Book of Five Rings > Translator's Introduction > Japan
Miyamoto Musashi was born in 1584, in a Japan struggling to recover from more than four centuries of internal strife. The traditional rule of the emperors had been overthrown in the twelfth century, and although each successive emperor remained the figurehead of Japan, his powers were very much reduced. Since that time, Japan had seen almost continuous civil war between the provincial lords (called daimyo), warrior monks, and brigands, all fighting each other for land and power. These wars naturally restricted the growth of trade, and impoverished the whole country.
In 1573, however, one man, Oda Nobunga, came to the fore in Japan. He became the Shogun, or military dictator, and for nine years succeeded in gaining control of almost the whole of the country. When Nobunga was assassinated in 1582, a commoner, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, took over the government. Toyotomi Hideyoshi continued the work of unifying Japan which Nobunaga had begun, ruthlessly putting down any traces of insurrection. He revived the old gulf between the warriors of Japan - the samurai - and the commoners by introducing restrictions on the wearing of swords. "Hideyoshi's sword-hunt", as it was known, meant that only samurai were allowed to wear two swords, the short one which everyone could wear and the long one which distinguished the samurai from the rest of the population.
Although Hideyoshi did much to settle Japan and increase trade with the outside world, by the time of his death in 1598 internal disturbances still had not been completely eliminated. The real isolation and unification of Japan began with the inauguration of the great Tokugawa rule. In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu, a former associate of both Hideyoshi and Nobunaga, formally became Shogun of Japan, after defeating Hideyoshi's son Hideyori at the battle of Seki ga Hara.
Ieyasu established his government at Edo, present-day Tokyo, where he had a huge castle. His was a stable, peaceful government beginning a period of Japanese history which was to last until the Imperial Restoration of 1868, for although Ieyasu himself died in 1616 members of his family succeeded each other and the title Shogun became virtually an hereditary one for the Tokugawas.
Ieyasu was determined to ensure his and his family's dictatorship. To this end, he paid lip-service to the emperor in Kyoto, who remained the titular head of Japan, while curtailing his duties and involvement in the government. The real threat to Ieyasu's position could only come from the lords, and he effectively decreased their opportunities for revolt by devising schemes whereby all lords had to live in Edo for alternate years and by placing great restrictions on travelling. He allotted land in exchange for oaths of allegiance, and gave the provincial castles around Edo to members of his own family. He also employed a network of secret police and assassins.
The Tokugawa period marks a great change in the social history of Japan. The bureaucracy of the Tokugawas was all-pervading. Not only were education, law, government and class controlled, be even the costume and behavior of each class. The traditional class consciousness of Japan hardened into a rigid class structure. There were basically four classes of person: samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants. The samurai were the highest - in esteem if not in wealth - and included the lords, senior government officials, warriors, and minor officials and foot soldiers. Next in the hierarchy came the farmers, not because they were well thought of but because they provided the essential rice crops. Their lot was a rather unhappy one, as they were forced to give most of their crops to the lords and were not allowed to leave their farms. Then came the artisans and craftsmen, and last of all the merchants, who, though looked down upon, eventually rose to prominence because of the vast wealth they accumulated. Few people were outside this rigid hierarchy.
Musashi belonged to the samurai class. We find the origins of the samurai class in the Kondei ("Stalwart Youth") system established in 792 AD, whereby the Japanese army - which had until then constituted mainly of spear-wielding foot soldiers - was revived by stiffening the ranks with permanent training officers recruited from among the young sons of the high families. These officers were mounted, wore armour, and used the bow and sword. In 782 the emperor Kammu started building Kyoto, and in Kyoto he built a training hall which exists to this day called the Butokuden, meaning "Hall of the virtues of war". Within a few years of this revival the fierce Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan who had until then confounded the army's attempts to move them from their wild lodgings, were driven far off to the northern island, Hokkaido.
When the great provincial armies were gradually disbanded under Hideyoshi and Ieyasu, many out-of-work samurai roamed the country redundant in an era of peace. Musashi was one such samurai, a "ronin" or "wave man". There were still samurai retainers to the Tokugawas and provincial lords, but their numbers were few. The hordes of redundant samurai found themselves living in a society which was completely based on the old chivalry, but at the same time they were apart from a society in which there was no place for men at arms. They became an inverted class, keeping the old chivalry alive by devotion to military arts with the fervour only the Japanese possess. This was the time of the flowering of Kendo.
Kendo, the Way of the sword, had always been synonymous with nobility in Japan. Since the founding of the samurai class in the eighth century, the military arts had become the highest form of study, inspired by the teachings of Zen and the feeling of Shinto. Schools of Kendo born in the early Muromachi period - approximately 1390 to 1600 - were continued through the upheavals of the formation of the peaceful Tokugawa Shogunate, and survive to this day. The education of the sons of the Tokugawa Shoguns was by means of schooling in the Chinese classics and fencing exercises. Where a Westerner might say "The pen is mightier than the sword", the Japanese would say "Bunbu Ichi", or "Pen and sword in accord". Today, prominent businessmen and political figures in Japan still practise the old traditions of the Kendo schools, preserving the forms of several hundred years ago.
To sum up, Musashi was a ronin at the time when the samurai were formally considered to be the elite, but actually had no means of livelihood unless they owned lands and castles. Many ronin put up their swords and became artisans, but others, like Musashi, persued the ideal of the warrior searching for enlightenment through the perilous paths of Kendo. Duels of revenge and tests of skill were commonplace, and fencing schools multiplied. Two schools expecially, the Itto school and the Yagyu school, were sponsored by the Tokugawas. The Itto school provided an unbroken line of Kendo teachers, and the Yagyu school eventually became the secret police of the Tokugawa bureaucracy.
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Link: Glossary of Japanese Arts Terms