May 21, 2013


Integrating Eastern and Western Wisdom Could Hold the Keys to a More Sustainable World

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JFS Newsletter No.128 (April 2013)

Japan is positioned almost as a bridge between the East and West. The conviction that Japan has something significant to offer toward creating a more sustainable and happy world was one of the reasons I started Japan for Sustainability (JFS) ten years ago.

Yoshifumi Taguchi is a scholar of the works of Lao Tzu and Chuang-Tzu, two of China's greatest philosophers. As director of the Research Institute for Integration of Eastern and Western Wisdom, he helps many managers and politicians develop their leadership skills using teachings based on classical Chinese texts. He gives many lectures and seminars to companies, central and local government offices, and educational institutions across Japan. In this article, I would like to share what I have learned from his teachings.


Japan's Intellectual Heritage Shaped by Geography

One major geographical feature of Japan is that it is an island nation of forests and mountains surrounded by the sea. The Japanese have long believed that an intelligence greater than that of humans exists deep in the forest, and that the ability of people to sense "invisible deities" is sharpened in the dense forests and on steep mountains. Against this backdrop, a unique concept was born, where there are "eight million deities," with a mountain, a rock, or a huge tree considered to be a deity.

Japan's native Shinto religion is rooted in the belief of the existence of many deities, not one absolute god. Shinto also has no icons for any one deity. "We see deities in nature" -- this is how the Japanese cultivated their acute sensitivity and profound spirituality, which might be one of the reasons why Japanese "anime" (movies featuring animation drawn by hand or computer) is a popular genre around the world.

Furthermore, wherever water is abundant and the terrain is steep in Japan, the rivers flow rapidly from the mountains to the sea, which keeps the water always clear enough to see the river bottom. This kind of natural environment led the Japanese people to develop a mind of clearness, which values clarity and purity. In any business community in Japan, disingenuousness is loathed, and this appreciation of clearness is considered one of the sources of great leadership among the Japanese people.

Another geographical characteristic that defines Japan is that it is located at the eastern limit of the Eurasian continent. While Shinto is a religion that originated in the lands of Japan, the wisdom of Asia -- Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen -- spread eastward and eventually arrived in Japan in waves. These philosophies developed while still retaining their original form, but they also combined to foster a new culture, bringing forth redolent and profound thought and philosophy.

The Eastern Philosophies behind the "Japanese Mind"

The specific geographical features mentioned above are the backdrop of Japan's cultural foundations, which consist of co-existence with nature, receptivity to and compatibility with other religions, and respect for diversity. The awareness that we are alive thanks to all of nature surrounding us led to the principal of "banbutsu seidou," which means "everything is equal." This unique view and relationship with nature differs greatly from the Christian idea of "stewardship," in which humanity is believed to be entrusted by God to have dominion over nature.

The foundation of Eastern thinking is "enlightenment," as seen in the name of "Buddha," which actually means "enlightened person." Simply put, the truth is not something that exists outside or something that needs to be brought in from outside, but already exists within each person.

Eastern thinking has the concept of "yin and yang." "Yang" refers to the flow of energy developing, expanding, or going outward, whereas "yin" is the inward flow or the flow toward inner contentment. Responding to situations from the "yin and yang" perspective is a way of living in acceptance of these forces of the universe. For instance, children have a "yang period" and a "yin period." Adults should encourage children when they are in their yang period to help their energy expand outward, while children in their yin period need to be encouraged to try to achieve inner contentment and be patient so as to build their energy.

It is important also for companies to grasp the concept of yin and yang. Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic Corporation, excelled in distinguishing between yin and yang. He used to say, "Good times are good and bad times are good, too." This means that bad times can present the best opportunities, because although no one says yes to reforms during good times, reforms and improvements can come out of bad times.

It is also true that extreme yang leads to yin and vice versa. If the conditions swing extremely to one side, they end up turning the other way round. This is also true of companies. If a company produces ostentatious outward-directed flows by, for example, giving a lavish party because it is doing well, it might adversely change much quicker than expected. This way of thinking teaches us the following: everything is interlinked in various ways; balance is important; and it is important to see things from the long-term and overarching perspective while understanding the going back and forth of things without making judgment by thinking only of the short term or the present.

Since yin and yang complement each other to constitute the whole, so it is necessary to consider how to make the most of both. If we can maintain the thinking pattern of understanding both sides of things that seem to contradict each other, we could generate a dynamic, new world, by not choosing between two poles, like making a forced choice between a "cost" or "service" emphasis in business, or between the "environment" or the "economy," but by achieving a balance between things that appear to contradict each other. As Laozi said: "Everything is based on harmony between yin and yang; harmony is the origin of creation and the most important key to innovation."

