the "ippiki okami" of samurai drama fame, the "lone wolf" whose very estrangement from the larger society makes him at once attractive, but at the same time, a poor role model.

Second, Musashi is perhaps the most independent and individualistic thinker in the Japanese samurai tradition. As he says himself: "I have lived without following any particular Way. Thus with the virtue of strategy I practice many arts and abilities -- all things with no teacher." [EN18] He is headstrong, stubborn, and independent, a very poor ideal type for corporate conformity and loyalty. The moral values he symbolizes in the Yoshikawa Eiji version are noble -- certainly it is this aspect of Musashi's character that accounts for the appeal of the radio serials in the late 1930s -- and the sort of ideals Japanese managers would like their workers to possess. Nevertheless the highly individualistic way in which Musashi attained those ideals appears counter to the corporatism of Japanese business. One might even argue that Musashi's advice ought to appeal less to Japanese than to Americans. After all, it is the latter who traditionally value individualism, personal initiative, and conflict that leads to total victory. Conciliation and compromise are not high among our cultural ideals. Perhaps Five Rings tells us more about its American than its Japanese reader

The Samurai Image: Is It Valid Today?

What about the image of the samurai in contemporary Japan? There is in the American promotion for Five Rings the explicit assumption that the Japanese (or at least businessmen in Japan) are modern-day samurai in suits; thus to compete with them we must become Wall Street warriors as well. While it would be impossible to deny that there are elements of the Japanese character which are quite similar to, and perhaps derivative of, the samurai mentality of an earlier era, most of the writing in contemporary Japan does not reflect much consciousness of this heritage, with the exception of books such as The Modern Samurai Society.

In perusing the major opinion journals, one is struck by the fact that Japanese are trying to come to grips with the reverse of the problem faced by Americans: while Americans are fretting over America's economic decline, the Japanese are trying to explain and understand their success. There is, to be sure, a good deal of self-congratulatory literature, and not surprisingly books such as Ezra Vogel's Japan as Number One have enjoyed remarkable success (far greater than Five Rings). Others have voiced warnings that Japan should not become complacent over success. Still others worry about the tremendous discrepancy between Japan's great wealth and virtual impotence in world politics. Many writers have been caught up in the tokushuron, or the theory of Japan's "special characteristics," which is represented in the US by Five Rings translations and others who advocate the "search for secrets" approach to doing business with Japan.

Reviewing recent Japanese literature, there appears to be little explicit attention devoted to Japan's samurai heritage. I am struck, however, by the number of works that de-emphasize or refute such a heritage, although it could be argued that the cultural assumption of a samurai heritage is always implicit. The three recently published articles discussed below seem to me representative of Japanese thinking about themselves.

Sakaiya Taichi, in an article entitled "Debunking the Myth of Loyalty," [EN19] claims that the Japanese have historically been notoriously disloyal and are by no means the "martial race" some assume. Sakaiya says that many other peoples, called upon to make sacrifices for the military over the generations, "are, from the sovereign to the ordinary citizen, imbued to the marrow with a war ideology and well-defined attitudes toward war. The Japanese never were and are not now, and this may well be due to the fact that they have never experienced all-out war on their own soil against an alien people." In the Tokugawa period, when Japan was totally dominated by the samurai class but also almost totally at peace, Sakaiya claims "the Japanese, who had always lacked a war ideology and well-defined attitudes toward war, thus passed 250 years in a society that had disarmed to the point of having no army, and in the end lost all conception of military matters. Thus far from being a 'martial race,' the Japanese are a peaceable, agricultural people ignorant of military matters."

To prove his point, Sakaiya mentions that the shogun at the arrival of Perry in 1853 had more than 100,000 retainers. "That Japan, with this number of armed men," he says, "should ignore public opinion, which was overwhelmingly in favor of expulsion of foreigners, and surrender to the 600 men of Matthew Perry's squadron surely deserves mention in the Guinness Book of Records."

