From Samurais to Captains of Industry

The floral bouquet of sake is reminiscent of the April breeze that carries the perfume of blooming cherry trees. Pink petals of cherry flowers often come to rest on the delicate pattern of silk kimonos… worn by geishas whose skin is made white by the rice powder which they delicately apply on their face and neck. Rice is the familiar guest on the table of every family meal, occasionally adorned with a piece of raw fish sliced by a knife as sharp as a samurai’s katana. And the spirit of samurais seems to live through the loyalty, honesty and discipline that the Japanese people is famed for.

Such are the clichés which compose the generally accepted portrait of Japan. This portrait is vividly highlighted by the juxtaposition of modernity and tradition, and its wide acceptance actually has little to do with chance… Rather, it is the result of a carefully crafted narrative which was spread to help unite a nation while it abruptly transitioned from feudal isolation to industrial globalization. At the core of this narrative stands the proud figure of the samurais, hereditary mercenaries who followed the rules of the bushido.

Some of them gained eternity by the sword… and a few others by founding successful business empires. A Mistubishi car and a Sumitomo loan are but the ripe fruits of trees planted centuries ago by men who diversified their family’s endeavors and decided to step onto the economic battlefield. This helped samurais’ ideals transcend time and become an endemic part of Japan’s culture, including in the corporate world.

As Japan remains an economic behemoth that cannot be ignored (its GDP was estimated at US$4.601 trillion in 2014), learning of the samurai heritage is an exotic yet mandatory gateway to understanding its modern society and the respect, discipline and honour that bushido taught this singular nation.

Bushido: the Way of the Warrior

In medieval Japan, the word bushi designated the whole military class[1], which included the samurais, a caste of officers divided into several ranks. It is estimated that they represented somewhere between 5% and 10% of the Japanese population; at the end of 19th century, Japan counted 25 million inhabitants, among which roamed 1,774,000 samurais[2].

Bushido, the name given to the code governing samurais’ lives, can be translated into “the way of the warrior”. A way which is paved with frugality, loyalty, mastery of martial arts, and honor to the death. Any samurai must walk this way with calmness, fairness, justice, and propriety. Bushido varied a lot over time, and evolved as these mercenaries adapted to the Japanese society. But it can still be summarized as a praise to eight principal virtues: rectitude, courage, benevolence (which can lead warriors to mercy), politeness (out of respect for the opponent), honesty (with an accent on sincerity), honor, loyalty, and character (gained through self-control)[3].

Once restricted to the military class, these admirable principles have been romanticized during Japan’s metamorphose into the first modern Asian state, put to the service of a nationalistic agenda in the years leading to the Second World War, and slowly printed onto the very fabric of the Japanese society… just like the samurai class was melted into modern Japan.

Samurais: warriors of all fronts

From legendary martial prowess to economic success

The golden age of samurais started with the seizing of power by Shogun Ieyasu in 1603. For the ensuing 250 years, a military government referred to as the Tokugawa Shogunate reigned over Japan, cutting it off from the outside world. The Shoguns relied on the support of feudal lords known as daimyo, below whom were samurai warriors, then peasants, then crafts people and finally merchants who were at the bottom of this society[4]. As this system produced relative stability and peaceful intervals throughout the insulated empire, the samurai class came to play a central role in the policing and administration of the country.

Some members of these families chose to undertake commercial ventures, which permitted a first foray of bushido outside the battlefield. Companies were created which on occasion evolved to become zaibatsu, those large family-controlled vertical monopolies which through agglomeration could dominate whole sectors of a given market. A family run holding would generally keep a firm grip on financial, manufacturing, mining, shipping and trading units. This complementarity, together intertwining directorship of these units, encouraged group loyalty; thousands of workers would pledge allegiance to their house as samurais would to their daimyo. Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Sumitomo are three examples of early zaibatsu that are still in business today[5].

This era of autarky ended under mounting international pressure. In July 1853, impressed by the advanced technology demonstrated by the firepower of four U.S. ships sent to the Tokyo Bay under the command of Commodore Perry[6], Japan started opening itself to trade. Among other things previously unthinkable, Japan allowed that American citizen in Japan be governed by U.S. law administered by the American embassy rather than the Japanese courts. This abrupt opening triggered a xenophobic backlash and spurred revolts from samurais, which eventually led to the restauration of the Emperor’s powers in 1868.

As young Emperor Meiji then abolished privileges, equalized classes and created a conscript army, the need to integrate an idle class of hereditary warriors such as the samurais became obvious. A national rehabilitation program known officially as shizoku jusan was thus implemented around three axes[7].

Land rehabilitation first: samurais were given financial incentives to acquire waste lands, mostly in the Northern part of the archipelago, and to accommodate them for agricultural purpose. Many samurais responded to that initiative by pooling their resources into companies, some of which prospered through time.

