Miyamoto Musashi was a great figure in Japanese history. He was an effective military leader, for his great strategies. Musashi was also a great artist, being able to produce paintings, sculptures, and calligraphy which have become one of the finest among others in Japanese history.
Musashi however, is best known for his great skill as a swordsman. Today, he is remembered as a kenshi, or “sword saint” for his supreme skill with a sword.
Musashi’s full name was Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshin. He eventually took the name Miyamoto to honour his birthplace, a village named Miyamoto in Mimasaka Province of the vast archipelago of Japan. Musashi was born roughly around 1584.
At the age of seven, the father of Musashi died. Later on during his childhood, his mother eventually passed he was raised by his uncle, a Buddhist priest. At this time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a great noblemen was warring against other clans for the unity of Japan and the title of shogun. Eventually, Musashi would enlist in Hideyoshi’s army. The Japanese emperor was suppose to be the supreme ruler of Japan. Yet for several hundred years, the shoguns (military rulers) ruled in his name.
The competing warrior clans were Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga Ida, Takeda Shingen, and one of the smartest and most ruthless military leader the world has known, Ieyasu Tokugawa, who eventually became shogun and established the Tokugawa Dynasty lasting for more than 250 years.
At the age of thirteen, Musashi was of great size. It is believed that at this age, he slew a man in combat. His opponent was of the Shinto Ryu school of military arts, Arima Kigei. Kigei died vomiting blood when the strong Musashi had thrown him to the ground and beat him with a stick.
At the age of sixteen, Musashi decided to leave his home village to make a name for himself as a warrior. He embarked on journeys seeking duels and contests. One such warrior he defeated was Tadashima Akiyama. Around this time, he enlisted in Hideyoshi’s army. By 1600, Hideyoshi was dead, and Mitsunari Ishida succeeded his position ruling for Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori. Tokugawa forced Ishida in a decisive battle at Seki ga Hara, where Tokugawa and his allies battled against Ishida and his allies for three days resulting in 70,000 warrior lives lost. The survivors in Ishida’s routed force were hunted down by Tokugawa. Musashi was able to escape by crawling among corpses for days hiding from Tokugawa’s patrol. He would drink water from muddy puddles to survive.
With the war behind Musashi, he roamed Japan for nearly a decade fighting duels and perfecting his skills. He went up to Kyoto, the capital, when he was twenty-one. This was the scene of his vendetta agains the Yoshioka family. The Yoshiokas had been fencing instructors to the Ashikaga house for generations. Later forbidden to teach Kendo by lord Tokugawa, the family became dyers, and are dyers today. Munisai, Musashi’s father, had been invited to Kyoto some years before by the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaka. Munisai was a competent swordsman, and an expert with the “jitte”, a kind of iron truncheon with a tongue for catching sword blades. The story has it that Munisai fought three of the Yoshiokas, winning two of the duels, and perhaps this has some bearing on Musashi’s behavior towards the family.
Yoshioka Seijiro, the head of the family, was the first to fight Musashi, on the moor outside the city. Seijiro was armed with a real sword, and Musashi with a wooden sword. Musashi laid Seijiro out with a fierce attack and beat him savagely as he lay on the ground. The retainers carried their lord home on a rain-shutter, where for shame he cut off his samurai topknot.
Musashi lingered on in the capital, and his continued presence further irked the Yoshiokas. The second brother, Denshichiro, applied to Musashi for a duel. As a military ploy, Musashi arrived late on the appointed day, and seconds after the start of the fight he broke his opponent’s skull with one blow of his wooden sword. Denshichiro was dead. The house issued yet another challenge with Hanshichiro, the young son of Seijiro, as champion. Hanshichiro was a mere boy, not yet in his teens. The contest was to be held by a pine tree adjacent to ricefields. Musashi arrived at the meeting place well before the appointed time and waited in hiding for his enemy to come. The child arrived dressed formally in war gear, with a party of well-armed retainers, determined to do away with Musashi. Musashi waited concealed in the shadows, and just as they were thinking that he had thought better of it and had decided to leave Kyoto, he suddenly appeared in the midst of them, and cut the boy down. Then, drawing both swords, he cut a path through them and made his escape.