Loyalty was conspicuously lacking among Japanese warriors prior to Hideyoshi at the very end of the sixteenth century .The samurai, Sakaiya says, was essentially playing "for the team." "If a baseball player is traded to another team, he is expected to give his all to his new team and to give no thought to 'yesterday's friend.' Like the baseball player, the samurai was not bound by "any ethical premise that one cannot serve two masters." In fact, he did it all the time. The "loyalty" that is bandied about so much today -- the personal version of this, giri-ninjo, he claims, "has been placed on an offensively high pedestal" -- is thus not some hereditary national characteristic bred from a martial spirit of the samurai age, but rather lies in the Japanese "system of lifetime employment and the seniority based wage structure that supports it." Traditionally, loyalty was indeed a virtue, especially from the viewpoint of the lord; but Sakaiya reminds us that "however a certain quality is considered desirable is no guarantee that it actually prevails."

Amaya Naohiro of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, in an article entitled "Grumblings of a Shop Clerk of Japan, A Tradesman Country," feels that the "Japanese people… must reflect deeply and widely on the question of whether the way of life for Japan is that of a 'tradesman' or that of a samurai." [EN20] He likens international society to a "semi-jungle." Japan, he warns, "is something like a plump rabbit living in this jungle. We must not harbor such an illusion as to think that the bears and the wolves will show kind consideration, feeling 'pity for the poor rabbit, which has neither claws nor fangs.' For the rabbit to survive and multiply in the jungle, and for the tradesmen citizens to prosper in samurai society, they need very outstanding intelligence-gathering ability, planning ability, intuition, diplomatic ability, and even the art of flattery, at times."

Amaya feels that the Japanese in the postwar world have emulated the merchant class of Tokugawa times. Although the samurai supposedly controlled society by virtue of sitting atop the Confucian social order, theirs was in fact a world determined primarily by the economic power and cultural aspirations of the merchant. In an international society dominated by samurai (powerful countries which possess large-scale military capability, including nuclear weapons), Japan has skillfully manipulated itself into a powerful position by employing the same techniques as the Tokugawa merchant. Amaya is well aware that many Japanese neither approve of this approach nor wish to continue it, but he feels that a shift to a samurai society will be costly for Japan. Becoming a samurai will mean adopting an attitude of "pretending not to mind," sitting back when starving in the manner of a Tokugawa samurai, accepting things as they come. Furthermore, Japan would not only have to wear two swords, or rearm, but it would have to use them. Perhaps most important, Japan will have to abandon its three nuclear principles. He concludes that, for the time being, Japan will remain a merchant society.

An article on management published in Chuo Koron in 1982 [EN21] devotes a long section to "training the mind"; no fewer than 10 articles describe ways of improving or training a creative mind to produce fresh ideas. Some are essays by professors, business executives, critics and management specialists; other articles are composites of roundtable discussions or interviews with groups of executives. A rather wide range of important opinion is represented, and not one person even remotely alluded to the Book of Five Rings or ideas associated with it.

One article on "study groups" (benkyo-kai) featured a discussion among seven executives. Their organizations included the Experimental Group VSOP (Very Special One-Time Performance), the IBC (International Businessmen's Club), and The Society for the Study of the Techniques of Intellectual Production and Japanese Changes (Japaniizu Chenjizu), one of whose previous activities included psychological study employing psychodrama. There may indeed be something very Japanese going on here, but there was no Five Rings Philosophical Study Group. Indeed, much of this article described efforts to reduce stress, soften up, and become more human. The models were predominantly based upon contemporary psychological developments that appear distinctly non-Japanese.

Some spoke of toughness -- "action seminar," "all-night discussion," and survival (sabaiburu) -- but others, such as Mr. Aoki of the Human Harbor Teiki Salon group, are unabashedly interested in fostering a spirit of enjoyment: "I wish sarariman [salarymen] would understand intellectual pleasures, allow themselves a little more elbow room. A spirit of pleasure gives rise to a kind of softness, and isn't that where human durability comes from?"

Morita Masaaki of Sony, as though he had been asked to comment on America's "search for secrets" literature, was quoted in Chuo Koron: "We talk about 'Japanese management,' but I really don't believe we have some kind of Bible or Golden Rule. On the one hand we Japanese have an indecisiveness about us, so that after the Second World War, though we had become that caught up in militarism, we completely changed. With a totally casual attitude, we all became friendly with Americans. It's just that we Japanese have a character that allows us to change completely with the conditions. So when foreign managers say 'Aha! That's Japanese-style management!' Japanese managers shift and go in a completely different direction. And that, I think, is how Japanese survive."


