Heroes From History: Miyamoto Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi was a Japanese samurai who lived between the years of 1584-1645. He was originally known as Miyamoto Masana, but later changed his name. Musashi was also known by the name Niten, which was his artistic name he attributed to his later paintings and sculptures. Musashi is famous for having partaken in at least 60 duels in his lifetime without ever losing once, and for developing a unique fighting style where he wielded two swords instead of one. He is also remembered for authoring several books, including “Go Rin No Sho,” or The Book of Five Rings.

Early Life and Duels

Musashi was trained by his father, a samurai named Shinmen Munisai. Musashi is said to have shown an affinity for Kenjutsu – the art of swordmanship – from a young age. He also learned about reading, writing, and Zen Buddhism from his uncle, a monk named Dorin. By the age of 13, Musashi made his first steps onto the path of becoming a prolific samurai when he won his first duel against Arima Kibei. They dueled with wooden swords called “bokuto.” The encounter lasted only a few moments and ended with Musashi throwing his opponent to the ground and striking him hard. Arima Kibei is said to have been struck so forcefully, he began vomiting blood and died soon after.

Musashi then left his home on a journey to become the greatest swordsman in all of Japan. While Musashi took part in dozens of duels, there are two in particular worth mentioning. The first was the final in a series of duels Musashi took part in against members of the Yoshioka clan. After defeating two members of the Yoshioka family, Musashi was challenged to a third duel at night. This was highly unusual, as duels typically took place during the day. Musashi accepted the challenge and stealthily approached the site of the duel to see if anything was afoot. Surely enough, his opponent – Yoshioka Matashichiro – had arrived with a large group lying in wait to ambush Musashi.

Miyamoto Musashi
An artist’s depiction of Miyamoto Musashi with two wooden swords.

However, instead of sneaking away from the obvious trap, Musashi chose to seize the element of surprise and charge in. It is said he cut off the head of Matashichiro and took the challenger’s sword before darting back into the rice fields. He was reportedly pursued by the group of bodyguards, and managed to fight them all off using both swords, one in each hand. Despite the overwhelming odds, with some of the henchman reportedly even being equipped with firearms, Musashi managed to prevail. This experience is what the samurai claimed led him to found the Nito-Ryu or “Sword Saint” style of Kenjutsu where two long swords were wielded by one swordsman, one for each hand.

Another of Musashi’s most famous duels was against Sasaki Kojiro. Musashi had gained a reputation as an accomplished swordsman, as had Kojiro. They were said to be equals in skill, and so it may have been inevitable the two eventually crossed blades to test who was greater. Musashi, determined to win, decided to delay from arriving at the agreed upon location for two hours in order to disturb his opponent’s mind and hopefully gain an edge. This strategy seemed to have worked, as when Musashi finally arrived, Kojiro was reportedly very angry and eager to fight. They clashed with wooden swords, but the strikes were as lethal as with any steel. Musashi quickly landed a blow on Kojiro’s forehead, fatally wounding and killing his enraged rival.

Musashi was disturbed by his victory over Kojiro. Defeating this rival did not bring him peace of mind that he was the greatest swordsman of his day in Japan. Instead, it made him question why he won that day, and why he had never lost a duel in his life. Musashi wondered why he was so fortunate, and if it was just luck that kept him alive; if it was skill, or some sort of divine will. He wondered why he was still alive instead of so many opponents who he had slain, and what his purpose must be which led him to where he was. At this point, Musashi retreated from his life of dueling and leaned more towards the arts and teaching.

Miyamoto Musashi
Musashi won many lethal duels with the seemingly non-lethal bokuto.

Musashi’s Service Record

Miyamoto Musashi was not just a duelist, but also a soldier on the battlefield. At the age of 16, he took part in the Battle of Sekigahara during the year 1600. Despite his young age, he was already an accomplished warrior. The battle was fought between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans for control over all of Japan. Musashi’s family was allied with the Toyotomi clan, which saw him taking that side of the conflict. Musashi took part in the attack on Fushimi Castle and later in the defense of Gifu Castle, as well as several other engagements throughout the battle. In the end, the Toyotomi clan was defeated, yet Musashi managed to escape unharmed. He would have been hunted with a bounty on his head after his side lost the battle, but he was never caught.

Miyamoto Musashi also took part in the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637, a conflict which lasted about 4 months. One of Musashi’s less heroic moments in history, he aided in crushing the rebels who revolted due to overtaxation and religious persecution. There was a small Christian population living on the Shimabara Peninsula which was originally under the care of the Christian Arima family until custodianship of the land was transferred to Matsukura Shigemasa. While Christians in Japan were never popular, many noted Matsukura’s treatment of the population to be overly cruel. It was not long before the the people of Shimabara felt they had no choice but to revolt in order to try and stop their persecution.

Miyamoto Musashi was a loyal samurai, however. Despite the noble intentions of the rebels fighting for liberty under a repressive regime, Musashi found himself on the side of Matsukura. They crushed the rebellion and depopulated the lands of both the Shimabara Peninsula and the Amakusa Islands. The role of overtaxation was covered up, and the Christians were blamed for all the death. This resulted in Christians being persecuted across Japan, and the country was also isolated from the rest of the world for a long time. Still, Miyamoto Musashi went on to do much more good in his lifetime, preserving his place in the hall of human heroes.

Miyamoto Musashi fighting a dragon
An artist depiction of Miyamoto Musashi fighting a dragon

Musashi’s Legacy

Miyamoto was also an accomplished artist and author as well as a warrior. He was skilled in painting, sculpting, and poetry. Many of his artworks have been preserved into the modern day. He wrote several books, including: “Hyodokyo,” “Hyoho Sanjugo Kajo,” “Hyoho Shijuni Kajo,” “Dokkōdō,” and “Go Rin No Sho.” The names of these books can be translated to: The Mirror of the Way of Strategy, Thirty-five Instructions on Strategy, Forty-two Instructions on Strategy, The Way to be Followed Alone, and The Book of Five Rings. His books have been translated many different times, with each translation being slightly different.

Musashi never married, but he did have several children. Sometime around 1614, he adopted a son named Mikinosuke, who would later go on to become an important vassal of the fief of Himeji in 1622. Mikinosuke committed seppuku at the age of 23 when his lord died, as was tradition for him to do. Musashi had adopted another son by the name of Iori, who Musashi reportedly encountered living on his own as an orphan and took charge of. Musashi sought to find a good future for Iori, who he described as unskilled with a sword, and in 1628 discharged his second son into the service of Ogasawara Tadazane, under whom Iori rose to prominence as a talented individual. Records also indicate that Musashi had a third adopted son by the name of Kurōtarō, who may or may not have been the younger biological brother of Mikinosuke. Lastly, Musashi is said to have conceived a daughter who sadly fell ill and died at the age of three years old. The child was reportedly the result of an affair, but Musashi was deeply disturbed by the death as he still cared for the child as his own.

Miyamoto Musashi spent his final days meditating and refining his fighting style at Reigando Sanctuary. The samurai completed his last litarary works here in his twilight years. He also took on a disciple by the name of Terao Magonojo. Miyamoto Musashi passed away on May 19, 1645. It is said that during his funeral service, a lightning bolt struck out across the sky near Iwato Mountain where he was buried.

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Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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