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A look into the warrior's mind
on April 3, 2004
This book was written at the very start of the 19th century, by a samurai in retirement. It gives a unique look back to the late 18th, when Yamamoto was active as a samurai. The view is unique, in part, because Japan was unifying and there was less need for each minor lord to have an armed class. The warrior ethic was changing as war became less common. In part, these notes seem to mourn the passing of the clearest, purest form of that ethic.
The warrior ethic only changed, though and still underlies many aspects of modern Japanese thought and policy. The feudal caste system still gives a fair decription of different levels of management.
This book is not just about a time and a culture different from that in the modern West. It teaches personal responsibility, a lesson that many too many people still need. In part, this means responsibility to one's self, in maintaining professional skills and personal credibility. It also means responsibility towards one's employer. I do not feel crass in saying that, by accepting the pay that feeds and houses me, I have a duty to return the value given. Self interest, if not personal honor, should encourage me to support my employer well enough to keep supporting me and to support me better in the future.
I was also interested to see that a strict code of honor can include a strictly preserved set of personal freedoms. Yamamoto stresses the need to tolerate a few flaws in order to use a person's strengths. He also notes that samurai - or, I think, any professionals - can be effective only when free to make decisions on their own. This is not insubordination, quite the opposite. The skilled employee must be able to make decisions based on that skill. Too tight a managerial rein just strangles the professional's effectiveness.
I was surprised (but perhaps should not have been) that this book describes the modern professional so well. Yamamoto's advice is right in line with my own business experience. I think that more of today's skilled workers, and their managers, would be more effective if they applied this book in their lives.
It was also surprising, but satisfying, to read Yamamoto's most secret advice: to do what you love most. I certainly see why this maxim must be held back. This advice can only enrich a person who is already so trained that their loves are honorable, loyal, and productive. Keeping with Yamamoto's Zen spirit, though, I would say that such people do not need that inner secret. Today, as then, such people already follow what they love.