Book of Five Rings > Translator's Introduction > the life of Musashi
Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Genshin, or as he is commonly known Miyamoto Musashi, was born in the village called Miyamoto in the province Mimasaka in 1584. "Musashi" is the name of an area south-west of Tokyo, and the appellation "No Kami" means noble person of the area, while "Fujiwara" is the name of a noble family foremost in Japan over a thousand years ago.
Musashi's ancestors were a branch of the powerful Harima clan in Kyushu, the souther island of Japan. Hirada Shokan, his grandfather, was a retainer of Shinmen Iga No Kami Sudeshige, the lord of Takeyama castle. Hirada Shokan was highly thought of by his lord and eventually married his lord's daughter.
When Musashi was seven, his father, Munisai, either died or abandoned the child. As his mother had died, Ben No Suke, as Musashi was known during his childhood, was left in the care of an uncle on his mother's side, a priest. So we find Musashi an orphan during Hideyoshi's campaigns of unification, son of a samurai in a violent unhappy land. He was a boisterous youth, strong-willed and physically large for his age. Whether he was urged to persue Kendo by his uncle, or whether his aggressive nature led him to it, we do not know, but it is recorded that he slew a man in single combat when he was just thirteen. The opponent was Arima Kigei, a samurai of the Shinto Ryu school of military arts, skilled with sword and spear. The boy threw the man to the ground, and beat him about the head with a stick when he tried to rise. Kihei died vomiting blood
Musashi's next contest was when he was sixteen, when he defeated Tadashima Akiyama. About this time, he left home to embark on the "Warrior Pilgimage" which saw him victor in scores of contests and which took him to war six times, until he finally settled down at the age of fifty, having reached the end of his search for reason. There must have been many ronin travelling the country on similar expeditions, some alone like Musashi and some enjoying sponsorship, though not on the scale of the pilgrimage of the famous swordman Tsukahara Bokuden who had travelled with a retinue of over one hundred men in the previous century.
This part of Musashi's life was spent living apart from society while he devoted himself with a ferocious single-mindedness to the search for enlightenment by the Way of the sword. Concerned only with perfecting his skill, he lived as men need not live, wandering over Japan soaked by the cold winds of winter, not dressing his hair, nor taking a wife, nor following any profession save his study. It is said he never entered a bathtub lest he was caught unawares without a weapon, and that his appearance was uncouth and wretched.
In the battle which resulted in Ieyasu succeeding Hideyoshi as Shogun of Japan, Seki ga Hara, Musashi joined the ranks of the Ashikaga army to fight against Ieyasu. He survived the terrible three days during which seventy thousand people died, and also survived the hunting down and massacre of the vanquished army.
He went up to Kyoto, the capital, when he was twenty-one. This was the scene of his vendetta agains the Yoshioka family. The Yoshiokas had been fencing instructors to the Ashikaga house for generations. Later forbidden to teach Kendo by lord Tokugawa, the family became dyers, and are dyers today. Munisai, Musashi's father, had been invited to Kyoto some years before by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaka. Munisai was a competent swordsman, and an expert with the "jitte", a kind of iron truncheon with a tongue for catching sword blades. The story has it that Munisai fought three of the Yoshiokas, winning two of the duels, and perhaps this has some bearing on Musashi's behavior towards the family.
Yoshioka Seijiro, the head of the family, was the first to fight Musashi, on the moor outside the city. Seijiro was armed with a real sword, and Musashi with a wooden sword. Musashi laid Seijiro out with a fierce attack and beat him savagely as he lay on the ground. The retainers carried their lord home on a rain-shutter, where for shame he cut off his samurai topknot.
Musashi longered on in the capital, and his continued presence further irked the Yoshiokas. The second brother, Denshichiro, applied to Musashi for a duel. As a military ploy, Musashi arrived late on the appointed day, and seconds after the start of the fight he broke his opponent's skull with one blow of his wooden sword. Denshichiro was dead. The house issued yet another challenge with Hanshichiro, the young son of Seijiro, as champion. Hanshichiro was a mere boy, not yet in his teens. The contest was to be held by a pine tree adjacent to ricefields. Musashi arrived at the meeting place well before the appointed time and waited in hiding for his enemy to come. The child arrived dressed formally in war gear, with a party of well-armed retainers, determined to do away with Musashi. Musashi waited concealed in the shadows, and just as they were thinking that he had thought better of it and had decided to leave Kyoto, he suddenly appeared in the midst of them, and cut the boy down. Then, drawing both swords, he cut a path through them and made his escape.
After that frightful episode Musashi wandered over Japan, becoming a legend in his own time. We find mention of his name and stories of his prowess in registers, diaries, on monuments, and in folk memory from Tokyo to Kyushu. He had more than sixty contests before he was twenty-nine, and won them all. The earliest account of his contests appears in Niten Ki, or "Two Heavens Chronicle", a record compiled by his pupils a generation after his death.
In the year of the Yoshioka affair, 1605, he visited the temple Hozoin in the south of the capital. Here he had a contest with Oku Hozoin, the Nichiren sect pupil of the Zen priest Hoin Inei. The priest was a spearman, but no match for Musashi who defeated him twice with his short wooden sword. Musashi stayed at the temple for some time studying fighting techniques and enjoying talks with the priests. There is still today a traditional spear fighting form practised by the monks of Hozoin. It is interesting that in ancient times the word "Osho", which now means priest, used to mean "spear teacher". Hoin Inei was pupil to Izumi Musashi no Kami, a master of Shinto Kendo. The priest used spears with cross-shaped blades kept outside the temple under the eaves and used in fire fighting.
When Musashi was in Iga province he met a skilled chain and sickle fighter named Shishido Baikin. As Shishido twirled his chain Musashi drew a dagger and pierced his breast, advancing to finish him off. The watching pupils attacked Musashi but he frightened them away in four directions.
In Edo, a fighter named Muso Gonosuke visited Musashi requesting a duel. Musashi was cutting wood to make a bow, and granting Gonosuke's request stood up intending to use the slender wand he was cutting as a sword. Gonosuke made a fierce attack, but Musashi stepped straight in and banged him on the head. Gonosuke went away.
Passing through Izumo province, Musashi visited lord Matsudaira and asked permission to fight with his strongest Kendo expert. There were many good strategists in Izumo. Permission was granted against a man who used an eight foot long hexagonal wooden pole. The contest was held in the lord's library garden. Musashi used two wooden swords. He chased the samurai up the two wooden steps of the library veranda, thrust at his face on the second step, and hit him on both arms as he flinched away. To the surprise of the assembled retainers, lord Matsudaira asked Musashi to fight him. Musashi drove the lord up the library steps as before, and when he tried to make a resolute fencing attitude Musashi hit his sword with the "Fire and Stones Cut", breaking it in two. The lord bowed in defeat, and Musashi stayed for some time as his teacher.
Musashi's most well-known duel was in the seventeenth year of Keicho, 1612, when he was in Ogura in Bunzen province. His opponent was Sasaki Kojiro, a young man who had developed a strong fencing technique known as Tsubame-gaeshi, or "swallow counter", inspired by the motion of a swallow's tail in flight. Kojiro was retained by the lord of the province, Hosokawa Tadaoki. Musashi applied to Tadaoki for permission to fight Kojiro through the offices of one of the Hosokawa retainers who had been a pupil of Musashi's father, one Nagaoka Sato Okinaga. Permission was granted for the contest to be held at eight o'clock the next morning, and the place was to be an island some few miles from Ogura. That night Musashi left his lodging and moved to the house of Kobayashi Taro Zaemon. This inspired the rumor that awe of Kojiro's subtle technique had made Musashi run away afraid for his life. The next day at eight o'clock Musashi could not be woken until a prompter came from the officials assembled on the island. He got up, drank the water they brought to him to wash with, and went straight down to the shore. As Sato rowed across to the island Musashi fashioned a paper string to tie back the sleeves of his kimono, and cut a wooden sword from the spare oar. When he had done this he lay down to rest.
The boat neared the place of combat and Kojiro and the waiting officials were astounded to see the strange figure of Musashi, with his unkempt hair tied up in a towel, leap from the boat brandishing the long wooden oar and rush through the waves up the beach towards his enemy. Kojiro drew his long sword, a fine blade made by Nagamitsu of Bizen, and threw away his scabbard. "You have no more need of that" said Musashi as he rushed forward with his sword held to one side. Kojiro was provoked into making the first cut and Musashi dashed upward at his blade, bringing the oar down on Kojiro's head. As Kojiro fell, his sword, which had cut the towel from Musashi's head, cut across the hem of his divided skirt. Musashi noted Kojiro's condition and bowed to the astounded officials before running back to his boat. Some sources have it that after he killed Kojiro Musashi threw down the oar and, nimbly leaping back several paces, drew both his swords and flourished them with a shout at his fallen enemy.
