Budo World

Miyamoto Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi (Niten’ichi-ryū)
1584-1645 (1584-1645)

Miyamoto Musashi was the unrivaled swordsman, who lived in the Azuchimomoyama-early Edo period. It is said that he was the one to establish Nitō-ryū, holding one sword in each hand, and write “The Book of Five Rings”, the source of his unique sword techniques that he derived from his fighting experiences. We can say that he is one of the most famous swordsmen in Japan, as much as abroad. However, despite being such a well-known person, his life is covered in mysteries and there are a lot of tales about his life that do not correspond with the truth.

Musashi’s Origin

It is commonly known that Musashi was born in 1584, nevertheless, there is a recent research evidence that the year of his birth was 1582.
The same applies for the place of his birth – it varies between Mimasaka and Banshu. One legend says he was born in Mimasaka, the Miyamoto village in Sakushu, which is now Okayama Prefecture, in the house of Shinmen Muni. Another is that his hometown was Banshu, present Hyogo Prefecture, in the Yoneda village as the second son in the family of Tahara Iesada, and later became the adopted child of Shinmen Muni. In “The Book of Five Rings”, which is believed to be written in his late years, he calls himself ‘the warrior born in Harima’ , and, considering the latest evidence, the Banshu legend seems to be more convincing.
Musashi’s father, Muni, was an expert swordsman himself. He was so skillful that he earned the name of ‘undefeated’ in Japan by beating the shogun’s army commander Yoshioka Kenpō in a match that was held in front of the last shogun of the Muromachi period, Ashikaga Yoshiaki. He established the style called Tori-ryū, using jitte and two swords. Naturally, Musashi learnt Tori-ryū from his foster father and this is believed to complete the techniques of Nito-ryū as Niten’ichi-ryū.

Warrior Tales of Musashi’s Early Years

Drawn by Pinter Peter

In “The Book of Five Rings”, Musashi touches upon his early years. He was passionate about trainings since he was young and at the age of 13, he defeated Arima Kihee, the swordsman of Shintō-ryū for the first time. Being only 13, he already gained victory over an experienced adult. When he was 16, he beat a strong fighter of Harima, Akiyama, and at the age of 21 it is said that he went to the capital and had to face many people in duels but came out of them undefeated all of the times. There is no detailed description but it includes three fights with the Yoshioka clan. After that he is said to travel around the country and fight with over 60 people from different styles but was never known to be defeated.
In 1600, Musashi took part in the Battle of Sekigahara under the command of Ukita Hideie. His army lost but he remained alive. This is not mentioned in “The Book of Five Rings”.
Furthermore, for some reason there is no mention about it except the name but the fight with Yoshioka clan in the capital in 1604 is a famous one. As it was mentioned earlier, Yoshioka was a distinguished family that served in the house of shogun Ashikaga as the army commander. The first fight was with Yoshioka Seijuro and he won it with one strike. Next, he defeated his younger brother, Denshichiro, and the third was with Seijuro’s son, Matashichiro, – he was then surrounded by several dozens of people but continued to fight and gained victory. He continued to fight and win against a lot of people, and the tales spread about his unusual strength. Through this sequence of fights Musashi instantaneously became famous. Musashi became confident in his abilities and after that established his own style – Enmei-ryū.
These were his warrior tales from his early years of training as he was 13 to 28-29 years old.

Fiction about the Fight of Ganryu-jima

Among all of Musashi’s epic tales, the most famous one is probably the fight of Ganryū-jima. According to the legend, this is a fight with Sasaki Kojiro of Ganryū style, the strongest swordsman in Western Japan from Kokura-han, which took place in 1612 (1610 in another source). It was held on a small island “Funa-jima”, which is situated at Kaimon Straits. Later this island took the name of Kojiro’s style and became known as “Ganryū-jima”.
The fight of Ganryū-jima spread around the world as follows.
Musashi was late for the appointed time and appeared with a wooden sword that he carved from the paddle on the boat that was going to the island. Kojiro, irritated by Musashi’s absence, drew his precious grand sword called “Monohoshizao” and threw away the scabbard. Then Musashi said: “Kojiro, you lost. If your intention was to win, why did you throw away the scabbard?” The fight was decided at once. Kojiro stroke and cut in half the towel Musashi wore around his forehead but at this instance Musashi smashed Kojiro’s head with a wooden sword from the paddle. This fight became known all over the world as the fight of Ganryū-jima and is referred to how Musashi won with a psychological strategy by being late.
However, historical reality claims to be different. It says that Musashi’s name spread around the world because of the book called “Miyamoto Musashi” that was written by Yoshikawa Eiji in early Showa period, and that the above is a scene taken from the book, and is no more than just a fiction. To start with, the work of Yoshikawa Eiji appeared as a parody of “Nitenki” (1776) around 130 years after Musashi’s death, and is a fiction in itself. Nine years after Musashi died, in 1654, on the “Ogura inscription”, made by his adopted son Iori, was carved: “They came at the same time”, and this has more of a probability. Nowadays, the scientific world inclines towards the theory that Musashi was not late.
 After all, this fight was held with the permission of the Lord Hosokawa Tataoki and in front of the clan representatives, so being late as a strategy becomes very questionable. The Fight of Ganryū-jima commonly known in the world is a fiction that became history.

