Miyamoto Musashi: A Famous Swordsman and Ronin in Japan

The use of weapons for fighting has been going on since the beginning of time. Initially, these weapons were made of basic materials, but gradually, they developed through the years. Aside from knowing the weapons available, another important thing to consider is knowing how to properly use these weapons. One of the most common weapons in the olden times is a sword. There are different kinds of swords made with various materials, each having its own distinct power when yielded. To know how to properly yield a sword make take years of practice and experience. A crash course on swordsmanship would not be enough to truly learn the art.

In Japan, the use of swords was typical among warriors and other fighters, especially during the feudal era. Swordsmen underwent long, strenuous training in order to attain sufficient skill in yielding swords. Among the most famous swordsmen in Japan is known as Miyamoto Musashi.

The Life and Fate of Miyamoto Musashi

Born in the year 1584, Miyamoto Musashi was a famous Japanese expert swordsman and ronin. Also known as Shinmen Takezo, Musashi became well-known through anecdotes and tales about his amazing and unique swordsmanship using double-bladed swords. Musashi may also go by his Buddhist name Niten Doraku. He had an undefeated record in 60 duels, with the next in line being Ito Ittosai with 33 duels. Founder of a style of swordsmanship known as Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū or Niten-ryū, he wrote a book entitled “The Book of Five Rings,” also known as “Go Rin no Sho” in Japanese, during his final years. The books contain strategies and tactics, as well as philosophy, of Musashi that is still being studied by the Japanese up to this day.

The early life of Musashi is not entirely clear to the public. However, it was stated in his book that Musashi was born in Harima Province. Another book entitled “Niten Ki,” an early biography about Musashi, also backs the idea that the man was born in the year 1584. It was said that the childhood name of Musashi was Bennosuke. The son of Shinmen Munisai, a well-known martial artist as well as a master of the sword and jutte, Musashi comes from a long line of formidable men.

With his full name and title being Shinmen Musashi-no-Kami Fujiwara no Harunobu, his grandfather went by the name of Hirata Shogen. Hirata Shogen was a vassal of Shinmen Iga no Kami, who was the lord of Takayama Castle in the district of Yoshino located in Mimasaka Province. Due to the lord’s reliance on Hirata Shogen, he was allowed to use the Shinmen name as well. As the “no kami” part of his name, it was a court title that made Musashi the nominal governor of the province of Musashi. On the other hand, he claimed descent of the lineage “Fujiwara.”

When Musashi turned 7 years old, he was raised by his uncle by marriage, Dorinbo. Educated by both Dorinbo and Tasumi in the Shoreian temple, which was just 3 kilometers or around 1.8 miles from Hirafuku, Musashi learned basic skills like reading and writing as well as the teachings of Buddhism. On the other hand, it was Munisai who first trained Musashi in using the sword and taught him the family art of jutte.

Unfortunately, this did not last long as Munisai was ordered to kill one of his students by the name of Honiden Gekinosuke by Shinmen Sokan in the year 1589. This order had consequence, one of which being displeasing the Honiden family. Thus, Munisai was coerced to move to the village of Kawami, which was 4 kilometers or 2.5 miles away from his original home. He passed away later on in the year 1592.

Based on the introduction of Musashi’s book, his first successful duel was when he was at the age of 13. Fighting against a samurai by the name of Arima Kihei, the primary source of the duel was the “Hyoho senshi denki,” which translates to "Anecdotes about the Deceased Master" in English. Kihei utilized the style of Kashima Shinto-ryu, which was founded by Tsukahara Bokuden who died in the year 1571.

Three years later, Musashi left the village he was residing in at the age of around 15 to 16 in the year 1599. Instead of bringing his possession with him, such as weapons, furniture, genealogy, and other sorts of records, Musashi decided to leave them with his sister and her husband by the name of Hirao Yoemon. Instead of staying in just one place, Musashi traveled and engaged in various duels, one of which was Akiyama who hailed from the Tajima Province.

It was in the year 1600 that a war ensued between the Tokugawa clan and the Toyotomi clan. It was said that Musashi fought alongside the Toyotomi clan by being part of the clan’s Army of the West. He allied with this clan due to the fact that there was an alliance between the Toyotomi clan and the Shinmen clan, to whom Musashi’s family swore allegiance. To be more specific, Musashi was part of the group that attempted to capture the Fushimi Castle by assault on the month of July in the year 1600. Musashi also participated in defending the besieged Gifu Castle on the month of August in the same year and in the Battle of Sekigahara.

There were some doubts circulating this event as Musashi apparently refused to fight alongside his father, stating that was a vassal of no such lord. Ultimately, the Toyotomi clan lost the battle against the Tokugawa clan. Instead of letting himself get captured by the enemy, Musashi fled the scene and went on to train at Mount Hiko.

The belief that Musashi was undefeated in 60 duels was a conservative estimate. However, it is highly likely that this approximation did not account for the deaths that he had caused by hand in some of the major battles that he fought in. Musashi started to practice the art of zazen at the Myoshin-ji Temple in the year 1611. There, he met a vassal to Hosokawa Tadaoki by the name of Nagaoka Sado. Hosokawa Tadaoki was a powerful daimyo who had recently obtained the Kumamoto Domain located at west-central Kyushu at the time following the Battle of Sekigahara.

