Miyamoto Musashi, Japanese Ronin
(c. 1584-1645)

Don't miss the summary points for The Smarty at the Party at the end!

Just the Facts:
  • Name: Miyamoto Musashi
  • Also known as: Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke, or Niten Dōraku
  • Birth: Unknown Date, 1584, Harima Province (part of modern Hyōgo Prefecture, centered on Himeji, west of Kobe), Japan
  • Death: June 13, 1645, Higo Province (modern Kumamoto Prefecture, western Kyushu), Japan
  • Language: Japanese
  • Who he was: Japanese ronin (masterless samurai) and artist who wrote Go Rin no Sho (The Book of Five Rings)

Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645) was a Japanese swordsman who could have schooled the guys at Benihana's in handling two blades simultaneously.

Statue of Musashi with two swords
(Author's photo, January 2001)
Barely Relevant Discursion #1 (What's This?): When I was a kid, I had an inkling that my dad had spent time in Japan. As I grew older, I learned that he had in fact arrived in "The Land of the Rising Sun" when the U.S. Army stormed the country one month after America dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was August, 1945, and Dad's "clean-up crew" landed in September, but he stayed only until January 1946. That's when he completed his stint in the Army, returned to civilian life, met Mom, and the rest is history.

He brought several things back from Japan that he shared with us: a pair of "samurai swords" (who knows of what quality); an abiding love for the Japanese people who (he said) welcomed the G.I.s with open arms; and the ability to count to ten in Japanese: "Eechee, nee, sahn, shee, go, roku, sheechee, hahchee, q, jew" (spelled in such a way as to attempt to capture the Japanese words in his English-speaking mouth).

Years later, I, too, went to Japan, but for five years instead of five months. I was able to visit some of the places he had spoken of, and many more besides.

End Discursion
Dad's swords

Musashi and Me in Kumamoto

Kumamoto Castle, home of the daimyo whom Musashi
came to town to serve (Author's photo, October 1999)
Several times the company I worked for in Tokyo sent me to teach English to tax officers in Kumamoto, on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. For many martial arts fans, Musashi was Kumamoto's most famous resident, though he only spent the last few years of his life there. On the second of my four one-week sojourns, in January of 2000, I took time out to visit the cave where Musashi wrote the summation of his life's work, Go Rin no Sho, or The Book of Five Rings. (Astute readers will see that the "go" in Dad's recitation rendered above means "five.") On my fourth and final visit, a year later, I went to Musashi's burial place--or one of them, anyway, as the usually frugal Japanese are pretty prodigal when it comes to graves. Musashi is known to have had several, but the main one is the Musashizuka, or "Musashi's Mound," in a park in the center of Kumamoto.

Musashizuka, where Miyamoto
Musashi was buried standing up
(Author's photo, January 2001)
Let's take the grave first, as it offers a key insight into Musashi's character. In his will, the aged warrior (he died at 62--the age I am now) specified that he was to be buried on the road that his Lord (Daimyo) would take on the biennial procession to Edo (now Tokyo) to check in with the Shogunate. (This check-in was meant by the Shoguns to keep the daimyos honest, and--as it was costly to mount a protocol-ridden procession every other year--it depleted their treasuries to the point that they couldn't build up armies to challenge the Shogun's power).

Anyway, Musashi's wish was to be buried right there, where he could keep an eye on his Lord from the afterlife. Furthermore, he specified that he was to be buried in full armor, and standing upright, so as to be ready for anything. Even in death, he was a man for whom duty came first. (Though this loyalty seems to be a late development, as he had been a ronin, or rogue samurai--one without a master--most of his life.)

The second site (though I visited it first) is a cave lying in the mountains far to the west of the city. Reigando, the Cave of Living (Spirited, Animated) Rock, was where Musashi literally holed up the last two years of his life, meditating and penning his masterpiece, The Book of Five Rings. It's said he turned it over to one of his students a week before he died.

The opening of Reigando, where Musuashi
wrote The Book of Five Rings (Wikipedia)
At least one source says that, although Musashi's career (and book) were known--there were already legends about him in his own lifetime, after all, and numerous popular plays staged about him--the militaristic Japanese government in the early 20th century (the one that led ultimately to the Asian aspect of World War II) really boosted his image for its own ends. Eiji Yoshikawa's book (see below) was serialized in the newspapers in 1935, a few years after the Imperial Japanese Army invaded Manchuria. It seems this noble warrior was exploited as a propaganda tool, being held up as "the perfect Japanese."

