A Book of Five Rings (1645)
Can it really be just ten years since the Great Rising Sun Hysteria? Remember how the Japanese were going to inherit the Earth and America would become a sort of a vassal state? The Japanese had cornered a big chunk of the car and electronics markets. They bought everything from Pebble Beach to Rockefeller Center. And the Western intellectual elites convinced themselves that the knew the reasons why: that the Japanese were an egoless, homogenous, nonmaterialistic, socialized people, willing to exchange individual initiative, personal gratification and acquisitiveness for job security, social security and the psychic comfort of cultural conformity. Of course, then the whole thing went to hell in a handcart and folks realized that the Japanese system suffered from the eternal and inevitable cancer of all centralized systems; Japanese culture had produced a profoundly uncreative people.
They were okay at imitating the success of thers, chiefly us; they could rip off watches, cameras, televisions and the like. And they had stumbled into a bonanza when the tiny little cars that their island necessitated turned out to be ideal vehicles for the gasoline shortages and price increases of the 70's. But as conditions changed in the world, the system proved incapable of the kind of dynamism that characterizes the American system. It turned out that just about anybody can put together stuff just as well as the Japanese did--Koreans, Indonesians, Indians, Mexicans, etc--and they'd do it cheaper. Energy costs fell and suddenly no one wanted a tiny little car anymore. And since there were no fundamentally Japanese inventions, the succeeding generations of goods were all coming from American minds. What happens to a production based economy when others will produce the same stuff cheaper and all the intellectual productivity resides in a rival nation? Nothing good.
Meanwhile, it gradually dawned on people that the Japanese citizenry wasn't willingly deferring their materialist yearnings; they just couldn't afford to buy the stuff they wanted, like land and houses, which in a little island nation with many people and great wealth were prohibitively expensive. So all of the wealth in the society ended up in savings accounts and was essentially diverted from productive uses. One of the hoariest canards of the past two decades is the supposed imbalance between American and Japanese savings rates. Sure the Japanese have a lot of money sitting in passbook savings accounts earning 2% interest. Indeed, they have much more of their national wealth tied up in such savings than we do. But that is it. That's where all of their money is. Meanwhile, American money is invested in our homes and our 401k accounts, neither of which are included in savings calculations. If you count these savings, it turns out that Americans are the greatest savers in the history of Humankind. Plus, these are productive uses for national wealth. They are investments which cause a beneficial ripple effect in the economy. The Japanese, on the other hand, may as well be stuffing their money in their mattresses for all the good it does their nation.
But anyway, there was that decade-long spasm when the media and the
Left convinced themselves that the Japanese had it all figured out.
So there was this ridiculous craze in Japanese management techniques and
faux profound philosophical teachings. Riding in on the crest of
this wave came A Book of Five Rings by one of the most revered warriors
in Japan's history, Miyamoto Musashi.
The book is essentially a treatise on the Way of the warrior, the strategy that should be employed in combat:
It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of pen
and sword, and he should have a taste for both
This is the Way for men who want to learn my strategy:
Do not think dishonestly.
To attain the Way of strategy as a warrior you must
study fully other martial arts and not deviate
Until you realise the true Way, whether in Buddhism
or in common sense, you may think that things
Then you will come to think of things in a wide sense
and, taking the void as the Way, you will see
In the void is virtue, and no evil. Wisdom has existence,
principle has existence, the Way has
Essentially, he has two extremely simple messages: be humble and study what other people do. This is a thoroughly Japanese philosophy and the recipe for both their success in the 80's and their demise in the 90's. It is really tactical thinking more than it is strategic. The Japanese system calls for precisely duplicating what already exists, for learning what is already known. The American system demands innovation, the end run around the status quo. If you want a metaphor for the two systems, two images come inescapably to mind: David vs. Goliath and the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones shoots the enormous scimitar wielding Arab. You can just picture Musashi studying Goliath's moves or the Arab's techniques, being reactive and imitative, while the American picks up a gun or a sling and uses technological innovation to triumph.
Now imagine if you will thousands of American businessmen riding the
train to work in the morning with this book clutched in their hands, eagerly
seeking clues to the Japanese economic miracle in the pages of a 17th century
sword fighting manual. Pretty amusing, eh? It's quite a lovely
little book and it is helpful for understanding the strengths and limitations
of the Japanese psyche. But if you approach it seeking profound and
vital truths to apply in your own life, you are more than likely going
to be disappointed.
Andrew Geller adds:
I do however, disagree that these traits are intrinsic to Musashi's philosophy. From Yoshikawa's novelization of his life, it does seem like he could absorb another fighter's art quickly and utterly, to the point where he knew what the other would do before the opponent did. I think that this is innovative. And the opponent is defeated before he knows what hit him. Perhaps that is the strategic lesson. It is certainly the way of Aikido -- using the attacker's force and motion against him. In the "Difference between Seeing and Perceiving" and in the "Immovable Mind" he clearly moves toward anticipation and pre-emptive actions. This may be tactical rather than strategic -- I'm not sure what that means. I never quite knew what the business honchos thought they could get out of it. They just liked to envision themselves as samurais, and would take lessons like Musashi offers that an opponent must be completely, utterly defeated.
-Musashi (1935)(Eiji Yoshikawa) (Charles S. Terry, Translator)
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