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Messages from "Economic Trend", August 2009

"Watch Your Step"

Masataka SHIMIZU
Vice Chairman, Nippon Keidanren
President, The Tokyo Electric Power Co., Inc.

My own personal motto in life is a well-known phrase from Zen Buddhism, kankyakka, which translates into something like "look at what is beneath your own feet".

In the Song dynasty, in China, there was a monk named Fayan (HOen), who was a member of the Linji (Rinzai) Sect of Zen Buddhism. One day, as he was returning to his temple with some of his students, the lantern that he was holding went out, quite suddenly, and the party of monks was plunged into total darkness. As his students began to panic, Fayen asked them each to give their interpretation of this unexpected happening, as was becoming of a monk whose favorite method of teaching was to encourage his students to think for themselves, by challenging them with questions rather than providing them with answers. One of his students, a young monk named Keqin (Kokugon), replied "watch your step", deeply impressing his Zen master.

I believe that this phrase tells us that even if you find yourself in a situation in which it is as if you have been plunged into total darkness, do not panic; instead, turn your attention to what lies beneath your own feet. As long as you take care to watch every step, then the path you need to follow will make itself clear to you. When it comes to resolving those problems that stand in your way, you can find the answer right where you stand, as long as you look hard enough.

Is this not the very essence of corporate management? It goes without saying that managers need to set out ambitious corporate philosophy and vision, and to work towards major milestones. However this is not enough; managers must not forget to watch their step — in other words to always consider the reality of the circumstances in which a business has to operate.

Since 2008, the global economy has been in a state of confusion. Japan's economy is no exception, and the political environment in which businesses must operate is increasingly unstable and opaque. It is close to the total darkness which fell upon Fayan (HOen) and his students; lofty philosophy alone would not give us any concrete direction on how to move towards our goals, and we would find ourselves frozen in the gloom. In order to find the direction in which we should be moving, we need to be on-site, be hands-on, and be up-to-date with our business reality. This is how, in business, we can examine the ground beneath our feet, and begin to move forward, one step at a time, in the right direction.

Right now, as I consider how to ensure steady and successful management, I am struck again by the weight of this phrase, and am once again determined to consider it in all that I do.

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