It was about this time that Musashi stopped ever using real swords in duels. He was invincible, and from now on he devoted himself to the search for perfect understanding by way of Kendo.
In 1614 and again in 1615 he took the opportunity of once more experiencing warfare and siege. Ieyasu laid siege to Osaka castle where the supporters of the Ashikaga family were gathered in insurrection. Musashi joined the Tokugawa forces in both winter and summer campaigns, now fighting against those he had fought for as a youth at Seki ga Hara.
According to his own writing, he came to understand strategy when he was fifty or fifty-one in 1634. He and his adopted son Iori, the waif whom he had met in Dewa province on his travels, settled in Ogura in this year. Musashi was never again to leave Kyushu island. The Hosokawa house had been entrusted with the command of the hot seat of Higo province, Kumamoto castle, and the new lord of Bunzen was an Ogasawara. Iori found employment under Ogasawara Tadazane, and as a captain in Tadazane's army fought against the Christians in the Shimawara uprising of 1638, when Musashi was about fifty-five. The lords of the southern provinces had always been antagonistic to the Tokugawas and were the instigators of intrigue with foreign powers and the Japanese Christians. Musashi was a member of the field staff at Shimawara where the Christians were massacred. After this, Ieyasu closed the ports of Japan to foreign intercourse, and they remained closed for over two hundred years.
After six years in Ogura, Musashi was invited to stay with Churi, the Hosokawa lord of Kumamoto castle, as a guest. He stayed a few years with lord Churi and spent his time teaching and painting. In 1643, he retired to a life of seclusion in a cave called "Reigendo". Here he wrote Go Rin No Sho, addressed to his pupil Teruo Nobuyuki, a few weeks before his death on the nineteenth of May, 1645.
Musashi is known to the Japanese as "Kinsei", that is, "Sword Saint". Go Rin No Sho heads every Kendo bibliography, being unique among books of martial art in that it deals with both the strategy of warfare and the methods of single combat in exactly the same way. The book is not a thesis on strategy, it is in Musashi's words "a guide for men who want to learn strategy" and, as a guide always leads, so the contents are always beyond the student's understanding. The more one reads the book the more one finds in its pages. It is Musashi's last will, the key to the path he trod. When, at twenty-eight or twenty-nine, he had become such a strong fighter, he did not settle down and build a school, replete with success, but became doubly engrossed with his study. In his last days even, he scorned the life of comfort with lord Hosokawa and lived two years alone in a mountain cave deep in contemplation. The behavior of this cruel, headstrong man was evidently most humble and honest.
Musashi wrote "When you have attained the Way of strategy there will be not one thing that you cannot understand" and "You will see the Way in everything". He did, in fact, become a master of arts and crafts. He produced masterpieces of ink painting, probably more highly valued by the Japanese than the ink paintings of any other. His works include cormorants, herons, Hotei the Shinto God, dragons, birds with flowers, bird in a dead tree, Daruma (Bodhidharma), and others. He was a fine calligrapher, evidenced by his piece "Senki" (Warspirit). There is a small wood sculpture of the Buddhist diety Fudo Myoo in private hands. A sculpture of Kwannon was lost recently. He made works in metal, and founded the school of sword guard makers who signed "Niten", after him (see below). He is said to have written poems and songs, but none of these survive. It is said also that he was commissioned by the Shogun Iemitsu to paint the sunrise over Edo castle.
His paintings are sometimes impressed with his seal, "Musashi", or his nom de plume "Niten". Niten means "Two Heavens", said by some to allude to his fighting attitude with a sword in each haand held above his head. In some places he established schools known as "Niten ryu", and in other places called it "Enmei ryu" (clear circle).
He wrote "Study the Ways of all professions". It is evident that he did just that. He sought out not only great swordsmen but also priests, strategists, artists and craftsmen, eager to broaden his knowledge.
Musashi writes about the various aspects of Kendo in such a way that it is possible for the beginner to study at beginner's level, and for Kendo masters to study the same words on a higher level. This applies not just to military strategy, but to any situation where plans and tactics are used. Japanese businessmen have used Go Rin No Sho as a guide for business practice, making sales campaigns like military operations, using the same energetic methods. In the same way that Musashi seems to have been a horribly cruel man, yet was following logically an honest ideal, so successful business sems to most people to be without conscience.
Musashi's life study is thus as relevant in the twentieth century as it was on the medieval battleground, and applies not just to the Japanese race but to all nations. I suppose you could sum up his inspiration as "humility and hard work".
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