The Japanese samurai has been lauded throughout both Western and Eastern culture for centuries. These warrior’s prevalence throughout the middle ages secured for Japan a culture of honour, respect, and discipline. From the big screen to manga, there is perhaps no historical figure that is more revered. And the most revered of the revered was Miyamoto Musashi.
Although Miyamoto Musashi was a ronin for most of his life (a samurai without a master), the term samurai is often used to describe him. This is because he was unequalled in his skill in swordsmanship and warfare. However, Musashi was so much more than a blade-wielding brute. Musashi was a man with purpose and discipline in all actions, as is seen through his literary prowess in his magnum opus, The Book Of Five Rings. This is the life, work, and legacy of Miyamoto Musashi.
‘Study strategy over the years and achieve the spirit of the warrior. Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.’
Miyamoto Musashi was born in the Spring of 1854 to relative nobility. Musashi’s mother died in childbirth and his father, Munisai, was a local warrior and chieftain. Early on in Musashi’s life, his father’s fame as a warrior became well-known throughout the country. It seemed that everywhere Munisai went, respect and admiration would follow. It was only his young son who ever dared to show him disrespect.
The result of this was Musashi being kicked out of his home at a very young age. From here, the boy went to live with his uncle. Like his father, Musashi’s uncle was once a warrior. However, he had given up the pursuit of physical power in favour of spirituality, and now followed the path of a Buddhist monk. He would teach Musashi how to read, write, and grow with his spirituality.
Evidently, the monk’s calm demeanour did not take hold over the young boy, and Musashi killed his first opponent in combat at just age 13 by beating him to death with a staff. This would be the first of many victories for Musashi. Three years later, Musashi left his uncle in hopes of becoming a samurai warrior like his father before him.
Musashi found Munisai at Nakatsu, a castle town at war with neighbouring provinces. Here, Musashi developed his taste for warfare fighting alongside his father. The victory was assured, and Munisai retired from fighting. His son, however, was only getting started.
Musashi understood the Yoshioka to be the most capable fighting clan of all of Japan and set out to duel its greatest warriors. He challenged the top swordsman, Seijuro, and after rushing him early, Musashi secured victory. Outraged at this result, Seijuro’s brother immediately challenged the newcomer. He, too was, defeated.
With their honour violated, the Yoshioka planned to surround and murder Musashi in the forest he frequented. This force of about 100 was lead by Matachiro, the son of the man just slain by Musashi. Once surrounded, Musashi swiftly dispatched of Matachiro, and the rest fled in terror. News of Musashi’s victories swept across the provinces, and his notoriety as a swordsman grew exponentially.
‘Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.’
Miyamoto Musashi thrived in one-on-one combat, but in his wisdom, the ronin knew that the best way to learn was to teach. He opened one of his first fighting school in Edo. Musashi’s renown grew during this time, and seven years later, he once again sought out his father. Musashi worked under Munisai for three years, only increasing the tension between the two. Soon after, Munisai died, and Musashi reflected that he was relieved with this news, as opposed to saddened.
Musashi could now focus entirely on developing his name and character, without the scrutiny of his father. He seized this opportunity when war broke out between the Tokugawa and Toyotomi. Legend has it that Musashi fought off hundreds of men on a bridge, with only a wooden plank to defend himself. This is following Musashi’s terrific skill and cunning mockery.
It was during this war that a close friend to Musashi died, leaving behind an 11-year-old son. This boy, named Mikinosuke, was adopted by Musashi. The veteran warrior took it upon himself to train and teach the child. Only years later, Mikinosuke found employment as a warrior for a local warlord; an especially proud moment in Musashi’s life.
During this time, Miyamoto Musashi was recruited to oversee the construction of Akashi castle, a task he executed with meticulous skill and attention to detail. He would recall that this was one of his happiest times in life. Mikinosuke’s fame and honour was also growing, which added to Musashi’s contentment.
This time of peace would soon come to an end when Mikinosuke’s master died of an illness and, as a result, the young warrior was forced to perform seppuku (honourary suicide). Although not one to form strong emotional bonds, Musashi took the news of Mikinosuke’s death particularly hard.
Fortunately enough, Musashi adopted another son, who found work on the island of Kyushu. Musashi utilised this opportunity to open another dojo here. Potential fighters from across Japan travelled far and wide to learn from the great master. During this time, Musashi joined his new adoptive son in the quelling of a Christian revolution. This would be Musashi’s last time on the battlefield.
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‘Generally speaking, the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.’
Soon after this triumph, Musashi came under the employment of Hosokawa Tadatoshi. Musashi moved to Kumamoto and continued to train others in his unique fighting technique. Musashi was granted a large house and plenty of time to write, paint, and reflect upon his life.
In nearby mountains, Musashi completed the Go Rin No Sho, also known as The Book Of Five Rings. Each one of the five scrolls represented an element: fire, earth, water, wind, and heaven. Shortly after the completion of his masterpiece, Musashi’s health began to deteriorate, and he died on June 13, 1945.
Miyamoto Musashi died as the most celebrated Japanese swordsmen who ever lived. His cunning on the battlefield and in the duelling arena was unmatched before him and would remain unmatched in the times to come. Musashi was raw courage and ambition, balanced by intense discipline.
Musashi’s story is one of warrior-like bravery and the defiance of death by the blade. But more so, the story of Musashi is one of a man who prioritised honour and the pursuit of perfection to its nth degree. Today, The Book Of Five Rings remains timeless in its application of not just sword fighting, but all matter of life which requires one to know and understand his opponent. And, in turbulent times such as these, knowing your opponent is a crucial element in gaining a famous victory. This is the legacy of Miyamoto Musashi.