The Undefeated Swordsman: Miyamoto Musashi

Known throughout the world as the greatest Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi has been present in many modern media both in the east and west. Musashi, as he was often referred to, became the subject of many stories. From his many duels to his signature double-bladed technique, Musashi is undoubtedly one of the most popular swordsmen in Japanese history.

The Man Behind the Sword: Miyamoto Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi’s childhood is shrouded in mystery. Most accounts of his early life are unverified but in his own book, The Book of Five Rings or the Go Rin No Sho, Musashi states that he was born in the Harima Province of early Japan. The earliest account of Miyamoto Musashi’s life is found in the Niten-Ki. This was written by Toyota Masatake, a student of the style of swordsmanship developed by Miyamoto Musashi called Niten Ichi-Ryu. This biography shows that Musashi was born in the year 1584. Accounts have also stated that Munisai, a master martial artist, was the father of Musashi and he originated from Miyamoto village. In his earlier years, he was called Bennosuke.

Miyamoto Musashi states in his book, The Book of Five Rings, that his full name was Shinmen Musashi-no-Kami. In his book, the swordsman sheds some light on his history. Aside from being the son of a well-established martial artist, Musashi was the grandson of Hirata Shogen, a vassal of the lord of Takayama Castle, Shinmen Iga no Kami, in the Mimasaka Province. His grandfather had good ties with the lord and was eventually allowed to carry the Shinmen name. The book also explains the name, Musashi. Musashi no Kami was a title given to him by the governing powers. This title essentially made him the nominal governor of the Musashi province. The book claims that Musashi had descended from the Fujiwara lineage, a family of regents that had great political power.

His story goes on to say that he was raised by his uncle, named Dorinbo or Dorin, in the Shoreian Temple in Hirafuku. It was his uncle that taught him the basics of Buddhism, reading, and writing. It was his father that trained him in the martial arts, with a big emphasis on the family martial art of using the jutte. Training under his father did not last long as his father was forced by the Shinmen family to kill Honiden Gekinosuke, one of his very own students. The Honiden family did not take this act lightly, forcing Munisai to move away from the village into Kawakami village. It is believed that his father died in 1592 by the hands of future enemies of Miyamoto Musashi.

Miyamoto Musashi’s life is full of stories told by other people. His life has been romanticized and thus the true events and details are lost to time. Examples of stories such as these would be that Miyamoto Musashi had some form of skin inflammation in his infancy causing his appearance to distort. Another story of this swordsman states that he would never bathe in order to never be put into an unarmed and surprising position, though this is considered highly unlikely as any member of the warrior caste who remains unwashed will never be welcomed into the household of powerful families. It is stories such as these that really make Miyamoto Musashi a character in stories told by people instead of an actual historical figure. He had turned into a man of legend and myths.

Getting to Know Miyamoto Musashi through His Poems, Quotes, Calligraphy and Paintings

At the later part of Musashi’s life, he had developed his skills in the traditional arts and crafts of Japan. To take a quote from his book, The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi says that when he applies the principles he uses in strategy for battles to the arts and crafts, he would no longer need a mentor in any field. Upon completing his journey of perfecting the way of the sword, Miyamoto Musashi had started to learn various arts and crafts such as calligraphy, painting, and poetry. By using his knack for thinking outside the box, he was able to produce masterful works. By looking at the way of the warrior in a general sense, he was able to take the essence of it and apply it to everything he did. In The Book of The Five Rings, he states wanted to prove that he had no need for a teacher and used calligraphy and ink paintings to prove this.

The paintings produced by this man is described as peculiar, powerful, and direct. He is very well-known for his skill in suiboku-ga, which translates to monochrome ink painting. His economical and efficient use of ink washes and brush strokes are what makes his art very unique. The most praised and treasured paintings by Miyamoto Musashi would have to be the Koboku Mekakuzu, which translates to Shrike on a Dead Tree, as well as the Rozanzu, which translates to Wild Geese Among Reeds.

The Greatest Battle: Miyamoto Musashi Vs. Sasaki Kojiro

It would be a waste to talk about the great swordsman without ever mentioning the battle with Sasaki Kojiro. Miyamoto Musashi’s most famous and retold story would be their battle on the beach. It is said that Sasaki Kojiro was Musashi’s most skilled opponent and that, like Musashi, Kojiro was undefeated. The story goes that Miyamoto Musashi had won over 60 duels, notwithstanding the battles won during major fights involving large numbers of warriors, without experiencing a single defeat.

It is believed that Miyamoto Musashi was practicing zen meditation, called zazen, at the Myoshin-Ji temple in 1611 when he met Nagaoka Sado, a bondsman to Hosokawa Tadaoki. Hosokawa Tadaoki was a very powerful feudal lord and was believed to have gone under the tutelage of Musashi’s father. It was Nagaoka Sado who proposed that Miyamoto Musashi should duel with Sasaki Kojiro, a master swordsman, and samurai known as the demon of the western provinces. This proposal is believed to be political in nature as the Sasaki clan could have been a political opponent of Tadaoki.