A lantern reading "Welcome"
(This and the banner photographed
in my home, September 2017)
Barely Relevant Discursion #2: Oddly, though I lived in the Tokyo area during my time in Japan and passed the Imperial Palace many times, I had my only "close encounter" with the current Emperor of Japan--the son of the one who presided over the Manchurian invasion and Pearl Harbor--in Kumamoto. I was there teaching in October, 1999, when there was a National Sports Festival (or something). The night before the event was to start, I was staying in a government-owned ryokan (inn) in the area of the Castle, and noticed a huge crowd gathering. Curious, I went out and discovered that the Imperial Couple was to make an appearance--sadly, in a hotel window, many floors up, and very hard to see.
The kind soul who gave me my lantern and flag
(Author's photo, October 1999)
But a lovely old man thrust a flag into one hand and a candle-and-paper lantern into the other, and we practiced simultaneously waving the flag, raising the lantern, and chanting "Tenno heika! Kogo heika! BANZAI! BANZAI! BANZAI!" more or less meaning "Long Live the Emperor and Empress!" Sure enough, once we had rehearsed sufficiently (the Japanese aren't big on spontaneity), the lights went on in a window where the Couple waved stiffly side-by-side, we chanted, the lights went out, and people began to wander off.

The Imperial Couple in the hotel window
(scanned from a local newspaper)
(Next day's newspaper said there were 6,000 in attendance--or, as I explained to my friends, "5,999 Japanese and me." The same paper had photos of the Imperial Couple visiting museums and rest homes, and planting a tree. It was a Big Deal.)
Some of the 5,999 Japanese people in attendance
(Author's photo, October 1999)
But the adventure wasn't over.

As I joined in the festivities, I couldn't help noticing dozens of swanky-looking banners hanging around the area to commemorate the Imperial Visit. The red letters across the top read "Celebration," and running vertically below them in black were the words "Tenth Year of the Coronation of His Majesty the Emperor."

I still have
my banner
Determined to get my hands on one, I snuck out of the ryokan in the wee hours, planning to steal one, only to discover that an army of police was stationed at "parade rest" about 15 feet apart all along the area's sidewalks. Mission aborted.

The next day, though, I happened upon an older man taking one down. Girding up my loins, I strode boldly up to him, and in my worst Japanese (intended to elicit pity) stumbled out a request: "Excusing me, sir, but possible is to getting that?" He started to expound on why this simply wouldn't be possible, but perceiving the (not-entirely-fake) foolish look on my face, shrugged in resignation and forked it over. (I still have it.)

Returning triumphantly to the office the following Monday, I started to unroll it to show my boss when he made a warding-off gesture and hissed, "James-san! James-san! Put that away! Don't show it here!" It turns out the banner, and the sponsors (though not all the participants) of the rally I took part in, were cadres of a nationalistic right-wing movement of which the loyal Musashi would likely have approved.
Banners hanging next to the gate of the small shrine
at Kumamoto Castle (Author's photo, October 1999)
End Discursion
By the way, here's a nice little article by another guy who chased down Musashi in Kumamoto.

The "Facts" about Musashi

But what brought Musashi to the point of scribbling that book in a mountain cave? Here, lightly edited and paraphrased from the Victor Harris translation of The Book of Five Rings, is Musashi's own brief account of his life:

Detail of the statue shown above:
The face of Musashi?
I have been many years training in the Way of Strategy, and now I think I will explain it in writing for the first time. It is now 1645, and I have climbed mount Iwato in Kyushu to pay homage to heaven, pray to Kannon, and kneel before Buddha. I am Shinmen Musashi No Kami Fujiwara No Geshin, a warrior of Harima province, age sixty years. [Actually, 62.]

From youth my heart has been inclined toward the Way of Strategy. My first duel was when I was thirteen. [See more details below.] When I was sixteen I struck down an able opponent. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of opponents, never once failing to win in many contests.

After that I went from province to province dueling with opponents of various schools, and not once failed to win even though I had as many as sixty encounters. This was between the ages of thirteen and twenty-eight or twenty-nine.

When I reached thirty I looked back on my past. The previous victories were not due to my having mastered strategy. After that I studied morning and evening searching for the principle, and came to realize the Way of Strategy when I was fifty.

Since then I have lived without following any particular Way. Thus with the virtue of strategy I practice many arts and abilities--all things with no teacher. To write this book I did not use the law of Buddha or the teachings of Confucius, neither old war chronicles nor books on martial tactics. I take up my brush to explain the true spirit of this Ichi school as it is mirrored in the Way of heaven and Kannon.
(You can see the full translation of this section in The Archives.)