It was Munisai who made the introduction possible between Musashi and Sado when he moved to northern Kyushu to become Tadaoki’s mentor. A proposal for a duel against Sasaki Kojiro was made by Nagaoka. Tokitsu had a belief that this proposal was motivated by politics so as to let Tadaoki have full control over his fief.

Ideally, Miyamoto Musashi would be killed in combat, given that he had fought a lot of duels in his lifetime. However, many believe that he suffered thoracic cancer, which ultimately caused his death on the 13th of June in the year 1645. It was said to be a peaceful passing, following the conclusion of his text entitled “Dokodo,” which translates to “The Way of Self-Reliance” or “The Way of Walking Alone.” The text consisted of 21 precepts that focused on self-discipline to serve as a guide for the younger generation. Interred in armor, Musashi’s body may be found in Yuge Village close to the main road that is near Mt. Iwato while his hair was buried on the mountain itself.

Battle Between Swordsmen: Miyamoto Musashi vs. Sasaki Kojiro

By Ashihiro Harukawa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Out of all the duels fought by Musashi, the most famous one was the duel against Sasaki Kojiro. Kojiro was considered to be the most skilled opponent that Musashi ever faced, making him Musashi’s greatest rival. Many believed that Kojiro also fought several duels against the best swordsmen in Japan during his lifetime and was never defeated.

A style was developed by Kojiro, which proved to be effective in battle. His style came from the idea of mimicking the movement of a swallow’s tail in flight. While many other samurais utilized the traditional katana during battle, Kojiro opted for a no-dachi. This weapon was a considerably long two-handed sword. Even if the sword was long and heavy, Kojiro was able to optimize its use and strike quickly and precisely. He was also the private kenjutsu instructor of Lord Hosokawa Tadaoki.

On the 13th of April in the year 1612, these two exceptional swordsmen agreed to fight in a duel. The fight was set to take place on Ganryu Island, which is situated off the coast of Bizen Province. The schedule for the fight was for early the next morning. However, on the day of the battle, Musashi made Kojiro and the officials who would be serving as witnesses wait for several hours. This caused a rumor spreading that Musashi decided to run away due to his fear of Kojiro’s technique, which might cause him his life.

However, the truth was that making them all wait was part of Musashi’s strategy. Making them wait for a long period of time would somehow cause a disturbance in Kojiro’s inner state of mind. Musashi traveled to the island via a boat by a local fisherman. During his journey to the island, Musashi carved a wooden sword that he, later on, used in the duel against Kojiro.

Upon Musashi’s arrival, Kojiro, along with the officials, were waiting for him. Because of anger and irritation, Kojiro proceeded on to draw his katakana and discarded his scabbard, which Musashi noted to be a bad move. The combat between the two began and they were on guard as they were aware of each other’s ability. Kojiro was provoked by Musashi to make the first attack. Countering the attack swiftly, Musashi broke the left ribs of Kojiro and punctured his lungs, which caused his ultimate death.

Prior to leaving the island, Musashi bowed to the body of Kojiro and the officials. Saddened by the fact that one of the greatest swordsmen in Japan died in his hands, Musashi reached satori, also known as spiritual awakening. It was during this moment that he finally renounced ever committing to lethal duels.

Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of Five Rings”

A text that revolves around kenjutsu and the martial arts, The Book of Five Rings was written by Miyamoto Musashi during the year 1645. Several translations have been made through the year, with an audience so broad that it reaches not just people who study the martial arts but also businessmen. The discussion on conflict and taking advantage of a certain situation is found to be helpful tips for business leaders. It is considered as a manual of not just technique but also philosophy by the modern-day Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū.

Basically, the five “books” in the text denotes the idea of different elements incorporated in battle, similar to distinct physical elements in life, as depicted by teachings in Buddhism. The books are The Book of Earth, The Book of Water, The Book of Fire, The Book of Wind, and The Book of the Void. The Book of Earth chapter focuses on the introduction to the text itself. It also explains factors like martial arts, leadership, and training in a metaphorical way, similar to that building a house.

On the other hand, The Book of Water defines the style of Musashi, which is “Ni-ten ichi-ryu,” also known as “Two Heavens, One Style” in English. Basic techniques and fundamental principles are also discussed in this chapter. As for The Book of Fire, it signifies the heat of battle and focuses on the different kinds of timing among others. The Book of Wind also means The Book of Style. It focuses on the failures of several contemporary schools of swordsmanship as considered by Musashi. Lastly, The Book of the Void is a short epilogue that discusses consciousness and proper mindset as influenced by Zen Buddhism.

His Life and Notable Quotes Adapted into Movies and Anime Shows

The life of Musashi is so interesting for a lot of people that movies and anime shows were based on it. An example of this would the film entitled “Miyamoto Musashi.” It also incorporates several quotes from Musashi as taken from his book. An anime show or series also based a character known as Akatsuki Musashi on the personality of Miyamoto Musashi. Some characters on video games such as Mugen were also based on Musashi.

Truly, Musashi was not just an exceptional swordsman and ronin but also an inspiration to many. His books are referred to by a lot of people even up to this day and age. Check out his books and one might get to learn a thing or two not just about the martial arts but also the way of life.