(Miyamoto Musashi fighting Tsukahara Bokuden, painted by Yoshitoshi (1839–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Birth of a Legend
Around 1584 CE, a boy was born into the Hirata family of samurai in the village of Miyamoto, located in the Harima Province of Japan. The boy’s father, Miyamoto Munisai (or Shinmen Munisai), was considered to be one of Japan’s greatest swordsmen, and he ran the village’s local dojo. With such a skilled parent, many would have expected that the boy would grow to be skilled with a sword. Yet, few could have predicted the unprecedented martial prowess that the newborn child would soon show the world. The boy’s name was Miyamoto Musashi, and he would later claim to have fought in over sixty duels, many of which ended in the death of his opponents.
Although Musashi is best remembered for being the undefeated “Alexander the Great” of dueling, he was also a bit of a renaissance man. Besides being a duelist, he joined the military and fought in around six battles. He also was an artist who painted, sculpted and carved. As another occupation, he became a foreman or supervisor and worked in construction. Yet, his greatest contribution to his legacy was his writing career.
When he was around twenty-two (perhaps, 1606 CE) he produced his Writings of the Sword Technique of the Enmei Ryu (Enmei Ryu Kenpo Sho), which was his first known written work on swordsmanship. In addition to this, near the end of his life, he also wrote the Thirty-five Instructions on Strategy(Hyoho Sanju Go). All his earlier writing, however, were surpassed by the book he wrote in the years preceding his death in 1645—The Book of Five Rings, or Go Rin no Sho.
Nevertheless, Musashi’s careers in literature and construction are not why most readers are here, reading this article. No, the most interesting and dramatic events in Miyamoto Musashi’s life came about because of the decades he spent wandering Japan as a traveling duelist.
In 1596, the thirteen-year-old Miyamoto Musashi was living a quiet life with his uncle in a temple located in Hirafuku, but his future was about to change drastically. As Musashi was walking the streets of Hirafuku, he saw a posted message that caught his ever-attentive eye. The public note was a challenge issued by Arima Kihei, a traveling samurai. In the note, Kihei challenged anyone to test their mettle against him in a duel. With this samurai’s notice, the cogs of fate began to turn for Miyamoto Musashi.
The thirteen-year-old boy signed up for the challenge against the samurai, but his uncle found out and was understandably displeased with his rash nephew. The uncle’s displeasure turned to horror when Arima Kihei accepted the young boy’s proposal for a duel. Miyamoto Musashi’s uncle continued to protest up until the day of the duel, when Musashi arrived with nothing but a stick to meet his samurai opponent.
There was no way anyone could have assuredly predicted what would happen next. Sure, Musashi was the son of one of Japan’s most skilled swordsmen, and he had even trained for a short time in his father’s dojo. Yet, he was still just a thirteen-year-old boy with a stick, facing down a samurai warrior. He could not possibly win. Nevertheless, win is exactly what Musashi did.
The duel was apparently over quickly. The young boy knocked the samurai off his footing. Then, the thirteen-year-old Musashi proceeded to savagely beat Arima Kihei to death with his stick. Before even settling into puberty, Miyamoto Musashi had already killed a man.
A Life of War and Dueling
In 1599, at around fifteen or sixteen years of age, Musashi decided to leave home and explore Japan. It was a chaotic time, to say the least. The military leader of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598 CE), had just died without a proper heir, leaving a perfect power vacuum available to be exploited by anyone who had the means and ability to seize power. Two major factions formed: the unstable remnants of the Toyotomi clan and its allies, against the powerful forces led by the daimyo (feudal lord), Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Miyamoto samurai were pulled into the war by their liege, the Shinmen clan, which sided against the Tokugawa. During the war, Musashi joined with his liege’s forces and participated in some of the battles. Most notably, he is thought to have been present at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 CE—the battle that cemented Tokugawa’s dominance in Japan. With the Toyotomi forces suppressed for the time being, and the Shinmen daimyo in hiding, Musashi became a rōnin (a samurai without a master) and took to the road, beginning a long string of famous duels.
