A name that doesn’t come up in the Brexit debate is Miyamoto Musashi, a 16th and 17th century Japanese samurai. But he is probably present, none-the-less.
Why? Because Boris Johnson’s main advisor, Dominic Cummings, apparently prefers military strategists to political thinkers. And in the world of military strategy Musashi is up there with Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Liddell-Hart, Giap, and other great military thinkers from history. And anyone familiar with Musashi can certainly see his ideas expressed in Cummings behaviour.
So who was Musashi, and what did he do and think? If western readers have come across him it’s usually through a little book that has appeared in numerous editions and is ubiquitous on airport business bookshelves: A Book of Five Rings.
(See picture. My copy is from 1976, bought whilst I was doing a military studies option at the University of Manchester).
In Japan Musashi is a legend, akin in his prominence in national folklore to King Arthur or Robin Hood. He is known as ‘Kensei’ which translates as “Sword Saint”. An epic novel about his life by Eiji Yoshikawa is one of the best-selling books in Japan, ever.
The Book of Five Rings or ‘Go Rin No Sho‘ (1645) was written towards the end of Musashi’s life and aims to capture his detailed strategy and tactics, his ‘Way’. As a small example of his teaching, in the ‘Water Book’ (book two) he advises that the first way to defeat an enemy in single-combat is to “stab at his face” and thus distract them.
Throughout Go Rin No Sho this sort of ruthless, win at any cost, attitude is apparent. And Musashi’s personal history suggests he was more interested in the fight, and in winning, than he was in what he was fighting for. Unlike Sun Tzu, for example, who clearly has a strong moral dimension to his advice about strategy, Musashi is completely amoral. He reportedly killed more than sixty opponents in single combat – mostly simply to demonstrate his superior abilities.
The reason A Book of Five Rings became so popular in western business circles in the 1970s and 80s was partly a general fascination with Japanese business and management. And Musashi’s ruthless individualism and ‘win at any cost’ mentality certainly fitted the business ethos of the time. It was the age of Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street and “lunch is for wimps”. Musashi and macho culture mesh together nicely.
You can see how such ideas would appeal to a political operator who is obsessed with winning and the fight? And that description fits both Boris Johnson, with his ambition to be ‘world king’, and Dominic Cummings and his compulsive need to prove he is cleverer than everyone else.
It’s doubtful Johnson has read Musashi – his is a very classical western mind-set. But for those of us who have studied the ‘Sword Saint’, you can see his strategy and tactics expressed in the amoral combativeness of Dominic Cummings.
The combination of Johnson’s opportunist political ambitions, Cummings win-at-any-cost attitude and the strategy and tactics of a ruthless Japanese samurai is both potent and extremely dangerous for a modern, liberal, democratic society.