Musashi: The Master Swordsman of Medieval Japan

The Battle of Sekigahara… anyone?

Well, I’d never heard of it either before I read Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel, Musashi.

Which brings us to the next question: Miyamoto Musashi, anyone?

Your answer, of course, is in the title of this post: Miyamoto Musashi was one of the most famous – if not the most famous – swordsman Japan ever produced. Already in his lifetime he became a legend.


The Life & Times of Miyamoto Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi’s self-portrait, c. 1640 [Public domain via Wikipedia]
The son of a low ranking samurai, Musashi received his first training in martial arts from either his father or his uncle. As a teenager he sought to make his fortune by taking part in the civil war for the shogunate between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans and fought on the losing side in the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Afterwards he became a wandering shugyosha – a warrior pilgrim – who dedicated himself to the art of sword fighting. Yoshikawa’s novel starts with Musashi lying wounded on the battlefield at Sekigahara and finishes with the day in 1612 when he fought his greatest rival, Sasaki Kojiro, in a duel.

Musashi lived in troubled times: as the Toyotomi clan declined, the Tokugawas were rising to power to establish a shogunate that survived into the second half of the 19th century.

All civil wars are naturally accompanied by social upheaval, and the one in which Tokugawa Ieyasu grabbed power was no different. In the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara ronins (samurais left without a master) roamed the countryside seeking employment or organising themselves into robber bands which tyrannised the population of smaller villages; disciples of various martial arts schools challenged each others to duels unto death; spies organised assassination attempts; men and women alike pursued relentless vendettas for real or imaginary offences to their family honour. If you were a samurai, with or without a master, you could kill and go unpunished; it was certainly worth your while to practise your martial arts skills, which could not only save your life but could secure you lucrative employment in the service of a powerful daimyo.

That is the world Yoshikawa paints in vivid colours.

As we follow Musashi in his single-minded pursuit of the Way of the Sword, Yoshikawa takes us travelling from Nara through Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo), the new capital then buing built by the victorious Tokugawa Ieyasu. We trek from inhospitable mountain tops across rice paddies to distant temples and tiny villages; we go from the castles of daimyos to the house of a middle-class intellectual and from there to a famous geisha‘s parlour, drinking warm sake and taking part in tea ceremonies, while itinerant Zen monks and spiritually-minded sword polishers pronounce words of cryptic wisdom…

While attempting to conceal his growing fascination, Musashi said: “What’s there to keep you  from polishing my sword? Is it of such poor quality that you can’t put a good edge on it?”

“Of course not. You’re the owner. You know as well as I do it’s a perfectly good Bizen sword. I also know you want it sharpened for the purpose of cutting people.”

“Is there anything wrong with that?”

“That’s what they all say—what’s wrong with wanting me to fix a sword so it’ll cut better? If the sword cuts, they’re happy.”

“But a man bringing in a sword to be polished naturally wants—”

“Just a minute.” Kosuke raised his hand. “It’ll take some time to explain. First, I’d like you to take another look at the sign on the front of my shop.”

“It says, ‘Souls polished,’ or at least I think so. Is there any other way of reading the characters?”

“No. You’ll notice it doesn’t say a word about polishing swords. My business is polishing the souls of the samurai who come in, not their weapons. People don’t understand, but that’s what I was taught when I studied sword polishing.”

“I see,” said Musashi, although he didn’t really.

The Way of the Sword

But what made Musashi a legend already in his own lifetime?

The sight of his own headband lying on the ground sent shivers up and down Musashi’s spine. Never in this life, he thought, would he meet another opponent like this. A wave of admiration and respect flowed over him. He was grateful to Kojiro for what the man had given him. In strength, in the will to fight, he ranked higher than Musashi, and it was because of this that Musashi had been able to excel himself.

Musashi developed his own style of swordmanship, which included fighting with two swords simultaneously. He fought sixty-one duels and was never defeated. He fought the masters, then several of disciples – all at once – of the famous Yoshioka martial arts school single-handedly and lived to tell the tale; and finally, at the height of his duelling career, he killed Sasaki Kojiro, “the Demon of the Western Provinces”, the most famous swordsman of his time… with a wooden sword which according to the legend he carved from the broken oar of the boat which was taking him to the place of their duel, the island of Funashima.

What was it that had enabled Musashi to defeat Kojiro? Skill? The help of the gods? While knowing it was neither of these, Musashi was never able to express a reason in words. Certainly it was something more important than either strength or godly providence.

Kojiro had put his confidence in the sword of strength and skill. Musashi trusted in the sword of the spirit. That was the only difference between them.

A Glimpse into a Different World

Some of you might have read James Clavell’s Shogun which is set in the same era. Unlike Clavell’s Japan, however, which merely serves as an exotic but rather blurry background, Yoshikawa’s Japan is vivid, surprising, thought provoking – and very much part of the plot line. I think a non-Japanese reader might enjoy the book even more than a Japanese one: Yoshikawa offers a beautiful insight into a world with a totally different mentality to ours.

I picked up this book because I love The Three Muskateers by Alexandre Dumas, I love fencing and I really enjoyed Shusaku Endo’s Samurai. Yoshikawa is one of Japan’s mostly highly regarded historical novelist: if you have an interest in medieval Japan, Musashi is as enjoyable an introduction as any. (And you don’t even have to like fencing.)

The world is always full of the sound of waves.

The little fishes, abandoning themselves to the waves, dance and sing and play, but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?

You might also like:The Last of the Samurai - an amazing photo gallery of late 19th century samurai (just before the warrior class was abolished)
⇒ Yoshikawa Eiji House & MuseumMiyamoto Musashi, Japanese Soldier-Artist (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

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