The Legend of Musashi

In his own introduction, the translator Harris enumerates these "many arts and abilities" learned "with no teacher" as including ink painting, calligraphy, sculptures in wood and metal, and the writing of poems and songs (no copies of the latter have survived).

A "legendary" encounter, "Musashi on the back of a whale"
(Click to enlarge; Wikipedia)
Harris also tells us that Musashi was orphaned at age seven (though this is questionable), and that in that first duel, when he was 13, "The boy threw the man to the ground, and beat him about the head with a stick when he tried to rise. [The opponent] died vomiting blood." After the battle at age 16, Harris tells us, Musashi set out on a "Warrior Pilgrimage," during which "he devoted himself with a ferocious single-mindedness to the search for enlightenment by the Way of the sword." This quest ended when he was 50 and settled in Kyushu.

Brush painting by Musashi, "Hotei watching a cock fight"
The legend of Musashi grew while he was still alive. He never took a wife, it is said, nor did he bathe, dress his hair, or pay the slightest bit of attention to any of the niceties of life, focusing only on his craft. By age 29, as he contends, he had bested 60 men. Also about this time, he abstained from fighting with real swords, using whatever was available--sticks, for example, and even the whittled oar of a boat--to take his opponents down.

The Book of Five Rings

The title of Go Rin no Sho in kanji (Wikipedia)
The five "rings" are in fact chapters (called "books" in most translations); better than "rings" perhaps, the word rin might be rendered "circles" or even "spheres." Other possibilities are hoops, loops, elements, and wheels, but I like "spheres" best, as it bears the sense of "realms" or "areas of endeavor."

Each "ring" is named for one of the five elements in one version of Buddhist cosmology: Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Emptiness (or Void). Despite its affected structure, however, the book is notable for its brutally straightforward style, without the frills of most volumes produced in his day. It's all practical, drawn from his own experience. He was a warrior, not a scholar. Keep the light behind you, he admonished; arrive late to "psych out" your opponent. For after all, one must "Be intent solely on killing the enemy." There is no other purpose in being a swordsman.

This is, however, a kind of philosophy in itself, an example of the single-mindedness of purpose I found in my Japanese friends, whatever it was they were after: learning English, collecting American jazz records, or mastering the fine art of sake (I knew a banker who was a licensed sake-master).

After the Introduction come the "rings":
  • The Book of Earth contains the general approach to training, here pictured as the building of a house. One might say that the warrior should be grounded ("ground" being an alternate translation for "earth").
  • The Book of Water focuses on techniques. The warrior should adapt to the situation, as water adapts to its vessel, and have the clarity of water.
  • The Book of Fire discusses tactics. Fires can be small or big; whether fighting one man or an army, the warrior must be fierce as fire.
  • The Book of Wind deals with some of the other schools of strategy. "By Wind I mean old traditions, present-day traditions, and family traditions of strategy," he writes. (Huh? Clear as mud.)
  • The Book of Emptiness is a somewhat esoteric conclusion. As confusing as the Buddhist teaching of emptiness, it contains such koan-like gems as "Attaining this principle means not attaining the principle" and "By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is [emptiness]." Ooooo-kay.


Note the indefensible blurb by Time
Okay, let me be honest. This isn't a book on which you should squander much time, unless you're a martial artist of some sort, or a Japan geek. A quick perusal of an online version will be enough for most of us. It was for me.

Even though I have a paperback subtitled "The Real Art of Japanese Management," with an Introduction that tries to accomplish that round peg/square hole feat, and despite the Time Magazine blurb on the cover that claims "When Miyamoto Musashi Talks, People Listen," it's really just a book by a medieval Japanese guy. Nothin' to see here, folks; move along.

A fine article by G. Cameron Hurst III writing in the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences, entitled "Samurai on Wall Street: Miyamoto Musashi and the Search for Success," puts that whole canard to rest.

Comparison to Other Books on "The Way of the Samurai"

Another of Musashi's works, the "Dokkodo" ("The Way of Walking Alone"), may be more useful. It's made up of 21 precepts (or 19, with a couple missing in some versions). There seems to be no public domain version online; I have created a paraphrase from several, and posted it in The Archive.

In addition to Go Rin No Sho and the "Dokkodo," several of Musashi's other works are available in English translation (Amazon). These are:
  • "The Mirror of the Way of Strategy" (Hyodokyo)
  • "Thirty-five Instructions on Strategy" (Hyoho sanju go kajo)
  • "Forty-two Instructions on Strategy" (Hyoho shiju ni kajo)
Another samurai-related work, with much more "heft," is the Hagakure or "Hidden Leaves" (Wikipedia) of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who lived in Kyushu's Saga Prefecture, just up the road from Musashi, though he was born 14 years almost to the day after Musashi died. The Hagakure will be discussed more thoroughly when I get to Mishima Yukio, who wrote a commentary on it and treated it like a bible. (His death was a relatively recent--1970--example of seppuku, a form of ritual suicide by disembowelment better known as harakiri or "cutting the stomach," an act originally reserved for use by samurai.)

