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Sontoku Ninomiya and Houtoku



Many elementary schools in Japan have a statue of Sontoku Ninomiya. Many, such as Sakichi Toyoda, believed in Ninomiya’s philosophy, which is called “Houtoku.”


This philosophy tries to integrate economy and morals. Ninomiya used this philosophy to turn around many farming villages and communities. Many students have learned from Ninomiya and spread his philosophies. The headquarters of such a movement was located in Kakegawa, Japan, which is very close to where the Toyoda family originally came from. Sakichi Toyota was born and raised in a community where this philosophy was dominant.


Who was Sontoku Ninomiya, and what were his philosophies?


Sontoku Ninomiya was born in 1787 in a village close to Odawara. His family was a farmer. Yet, flooding destroyed the farm when he was a child. Ninomiya’s parents also died about the same time. At age 12, he was responsible for rebuilding the farm and sustaining the family. Ninomiya worked hard to accomplish that. For example, he was told by his relative that reading books and burning lamp oil at night is a waste of money. So Ninomiya started planting field mustard to produce his lamp oils. As he successfully rebuilt the family farm, he began supporting the neighborhood.

At age 28, his reputation reached the Odawara local samurai government. One of the samurai asked Ninomiya to rebuild its finances. This led him to become a rebuilder of the local samurai governments. Ninomiya standardized the size of measurements of rice = tax. This prevented fraud in tax collection. He also established low-interest finance organizations to support those samurai in need. During his visit to a farm, Ninomiya saw a guy who was pretending to work hard. He cautioned the guy before other villagers that no one can work hard for a long time, and pretending to work hard should not happen. On the other hand, Ninomiya found a farmer doing work such as removing unnecessary trunks, which nobody else wanted to do. Ninomiya praised and rewarded such workers.

Throughout his life, he helped rebuild about 600 villages. Through such effort, he developed many students. Although Ninomiya did not write any book, those students have summarized his philosophies and established an organization called “Houtoku-sya” 【報徳社】 to promote. Many people, not only farmers but also businessmen, such as Eiichi Shibusawa and Sakichi Toyoda, followed this philosophy. The headquarters of Houtoku-sya was established at Kakegawa, which was not too far from where Sakichi was born. Not only such organizations but many elementary schools built the statue of Ninomiya. His story of reading a book while carrying the firewood was taught in school. His philosophies (or some interpretations of them) were spread in Japan.


What was Ninomiya’s philosophy?


Ninomiya’s philosophy is called “Houtoku.” This comes from Confucius. It means “to reward the virtue with virtue.” “Everything has something good virtue; therefore, utilize it.” The landlord of Odawara understood Ninomiya’s thinking and named it in such a way. Although the name came from Confucius, the philosophy is a mix of Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucius (Just like many Japanese philosophies). He used many thinking from religions, but Ninomiya never tried to make this activity religious. He was very realistic and practical.

The four pillars of “Houtoku” are;

1️⃣ 至誠 [Shisei = sincerity]

2️⃣ 勤労 [Kinnou = endeavor effort]

3️⃣ 分度 [Bundo = balanced spending]

4️⃣ 推譲 [Suijyou = concession]

All four are connected. Every action needs to be done with “sincerity.” This is the foundation of Ninomiya’s philosophy. And then “endeavor effort.” This word, Kinnou, is used as “work” today. But what Ninomiya meant was a broader action of “sincerity.” Once you start acting with “Kinnou,” this should impact your spending. You should be able to reduce the Muda (Waste) and save on luxury. This is “Bundo.” And once the “Bundo” is accomplished, there will be some extra. Passing such extra to future generations and those in need is the “Suijyou.” This is the general flow of the philosophy. Ninomiya also mentioned that this isn’t everything. Instead, in this cycle, it is always important to remember if the virtue is rewarded with virtue.


Here are several other exciting quotes from Ninomiya.


🔹 積小為大の理 (Sekishouidai)

“Accumulation of small things becomes big. If you want to accomplish something great, start with something small. Often, people desire to achieve something big but ignore the small stuff. People are concerned about the significant things yet don’t work on small, easy things. This is because they don’t know that important things are made from accumulating small things. Those who accomplish significant things see the importance of the small.”


This was a quote by Ninomiya. This is not about Kaizen, but we can see the root of Kaizen here. There are similar quotes like this elsewhere. But this was Ninomiya’s philosophy to rebuild farming society. For example, he planted an unused corner in the rice field. This yields an additional bag of rice. He continued finding such unused land and doubled the production.


🔹 “Don’t overcook.”

“Cook the rice in small quantities, not in large batches. When you run out of rice, you cook them. It's the same for the firewood. Don’t bring too much firewood. You only get them when you need them. Otherwise, you overburn them. Don’t worry. This is the way to become wealthy.”

This is not about waste of over-production. But we can see where it came from.


🔹 家政整理 (Kasei-Seiri)

When Ninomiya started to get involved in rebuilding the Samurai government, he submitted a plan. This plan was called “家政整理 (Kasei-Seiri).” He uses the word Seiri, the same word appearing in 5S. Then, did Ninomiya do 5S? No. What he did here was to rebuild the finances of the local government. He increased the income by improving the output from the farms. At the same time, he looked at luxury spending and cut those spending. Nothing special, just logical. And this is another reason why I look at “Seiri” as organized based on logic or organizing logic. “Seiri” applies not just to materials but also to activities.


🔹 Practical benefits and use 実利実用

Although Ninomiya’s philosophies are from religion, he remained the man of reality. He cared about the actual benefits and practical use. This is probably from his experience in his youth. He lost his family’s farm in the flood. Such tragedy made him realistic. In Japan, there was a belief that natural disasters reflect the leader’s virtue. Therefore, disasters lead to social uncertainty (which was happening when Ninomiya was alive). Yet, this theory didn’t show how to prevent or react to catastrophe. What Ninomiya suggested was more practical. Generate extra and save for future needs. He also established mutual trust so that they can use it when they are in need.


🔹 見えぬ経をよむ (Read the unwritten sutra)

Another interesting quote from Ninomiya is the “見えぬ経をよむ (Read the unwritten sutra).” Ninomiya teached many students. And this was his message to his students. He told them to listen to what he said and try to see the hidden messages of his actions. He stated that not everything can be verbalized. Having said that, Ninomiya was a bookworm. He didn’t prohibit reading books. He loved reading but also knew its limits. He wanted his students to see those hidden messages from his actions.



The story of Ninomiya sounds like a typical Japanese story. But the fact that he became so popular is because many places were in horrible condition. Ninomiya’s time is when many famines were happening in Japan. In other words, only 600 villages contacted Ninomiya, while others suffered. During the Meiji era and following generations, some used Ninomiya’s image as a dedicated and serving citizen for the nation. But was Ninomiya sending a message only to the farmers?

So many great Japanese business leaders have been influenced by Ninomiya’s philosophy. Leaders such as Shibusawa, Toyoda, Matsushita, and Inamori. This gives me a hint that Ninomiya’s philosophy is for the leaders.

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