The duel had occurred on April 13, 1612, on the island of Funajima, in the Kanmon Straits. Miyamoto Musashi, who at that time was age 30, arrived late and was disheveled in appearance. The story goes that the duel was short and decisive. Musashi had chosen to fight his opponent, who wielded a Japanese great sword called a nodachi, with a wooden sword, called a bokken, that he had carved from the paddle he used to bring himself to the appointed place. His arrival was the talk of controversy.  There are multiple accounts of how the duel took place.

One account of the battle states that Musashi had arrived at the appointed place over three hours late and had begun insulting Sasaki Kojiro. This enraged the samurai, who charged Musashi. It is said that the battle was so fierce that Kojiro almost struck a fatal blow multiple times. It was only when the Musashi was between Kojiro and the sunset, that Kojiro was blinded and struck down. This account of the battle also states that Musashi had purposely arrived late in order to agitate Sasaki Kojiro. This could very well have been the case as Musashi had previously used this tactic on the swordsmen of the Yoshioka school.

Another recounting of the duel states that Sasaki Kojiro was infuriated at the mere arrival of Miyamoto Musashi. This caused Kojiro to charge at Musashi with fervor. In an attempt to strike Musashi down with one technique, Kojiro had used him famous Tsubame Gaeshi or Swallow Cut technique ut Musashi had struck first. Using the oar that brought him to the appointed place, Musashi was able to strike Kojiro’s body and break his ribs. This was a fatal blow to Kojiro and in a precaution to avoid backlash for the results, Musashi hastily flees the areas. This was his last and greatest duel.

Another theory for the real events of this battle is that Musashi did not come to face Kojiro alone. This battle was actually an assassination. As stated earlier, the Sasaki family was considered to be an obstacle to Tadaoki and thus the demise of Sasaki Kojiro would politically benefit Tadaoki.

The controversy stems from the supporters of both warriors. Supporters of Sasaki Kojiro state that it was dishonorable and deviant of Musashi to arrive late and unkempt to the duel. Supporters of Miyamoto Musashi believe that this tactic was fair and is a very smart strategy to use in agitating one’s opponent.

A Look into Miyamoto Musashi’s Fate

Miyamoto did not die in the glory of battle. It is believed that he had died from illness, specifically thoracic cancer, a type of cancer that affects the chest and lung regions of the human body. His death was considered to be a peaceful one just he had just finished writing the Dokkodo, a text that contains 21 teachings that allow future generations to practice self-discipline and bring order to their lives. Miyamoto Musashi, clad in armor, was buried in the Yuge village, located near Mount Iwato. His hair was cut and buried in the mountain itself. This mountain is of great importance to the story of Miyamoto Musashi as it was the site where he composed The Book of Five Rings. Some of his remains were also passed on the Mimasaka in order for part of him to be buried alongside his parents in the Musashi Shrine.

Miyamoto Musashi in Popular Culture: Books, Anime, Movies, and Art

Miyamoto Musashi is the quintessential image of a masterless swordsman and has been used in many stories in the modern era. From movies to anime, this swordsman has been the subject of many narratives. It can be said that the romanticized idea of Miyamoto Musashi originated in 1935. Yoshikawa Eiji started a newspaper serial, entitled Miyamoto Musashi, and this had brought the swordsman into the mainstream audience. A novel, entitled Musashi, was published soon after. Though this novel was mostly based on the historical events of the swordsman’s life, it contained many embellishments that made for an exciting read. This book is widely considered a success as one of the most well-read books in the world. Selling over 120 million copies, the novel Musashi even overcame books such as The Lord of The Rings and Chronicles of Narnia.

In recent years, the use of Miyamoto Musashi’s story has not seen any decline. His character has seen appearances, whether major or minor, in at least 36 movies. Six of these movies even had his name as the cover title. His story was also featured in numerous TV shows, both from Japan and Western producers. Miyamoto Musashi appeared in Samurai Reincarnation, Aragami, and was used as the basis for characters in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the NBC TV series entitled Heroes. Musashi is also featured in numerous media that appeal to children such as Pokemon, where Jessie and James are named Musashi and Kojiro in Japan, and numerous video games such as Samurai Showdown, Brave Fencer Musashi, Musashi: Samurai Legend, Onimusha Blade Warriors, Ninja Gaiden, and Warcraft.

Miyamoto Musashi is widely considered to be partly a historical figure and part legend. His whole life is considered legendary as even in his youth, he was famed for his ingenious battle strategy and swordsmanship. He founded the Niten-Ryu style of swordsmanship which is famed for the use of the double blade and quick timing in strikes. He also is known for his numerous contributions to Japanese culture from his book, The Book of Five Rings, and his arts and crafts. Though the true persona of Musashi has been lost to time and countless retellings, the spirit behind each of his stories is still felt in many new stories.