The use of two swords was totally opposite of tradition. The regular samurai was armed with a katana and wakizashi (a shorted sword). Only the katana was used in battle while the wakizashi was to signify rank. But innovative as Musashi was, he was always striving to confuse his opponents, fighting with a sword in each hand. His two-weapon method of swordsmanship became known as the nito-ryu style.
Musashi had fought in more than 60 duels by the age of 29 and was victorious in all. On some occasions, he even fought whole kenjutsu schools. Sometimes, he received requests for duels since his popularity had spread. Other times, it was just because he had provoked or angered them. Travelling from province to province, Musashi made a name for himself striking down his opponents using a wooden bokken (wooden sword) while his opponents used katanas, chain and sickle fighters, and even spears. The name he made for himself was not just as a skilled swordsman, but a rather strange oddball. His appearance was wild and unkempt. He would often sleep in caves afraid of being ambushed rather than staying in a comfortable inn. All this was for a purpose though, for he was a master strategist. His bizarre behaviour may have been planned to frighten and confuse his rivals.
Miyamoto Musashi’s most famous duel, and also his last one took place in 1612 on Ganryu Island, off the coast of Buzen Province. His opponent was Sasaki Kojiro, a young man who had developed a strong fencing technique known as Tsubame-gaeshi, or “swallow counter”, inspired by the motion of a swallow’s tail in flight. Kojiro was a kenjutsu instructor for the lord of the province, Hosokawa Tadaoki. The duel was set at 8:00 the next morning. hat night Musashi left his lodging and moved to the house of Kobayashi Taro Zaemon. This inspired the rumor that awe of Kojiro’s subtle technique had made Musashi run away afraid for his life. The next day at eight o’clock Musashi could not be woken until a prompter came from the officials assembled on the island. He got up, drank the water they brought to him to wash with, and went straight down to the shore. As Sato rowed across to the island Musashi fashioned a paper string to tie back the sleeves of his kimono, and cut a wooden sword from the spare oar. When he had done this he lay down to rest.
When the boat had beached, Sasaki and the officials were shocked to see the strange figure of Musashi, messy hair tied in a towel, and his wooden sword in a guard position. The irritated Sasaki drew his katana, a fine blade made by Nagamitsu of Bizen, and threw away his scabbard. Musashi saw this gesture and said, “You have lost, for you have no more use for your sheath.?He must have said this because why would Sasaki throw away his scabbard if he won? This gesture might have been defined my Musashi that Sasaki was thinking he was going to lose. At least that’s my interpretation of it.
Kojiro was provoked into making the first cut and Musashi dashed upward at his blade, bringing the oar down on Kojiro’s head. As Kojiro fell, his sword, which had cut the towel from Musashi’s head, cut across the hem of his divided skirt. Musashi noted Kojiro’s condition and bowed to the astounded officials before running back to his boat. According to Eiji Yoshikawa’s classic novel, “Musashi? he felt a spiritual awakening. For the first time in his life, a tear had been shed for his fallen enemy. This was his last duel, yet he would teach kenjutsu, and fight under the banner of the Tokugawas.
Later in his life, Musashi became known as a great artist. His paintings, sculptures, and calligraphy are among the finest in Japanese history. He was also an accomplished man of letters, known for his poems (now lost) and his masterwork, “The Book of Five Rings” a guide to strategy and swordsmanship that was completed a month just before his death in 1645 of natural causes.
Musashi is remembered as a kenshi , or “sword saint”. For despite the violence of his life, he had truly dedicated himself to a higher calling. This dedication of Miyamoto Musashi makes him a martial arts master.