Then, the Government implemented the second axe of its policy in 1876, when it converted the samurais’ military pension into negotiable bonds, which could then be exchanged and used as security for the establishment of branches of the National Bank. This aimed at solving the mounting financial problems of the samurais and fostering investments and development across the nation. The result was eloquent: 148 branches of Japan’s National Bank were established within 2 years and, by 1882, samurais owned no less than 75% of those banks’ stocks.

Lastly, an official capital loan program was rolled out from 1879 to 1890, which resulted in the development of a national construction industry, from infrastructure to industrial and residential buildings, as well as various other forms of enterprises (fisheries, sugar plants, tea factories…). In most cases, loans were made to associations rather than individual entrepreneurs, and it is estimated that after ten years this program had enlisted roughly 100,100 samurais, or 23% of the class.

Bushido DiagramThe shizoku jusan did not solve most samurai’s financial problems, but it considerably helped the development of the country’s economy and its transition to an industrial era. A lot of companies were created by former samurais thanks to it, albeit with various fortunes, and the second generation tended to handle business better than its transitioning fathers. An eloquent demonstration of that program’s impact is that, between 1870 and the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, the Japanese GDP per capita expanded about 88 percent. By comparison, during this period China’s GDP per capita expanded about 4 percent, India’s about 29 percent, France’s about 87 percent, and the United States’ about 213 percent[8].

By then, the samurais had melted into this new industrial society, but their legend and ideals had just started a new life of their own. A new life in which they would serve the purposes of a nationalist and militarist agenda.

Bushido’s myth put to nationalist use

In parallel with this transition of the Japanese society, a modern bushido discourse originated in the 1880s as a response to Japan’s exposure to Western culture, and to make sense of traditional values in these fast changing times. Some even argue that bushido is an “invented tradition” of the times, intimately tied to modern Japanese nationalism and internationalism[9].

The cornerstone of that modern discourse is Inazô Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan[10], which he completed in 1899. This essential work was written in English and first published in the United States, and was thus clearly addressed to a Western audience. According to Nitobe, Bushido translated into the most positive attributes of the Japanese society as a whole. The author thus argued that bushido had spread beyond the samurai class and permeated all of Japanese society after the Meiji Restoration.

As this discourse was spread both nationally and internationally, loyalty to one’s daymio, a keystone of traditional bushido, progressively muted into loyalty to the nation and the emperor. During the years leading to the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05), bushido even became the convenient instrument a nationalist and militarist propaganda, helping to unify the whole nation behind its arguably ill-advised emperor. This most unfortunately ended with the atrocious tragedies of the Second World War that the whole region is still struggling with.

But as Japan’s towns were reduced to ashes and the nation had to reconstruct itself from the ground up after 1945, it could now count on a widely accepted set of virtues which had soaked into all of the nation’s classes and would end up influencing the extraordinary economic growth enjoyed by the archipelago over the ensuing decades.

Ghosts of the samurais haunt Tokyo’s skyscrapers

The widespread acceptance of bushido’s values in the education system, the military, and society in general helped maintaining Japan’s identity through a very dramatic and fast changing century. Even today, Westerners tend to view Japanese citizens as generally more disciplined, loyal, and respectful than most.

This stereotypic lens however fails to capture the nature of Japan’s younger generations who grew up in an ever more connected world and a globalized culture. Japan’s Youth tends to move away from this collectivistic mindset and has become more individualistic, entrepreneurial and materialistic[11]. This adds constancy to the famed Japanese paradox of a fast-moving and technologized country built on very traditional core values.

There are also signs of changes in the corporate world, spurred mostly by the increasing role of women in the workplace and the influence of foreign investors and partners. For example, Japanese corporations tend to move away from the traditional consensus model defining their decision-making process. Nissan in particular implemented a top-down process which facilitates action despite resistance to a specific decision within the group[12]. Of course, Japanese values may remain stronger elements of the corporate culture for entities which contribute to Japan’s national identity, such as Sony and Toyota, while smaller corporations are quicker to feel Western influence and adapt to it.

Because of this mixed reality, it remains relevant for any foreigner to understand the fundamental constituents of Japan’s culture (including its corporate culture) namely trust, relationship prior to business, group loyalty before personal immediate goal, long-term relations before short-term profit and harmony before rude frankness to enable successful cross-cultural business. Although Japan has definitely learned all the lessons it cared to from the Western business world, ghosts of the samurais still whisper bushido teachings at Nippon’s end of the negotiation table.


[2] Mikiso Hane Modern Japan: A Historical Survey, Third Edition Westview Press (January, 2001) ISBN 0-8133-3756-9

[3] The Bushido Code: the eight virtues of the samurai by Tim Clark




[7] The Economic Rehabilitation of the Samurai in the Early Meiji by Harry D. Harootunian, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Aug., 1960), pp. 433-444;


[9] Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan by Oleg Benesch, Oxford University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-19-870662-5

[10] Bushido: The Soul of Japan by Inazô Nitobe, 10th rev. ed, New York, London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905

[11] Bushido No more? by Johanna Ryftenius and Randy Z. Shoai;

[12] Bushido No more? by Johanna Ryftenius and Randy Z. Shoai;

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