It’s often said that becoming an expert takes 10,000 hours of practice, but not for Japanese artisans, also known as takumi. For them, becoming an expert is a lifelong mission dedicating oneself to a craft, continually honing their skills, with the goal of passing their craft on to future generations.

This remarkable dedication, skill and philosophy, developed over centuries in Japan, is a source of fascination for business travellers, and one that continues to influence businesses worldwide today.

If you want to step inside the mind of a Japanese artisan, there’s no more quintessentially Japanese craft than sword making, something you can explore at the Japanese Sword Museum in Tokyo and one of the many potential venues that make Japan a unique and memorable meeting and event destination.

For Tokyo-based Japanese sword specialist Paul Martin, a former curator at the Department of Japanese Antiquities at the British Museum and a trustee of one of the two major organisations in Japan for swords craftsmen, the Nihonto Bunka Shinko Kyokai, sword making is a lens into the world of Japanese manufacturing and crafts. Teamwork, selflessness and attention to detail and quality all come into focus when you study how a sword is made.

learning-from-japanese-innovation - Craftsman

“It takes seven or eight craftsmen [or groups of craftsmen] to make a sword,” says Martin, who regularly gives talks at the Japanese Sword Museum. “From the people who make the steel to the swordsmith to the person who makes the scabbard and on to the polisher. It’s an example of the teamwork ethic of Japanese manufacturing. Nobody involved in any of the processes can let each other down, if they want to make the perfect sword.

“The polisher is a good example of selflessness. Unlike the swordsmith, whose name is associated with the sword, the polisher gets very little recognition. His work will only last for 50 or 60 years until the next polish, yet it’s crucial work that preserves the sword, and he dedicates himself to his task.”

Going beyond swords, business travellers can also learn from Japanese manufacturing philosophies first-hand through a wide variety of hands-on craft lessons and industrial visits across the country, whether that’s watching maglev train test runs in Yamanashi, making their own Satsuma Kiriko glassware in Kyushu or heading to the former capital Kyoto to learn traditional calligraphy, flower arrangement and Japanese cooking.

When you visit Japan and delve into traditional Japanese arts and crafts like these, you realise how traditional ways can inspire innovation. For one of many such examples, consider karakuri ningyo: traditional mechanised puppets first created in the Edo era (1603-1868) which were used for entertainment and as a playful form of domestic help. Zashiki karakuri were wind-up versions that were used to carry tea on trays to guests, while another type of karakuri could fire a bow and arrow. It’s widely believed these early automata were the first inspiration behind modern-day Japanese robotics.

Learning from Japanese innovation - Karakuri Ningyo

A karakuri mechanized puppet, circa 1800, which served tea to guests. Image by PHGCOM, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


Ancient Thinking Shaping Modern Ways

Japanese philosophy has also played a major role in influencing business, both in Japan and abroad. Take, for example Bushido, the code of conduct of Japanese samurai comprising the eight virtues that guided their behaviour and thinking.

Looking at the list – which includes rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, loyalty, honesty, honour and character – and it isn’t a leap to see how some have shaped Japanese business and manufacturing practices. Whether that’s ensuring a company has a strong ethical base and that it cares for its workers’ wellbeing, or in the respectful language and tone one sees as standard in Japanese business communications.

But even older than Bushido, gradually weaving itself into the fabric of Japanese society after Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century, is Zen. At temples in Kyoto, Tokyo and other locations around Japan, travellers can take meditation sessions and experience (to a degree) what life is like for monks by staying in temple accommodation – a great way for meeting and event planners to deliver a memorable and meaningful Japanese experience.

Learning from Japanese innovation - Meditation

Yet go even deeper and one can understand why there has been a growing interest outside of Japan in recent years in incorporating Zen practices and philosophies in business – and not just among Silicon Valley tech companies. As business travellers can discover if they add Zen experiences to their Japan trip, people can use meditation and mindfulness to find seijaku, a kind of energised calm that allows for clarity amid the hustle and bustle of work and modern life. You could use the concept of kanso, or simplicity, to not just unclutter your desktop, but to focus on communicating in a natural, clear and concise manner. Datsuzoku, or a break from habit, can be a doorway to innovation.

“There are many people in Europe and the US who now practice Zen hoping to reduce stress, earn more money, get a better job and live a longer life,” says the Reverend Daiko Matsuyama, the deputy head priest at Taizo-in, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto which runs Zazen seated meditation classes and talks on Zen culture for groups of 10 or more. However, Rev Matsuyama urges caution.

“Like dieting, you don’t get much benefit if you just don’t eat for a day,” he says. “It’s important to practice regularly, even if it’s only for a short time. That way, as with other kinds of meditation, you may see various benefits: clearer thinking, lower stress, more introspection, better life rhythm, calmer emotions and a feeling of being refreshed. But [it’s important to remember] Zen isn’t utilitarian. Something like increased creativity or reduced stress is a bonus from Zen, it shouldn’t be the sole aim.”

Japan’s unique approach to philosophy and manufacturing is deeply rooted in its history and culture, displaying qualities of refinement, nuance and wisdom that influence Japanese businesses today, and continue to inspire business travellers visiting Japan from around the world.


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