Miyamoto Musashi was the greatest swordsman to ever come out a nation of great swordsmen – Japan. His story, which has become the basis for countless flying swordsman Oriental movies, is one of raw courage, unbridled ambition and unparalleled mindfulness. In one on one combat he defeated 60 opponents, yet his greatest legacy is his seminal work, the Book of Five Rings, which is still pored over my military tacticians and mindfulness enthusiasts 450 years after it was written.
In this week’s Biographics, we reveal the man who was Musashi.
There is much uncertainty over the details and dates pertaining to the life of Musashi. What follows is based primarily on his own account as recorded in The Book of Five Rings. Miyamoto Musashi was born in the spring of 1584 in the village of Miyamoto in the Yoshino District of Mimisaka Province in Japan. He was born into nobility, with his mother, who died giving birth to him, being the daughter of a minor local chieftain. His father, Muni was a warrior in the Shin Man clan, who had become an expert in the fighting arts. He was especially adept in jiu jitsu, swordsmanship and the use of the jitta, an iron rod with forklike protrusions.
When he was in his thirties, Muni had been invited to the capital of Kyoto to duel with another highly regarded warrior in the presence of the Shogun. Muni beat the man in two out of three bouts. The victory established Musashi’s father as He Ho Shou (Without Equal) in Japan.
Muni was intent on teaching his son everything that he knew about the fighting arts. Although Musashi was a quick learner, he had a stubborn streak that saw him constantly clashing with his father. Whereas everyone else treated Muni with the utmost respect and reverence, Musashi would often talk back and criticize his father. This resulted in a volatile relationship which often culminated in violence. On one occasion, Muni took a knife and threw it at his son. Musashi managed to dodge the weapon,which buried itself in the wall beside him. But the father’s anger was not over – he threw the seven year-old boy out of his house, essentially disowning him.
Musashi crossed the Kamasaka pass into the province of Harima where he traveled to the small village of Hirafuku. Here he was taken in by his uncle Dorin. Dorin had once been a warrior but had long ago renounced the fighting arts, becoming a Buddhist monk and living a life of study and meditation. He raised Musashi at his small Buddhist temple, set on the edge of the village. Here the boy learned to read and write as well as to meditate and develop his spirituality.
The Fighter Emerges
Musashi’s real passion, however, lay with the martial arts. He spent countless hours alone in the woods, sparring against the unforgiving trunks of pine trees, his anger at his father being released as he built upon the skills that had been instilled by that great warrior.
In his great work The Book of Five Rings, Musashi recorded that his first real fight occurred when he was thirteen years of age. He related that a passing warrior by the name of Arima Kihei had put up a sign along the Sayo river challenging any local swordsman to a duel. The bold and impetuous Musashi took up the challenge, writing his name on the sign. Kihei considered the challenge a joke, but accepted it anyway, intent on teaching the young upstart a lesson. Musashi’s uncle, Dorin, was shocked when he heard what his nephew had done. On the day of the challenge, he went ahead of the boy and attempted to beg off. While he was pleading with Kihei, Musashi charged his opponent with a six foot quarterstaff. He caught Kihei off guard, clubbing him to the ground and then striking him between the eyes. With a succession of blows he then beat him to death.
Three years later, Musashi left Hirafuku and set off to make his way in the world. He traveled along the Sanyodo, the old high road skirting the northern shore of the Inland Sea to the straits of Shimonoseki. From there he ferried across the waters to the port of Kokura and on to Nakatsu, the castle town where his father now lived. Muni had entered the service of Yoshitaka, the master of Nakatsu Castle. The teenager arrived to find that his father’s army were in the midst of a campaign to subdue the island of Kyshu and wage war on the western provinces. Musashi was recruited into the force and soon found himself fighting alongside his father. It was his first taste of war.
