Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Godiva chief finds modern business lessons in the ancient art of the bow

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

When adopting a martial art, it’s common to harbor the hope that it will infuse steel into limpid souls, muscle into flaccid bodies and bring discipline to untrained minds. You get the impression that Jerome Chouchan, the eminently self-possessed regional president of the Belgian chocolate company Godiva, had cultivated a good deal of self-discipline long before he took up the practice of kyūdō, or Japanese archery.

The office setting in Tokyo’s chic business district of Toranomon where we meet, with its clean contemporary lines and hum of concentrated energy, seems designed, like the first steps taken in a Japanese tea garden, to alter the visitors’ state of mind — to heighten alertness, attention to detail. Today, however, the climate is warm, the atmosphere relaxed, the staff turned out in smart-casual wear. Chouchan appears in a well-cut suit with an open shirt collar.

“Should I wear a necktie, do you think?” he inquires before I take his photo. That depends, I respond, on the image he wishes to project. He decides to put on a tie. The sartorial niceties settled, I am led to a glass-walled room, sat down with a bottle of French mineral water, before slipping into a brisk exchange that is more akin to a structured, highly directed conversation than an interview.

This combination of the formal and informal, calculated to yield maximum results for all parties concerned, hints at an extremely well-managed life. This is confirmed when Chouchan mentions that his day begins with a short period of basic bowmanship with a makiwara, a compressed straw target. Set up in the garden of his home in the Mejiro district of Tokyo, he explains how a few minutes of elementary target practice — an important breathing exercise — helps to summon concentration for the day ahead and establish equipoise.

Early on, Chouchan mentions how Eugen Herrigel’s 1948 book “Zen in the Art of Archery” inspired him to take up kyūdō. Herrigel had been an acolyte of the innovative master archer Awa Kenzo. The subject of John Stevens’ “Zen Bow, Zen Arrow,” Awa held that the true aim of kyūdō was to perfect the human spirit, that “Archery is not an art, it is a Way.”

A path — a means to an end — implies a clear purpose that may be supremely difficult but remains, nonetheless, attainable. Most martial arts practitioners, and Chouchan is no exception, intuitively understand that even if the ultimate goal of perfection is not achieved, the stages towards it are helpful steps to self-improvement.

Kyūdō, in common with all martial arts, requires a degree of humility. In the Analects, Confucius wrote, “When an archer fails to strike the target, he reflects and seeks the cause of the failure within himself.” And like all the other arts, kyūdō attempts to bring body and mind into alignment. An old dojo manual from the early 1900s maintains, “If your inner spirit is right, your outer form will be correct.”

According to Chouchan, the benefits stemming from this endeavor can be applied in other walks of life, particularly business. In theory at least, projecting the path of the arrow’s trajectory from the self, it advances effortlessly to the target.

Chouchan’s own career trajectory appears to have been an extraordinary straight and well-conceived one. Brought up in the French capital, Chouchan attended HEC Paris, France’s preeminent business school, before joining the LVMH group, where he rapidly rose to the position of business development director, a title that, to some extent, defines his subsequent career, one characterized by an unflagging effort to innovate.

A native of Paris, one of the world’s brand-goods centers, subsequent positions with the clothing giant Lacoste and his current role as president of Godiva for Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand were, arguably, preordained. The fact that his current company’s profits have doubled since he took up the post, though, appears to have derived from more personal skills and resources.

His progress in the highly traditional world of kyūdō is equally impressive. Arriving in Japan in 1985, Chouchan wasted little time enrolling in an archery dojo in Tokyo, a first step that has taken him to the elevated title of renshi and the rank of fifth dan. With time, the sheer self-discipline and perseverance that resulted in his acceptance in the kyūdō world has also led him to being appointed to the board of directors of the International Kyudo Federation, and membership of the prestigious All Nippon Kyudo Federation’s Promotion Committee, a body responsible for fostering more interest in the discipline among Japanese. Two years ago, in the post of executive vice president of the Kyudo World Cup 2014, he oversaw the organizing of the tournament in Paris.

Chouchan sees what might appear to be two strikingly different areas of activity, kyūdō and commerce, as perfectly compatible, even parallel worlds. The chapter titles of his pointedly titled recent book in Japanese, “Target: How Did Godiva Manage to Double Sales in Five Years?,” a study of the creative synergy between the practice of kyūdō and business methods and approaches, are telling. One chapter is named “Learn through observation,” others “Study where your arrows land,” “If you want to improve your business, look to yourself” and “The timing of a decision comes on-the-spot,” a subject that chimes well with another section of the book entitled “The important things are sensed.” Collectively, these suggest that business and the pursuit of a martial art, when brought into the same orbit, can improve your equanimity, self-confidence, ability to innovate and mastery of timing.

Martial arts are not for the impatient, those expecting quick results. Entire lifetimes have been devoted to the goal of self-improvement. In common with other martial art practices, achieving a transcendent state in kyūdō is realized in the brief moments of disassociation from everyday reality, a release from the nagging concerns of our ordinary existence. According to Chouchan, practicing kyūdō in a dojo is akin to “entering another world, one that has been transmitted from 1,000 years ago, and in which there is substantially very little change.” Chouchan talks of this arresting of the temporal as “universal time.”

The Urakami Dojo in Tokyo’s Denenchofu district, one of two institutions frequented by Chouchan, is a fitting setting to experience this alternative state of being. The 120-year-old dojo is overseen by Kaori Urakami, who took over the responsibility for running the establishment after her father passed away. Beside practicing at the dojo, Chouchan, as a fifth dan, has an obligation to teach as a part-time instructor. Urakami-sensei, dispensing advice and demonstrating her own skills when required, has created an atmosphere that is focused but not tense, disciplined but congenial.

Withdrawing to a changing area, Chouchan reappears minutes later in the traditional hakama worn by Japanese archers and a leather glove to protect his right hand. The physical demands of the practice are soon apparent when some of the less experienced students retract their bows, hands shaking with the strain. No such tension is evident when Chouchan draws back his bow, enters for a moment into a private world, a compression chamber of controlled breathing and intense concentration, then, with perfect presence of mind, releases an arrow that strikes close to the heart of the target.

Pressed a little later, over a bowl of green tea and biscuits, for what advice he would give to anyone considering adopting kyūdō as a serious pastime, he responds: “Be like a piece of white paper. Do not have any preconceived ideas. Humility and the will to learn is the key.”

Richard Solomon looks at the lessons for business from Jerome Chouchan’s book here. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp