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Take a wild guess: Who’s the second most influential management guru in Japan, after — it almost goes without saying — Peter Drucker?

Hint: He’s been dead 2,500 years. He’s Chinese. No, not Confucius. (Twenty years ago it might have been.) Give up? Sun Tzu (“Sonshi” in Japanese), purported author of a classic military treatise known as “The Art of War.”

Source: A poll by business weekly Shukan Diamond of top corporate managers. Whose brains do they pick, whose spirits do they commune with, in those lonely hours of wrestling with decisions involving billions of yen, thousands of individuals and the life or death, it may be, of the company itself?

Drucker (1909-2005) is a figure of such eminence that it’s hardly a surprise to find 44 percent of Shukan Diamond’s respondents turning to him for counsel. But Sun Tzu (31 percent) raises eyebrows.

It’s not only that he lived so long ago. So did Jesus, Buddha, Socrates and Confucius, whose “Analects” enjoyed a boom among the business elite around the turn of the century, the rough midpoint of the “20 lost years” Japan went through (are they really over?) after the bubble burst. The “Analects” are serenity itself, taking us away from painful surfaces into eternal, unruffled depths. They are consoling. Confucius addresses “gentlemen,” actual and would-be. Sun Tzu addresses warriors.

“The Art of War” dates to the early years of China’s Warring States Period (roughly 403-221 B.C.) when the warrior-aristocracy culture had broken down. Harsher times called for mass conscription; nobility was a luxury, no longer affordable. For the aristocracy, war had been a ceremony. A famous anecdote (cited by Sinologist Andrew Mayer) of those earlier, more gracious times has “the Master of Horse” proposing to “the Duke”: “They are numerous and we are few; allow us to strike them before they have finished crossing.” Permission denied, snapped the Duke. They must wait not only until the enemy had crossed but until he had formed ranks. Fighting on other-than-gentlemanly terms renders victory worthless, even shameful.

Nonsense, wrote Sun some two centuries later: “Emerge when he (the enemy) is not deployed, deploy where he does not expect. All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Sun had an earlier vogue in Japan — during this country’s own Warring States period (roughly 1482-1573). Feudal chaos reigned — the perfect background for the storied ninja spies whose heyday it was. Sun never had truer disciples than those masters of stealth and disguise. Whether they actually studied the text is unknown. Certainly their masters did — some of them, anyway.

Sun would have understood them as well as they understood him — very well indeed. Two thousand years is a lot of water under the bridge, but what had changed, after all? Not much, he might well have thought.

But imagine his ghost visiting 21st-century Japan. What would he make of it? Utter bewilderment seems his likeliest response.

“Ah, Sonshi, is it you?”

Bowing, ANA Holdings President Shinya Katanozaka introduces himself as a disciple.

“But what,” says Sun, perplexed, “can I — coming from where and when I come from — possibly have to teach you, living here and now, in a time and environment so strange to me that I hardly know … anything!”

“Your wisdom,” says Katanozaka with a smile, “transcends the ages.”

“How? Explain.”

Katanozaka of course tells his story not to Sun but to Shukan Diamond. Sun’s most pregnant aphorism, in his view, is: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles. “If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”

He goes on to relate “a failure I can never forget.” Six years ago he had what seemed like a brilliant idea: Why, on ANA flights, serve meals only at set mealtimes? Why not allow passengers to order dinner, lunch or breakfast whenever they please? All they’d have to do is touch the screen in front of them; within minutes a feast would be spread before them!

Market surveys drew positive responses. Passengers wanted it. Passengers would get it. The plan was put into execution.

Why had he not pondered Sun a little more deeply? He “only knew himself”; he failed to “know the enemy” — “enemy” meaning the situation as a whole, which indeed can turn hostile toward those who think they know it better than they do. What bitter truth had his market surveys been too perfunctory to show? That everyone would order dinner immediately after takeoff, overloading the system to the point of breakdown. The plan was scrapped, sending Katanozaka back, no doubt, to “The Art of War” for additional contemplation.

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

Such, in brief, is the wisdom of Sun Tzu. Like most wisdom, it’s as profound as you think it is — as profound as the depths it sounds in you.

“To win 100 victories in 100 battles,” writes Sun, “is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

What enemy should Japan be subduing without fighting?

Sun Tzu, perceptive as he was, would need little time among his latter-day Japanese disciples to grasp that today’s main preoccupation is not military but economic, that the modern battlefield is the market, that business is war by other means: corporate warriors bending over backward to serve us, amuse us, woo us with what we want before we even know we want it — instant airplane meals, for example.

Would this impress Sun? Would he admire it? Shukan Diamond shows us what we — our commercial elite, at least — think of him. What would he think of us?

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan.”

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