But let me tell you briefly about the Hagakure. It's made up of over 1,300 sections, and is traditionally divided into eleven chapters. Here's an example, the second section given in William Scott Wilson's 1979 translation of some 300 sections:
The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one's aim is to die a dog's death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one's aim.

We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaining one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.
The best of all books on "The Samurai Code" to my mind, though, is Inazo Nitobe's Bushido: The Soul of Japan (Wikipedia), written--in America, in English--in 1900. Though clearly influenced by Nitobe's Western sojourn--he was, in fact, a Christian at the time of writing--this influence makes the work easier for non-Japanese to grasp. He was "Japanese-y" enough to have his face featured on Japan's 5000 yen banknote from 1984 to 2004, so there's that.

RESOURCES for Miyamoto Musashi (Wikipedia)

The Book of Five Rings (Wikipedia)

Although it may still be under copyright, Victor Harris's 1974 translation is easily found on line.

However, it may be better to look at William Scott Wilson's superior translation from 2002, with Shiro Tsujimura's fine illustrations. (Amazon)

Wilson also wrote a creditable biography (2013), with good maps and illustrations: The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi. (Amazon)

But more highly recommended are Kenji Tokitsu's 2000 translation; this also includes the "Dokkodo" and other works by Musashi. (Amazon) Tokitsu also wrote a pricey biography, Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings (Amazon). Or you might try the 1993 classic by Thomas Cleary, whom Amazon calls "the preeminent translator of classic Eastern texts."


Better than reading The Book of Five Rings, though, would be to read Yoshikawa Eiji's delightful (but huge--996 pages) novel, Musashi. (Amazon) Yoshikawa introduces an entirely fictional relationship between two historical characters: Musashi, and the Buddhist monk Takuan (after whom a pickled radish is named). Despite the real Musashi's insistence that he had "no teachers," he most certainly did, and in the absence of fact Yoshikawa rushes in with a delightful fabrication, with such scenes as Takuan hanging Musashi upside down in a tree for several days, and locking him up in a castle donjon for several years!

Or, for the voyeurs, you can buy The Samurai Trilogy based on Yoshikawa's version on a DVD or Multi-Format disc. (Amazon) They can also be bought--or rented much more cheaply--one by one from Amazon: Part I - Part II - Part III

Hagakure (Wikipedia)

To my knowledge there is no translation of all 1,300 sections of the Hagakure into English, and certainly not a public domain version on line. But there are a few selections on Wikiquote (many of them from Wilson).

Incidentally, Wilson's version is available on Kindle from Amazon at a very reasonable price (as of this writing). (Amazon) A more complete version translated by Alexander Bennett is also available from Amazon.

Bushido: The Soul of Japan (Wikipedia)

Nitobe's English book from 1900 is way out of copyright, and thus easy to find. There's a free version on Project Gutenberg, but it's also on Amazon if you insist on paying (and giving me a little something). Free - Amazon


This one is three for the price of one: The Samurai Series contains The Book of Five Rings, Hagakure, and Nitobe's Bushido (perhaps the best of the bunch). (Amazon)

The Smarty at the Party (What's This?):

So here's what you should know to look knowledgeable about Miyamoto Musashi and The Book of Five Rings:
  • It's a summary of what he learned as a ronin or masterless samurai.
  • He wrote it in a cave outside of Kumamoto in the last years of his life.
  • It's pretty impenetrable. His "Dokkodo" is shorter and more useful.
  • It has eff-all to do with business practices. (Try Sunzi's The Art of War if you insist that the ancients knew more about business than Peter Drucker.)
  • Yamamoto Tsunetomo's Hagakure is more readable, and Nitobe Inazo's Bushido is the best book of all on "The Samurai Code."
  • Eiji Yoshikawa's book, and/or the 1950s films, are a better way to spend any time you feel compelled to dedicate to understanding Miyamoto Musashi--The Legend, if not The Man.

Questions? Suggestions? Corrections? You can:
  • Leave a comment below;
  • Send me an email using the Contact form on the right side of this page; or
  • Message me on Facebook.
Any which-a-way, I'd love to hear from you!

Documents in The Archives related to this article:

No comments:

Post a Comment