The campaign proved to be a great success, with two provinces being brought under the dominion of Yoshitaka. Following the campaign, Musashi’s aging father retired from active duty, moving to the nearby port of Kitsuki. Yet as the father exited from the world of mortal combat, the son was just getting started. The campaign had wet his appetite and he was eager for more. Intent on becoming a great warrior, or swordsman, like his father he set out a path forward. He needed to perfect his art of swordsmanship, seek out and defeat other masters and then found his own school of swordsmanship.
Never one to think small, Musashi set his sights on the most prestigious school of swordsmanship in the realm – the famous Yoshioka clan in Kyoto. He knew that if he could fully defeat even one member of this clan, he would put himself on the fast-track to recognition as a master swordsman. So, without saying a word to his father, he rose early one morning, collected his few belongings and set out to claim his destiny. He bartered his way onto a small merchant vessel to the port of Sakaki. From there he traveled on foot to Kyoto and sought out the Yoshioka clan. He threw down his challenge, which was eagerly accepted by their top swordsman, Seijuro. The duel would take place on the grounds of the Rendai temple.
When he arrived at the venue, Musashi leapt upon his opponent without warning – just as he had in his first duel – and felled Seijuro with a blow from his bokuto. The fight was over before it had properly begun. The shock defeat of their top swordsman rocked the Yoshioka clan. Seijuro’s brother, Denshichiro, was incensed at the manner in which the young upstart from the south had attacked his brother when he was unprepared. He challenged Musashi to a second challenge on the very spot where the first had occurred.
This time it was the Yoshioka swordsman who charged first, attempting to strike a fatal blow with his five-foot bokuto. But Musashi managed to wrestle the weapon away from Denshichiro, using it to beat his opponent to death.
The Yoshioka had now been bested twice in short order. This was too much for their honor to bare, and they decided that Musashi must be killed. They devised a plan to ambush him in the woods outside of the hostel he was staying at. More than a hundred Yoshioka students, armed with sticks, bows and arrows gathered under the leadership of Denshichiro’s son, Matashichiro came up against Musashi. Unperturbed, Musashi rushed straight for Matashichiro, killing him in front of the others. Overawed, the Yoshioka fell back, allowing Musashi to slip away.
“You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain”
― Miyamoto Musashi,
The Supreme Warrior
Having established his supremacy by decimating the most highly respected warrior clan in the land, Musashi returned to Kyoto. In the space of a few days he had brought down a school of swordsmanship that had reigned supreme for over a century. Still, he knew that he had a lot to learn in order to became the greatest warrior in the nation.
From Kyoto, he traveled to the temple to Nara. Here he found a line of warrior monks who were experts in Hozo’in-ryu, the art of fighting with the lance. The Temple master was fascinated with Musashi’s ability to fight with two swords at once. Keen to test his finest student against the newcomer, he arranged for two bouts with a monk named Okuzo’in. In neither was the lancer able to gain the upper hand over Musashi.
Leaving Nara, Musashi traveled to Edo, a city that was teeming with accomplished swordsmen, many of whom had forged their talents on the field of battle. Here Musashi opened his own dojo, one of hundreds in the city. News quickly spread of his unique style, and soon he was being flooded with students. One of them was Mizuno Katsunari, a well respected and battle hardened warrior. The fame of Musashi’s dojo spread, reaching all the way to Edo Castle and the Shogun himself. He was invited to teach there, but declined when he realized that he would be subject to a member of the hated Yagyu clan.
After teaching in Edo for seven years, Musashi decided to return to Kitsuki, the town of his father. The aging Muni had set up his own dojo and was eager to pass it on to his son. Before he arrived back in Kitsuki, however, Musashi, was to fight one more challenger.
