Miyamoto Musashi

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Podcast Transcript

In the early 17th century, Japan was witness to a samurai who was arguably its greatest warrior ever. 

He wasn’t just one of the greatest swordsmen in history; he was a philosopher, a writer, an artist, and, in contravention to the samurai code at the time, he was a vagabond. 

Today, he is considered a saint of Japanese martial arts, and he has been portrayed in Japanese movies and books.

Learn more about Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s greatest swordsman on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

There are certain things portrayed in movies that have no basis in fact. For example, quick-draw gunfights on Main Street in the Old West never happened. If you remember back to my episode on the Wild West, the entire trope of gunfighters standing in the middle of the street and shooting each other is all based on a single incident that was more of an ambush than a duel. 

That being said, there were times and places in history where dueling was quite popular. One such time and place was Japan in the early 17th century. 

This was the golden age of the samurai culture. Before I get too much further into the story, I should briefly explain some important elements of the samurai culture and the bushido code. 

Bushido is the code that samurai lived by. Its most important element was fealty and loyalty to a lord.  You would fight for your lord, obey his commands, and do absolutely nothing to dishonor him. 

The honor and reputation of a samurai were their most important personal assets. Their honor had to be upheld at all costs, even at the expense of their own life. If they did something to dishonor themselves or their lord, they could only redeem themselves through ritual suicide, known as seppuku.

They were to show martial prowess and courage in battle. 

However, it wasn’t all about fighting and honor. Samurai were to show compassion, honesty, politeness, and self-discipline. They also place a high value on education, art, and poetry. Many samurai were also experts in calligraphy, literature, and the tea ceremony. 

This was the world in which Miyamoto Musashi was born, and as we can see, he was, in some ways, the quintessential samurai, yet he was also very different from most samurai. 

Musashi was born sometime in the year 1584, although the exact date isn’t known. He was born and raised in the Harima Province of Japan. His father, Shinmen Munisai, was a samurai and a master of the sword. 

Musashi was exposed to the martial arts at a very young age. He was trained in kenjutsu, the Japanese sword martial art, as well as other fighting techniques. 

His most prominent physical feature developed when he was younger. He had severe eczema. However, other stories about him claim that he was just dirty and never bathed, supposedly because he never wanted to be taken by surprise. 

The event that began his career and put him on the path that made him famous began when he was just 13 years old. 

A swordsman by the name of Arima Kihei came to Musashi’s village and posted a notice in the village of Hirafuku-mura that he was taking challengers to duel. These duels were often duels to the death, and while they were not common, they were also not unheard of.

13-year-old Musashi wrote his name on the challenge, and it was accepted. It isn’t known if the samurai knew his challenger was a 13-year-old boy or not. 

Musashi’s uncle was shocked by this and went to Kihei to try to get him to call off the duel due to his nephew’s age. However, Kihei said that it would be an insult to his honor and that the only way out was for Musashi to apologize in person when the duel was to take place.

At the appointed time, Musashi and Kihei arrived, and Musashi’s uncle began to apologize. However, Musashi didn’t apologize. With nothing more than a staff, he lunged at Kihei, knocking him to the ground. The surprised Kihei tried to get up, but Musashi punched him between the eyes, knocking him out, and proceeded to beat the swordsman to death. 

It was his first victory in a duel but not his last. 

He left home at the age of 15 or 16 and gave all his possessions to his sister. He set out on what was known as a Musha shugy?. In Europe, he would have been known as a knight errant. In Japanese, it is known as “traveling for improvement.”

He basically became a vagabond who traveled around training in swordsmanship. He would visit various schools to learn and train, occasionally serving as a mercenary and engaging in duels. 

He became what is known as a ronin. A ronin was a samurai without a master. Most ronin had masters at one point, but circumstances resulted in them being masterless. Like Musashi, they would often just be vagabonds, selling their services to the highest bidder. For Musashi, however, being a ronin was a choice. He never had a lord he pledged his loyalty to.

At the age of 16, he had his second duel, and again he won. 

Over the next decade and a half, he dedicated himself to the study of sword fighting. It was his all-consuming passion. By all accounts, he was constantly thinking about it, looking for the smallest thing that could give him an advantage in combat.

During this time, he also fought in several battles, most famously the Battle of Sekigahara. 

The Battle of Sekigahara, fought on October 21, 1600, was a decisive conflict that marked the culmination of Japan’s long period of civil strife known as the Warring States period. It was also the largest battle in the history of feudal Japan.