By 1604, Miyamoto Musashi made his way to the city of Kyoto. The young duelist entered the city with a specific task in mind—he wanted to duel the elites martial artists from the Yoshioka School. The head of the school, Yoshioka Seijuro, accepted the challenge, and agreed to meet Musashi for a duel, with the condition that each warrior would be allotted only one blow.
Seijuro arrived for the duel at the designated time and place, but Miyamoto Musashi was nowhere to be found. In fact, Musashi was using one of his specialties—psychological warfare. By the time Musashi arrived with his signature wooden sword (or bokuto), Yoshioka Seijuro was confused, frustrated and anxious. As stated earlier, each duelist would only attack once, but that was ample enough opportunity for Miyamoto Musashi to secure victory. He brought down his wooden sword with enough strength and precision to break Seijuro’s left arm and completely cripple the shoulder. Musashi undisputedly won the duel.
After the fight, Seijuro reportedly decided to spend the rest of his life as a monk, and handed leadership of his family and school to his brother, Yoshioka Denshichiro. Looking to regain lost honor for the Yoshioka family, Denshichiro challenged Musashi to another duel—this time to the death. Denshichiro arrived for the duel, wielding a staff reinforced with steel rings. Miyamoto Musashi, once again, arrived strategically late, carrying his trusty wooden sword. When the duel began, Denshichiro was completely outmatched. Legend claims that Miyamoto Musashi killed his opponent with a single blow to the head.
After the death of Denshichiro, leadership of the family fell to a twelve-year-old boy named Yoshioka Matasichiro. Once again, for the sake of honor, Matasichiro also challenged Musashi to a duel—but this time, the Yoshioka family had no intention to fight fair. Nevertheless, the two agreed to duel in a relatively isolated location at night. Musashi, however, was growing suspicious of the Yoshioka clan. Therefore, he broke away from his earlier tactic of arriving late, and instead, arrived early to the location of the duel. When the time of the duel neared, Yoshioka Matasichiro arrived with a small army (including archers and marksmen) and prepared an ambush. Little did he know, however, that Miyamoto Musashi was watching from the shadows. Witnessing the treachery, Musashi leapt into action and charged at Matasichiro. He killed the twelve-year-old boy and fought his way out of the ambush using two swords. He would later teach this two-sword style of combat in his martial arts school, Nito Ryu (also known as Niten Ichi-ryu).
After escaping Kyoto, Miyamoto Musashi traveled to Nara, where he dueled spear-wielding warrior monks. He eventually decided to travel to the new Japanese capital city of Edo around 1607 CE. While on the road, he dueled to the death with a man named Shishido Baiken, who wielded a kusarigama, a sickle or scythe attached to a long chain. This duel, like all others past and future, ended with Musashi as the victor. Within the same year, Musashi was challenged to a duel by another undefeated duelist named Muso Gonnosuke. The two both fought with wooden swords and Musashi emerged victorious. Gonnosuke survived the duel and studied his loss carefully, refining his technique. Gonnosuke and Musashi fought a rematch years later and, despite Gonnosuke’s improvements, Musashi proved to be unbeatable.
Perhaps, the most famous duel of Miyamoto Musashi’s long career came in 1612, when he dueled a man in Kyushu known as Sasaki Kojiro. Kojiro wielded a very long sword called a nodachi—basically an extra long, two-handed katana. The two agreed to meet on an island to the north of Kyushu. On the day of the duel, Musashi returned to his old tricks. He arrived in a boat multiple hours late to the duel. When he stepped off the boat onto dry land, he curiously carried with him an oddly-shaped oar. When the two warriors readied themselves for the duel, it became apparent that Musashi intended use the oar as a weapon. As the fighting commenced, the master duelist showed the oar’s true potential—it had been fashioned into a wooden sword with more reach than Kojiro’s nodachi. With his long, wooden sword, Musashi deflected his opponent’s attacks and waited for an opening. The opening arrived quickly and Musashi delivered a blow that killed the great swordsman, Sasaki Kojiro. Some say this fight caused a spiritual awakening in Miyamoto Musashi. After this duel, he decided he would never duel an opponent to the death again.