His journey home brought him to the small island of Funashima, in the straits of Shimonoseki. It was here that he was challenged by a famed warrior by the name of Sasaki Kojiro, a man so fierce that he had earned the moniker ‘Demon of the Western Provinces.’ He was a master of nodachi, the great Japanese sword. Legend tells us that Musashi’s only weapon was a bokken, or wooden sword, that he had carved from an oar of the boat that had brought him to the island. With this he managed to subdue and kill Sasaki. He then immediately jumped into his boat and rowed out to sea in order to get away from Sasaki’s enraged followers.
Musashi now completed his journey to Kitsuki where he began teaching at his father’s dojo. For three years he lived and worked in the small seaside village. During this time his fractured relationship with his father got no better, with the old man criticizing his son’s martial ability at every opportunity. When Muni died at the age of 85, Musashi was more relieved than saddened.
Shortly after his father’s passing, Musashi received a letter from his former student, Mizuno Katsunari. War had broken out between the great clans of Tokugawa and Toyotomi. Katsunari was about to take part in the siege on the Tokugawa side along with his eldest son, who was just 16 years old. Katsunari requested that Musashi serve as a part of a special escort of ten mounted warriors for his son.
Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.
The thirty year old Musashi saw this as his opportunity to jump back into the thick of combat. He set off from Kitsuki for the port of Sakaki. He was determined to be the protector in battle of the young son of his beloved student, Katsunari. He met up with Katsunari’s forces, riding at the head of 4,000 men as they advanced on Osaka and then on to Kokobu, a hamlet made up of a few farms stretching along the southern bank of the Yamamoto river. Just a few miles downstream a large enemy force had gathered. That night, however, Katsunari’s army managed to surround the Toyotomi forces. The attack was ordered at 10 pm, the hour of the snake, and the Toyotomi were sent reeling. They fled across the Ishi river, only to be chased down by Katsunari’s men. Musashi was in the lead, wielding his favorite weapon, the bokutu. Records tell us that he stood on the heights of a bridge, sending one enemy warrior after another flying with the deadly blows of his trusty bokutu.
The Osaka winter and summer campaigns, in which the Tokugawa were victorious, put an end to the resistance of Japan’s western warlords. The culmination of the hostilities was the siege of Osaka castle. It was the largest battle in which Musashi would ever take part, with many thousands of warriors being slaughtered on both sides. Among those of his comrades to fall was Nakagawa Shimanosuke, who was stricken down as Katsunari’s men had stormed the southern gate of the castle. This man had three sons who traveled with the army. The two older boys took part in the siege. But the youngest was just eleven. With the death of his father, he now needed a guardian.
Father and Mentor
Musashi took the boy, Mikinosuke under his wing, adopting him as his son, and set off for the castle town of Himeji, then on to Hirafuku, where he step-mother lived. For the next two years he lived here, caring for his aged step-mother while also providing for his new son. Many hours each day were spent imparting to Mikinosuke the fighting skills that he himself had learned as a young boy from his own father.
This tranquil existence was interrupted when news reached the village of Hirafuku that Ikeda Mitsumasa, the current lord of Himeji castle, was going to move. The new lord was going to be Honda Tadamasa. Musashi saw this change in leadership as an opportunity for his adopted son. During the storming of the Osaka castle, Tadamasa had been in command of the second eastern phalanx, directly behind the troops of Katsunari, where Musashi was stationed. He had, therefore, seen Musashi in action in the heat of the battle. Musashi requested that his son Mitsumasa be given a duty in the lord’s household. Tadamasa agreed and the boy was made a page to his own son, Tadatoki. At the same time, Musashi was hired by the neighboring daimyo, Ogasawa Tadazane. He was appointed as an advisor to the magistrate in charge of construction of a huge building project, the construction of Akashi Castle. This was followed with the planning of the town of Himeji. Musashi was also put in charge of the castle gardens, and oversaw the construction of a teahouse, miniature mountains and miniature lake. He proved to have a meticulous eye for detail and was obsessive in getting every tree, shrub and stone placed just right.
