A Century of Matsushita Kōnosuke and His People-First PhilosophyEconomy
A Childhood Marked by Loss and Trauma
If we define philosophy as an attempt to think about the self and seek a clearer understanding of human nature, then Matsushita Kōnosuke (1894–1989) was a philosopher. Just like the ancient Greeks, he devoted his life to an investigation of human nature, and reached his own conclusions about the meaning of life.
What drove him to spend so much of his life reflecting on human nature and the meaning of life? I suspect the reason may have lain in his early years, which were marked by tragedy and loss.
Matsushita came from a large family—he was one of eight children born to an affluent landowning family in an agricultural region of modern Wakayama. When Kōnosuke was four years old, his father made a series of unsuccessful speculations on the rice markets and went bankrupt. As a result, he lost all his land and the family home itself. The family was torn apart and the children had to scramble to make a living however they could. Kōnosuke left home at the age of nine to look for work in the Senba area of Osaka, a famous commercial center.
In this new environment, he quickly learned about trade and commerce, how to do business, and about human life and the emotions. But this early experience alone, tough as it was, would not have been enough to transform him into a philosopher.
When he was still an adolescent, he lost both his parents and all his siblings apart from one older sister in the space of a decade, as one family member after another died of tuberculosis. Twice the family held two funerals in the space of a single year. Faced with these almost annual deaths in the family, it is not hard to imagine why he might have come to ponder the fundamental questions of life, death, and the meaning of human existence.
For a young man who had never completed elementary school, these questions went beyond mere self-examination. It is fair to say, I think, that the fundamental question of what it means to be human continued to trouble him for the rest of his life as a kind of trauma.
Responsibility and Respect for Others
The conclusion he eventually reached was that all human life is precious. “Human beings are the monarchs of all living things,” to use his expression. People who are interested in learning more about the details of Matsushita’s philosophy of life can read about it in his own words in books like Ningen o kangaeru: Atarashii ningenkan no teishō (trans. Thoughts on Man), several of which have been translated into English.
This view of life should not be dismissed as arrogantly human-centric or disrespectful of other living things. He also emphasized that human beings have a responsibility commensurate with their special status. Responsibility is proportionate to role and position. Some philosophers and religious thinkers argue that human beings are insignificant, sinful beings who are ultimately no more important than monkeys. For these people, logically it should be impossible to expect humans to exert any great responsibility either. Think of it like this: The president is a human being, and so are all the ordinary citizens around him. But no one argues that the responsibilities of the president are the same as those of his ordinary fellow-citizens.
Matsushita Kōnosuke argued that this tendency of human beings to think of one another as insignificant or unimportant is what ultimately causes wars and many of the other evils that beset our societies. Murders and bullying also arise, he believed, from this belief that other people are no more important than monkeys. Once we come to see that every human being has an innate dignity that must not be violated, we will come to feel a sense of responsibility and respect toward other people, and these tragedies can be avoided.
Today, many of us are shackled by the popular belief that human beings are sinful and unimportant, and is rare for anyone to expect or allow other people to shoulder anything more than a small responsibility. This is one of the great tragedies of modern human life.
Matsushita once summarized his own philosophy as follows: “We should value people and regard them as important.” These words encapsulate his view of human life.
People should respect and value one another, and love humanity without discrimination. People should behave with responsibility. And because humans are important, they should also respect all other living things, allowing them to fulfill their own roles and maintain their own position in the wider world.
A Management Philosophy Valuing Human Life
Matsushita Kōnosuke’s life as a manager began in 1918. At the age of 23, he came up with an idea for an improved electric socket. This project was the beginning of Matushita Denki, today’s Panasonic. For the rest of his life, the philosophy of respect for people was at the heart of all his business projects.
His approach to management set a high value on human beings, regarding them as important and worthy of admiration. He valued his employees as important individuals worthy of respect and admiration. And he valued his customers in the same way. The same respect went out to everyone, whether they were customers or not. People were valuable and admirable in their own right, and worthy of respect and admiration.
Matsushita’s maxim about his mission as an entrepreneur has become well known. His job, he said, was to produce and offer “good products that are cheap and in plentiful supply.” Many people believe that the main objective of a business owner should be to increase profits. But Matsushita was different. A profit-first approach to management and sales will certainly see profits rise. And the company may do well as a result. But that is not why Matsushita believed in the importance of products that were high in quality, affordable in price, and produced in volume. He believed that to offer anything less than the best quality was disrespectful toward the people who were his customers.
The same thinking determined his ideas on price. He would never sell anything below cost price. Nor was he driven by greed for wild profits. Instead, his prices were set at an appropriate level, from three important perspectives: good for the customer, good for the company, and good for society. He believed that any other kind of price would be an insult to the precious people who were so important to the company and society. The volume of production also needed to be just right—if the volume was insufficient or excessive, it would be impossible to set an appropriate price.
Naturally, Matsushita always treated employees with respect and consideration, almost never carrying out layoffs or dismissals of workers. Instead, he used his wisdom and experience to avoid situations that would make this necessary. Strange as it may seem, boosting the company profits was only of secondary significance in Matsushita’s business management philosophy. More than anything else, he prioritized the happiness and satisfaction of his employees. He always encouraged his employees and wanted them to take pride in their work. This attitude of gratitude and respect eventually brought him results that were greater than he had ever imagined.
Despite starting literally from nothing, during a 70-year career as a manager, which ended only with his death at the age of 94, he built his company into a major international corporation worth ¥7 trillion. This great achievement was the direct result of his business management philosophy.
An Ordinary Man with Extraordinary Talent
Matsushita Kōnosuke always thought of himself as an ordinary person. He never finished school or attended university. He had a weak and sickly constitution. He had no family and no home to return to. When he looked at himself he can hardly have thought of himself as anything special. Whenever he met someone, he always felt they were much better informed and more intelligent than he was himself.
But one of the wonderful things about him was that he never had an inferiority complex and never put himself down. He saw reality for what it was and thought hard about how he could make the most of his abilities as an ordinary person to make his life a fulfilling one. And he had an extraordinary talent for carrying this out.
Because he believed that all people deserved respect and admiration, he listened carefully to the opinions and experiences of people around him. He then used this information to lift himself up—something he could do precisely because he knew that he was just an ordinary person and was not afraid to admit as much.
Throughout his life, Matsushita Kōnosuke thought of himself as an ordinary person, and built a view of humanity based on the idea that all people were important and worthy of respect. This was the what drove all his ideas and creativity. It would be fair to say that this philosophy ultimately allowed him to achieve far greater things as a manager and as a person that he himself could ever have imagined.(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Matsushita Kōnosuke during his time as president of the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd, photographed during an interview in Osaka in 1959. © Aflo.)