The life of: Miyamoto Musashi

A few months ago I was sitting down and heard the words “If you know the way broadly you will see it in everything.” I couldn’t tell you what I was watching but the phrase stuck in my mind. A quick search told me it was the words of Miyamoto Musashi. The only things left behind about Musashi were well twisted tales and his own writings, based mainly on strategy and mindset.

The beginning

Musashi was born around 1584 in the Harima Province of Japan, modern day Okayama. The little village was called Miyamoto hence his name derived from his place of birth. Musashi’s father was a Samurai called Shinmen Munisai, adept with the sword and with jutte. A jutte was a small non-bladed melee weapon and was important to the Japanese as it was a severe crime if you brought a sword into a Shogun’s palace. Samurai families would traditionally pass on their knowledge to offspring so Miyamoto quickly became an expert in his own right in both kenjutsu (Japanese swordsmanship) and juttejutsu (the martial art specialising in using the jutte).

The official date of Miyamoto Musashi’s birth is very much up for debate and there are many theories about his childhood including the fact that he was raised by his step mother for a while before his Father was granted a divorce. Whatever is factually correct or not it is accepted that when Musashi was around seven years old he was brought up by his Uncle in the Shoreian Temple. His Uncle, a monk named Dorin, taught the young boy basic skills such as reading and writing as well as more advanced ideologies such as Buddhism.

Stories about Musashi’s childhood are imaginatively embellished with one myth stating that he never took a bath because he did not want to be attacked and caught unarmed, the widely accepted actuality is that he had eczema. Musashi’s Father is the same, with stories of his death ranging from natural causes to being killed by a local warrior or even one of his own students. What is taken as fact, however, is that Miyamoto Musashi grew to be one of the most famous Japanese swordsmen of all time.

A depiction of Shinmen Munisai looming over his son, Miyamoto Musashi

Teenage years

Musashi, as written himself in The Book of Five Ringshad his first fight at the tender age of thirteen. It’s script is told wonderfully by William Scott Wilson in his book The Lone Samurai“In 1596, Musashi was 13, and Arima Kihei, who was travelling to hone his art, posted a public challenge in Hirafuku-mura. Musashi wrote his name on the challenge. A messenger came to Dorin’s temple, where Musashi was staying, to inform Musashi that his duel had been accepted by Kihei. Dorin, Musashi’s Uncle, was shocked by this, and tried to beg off the duel in Musashi’s name, based on his nephew’s age. Kihei was adamant that the only way his honor could be cleared was if Musashi apologized to him when the duel was scheduled. So when the time set for the duel arrived, Dorin began apologizing for Musashi, who merely charged at Kihei with a six-foot quarterstaff, shouting a challenge to Kihei. Kihei attacked with a wakizashi, but Musashi threw Kihei on the floor, and while Kihei tried to get up, Musashi struck Arima between the eyes and then beat him to death. Arima was said to have been arrogant, overly eager to battle, and not a terribly talented swordsman.” Talented or not, Arima Kihei was an adult and supposedly used a sharp short sword whilst Musashi himself used a wooden sword. It is said that Kihei died vomiting blood.

Three years after this first duel, at around the age of sixteen, Musashi upped sticks and left his village. The majority of his belongings were left behind with his sister and her husband. A year later, with duels along the way, Musashi was called to bear arms in the battle of Sekigahara. The war commenced in October 1600 between the clans of Toyotomi and Tokugawa to decide which Shogun would unify Japan thus rule over all of its land. Musashi, threw his fathers allegiance with the Shinmen, fought on the side of Toyotomi; “The army of the West”. Toyotomi ultimately lost after almost three years of bloody battles and horrific duels with the Tokugawa regime, known as the Edo period managing to last for 266 years. Needless to say Miyamoto Musashi survived and, according to tales, thrived. Musashi Yuko Gamei, accounting the times of Musashi, said that “Musashi’s achievements stood out from the crowd, and were known by the soldiers in all camps.”

After surviving the battle of Sekigahara which left thousands dead, Musashi is said to have resided on Mount Hiko in South West Japan, 1200 metres up. Here he trained with patience and purpose. The next we see of Musashi in official records is in Kyoto, then capital of Japan. It is in Kyoto that the famous Yoshioka school was based.

An artists impression of the Battle of Sekigahara

The Yoshioka battles

The Yoshioka school was founded by Yoshioka Kenpo who, from humble origins, found himself to be a renowned and respected swordsman. Kenpo became the official instructor of the Kyoto Shogun but this ultimately proved to be his downfall. In a regular performance at the Shogun’s castle it is said that Kenpo was accidentally hurt by an actor using a stick. This led to great shame and embarrassment for Kenpo who fled the scene without being able to defend himself. The emotions bubbled up inside him until one day soon after he smuggled a sword into the castle under his clothes and killed the actor in front of public eyes. As I said earlier in my explanation of the jutte, it was a severe crime if you carried a sword into a Shogun’s castle or palace hence Kenpo was declared a wanted man and would be punished by death; Kenpo took many of his pursuers with him to the grave.

His children and grandchildren took on the mantle of running now one of the capital’s most respected combat styles but they too would die by the sword. The Shogun of Kyoto, Ashikaga Yoshiteru once compared the Yoshioka school to the style of Shinmen Munisai (who you may remember is Miyamoto Musashi’s father). Shinmen Munisai won the battle which led to him being granted the title ‘Unrivaled Under Heaven’ by the Shogun and caused big upset between the two families, only to be heightened when Musashi appeared in Kyoto years later.