The years that he spent at Akashi were the happiest of Musashi’s life. As well as planning out the landscaping and tending to the gardens, he instructed his retainers in the art of fighting with two swords. He also obtained much satisfaction in hearing of the successes of his adopted son, Mikinosuke, who grew in favor in the household of Tadamasa.
In the spring off 1626, Lord Tadatoki was struck down with tuberculosis, being forced to keep to his quarters at Himeji castle. After a three month struggle with the disease, he died, aged 30. Musashi knew all too well what this meant for his son. As the key retainer of the stricken Lord, Mikinosuke was customarily bound to commit seppuku, ritual suicide by disembowelment.
Mikinosuke’s death left a deep emotional scar on Musashi from which he would never recover. For months he shunned all company, retreating to the forest to commune with nature and try to come to terms with his great loss. Almost exactly a year after Mikinosuke’s death, Musashi adopted a second son – a boy named Iori, who was the second son of Tamara Hisamitsu, a Samurai in the service of the lord of Miki castle. When that castle had been overthrown by the Tokugawa army, Hisamitsu took up life as a poor farmer. When he died, his younger son, Iori, became an orphan. Musashi took him in and arranged for him to enter the service of Lord Ogasawara Tadazane. The boy would eventually attain the rank of senior retainer, stationed on the southern island of Kyushu. Musashi moved there to be closer to the boy and was to spend the last twenty years of his life on the island.
Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.
Musashi built a large dojo on the island, and soon had a huge following, all eager to learn from the great master. Even though located on a remote island far from the main centers, many martial arts masters visited his dojo to experience the art of fighting with two swords first hand. The aging Musashi was respected and admired as a martial arts grand master. Still he was, as he had always been, an outsider. He did not groom himself as was expected. He left his hair grown long and unkempt, seldom bathed and refused to wear the traditional attire of a swordsman of that time. In his waning years, he even abandoned his two swords, preferring to carry and use nothing more than a five foot wooden staff.
In early 1638 an armed revolt broke out in the province of Hizen. The rebellion was made up of Christians, led by 17-year-old Amakusa Shiro, and numbered more than 20,000 men. They had ensconced themselves the long abandoned Hara castle. Lord Ogasawara Tadazane, the employer of Musashi’s adopted son, engaged the aging master to escort his 23-year old son to the battlefield, along with 8,000 men. Musashi stayed at the boy’s side throughout the entire siege. When the defenders inside the castle threw boulders down from the walls, he leapt in front of the lord’s horse and fended them off with his staff.
The Final Years
Musashi hadn’t been back from the Hizen rebellion for long when he was approached to take up a position in the household of the daimyo of one of the largest fiefs in the country, Hosokawa Tadatoshi. Tadatoshi wanted Musashi to relocate to Kumamoto and instruct his retainers in the art fighting with two swords. The swordsman accepted, arriving in Kumamoto in September, 1640. He was given a comfortable mansion on the northeastern side of the castle grounds.
Musashi took to spending much time in the mountains of Iwato, where he would wile away the hours in meditation and contemplation. He found a cave which afforded him perfect solitude. It was here that he began to put his thoughts to paper
In the early Spring of 1645 he completed the first draft of the work that would make him immortal down through the ages – the Gorin no Sho, or Book of Five Rings. The book had taken five seasons to complete, each one seeing the completion of one long scroll. He named them the scrolls of Earth, Fire, Water, Wind and Heaven.
Shortly after the completion of his great work, Musashi’s health took a sudden turn for the worse. Within a month, he was no longer able to teach. He withdrew to his house outside the castle walls. Feeling his life ebbing away, he summoned his chief retainer and handed him the Gorin no Sho. Having passed on his legacy he then closed his eyes and allowed the life to drain from his body. It was June the 13th, 1645. Shortly after his death, a stone memorial, to be known as Mound Musashi, was erected not far from his home in Kaido. For centuries thereafter passersby would dismount from their horses to pay homage to the greatest swordsman that Japan would ever produce.