400 year old strategic thinking…

Written by

Andrew Millar


April 12, 2012

A friend of mine is, as I write this, standing on the small island of Funajima, in the Kanmon Straits that separate the Japanese islands of Honshu and Kyushu.

I can imagine his mouth in a fixed grin would span the waters between the islands.

Chris, a modern day samurai, is there to celebrate the 400 year anniversary of a duel fought between two legendary figures. It was a simple bout of skill, which in many ways you could argue, charters the course of Japanese thinking today.

On April 13, 1612, Miyamoto Musashi, a Ronin, a masterless samurai from the east fought a duel with Sasaki Kojiro. Known as 'The Demon of the Western Provinces' Kojiro's weapon of choice was the nodachi – a long razor sharp field sword nicknamed 'The Drying Pole'.

Musashi's chose to back his skills using a bokken… a humble wooden sword that he carved out of a boat oar on his way to the island.

Musashi arrived late and unkempt to the appointed place and the resulting duel was short. Kojiro was incensed that Musashi should arrive late and dressed in such a disrespectful manner. He drew his sword and threw the scabbard away. Musashi pointed out that with that single gesture Kojiro had admitted he would lose the bout. It was obvious that Kojiro never intended to sheath his sword again.

Kojiro attacked using his signature stroke… 'The Swallow Cut' He swung his sword downwards and missed Musashi but swooped the blade at the lowest point and intended to strike Musashi on the upward stroke. But Musashi was swift and delivered a single blow to Kojiro's head.

Both stood facing each other. Musashi's headband fell from his forehead into the water they both stood in. Kojiro had cut the band on the downward stroke but inflicted little else in the way of injury. But soon blood appeared to run freely from Kojiro's hair line and he dropped where he stood. Vanquished.

Musashi had strategically carved his wooden sword an inch longer than The Drying Pole.

Musashi's late arrival was controversial. Kojiro's outraged supporters thought it was dishonourable and disrespectful, while Musashi's supporters thought it was a fair way to unnerve his opponent. Another theory states he waited for the sun to get in the right position. After he dodged a blow, Kojiro was blinded by the sun. Another theory is that Musashi timed the hour of his arrival to match the turning of the tide. The tide carried him to the island. After his victory, Musashi immediately jumped back in his boat and his flight from Kojiro's vengeful allies was helped by the turning of the tide.

In any event this was the last public bout Musashi entered into. Some say, in the 60 bouts Musashi won, this was the most disturbing for him. It was as though he had defeated himself… he saw Kojiro 'as though he had looked in a mirror'.

Musashi retired at 30 and made his way to the west of the islands, eventually to Reigando cave. In the last few years of his life he sat and wrote 'The Book of 5 Ring' and in this, his greatest influence on modern Japan lies.

Had Musashi not retired one could argue that his skills eventually would have been overcome. And yes, he would have met his death at the sharp edge of a sword. And the book he wrote would not have had such an influence on Japan's business ethos. The Book of 5 Rings is a masterwork on weapons and strategy. It is a treatise on how to defeat… how to out manoeuvre… how to win… and it is a book you'll find in every office of every corporation in Japan. It is the 'bible' as Sun Tzu's Art of War is to the Chinese.

Where it falls short as a business tool and motivator today is that it contains nothing about adaption, innovation, versatility or move with changing times. What if weapons change? What if the person facing you carried an AK47 rather than a metre long blade? And the world has been holding the gun of economic recession at Japan's business head for the last 10 years. Japan to me is standing facing it's economic enemy with sword draw. I fear Japan is simply hoping that after duel is over, the tide will carry them away from their assailants…