The first step of his stay in the capital was to challenge the head of the Yoshioka school to a duel. Yoshioka Seijuro accepted with no problems and a date was arranged. Outside Rendaji temple in Kyoto on March 8th 1604. Seijuro was there but Musashi was not. Musashi had devised a plan to turn up late, infuriating his opponent who would then leave himself exposed when unleashing his anger in the duel. His plan worked and Seijuro ended up with a broken arm before filling up with shame and becoming a monk.

Seijuro’s brother, Yoshioka Denshichiro, was now head of the Yoshioka school and wanted nothing more than to avenge his brothers death. Just as in the first duel, Musashi turned up late. This infuriated Denshichiro in a duel to the death which Musashi won with prompt ease, killing his opponent with one blow to the head with a wooden sword. The Yoshioka family and way of life was at stake and, with honour at an all time low, the new head of the Yoshioka school, 12-year-old Yoshioka Matashichiro, challenged Musashi to a duel.

This was to be no ordinary duel, the Yoshioka family had gotten so desperate they were planning a meticulously planned assassination attempt on Musashi. The duel was arranged for night time which was uncommon so suspicion rose in Musashi’s mind. Unlike the two previous times, Musashi arrived hours early, waiting in the bushes and observing. Matashichiro arrived in full armour and stood waiting, Musashi continued to observe. Archers, riflemen and swordsmen all suddenly appeared at the meeting point waiting to ambush Musashi but it was Musashi who was to do the ambushing. Sensing the perfect time to attack, Musashi leapt out of the bushes and cut off Matashichiro’s head. It is said that with two swords in hand Musashi wove a gory way out of battle and fled a dozen men, escaping through a rice field. The Yoshioka school was no more.

Miyamoto Musashi and his duel with the Yoshioka school

This battle led to Musashi understanding the potential of using two swords and worked to harness their power. Miyamoto Musashi would embark on a huge Warrior’s Pilgrimage in which he would traverse the length and breadth of the country, learning specialist techniques from those masterful in them. After seven years of mastering all he could, taking as much on board as possible, it was time to prove a point.

The ultimate duel

The year was now 1612 with Musashi about thirty years of age. Aged around twenty-six was Sasaki Kojiro. Kojiro was a masterful swordsman seen by many in Japan as the greatest to ever live, growing his reputation through his school and his fighting style said to be based on the movement of a swallow’s tail in flight.  The two greatest Japanese swordsmen agreed to fight in April 1612 on the Island of Ganryu. Kojiro and the duel witnesses waited hours for Musashi to turn up who himself had been transported to the Island by a local fisherman on a small boat. It is rumoured that on his journey he created a wooden sword with which he would battle.

Upon Musashi’s arrival, Kojiro was stood on the beach enraged. He quickly took out his Katana and threw away the scabbard. Musashi stood there and patiently said “if you have no more use for your sheath, you are already dead.” This provoked Kojiro into making the first attack which Musashi countered, puncturing Kojiro’s lungs. Musashi then bowed to his dead opponent and suddenly realised that one of the greatest swordsmen that ever lived had just died. This spiritual awakening led him never to duel to the death again.

Sasaki Kojiro vs Miyamoto Musashi
Musashi’s duel with Sasaka Kojiro

Family travels

Musashi set up his own fencing school and served his country yet again in battle but remained unscathed. There is one story of Musashi in 1634 where him and an adopted son Iori entered into battle. Iori was adopted in 1623 shortly before the death of Musashi’s first adopted son. Musashi’s first adopted son was named Miyamoto Mikinosuke who became a vassal to the Himeji domain. Four years into his role his Lord died which meant that Mikinosuke had to follow the custom of Junshi, committing suicide because of your Lord’s death; Mikinosuke was adopted in 1621 from the Harima Province where Musashi helped to construct the Akashi castle.

Miyamoto Iori travelled with his father and in 1634 the pair found themselves in Kokura taking part in a rebellion. It is said that Iori fought with honour and rose to a rank equal to that of minister. Miyamoto Musashi however was apparently hit by a rock thrown by someone whilst out scouting the front line. There is another story that three years later in 1637 he was knocked off his horse by another flying rock.

The only defeat

Three years later still, in 1640, and Musashi had done what he had set out to do. He was the greatest and most respected swordsmen in the land and had become the retainer of Hosokawa Tadatoshi, Lord of Kumamoto. A retainer in Samurai culture was someone who retained the throne whilst the Lord was away, keeping it safe for him. Musashi had seventeen men at his service and resided at the prestigious Chiba Castle.

In the following years Musashi began to write his teachings into books to inspire current and future generations with tips on strategy. Two years as a retainer and Musashi had began to suffer from nueralgia, vicious pains in the nerves. The great warrior felt the end was near and in 1643 retired to Reigando cave for two years. It is in this resting place that he wrote his most notable work, Go Rin No Sho or The Book of Five RingsIt is also where Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsmen to ever live, finally lost a duel, with himself. It is believed he died in the year 1645.

Some of my favourite quotes from the above writings;

“The sword is the soul of the Samurai”

“The way of the warrior is death”

“It is difficult to know yourself if you do not know others”

“If the enemy thinks of the mountains, attack like the sea: and if he thinks of the sea, attack like the mountains.”

Further information and links

The Japan travel website shine light on the Reigando cave here whilst this video from Rules of the mind highlights more famous and inspiring quotes from Musashi himself.

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