The Root of Today's Problems

Countries, regions, companies, and individuals are now facing a multitude of problems. I believe that they are rooted in the stagnation of modern Western thought. In the twentieth century, people in Japan and all over the world enjoyed the benefits of modern Western thought. But as "extreme yang becomes yin," the negative effects of this thought at some point begin to reveal themselves.

The characteristics of modern Western thought that come with adverse effects include a mechanistic view of humanity and an overemphasis on economic rationality. Economic rationality improves productivity, leading to the creation of wealth. But big problems arise when economic rationality rules supreme, and the "efficiency" imperative is applied excessively to medicine, education, and other fields -- as we see today -- at the expense of other valid values. The twenty-first century clearly requires a new paradigm.

Despite its excellent cultural foundations mentioned above, since World War II, Japan has made light of cultural education and formation of the person, to which much importance was attached to up until the industrial era. In the Edo period (1603-1868), Japanese children started reading the "Four Books and Five Classics" (authoritative books of Confucianism, written before 300 BC) from the young age of around three and studied at "terakoya," (schools associated with Buddhist temples) where children of various ages studied together at their own pace.

Education in those days was aimed at fostering respectable persons, persons of great discipline. People believed that education was meaningless unless it was useful in life or society. I believe that you can grasp the nature cultural education and formation of the person in the Edo period if you read, say, "Bushido, The Soul of Japan," written by Inazo Nitobe.

Bushido, The Soul of Japan

Eiichi Shibusawa, a Japanese industrialist active from the end of the Edo period to the beginning of the Taisho period (1912-1926), who established a few hundred companies, is called the "father of Japanese capitalism." It is said that, although his father was just a farmer, but completed the study of the Four Books and Five Classics. Eiichi finished his study of the books when still young and conversed with other children at the dinner table about "The Analects of Confucius." As in this example, the common experiences that formed the shared norms were based on the family, which resulted in stability in Japan.

The Chinese character indicating the Japanese word "tadashii" (interpreted as right, truthful, proper, etc.) is composed of two written components, one meaning "one" (or a) and the other meaning "stop." In this respect, a "right" behavior is to determine "a" certain line that should not be stepped over, and "stop" before it. People can live with peace of mind only when they share the same perception of the line that should not be stepped over in society. If the same perception does not exist, each and every person will adopt his/her own self-seeking line as a criterion for judgment. In the worst case, some might ask, "What's wrong with killing others?" In this situation, the country would degenerate into chaos, whereas society, businesses, and other entities would become unable to function properly.

Japanese society is now losing these very norms, because people have not been taught the important things in life. This was mainly because Japan aggressively accelerated the introduction of technologies after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. At that time, Japan had witnessed the miserable conditions in China, which had been harmed by powerful countries, and thought that Japan needed an industrial revolution quickly, so as not to follow in China's footsteps. To this end, Japan focused on technology- and knowledge-based education. But since then, it has not resumed education that puts an emphasis on cultural enrichment and formation of the person.

Technology- and knowledge-based education can produce first-class engineers, but not first-class people. Japan must resume education that develops the full person in the most real sense. It may not be difficult to recover from an economic recession, but it will take decades to recover from spiritual degeneration. That is why we must take action immediately.

Aiming at Integrating the Wisdom of East and West

Shozan Sakuma, a leading Japanese philosopher who played an active role in late Edo period, pointed out the strong points of "Eastern morals and Western culture." People in the East believe that truth exists inside us and head inward to seek out principles like "What is it to be human?" and so on. Pursuing and placing importance on principles -- which are the most fundamental of all and will be solid even when the times and society change -- are an advantage of the East, while there is a tendency to be weak in practical application.

Meanwhile, people in the West believe that truth exists outside us and look outward to seek it. If someone has his/her sword broken and falls over, another will take over the role. An advantage of the West is to excel in making things universal and to be good at the "art" of getting things done concretely.

People in both the East and West need to share these advantages with each other to jointly create a new paradigm. After World War II, Japan strove hard to achieve westernization, in which attention was paid only to the short-term, the visible, and the measurable. The nation stopped considering the long-term and hidden linkages between things. Japan became unable to accept the abstractness and complexity that characterize Eastern thought, and developed an inflexible way of thinking that believes everything has a single, absolute solution.

The Japanese need to restore the Japanese and Eastern cultural groundwork we are in the process of losing. At the same time, by integrating the wisdom of the East and the West, we need to co-create a new paradigm for the world. I believe this is our role as people who live in Japan in the twenty-first century.


One of JFS's goals is to become a platform for fostering co-creation between the East and the West and for generating a new paradigm and sense of values. We aim to learn from and regain the wisdom of the East and the positive aspects of Japan and its people.

For your reference, Taguchi's book, "The Managerial Ideas from the East," is available in English and can be purchased.

Written by Junko Edahiro