A Few Worthy Lessons from Sontoku

Mark D. Rosalbo
3 min readDec 9, 2020

“To gather little by little … is the way to make a fortune.”

Earlier this fall, after listening to Sir Ronald Cohen talk about his new book Impact — Reshaping Capitalism to Drive Real Change, I decided to pick up a copy and read it. Impact investing is revolutionary and well on its way to a tipping point of becoming mainstream in business. Impact is ESG on steroids. ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance. Organizations that claim an ESG philosophy try to limit negative outcomes while pursuing their business goals, which include making a profit. Impact takes it a giant step further by raising the stakes — finding ways to improve the world while achieving their business objectives.

Cohen has powerfully set the groundwork for giving capitalism the much needed revamp it needs to address such weighty matters as climate change and inequality. In his book, he mentions many powerful people — connectors — who have made positive contributions in furthering his lofty ambitions of building a more just society for us all.

One interesting person he briefly mentions is an important investment fund manager in Japan who wholeheartedly buys into the impact investing philosophy. This man is also a subscriber to the teachings of Ninomiya Sontoku, the nineteenth century Japanese philosopher. I decided to dig a little deeper to learn about Sontoku.

The famous Japanese sage Ninomiya Sontoku lived a beautiful life — one worthy of analysis, not just by history buffs and philanthropists, but for anyone aspiring to be successful in today’s fiercely competitive world of capitalism. Here are seven important takeaways from the book A Peasant Sage of Japan; The Life and Work of Sontoku Ninomiya:

The four principles of Sontoku’s teaching: Sincerity (be honest and genuine); Industry (work hard); Economy (to live simply, not beyond your means); and Service (to give back, to help others).

We must share the good with the bad together: “Everything in the universe has its good and bad times, and nothing can escape its share of adversity. It is so with a country, it is so with a family, it is so with a man.” He goes on to say that “the branches have to share the same fate as the root.”

Behavior drives success: When Sontoku spoke with the villagers of Aoki-Mura after he thoughtfully guided them back from extreme poverty and hardship, he said: “So your prosperity and your adversity depend entirely upon your behavior. If you give up all together your past idleness and adhere to your present habits of industry, the restoration of your village will not be a difficult matter at all.”

There are times when the greatest help is not helping at all: Breaking bad habits is difficult and helping someone just because they’re in trouble often makes things harder for them down the road. Sontoku said “Your bad habits have continued long … your present promise of amendment may prove short. When people are in extremity they do not mind bearing hardships, but as soon as they become a little better off they return to their habits.”

Wise people are weary of those who try too hard: Sontoku said “Those who come forward first to flatter are cunning and selfish people. Honest and sincere persons are not so eager to put themselves forward, even when wanted. These men deceive and flatter their superiors while they rob and maltreat those beneath them.”

Stay focused and build on your energy : Get moving. Momentum feeds on itself. “Cultivate these fields with unremitting energy, and you will soon find yourselves well off.”

Filial Devotion: A deep love and devotion for parents and elders is critical for a healthy society and for those that live within it. Wisdom comes with age and if we are quick to displace our elders, we will lose so much of what they have to teach us.

In a world where so many advantages come to those with privilege, it can be difficult to imagine getting ahead by grit alone. My intention here is not to oversimplify, but to look at the future, for a moment, through the lens of the past. Yes, the world has changed, but there are so many similarities — especially when it comes to the human spirit and our pursuit of meaning in this life.

As always — be honest, be genuine and Live Life.



Mark D. Rosalbo

Barnstormer. Father of five. Re-examiner of the American Dream.