Japanese Culture: The Legacy of Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu, Adopted Guru of Japan

One rather interesting footnote of Chinese history is that the land where Sun Tzu is said to have hailed, the state of Wu, was more or less the eastern tip of China, the closest geographical point to the Japanese islands. Indeed, Chinese records state that ambassadors from Japan stated (in China) that they were descended from the “Wo” people of the state of Wu.

Certainly, there is much in common in the traditions of the people that resided in the state once known as Qi and the people of Japan. The “Wo” people were considered barbarians who had been Sinicized (made Chinese, i.e. civilized) during the wars that defined Sun Tzu’s time and were the inspiration for his writings about less devastating, more victorious warfighting.

Furthermore, like the people of Japan, the Wo people carried babies on their back, had face tattoos (Chinese influence drove that out of Japan too), ate raw fish, and were known for their superior ability to forge swords (in the style of the day, at least).

Finally, there are substantial linguistic links between Japan and Wu Chinese. One type of “native Japanese” kanji pronunciation, “go-on” (“on” for sound), is viewed as explicitly drawn from Wu Chinese.

Thus, it is little surprise that Japan has treated Sun Tzu as an adopted son… or an adopted military guru, if you will.

A Lengthy Legacy

Although overshadowed by what would be considered stereotypical Japanese courage and viciousness in battle, serious, educated Japanese warlords such as Takeda Shingen religiously studied the writings of Sun Tzu, deriving innumerable lessons about how to approach battle. Chiefly, these regarded when to fight and when not to fight.

In his long war with Uesugi Kenshin, Shingen’s fiercest battle with his longtime rival was essentially created by an error in maneuvering and communication which gave Shingen an opportunity to fight with equal chances of success or failure, with even numbers, in a particular place and at a particular time. The casualty count was easily the highest of all of their battles. Typically, both strategic masters passed on direct combat because they perceived no advantage in the circumstances, preserving their forces and their power against each other and numerous other foes for a considerable number of years.

Sun Tzu’s strategies are not really compatible with kamikazes, suicide charges, and so forth. These were desperation tactics to reverse battles that had already been largely lost, particularly on the strategic level. The consequent defeat of Japan in WWII did not diminish interest in strategy; rather, it brought about an eventual revival in interest in what we might call real strategy, the sort that prepares the ground for victory well before the first shot is fired, either literally or proverbially.


  • Minimize Risk
  • Maximize Chances of Victory
  • Account for the Unknown
  • Seize Genuine Opportunities
  • Avoid Traps
  • Create Traps for the Opponent
  • Win.

These are the principles treasured and passed down century after century. They have become deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, even though Sun Tzu is, as people may be quick to tell you, Chinese.

His legacy, however, is much broader than the borders of China. In Japan, his legacy firmly lives on: in business, government, and military circles, and with armchair generals (players of strategic video games) everywhere.

J Sensei

About J Sensei

Blogger, writer, linguist, former Japanese> English translator, rusty in French, experienced in Japanese, fluent English native. Writing for Technorati.com and various blogs. Skype: jeremiah.bourque (messages always welcome). E-mail: [email protected]
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