I teach Japanese for a living and my husband is French. Naturally, he comes to me with all of his linguistic questions. The other day, he asked me about the term 二刀流 (nitōryū).

The kanji for 二刀流 can be read literally as “two sword flow,” but Japanese use it to describe someone who is talented at handling two things at the same time. At first, I had no idea where my husband’s question came from. I assumed he was talking about Shohei Ohtani, who is known as a 二刀流, or “two-way player,” thanks to his abilities as both a batter and pitcher.

大谷翔平はベーブ・ルース以来の二刀流なんだって (Ōtani Shohei wa Bēbu Rūsu irai no nitōryū nandatte, Shohei Ohtani is the first true two-way talent [in the majors] since Babe Ruth).

My husband wasn’t talking about Ohtani, though. He pointed out that, as a Frenchman, he doesn’t know much about baseball. ヨーロッパではそれほど野球の人気はありません (Yōroppa dewa sorehodo yakyū no ninki wa arimasen, In Europe, baseball isn’t that popular).

No, instead he heard the term 二刀流 in a business context when a manager said, 「イノベーションのためには『守り』と『攻め』の二刀流が必要だ」 (Inobēshon no tame ni wa ‘mamori’ to ‘seme’ no nitōryū ga hitsuyō da, Innovation requires a two-pronged approach: “defense” and “offense”).

It actually makes sense that he’d hear 二刀流 at work. Given the sport’s popularity in Japan, a lot of the language that is used in baseball makes its way to the country’s boardrooms.

I can imagine it now, a manager trying to motivate the team calls upon a brilliant young woman named Sato to step up to the plate: 「ツーアウト満塁だから佐藤さんを代打に出そう」 (Tsū auto manrui dakara Satō-san o daida ni dasō, [It’s] two outs and the bases are loaded, so let’s bring Sato in as a pinch hitter). What’s certain in hearing something like that is that Sato is good at handling pressure and may be the company’s last chance for success.

Baseball-related lingo can be used in a variety of situations in Japan. For example, バットを振らなければヒットは打てない (batto o furanakereba hitto wa utenai, if you don’t step up to bat, you won’t get a hit) can be used to relay the idea that if you don’t try, you’ll never get a result.

Or, ホームランは狙わなくていいから、とにかく塁へ出ろ (hōmuran wa nerawanakute ii kara, tonikaku rui e dero, it’s OK if you don’t aim for a home run, but get a base in any case) would be used when you’re being encouraged to achieve a goal that’s within reach as opposed to something that’s too big. And, while 直球勝負 (chokkyū shōbu) literally means a game of fastball, it also refers to approaching something in a straightforward manner with no tricks: 直球勝負で行こう (Chokkyū shōbu de ikō, Let’s do this fair, no curveballs).

Baseball finds its way into politics, too. After Fumio Kishida was elected the new 自由民主党総裁 (jiyūminshutō sōsai, Liberal Democratic Party president), he gave a speech calling for unity, saying, 「全員野球で自民党が一丸となって衆議院選挙そして参議院選挙に臨んでいこうではありませんか」 (Zen’in yakyū de jimintō ga ichigan to natte shūgiin senkyo soshite sangiin senkyo ni nozonde ikō dewa arimasen ka, Why don’t all LDP members unite, like in baseball, to face the Lower House election and then the Upper House election?).

Seated figure of Miyamoto Musashi. During the Edo Period. Created circa before 1645. | KUMAMOTO PREFECTURAL MUSEUM OF ART/ PUBLIC DOMAIN
Seated figure of Miyamoto Musashi. During the Edo Period. Created circa before 1645. | KUMAMOTO PREFECTURAL MUSEUM OF ART/ PUBLIC DOMAIN

While Ohtani has certainly popularized the term “二刀流,” its origination is associated with the samurai 宮本武蔵 (Miyamoto Musashi). Born around 1584, Musashi was known for his ability to fight with two swords in battle, a talent that came from the fact that he was 左利き (hidarikiki, left-handed), but was trained to use his right hand like the other samurai. He then taught himself to expertly wield a sword with either hand.

The world of Japanese business has taken as much from Musashi as it has from baseball. This is mostly thanks to his “五輪書” (“Go Rin no Sho,” “Book of Five Rings”), which was written between 1643 and 1645 and finished shortly before Musashi’s death, but also because of a short text titled, “独行道” (“Dokkōdō,” “The Way of Walking Alone”), which was especially influential. Countless books on how to make it in business have cited Musashi’s philosophies. Some of his more popular sayings include:

  • 我事において後悔せず (Warekoto ni oite kōkai sezu, Don’t regret what you’ve done)
  • 役に立たぬことをせざる事 (Yaku ni tatanu koto o sezaru koto, Do not do something that is of no use)
  • 一をもって万を知る事 (Ichi o motte ban o shiru koto, From one thing, know 10,000 things)
  • 身を浅く思い、世を深く思う (Mi o asaku omoi, yo o fukaku omou, Think lightly of yourself and think deeply of the world)

Some people use Musashi’s sayings as 座右の銘 (zayū no mei, personal mottos). In fact, it is common to be asked what your 座右の銘 is at a job interview, so in this case it might be useful to memorize one of Musashi’s quotes: 私の座右の銘は宮本武蔵の「身を浅く思い、世を深く思う」です (Watashi no zayū no mei wa Miyamoto Musashi no “Mi o asaku omoi, yo o fukaku omou” desu, When it comes to personal mottos, I prefer Miyamoto Musashi’s “Think lightly of yourself and think deeply of the world”).

Like many warriors at the time, Musashi practiced Zen Buddhism. The final scroll in the “五輪書” focuses on “emptiness” or the “void,” a philosophical construct in which things outside of our realm of knowledge exist. One line from it reads, 「空を道とし、道を空とみる」 (Kū o michi to shi, michi o kū to miru), which might be translated as “See the void as the way, and the way as void.” Musashi also said, 「世世の道にそむくことなし」 (Yoyo no michi ni somuku koto nashi, Don’t run counter to the way of the world), which can be interpreted as “accept things the way they are.”

Those final sayings may be a bit too deep for a job interview, but if you can flex one of Musashi’s other sayings then you may just hit your interview out of the park.

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