Japanese management practices and success can only be explained as part of a larger social context. Japanese companies are not successful because they have added some mystical ingredient unavailable to or undiscovered by US corporations and business schools. Nor have they turned their workers into modern-day Musashis. What they have done is to utilize Japan's only raw material, if you will, human capital, and organize it effectively.

Japan's child-rearing practices, schooling, indeed the entire Japanese socialization process, are designed to promote social harmony. The ideals of the Tokugawa Neo-Confucianists are still alive here: loyalty to group filial piety, dedication, hard work, and frugality. Whether white-collar or blue, Japanese companies begin with workers conditioned to such ideals. Certain firms, especially large ones such as Toyota and other automotive firms with which American companies compete, offer lifetime employment, a seniority system, and early retirement -- all of which function to ensure loyalty to the firm and provide incentive to produce. Add to the formula a number of fringe benefits, such as low-cost housing; vacation resorts; facilities for cultural, educational, and sports activities; and liberal expense accounts for managers, and it is not surprising that Japanese firms secure a high degree of worker loyalty. Finally, when you consider that Japanese companies enjoy relatively cooperative rather than adversarial relations with the government, face low levels of demands from organized labor and stockholders, and value long-range planning over short-term profits, it should not be surprising that Japanese firms compete effectively at the international level.

Many Japanese and Americans feel that the Japanese values of community, cooperation, and conciliation leading to social harmony result in greater and more efficient productivity than the American system, which values individualism, competition, and adversarial labor-management relations. If one seeks a better understanding of the social context upon which Japanese business rests, Musashi is not an especially good guide. Instead, read anything and everything by Ronald Dore, Robert Cole, Thomas Rohlen, and Nakana Chie. Or study Japanese.

The "search for secrets" literature, books such as Five Rings and Theory Z (and to an even greater extent, Japan as Number One), plays upon American apprehensions about the viability of the US system and suggest that there is much to learn from Japan. While I agree that American ethnocentrism is both dangerous and impractical, we should not go too far and attribute too much success to the Japanese and their economic growth. The Japanese, like the Americans, are far from perfect. They are not all Musashis, nor is the Japanese character alone responsible for Japan's economic success today.

One should not underestimate, for instance, the role the United States has played in Japan's development, since by virtue of American defense forces, Japan has been able to devote its national energies and resources to that single goal for almost 40 years. Thanks to the "Peace Constitution," Japan has not only been spared the enormous expense of developing an adequate defense structure, but was virtually a non-participant in major international political decisions and crises until the "oil shock" of 1973-1975. When else can anyone remember the second most important economic power in the world being virtually impotent in international affairs? Japan's international position is one of virtual anonymity, even invisibility. It also cannot continue indefinitely.

There are other factors, too. Penelope Hartland-Thunberg writing in the Seattle Times (May 5, 1982) suggested that the real key to Japan's export success is a grossly undervalued yen, and concluded, "there is nothing wrong with American exporters that a yen at 175 to the dollar would not cure." Such reasoning may be just another link in the "search for secrets" chain, but it has the advantage of emphasizing a factor that has nothing to do with "character."

Perhaps the best antidote to fanciful speculation on Japan's success is any reading of contemporary Japanese literature: there is serious concern with Japan's future, and the answers proffered by various analysts by no means reflect a consensus. Moreover, the affluent society has come but recently to Japan; and only now is the first generation in memory to grow up in relative luxury. How the Japanese will deal with continued affluence remains to be seen.

Besides, Yankee ingenuity must still exist. If a country beset by economic insecurity, recession, and self-doubt can successfully market a book about a wandering Japanese swordsman, dead almost 350 years, as the key to a winning business strategy, there is cause for optimism. Recently, Morita Masaaki, the Chairman of Sony's Board of Directors, echoing a commonly voiced concern in Japan, asked, "What has happened to your frontier spirit? Where has the heroic figure of John Wayne, who opened up that country, paying great sacrifices, disappeared? ...We Japanese... feel like telling [the Americans] to 'wake up and shape up.'" [EN22] Even now the Japanese are facing the erosion of their traditional values as a society of surplus spreads its degenerative seeds. Perhaps someday soon, we Americans may be asking: "What has happened to your samurai spirit? Where has Miyamoto Musashi, who trained his character so assiduously, disappeared?"