The battle was fought between the forces of Tokugawa Ieyasu against a coalition of daimy?s.

Tokugawa Ieyasu won the battle and established the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted for 250 years.

However, Musashi was on the side fighting against Tokugawa Ieyasu, and they eventually lost. 

It isn’t clear what his role was in the battle, but he was probably just a mercenary. It is believed that he fought in at least six major battles.

However, his reputation wasn’t built by being a mercenary; it was built by dueling. 

After the Battle of Sekigahara, Musashi went to Kyoto and began a series of duels with the Yoshioka School, which was considered the greatest of the eight schools of martial arts in Kyoto. 

In his first duel, he challenged the leader of the Yoshioka School, Yoshioka Seijuro. 

The duel took place on March 8, 1604. According to their agreement, they fought until the first blow. Musashi showed up late, frustrating his opponent. Musashi struck Seijuro’s left shoulder. The hit knocked him out and permanently crippled his arm. 

While not killing him, he had to step down as head of the school. The leadership of the school passed to his brother, Yoshioka Denshichiro, who immediately challenged Musashi to another duel.

Musashi won again, arriving late, and again killing his opponent. The school’s leadership then passed to a 12-year-old, Yoshioka Matashichiro.

Matashichiro issued another challenge, however, this time it was a trap. He had archer waiting to ambush Musashi. 

Musashi, however, suspecting a trap, arrived early, He ambushed the ambushers, killed Matashichiro, and escaped. 

Perhaps his greatest duel, however, was one of his last.

On April 13, 1612, on the remote island of Ganry?jima, he faced Sasaki Kojiro. It is one of the most famous and emblematic encounters in the annals of Japanese martial arts history. 

Sasaki Kojiro was a master swordsman who may have been the most formidable opponent Musashi ever faced. He was known for his “Turning Swallow Cut,” which used a long sword called a nodachi, which he named “Drying Pole. 

Musashi, on the other hand, chose an unconventional approach; he arrived late, deliberately provoking Kojiro, and wielded a wooden sword (bokken) he had carved from an oar, symbolizing his unconventional tactics and mindset. 

Despsite orders given that the public should not attend, hundreds of spectators showed up to witness the duel.

The duel was swift, with Musashi striking a fatal blow to Kojiro’s head, showcasing his mastery of strategy, timing, and the element of surprise.

His duel with Kojiro was one of his last, but it was not the end of his story. 

Musashi’s later years were dedicated to refining his martial arts techniques, teaching, and engaging in other pursuits such as painting, sculpting, and calligraphy. He developed a style known as Niten Ichi-ryu, or “Two Heavens as One,” which focused on the simultaneous use of two swords.

He continued to travel, visiting other martial arts schools. 

In 1634, he took part in his last known duel. He fought Takada Matabei, a fighter adept at the spear. 

Towards the end of his life, he compiled his years of knowledge into what has become one of the greatest treatises on martial arts, Go Rin No Sho, also known as the “The Book of Five Rings.”

The book is divided into five parts, each named after one of the elements that the Japanese thought to make up the world. 

Part one is the Book of Earth. It discusses Musashi’s own style, the Niten Ichi-ryu, or “Two Heavens as One” technique, and the importance of understanding the way of the warrior.

Part two is the Book of Water. Here, Musashi dives into the specifics of his technique, including the rhythm and timing of combat, the importance of flexibility in tactics, and the need to adapt to the opponent’s style and the situation at hand.

Part three is the  Book of Fire. This part focuses on the heat of battle, detailing the methods of engaging the enemy, the types of attacks and defenses, and how to best position oneself for victory.

Part four is the Book of Wind. Here, Musashi compares his style to the traditional schools of Japanese sword fighting, emphasizing the differences and why he believes his method is superior.

Finally, part five is the Book of Void. The final section is a philosophical treatise on the nature of consciousness, the importance of intuition and spontaneity in martial arts, and the understanding of the fundamental emptiness of thought, allowing for a state of absolute freedom and fluidity in combat and life.

He wrote the Book of Five Rings and several other books from a cave where he lived his last years as a hermit. He died at the age of 62 from what was probably cancer. 

Miyamoto Musash is believed to have won 60 duels in his life, most of them being to the death. 

Miyamoto Musashi’s story is a testament to the way of the warrior. His mastery of the sword, combined with his strategic and philosophical insights, has made him a figure of enduring fascination. He is a figure that still draws fascination today as he has been portrayed in many movies and other works.

Musashi embodies the ideals of discipline, courage, and striving for perfection, making his story and teachings relevant even today.