War, Dueling and Legacy
From 1614 to 1615, Miyamoto Musashi is thought to have rejoined the Toyotomi forces in their continued struggle against Tokugawa rule in Japan. The Tokugawa, deciding to subdue their rivals once and for all, besieged Osaka Castle, the center of operations for the Toyotomi. It is generally assumed that Musashi was aiding the Toyotomi during the siege, but his military career during this time remains vague. Nevertheless, after the fall of Osaka in 1615, Miyamoto Musashi somehow befriended the Tokugawa regime, even after having fought against them several times during his life.
After the destruction of the Toyotomi, Musashi decided to learn a new profession—construction. That same year (1615), he became skilled enough in the craft to be appointed as a foreman or construction supervisor in Harima, ruled then by the Ogasawara family. At an unknown time of his life, Musashi also began to create multiple forms of art. He produced calligraphy, sculpted in wood and metal and was known to have been painting by the 1630s. Birds seemed to be his favorite subject—he painted a shrike perched on bamboo and geese passing through reeds. Musashi also, helpfully for us, painted a self-portrait that still exists, today. During the later parts of his life, Musashi also adopted at least three sons, named Miyamoto Mikinosuke, Miyamoto Iori and Takemura Yoemon.
Even though Miyamoto Musashi had found himself new professions, hobbies and even a newly adopted family, Musashi’s dueling career continued. Around 1621, he dueled at least four men in the region of Himeji. The most important of his opponents was named Miyake Gunbei. After the duels were concluded—as always, with Musashi victorious—the master duelist decided to stay in Himeji. While there, he used his skill in construction to help with the development of the town. Musashi’s adopted son, Mikinosuke, even became a vassal of a local lord in Himeji.
Miyamoto Musashi’s other sons also achieved prominent positions in Japan. Iori became a vassal of Ogasawara Tadazane in Harima and Takemura Yoemon eventually achieved the position of Master of Arms in Owari and gained a reputation as a skilled swordsman. Surprisingly, Musashi, himself, apparently found no entrance back into the prominent positions of feudal Japan—his application to be a Sword Master of the Shogun was declined in 1623 and the Ogasawara family refused to take him as a vassal. Despite this, he remained curiously in good standing with the influential Ogasawara and Hosokawa clans. Miyamoto’s family, however, was shaken in 1626 when Mikinosuke committed the ritual suicide of seppuku after the death of his lord.
One year after the death of Mikinosuke, Musashi began, once again, to resume his familiar travels throughout Japan. He eventually settled down with his other adopted son, Iori, in either 1633 or 1634, in the region of Harima. There, he continued his duels—he defeated a prominent warrior named Takeda Matabei, who specialized in the lance. Also, when the Christian-influenced Shimabara Rebellion erupted in 1637, Musashi helped his son and the Ogasawara daimyo defeat the rebels by offering advice on military strategy and management.
In the last decade of his life, Miyamoto Musashi began writing down more of his fighting technique and philosophy. In 1641, he wrote the Thirty-five Instructions on Strategy (Hyoho Sanju Go), which would serve as a rough draft of his next and greatest work. Finally, after he began to suffer bouts of neuralgia, Musashi retired in 1643 to live in Reigandō, a cave located in Kumamoto, Japan. There, it is said that he worked on his masterpiece, The Book of Five Rings (Go Rin no Sho), until the last year of his life in 1645. A simple read and short in length, The Book of Five Rings can be easily underestimated. Yet, like its author, Miyamoto Musashi, the little book overflows with unique skill and insight.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi,translated by Lord Majesty Productions, 2005.