EN1. Fortune Book Club announcement, winter-spring 1982, no. 176.

EN2. The best biography of Musashi is Tominaga Kengo, Shijitsu Miyamoto Musashi (Tokyo: Hyakusen Shobo, 1957; rep. 1969). For early period, see p. 16.

EN3. Ibid., pp.18-19.

EN4. Ibid., pp. 20-22.

EN5. Ibid., pp. 38-39.

EN6. Tominaga Kengo, Kendo Gohyakunen-shi (Tokyo: Hyakusen Shobo, 1962), pp. 219-20.

EN7. Maruoka Muneo, ed., Miyamoto Musashi Meihin Shusei (Tokyo: Kodansha, 19?), p. 107.

EN8. Ibid., p. 108.

EN9. English translation, Musashi (New York: Random House/Kodansha International, 1981); also in paper as The Musashi Saga (New York: Pocket Books, 1989-1990).

EN10. For a discussion of the Musashi movie versions, see Alain Silver, The Samurai Film (South Brunswick and New York: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1977) and Joan Mellon, The Waves at Genji's Door (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).

EN11. Tominaga, Kendo Gohyakunen-shi.

EN12. This treatise, known as Fudochi Shinmyoroku (The marvel of immovable wisdom) is partially reproduced in D. T. Suzuki, Zen in Japanese Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), pp. 95-113; see also William Scott Wilson's translation, called The Unfettered Mind (New York: Kodansha International, 1986).

EN13. Ivan Morris, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1975).

EN14. Sun Tzu, a Chinese philosopher of the sixth century BCE, was the major figure in East Asian military thought for two millennia. Fukuzawa notes that Nakamura Ritsuen was lecturing on Sun Tzu some 200 years after Musashi's death. Fukuzawa Yukichi, The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), p. 230. Likewise Yoshida Shoin took Sun Tzu's work to prison with him, and even lectured on it at age 14! Thomas M. Huber, The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981), pp. 11, 21. For a Sun Tzu bibliography, see

EN15. Koyogunkan, Gorin no Sho, Hagakure, vol. 9 in Nihon no Shisho (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1969).

EN16. Qkochi Shoji, trans., Gorin no Sho, Heiho Kadensho (Tokyo: Kyoiku-sha, 1980)

EN17. Ibid. For more detailed translations of Yagyu's text, see The Sword and the Mind (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1986) and Thomas Cleary, Book of Five Rings (Boston: Shambhala, 1993); Cleary also offers analysis in The Japanese Art of War: Understanding the Culture of Strategy (Boston: Shambhala, 1991).

EN18. Harris translation, p. 35.

EN19. Sakaiya Taichi, "Debunking the Myth of Loyalty," Japan Echo, vol. 8, no.2 (summer 1981), pp. 17-29.

EN20. Amaya Naohiro, "Grumblings of a Shop Clerk of Japan, A Tradesman Country," US Embassy, Tokyo, Summaries of Selected Japanese Magazines, May 1980, pp. 12-15.

EN21. Chuo Koron, Keiei Mondai, spring issue, 1982.

EN22. "Advice to America from Wise Man," in US Embassy, Tokyo, Summaries of Selected Japanese Magazines, July 1980, p. 18.


Online Resources

Translations of Gorin no sho

Cleary, Thomas. (Boston: Shambhala, 1993). Recommended, especially if read with Cleary's The Japanese Art of War: Understanding the Culture of Strategy (Boston: Shambhala, 1991).

Harris, Victor. (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1974). Recommended, despite some factual errors in the introduction -- see for details. Some of the many unauthorized online versions include,, and

Kaufman, Steve. (Tokyo and Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1994). Not recommended, as it is a very loose interpretation based on English-language sources rather than a translation.

Nihon Services Corporation. (New York: Bantam Books, 1983). Recommended. For some extracts, see

See Also:

Draeger, Donn F. "Miyamoto Musashi," Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 8:3 (1999), 34-37; reprinted at

Joya, Mock. "The Japanese Sword: The Symbol of 'Heiho,'" Japan Times, May 6, 1928, pp. 3, 6.

Taylor, Kim. Niten Ichi Ryu: The Sword of Musashi Miyamoto (Guelph, Ontario: Seidokai, 2000); an extract appears at

InYo Jan 2001