20 Years of Mystery

“The Book of Five Rings” says that when Musashi turned 30, he realized that his sword techniques were not real. It is believed to happen right after the fight of Ganryū-jima, and became a turning point for Musashi. Moreover, it is said that he attained the essence of the sword by undergoing ascetic trainings when he was about 50 years, however, these 20 years from when he was 30 to 50 years old are covered in mystery.
Little that we know is that in 1615 he took part in the Siege of Osaka. Up to the present it has been said that he fought on Osaka’s side, however, the evidence has been discovered in recent years that he fought on the side of Tokugawa.
After the Siege of Osaka, he came to the Honda clan in Himeji and met his foster child Mikinosuke.
In 1626 – he adopted a second child, Iori, and sent him to work for the Ogasawa Tadazane family in Akashi and was taken care by Ogasawara himself.
1638 – together with Iori he participated in Shimabara Rebellion.
1640 – pays an informal visit to Hosokawa Tadatoshi from Kumamoto clan. It seems that Musashi held a deep feeling of gratitude towards Hosokawa Tadatoshi, who invited him a lot during his last years, and in 1641 presented him with his book “35 Articles about Swordsmanship” (“Heihō San-jū Go Kajō”) containing all of his theories concerning swordsmanship. However, one month later Tadatoshi dies, and Musashi experiences a huge disappointment.

The Mystery of “The Book of Five Rings”

Talking about Miyamoto Musashi we cannot but mention “The Book of Five Rings”. “The Book of Five Rings” is a theoretical text based on the numerous fighting experiences that took place from the late 16th to early 17th century, the time when Bujutsu had a practical value, and is an extremely valuable material in the history of Budo.
However, there is no original written by Musashi in this book, only several manuscripts. Therefore, various discussions occurred among scientists as to whether Musashi was the real author of this book. Our opinion is that “The Book of Five Rings” is not a finished work and is the draft that Musashi wrote and passed on to his student. There are different reasons for this, and one of them is that the text is rough and not organized. For example, the book consists of five chapters: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky. In the Earth and Water chapter he calls his style “Niten’ichi-ryū”, however, after that in Fire, Wind and Sky chapters it becomes “Nitōichi-ryū”. It was a time for transition from “Enmei-ryū” to “Niten’ichi-ryū”, nevertheless, his own style name is not unified. It means that he first noted it as “Nitōichi-ryū”, and then, when he was correcting it from the beginning, he changed it to “Niten’ichi-ryū” but he finished at the Water chapter. In other words, it is not complete. If it were not Musashi who wrote it, for example, his student, this would not take place. In short, our theory is that it is undoubtedly Musashi’s work.

Musashi’s Late Years

When he was invited to Kumamoto, Musashi had fights with Ujii Yashiro, a student of Yagyū Munenori and Shiota Hamanosuke, who used Bōjutsu. It is said that he gained an overwhelming victory over them, surpassing them by far. However, during his late years after Hosokawa Tadatoshi’s death he spent his life devoting himself to Zen and writing ink wash paintings.

Drawn by Pinter Peter

Musashi is known to the world as an artist as well. Among his famous works are ink paintings, such as Kobokumeigekizu (“Shrike Perched on a Withered Branch”), Uzu (“Cormorant”), Koubaihatozu (“Pigeon on a Red Plum”) and other, which belong to Important Cultural Property.
Musashi developed a deep connection with the Zen priests of Taisho temple that specialized in burial ceremonies for Hosokawa family. It is said that he was close to the priest Shunzan Gentei, however, the new theory is that he was friends with the latter’s teacher, Daien Genkou. In any case, Musashi, who says the boastful words “Believe in God but do not rely on him”, places himself in the world of Zen in his late years (and practices meditation as well).
In 1643, he isolates himself in Reigando (“spirit rock cave”) and starts writing “The Book of Five Rings”, and in 1645 he gives his incomplete draft to his student, Tearo Magonojo. With his last breath, at the same year he writes “Dokkodo” (“The Way of Aloneness”) and dies several days later on May 19th.

Author: Toshinobu Sakai
Translated by: Iuliia Kim