Friday, April 5, 2013

Friday Art & History Feature - Miaymoto Musashi

Musashi. Woodblock print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi
When studying Japanese Martial Arts, one has to learn about Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman that ever lived, as well as the author of the famous The Book of Five Rings. This work, along with the Art of War of Sun Tzu, is a classic of strategy and martial arts philosophy, and is still studied today not only by martial artists but also by businessmen the world over.

Musashi was born in the Harima Province. The exact date of his birth is not known, but according to various sources, it was between 1580 and 1584. His father, Shinmen Munisai, was also a master of the sword and an accomplished martial artist.

From the age Musashi was 7, he went to live and be raised by his uncle, Dorinbo. There, he learned to how to read and write, as well as the basic precepts of Buddhism. He had his first sword duel at the age of 13. Here's what Musashi wrote about it:

"I have trained in the way of strategy since my youth, and at the age of thirteen I fought a duel for the first time. My opponent was called Arima Kihei, a sword adept of the Shinto ryū, and I defeated him. At the age of sixteen I defeated a powerful adept by the name of Akiyama, who came from Tajima Province. At the age of twenty-one I went up to Kyōtō and fought duels with several adepts of the sword from famous schools, but I never los."
—Miyamoto Musashi, Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings)

Drawing by Musashi
From the age of 15, when he left his village, Musashi was traveling and engaging in various duels. For a long time, he did not give his loyalty to any lord. One of the most famous duels he had happened when he was 30. It was against Sasaki Kojiro, knows as the "Demon of the Western Provinces." The legend says that Musashi arrived to an island where the duel was to take places late and after quickly killing Kojiro with a bamboo bokken (stick), he promptly climbed back into the boat and left.

Modern sculpture of Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro duel
 Musashi was not only a great swordsman and philosopher, he was also an artist, and many of his drawings are famous.

Musashi. Self-portrait
Eventually, Musashi offered his sword in service around 1614–1615, during the war between the Toyotomi and the Tokugawa. It is not clear whose side he was on, although it was probably on Tokugawa's side, as they had a fairly close relationship.

Around 1642 Musashi's health became to decline, and he was known to have suffered attacks of neuralgia. In 1643 he became a hermit in a cave to write The Book of Five Rings. He died in that cave in June of 1645. In his lifetime, he claimed to have fought in sixty duels and haven't been defeated in any.

Musashi's legacy is immense. First of all, he established a school of kenjutsu (sword fighting) called Ni-Ten Ichi Ryu or nitoichi. This school is a two-sword technique, where two swords are used at the same time, a large katana and a small wakizashi.

Secondly, he left a classic work of martial arts that extends its teachings to many other aspects of life and business - The Book of Five Rings (Gorin no shô).

One of the translations of The Book Of Five Rings
 Here are a few of my favorite quotes from this classic.

“Do nothing that is of no use”

“There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.”

“In battle, if you you make your opponent flinch, you have already won.” 

“You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain”

“Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.” 

“You can only fight the way you practice”

“Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.” 

“The true science of martial arts means practicing them in such a way that they will be useful at any time, and to teach them in such a way that they will be useful in all things.”

 “It is difficult to realize the true Way just through sword-fencing. Know the smallest things and the biggest things, the shallowest things and the deepest things.”

“To know ten thousand things, know one well” 

A modern interpretation of Musashi's image by Takehiko Inoue


  1. He has been a favorite historical figure of mine since childhood. I recall seeing his art hanging in my dojange (Korean ;) and read a fictional novel about him when I was younger. That was quite good, I must add!

    1. He's a truly fascinating character! I have to admit that I never read the fictional novel about him but it's on my TBR list!


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