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JUL 21, 2020

Japanese Gods, Art, and Management: How Ancient Practices Influence Business Today

By Tomoya Nakamura
iStock/uladzimir_likman

Step into a Japanese soba restaurant, and you’ll feel the spirit of the store owner in his hand-made soba noodles. Enter a Japanese inn and you’ll feel the special sense of hospitality (omotenashi) when you are greeted by the female manager (okami). Pick up a vermicular pot, and you’ll be fascinated by the beautiful casting by master craftsmen.

While it may seem like these are aesthetics limited to the cultural or artistic realms, they are sourced from the same place as Japan-born management theories.

Professor Yoshihiko Takubo worked with GLOBIS alumni to research Japanese companies that are over three hundred years old and have annual sales of more than JP\5 billion (roughly US$45million). They called these “Japanese sustainable companies” and found several unexpected commonalities: management philosophy passed down through generations, shrines on the properties, and a significant commitment to local communities.

Simply put, there is a connection between Japanese culture and Japan-born management theories.

The Gods and the Arts Created a Unique Cultural Foundation

Many of the Japanese arts have their origins in festivals. Music, dance, and even sumo wrestling were originally conducted to please the gods, or kami-sama, at festivals. The concept of kami-sama goes beyond the Western notion of a single god: it is said that there are eight million kami-sama in Japan. What’s more, they are all around us—in the mountains, the rocks, the rivers, the sun, the wind, the trees, and even nature’s will to grow.

As the kami-sama take so many forms, festivals to honor them are held during all four seasons in Japan. They provide opportunities for communities and kami-sama to come together for prayer, music, dance, sake, and food—and spiritual rejuvenation.

The Chinese character for festival is祭. This letter is a compound ideograph with three parts. The top left (月) represents offerings to kami. The top right (又) indicates hands. And the bottom (示) symbolizes an altar or shrine. Thus, the original meaning of festival was “people supplying offerings to the gods at shrines.”

Over time, to strengthen this relationship with the gods, Japanese art took a unique shape. A special training method developed that shifted the focus from the form to the mind and eventually to spirituality. This training method is called shuhari.

Japanese Management Theories Were Born from Arts Training

When you start practicing a Japanese art, initially you are asked to follow the form, or shu. In aikido, for example, first you learn how to use your left arm and right arm, as well as how to move your left foot and right foot. Then you put these movements together as one form to throw your opponent.

Once you get accustomed to shu, your master will ask you what you are thinking. This is the next step, ha. Here, you experience a depending of your mental state, your physical skills change dramatically. It may seem surprising, but we learn that our mental state is in its strongest “mode” when we are grateful to our opponents.

Eventually, your master will ask you the important questions: “What was the original technique 300 to 400 years ago? How has it changed, and for what reasons?” This is the final ri of shuhari. Imagining the techniques of 300 to 400 years ago (when aikido was born) enables us to empathize with our ancestors, bringing their values into the modern age.

The Knowledge-Creating Company, by Professors Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, emphasizes the importance of converting tacit knowledge from employee experiences into explicit knowledge through interaction with comrades. This is how shuhari played a part in shedding light on the tacit knowledge within employees. Without this cultural heritage of mindful and spiritual training, Professor Takubo and his GLOBIS alumni team may not have been able to connect the management philosophies from generations ago to the commitment to local festivals and on to the longevity of Japanese sustainable companies.

The Influence of Art in Management Overseas

While shuhari may have influenced Japan, humanity’s spiritual connection with nature (and interpretations of kami-sama) is evident all around the world. Every year, more than 400,000 people walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route between France and in Spain, to reconnect with their spirit. Similar journeys and retreats take place worldwide.

The connection between spirituality and management can be found elsewhere, too.

If we look at Western management theory, we can find the social change method known as Theory U. Developed by Professor Otto Scharmer of MIT, Theory U classifies the mental state of leaders into 7 stages: downloading, seeing, sensing, presencing, crystallizing, prototyping, and performing. Of these, downloading and seeing exemplify the shu of Japanese shuhari, while sensing attunes to ha, and presencing demonstrates ri.

This is evidence that the value of expanding our human views from the material to the mindful and eventually to the spiritual is not beyond the reach of anyone in our global society. By familiarizing ourselves with art, taking part in festivals or other community events, and embarking on pilgrimages, we can connect with nature and train our minds for shuhari anywhere.

Even in this world of COVID-19, as we are asked to social distance, spirituality has the power to rejuvenate our sense of humanity. The ancient practices at the heart of Japan-born management theories, as well as Theory U, can bring new wisdom to our modern times.