Musashi: A do-or-die warrior not to be crossed


When he killed his first man, Miyamoto Musashi was a mere boy of 13 — in present-day terms, a first-year junior-high-school student.

Musashi’s exploits are immortalized in countless manga and movies, including Eiji Yoshikawa’s 1935 novel “Musashi,” which has been translated into 14 languages, with the English version alone having sold more than 170,000 copies.

Armed with one or two deadly blades — and a formidable spirit — Musashi was able to carve out a particularly sanguine name for himself in Japan’s blood-soaked history of swordsmanship.

His achievements include fighting with distinction in 1600 in the Battle of Sekigahara, in present-day Gifu Prefecture — one of Japan’s most decisive battles as the winning side, the Tokugawa, were destined to rule Japan in their feudal, closed-country way for the next 250 years after that. Then, he single-handedly destroyed the famous Yoshioka school of kenjutsu (swordsmanship), and he also defeated the most prominent swordsmen of his era, including his arch rival Sasaki Kojiro, who he fought to the death in 1612.

Musashi was born in 1584 in either Harima or Mimasaka province (modern-day Hyogo or Okayama prefectures). Raised under the ironfisted rule of his father, Munisai, a famed martial artist, Musashi became a skilled swordsman from a young age.

In 1596, the renowned Arima Kihei came to the area where Musashi lived and threw down a challenge for anybody to face him a duel. Musashi stepped forward and easily defeated and killed Arima. This was the start of an illustrious but bloody career in which he never lost once in more than 60 duels — as he describes in “The Book of Five Rings” that he penned at the end of his life. But at the age of 17, Musashi did suffer one bitter loss: He was on the side of the eastern army that lost to their western foes at Sekigahara. Though he was said to have fought valiantly that Oct. 21 in 1600, as one of the losing side he laid low for the next few years.

The next time Musashi resurfaced into the public eye was in Kyoto, the capital at the time. Out to make a name for himself, the now 21-year-old ronin (masterless samurai) threw down the gauntlet to Yoshioka Seijuro, the head of one of the most prestigious kenjutsu schools in Japan. Seijuro accepted, and that was the start of a series of bloody encounters that eventually destroyed the entire Yoshioka school.

On one occasion, a single blow from Musashi was enough to defeat the revered master Seijuro and force him to retire from the fray — after which he forsook arms to become a priest. Then, in another contest, Seijuro’s younger brother Denshichiro had his sword wrested from him by Musashi, who stabbed him to death.

Finally, in a do-or-die attempt to get their revenge, a meeting was arranged at a huge pine tree near the Ichijoji Temple on the outskirts of Kyoto between Musashi and more than 100 men on the Yoshioka side. Contrary to his normal practice of turning up after the appointed time, Musashi’s early arrival threw everybody into a panic, allowing him to cut down 12-year-old Matashichiro, Seijuro’s son, who was then head of the family, and completely rout his supporters beyond recovery. Musashi sustained no injuries.

Though Musashi’s life is peppered with countless one-on-one combats, he was more than just a ruthless killer. As well, he was a painter, sculptor, calligrapher and, on occasion, even designed town layouts and gardens. This he accomplished without, he states in his book, ever having had any formal education.

For most of his life, Musashi roamed the country in a manner that was known as musha shugyo (warriors’ ascetic practice) in which he pitted his skills against the fiercest martial artists he came across. During this time, he developed his own style of swordsmanship, Niten Ichi-ryu (Two Heavens, One Style), which required a short sword to be held in one hand and a long sword in the other.

It is said that Musashi never took a bath, out of fear of being caught unawares. Thus, he is often depicted in art as a disheveled figure of a man. This, however, did not deter Hosokawa Tadayoshi, lord of the northern Kyushu region of Kumamoto who, in 1640, invited Musashi to be his guest and later a confidant.

At 60, sensing that he was close to death, Musashi decided to retire to the Reigan Cave on Mount Iwato west of Kumamoto, where he spent the rest of his days writing “The Book of Five Rings,” which has since become the quintessential text for aspiring swordsmen.

Perhaps, in his book, one of the most illuminating maxims is: “As human beings, it is essential for each of us to cultivate and polish our individual path.”

Among the thousands of swordsmen who bestrode ancient Japan with their swords thirsting for the blood of yet another victim, surely there is none more outstanding than Musashi — a warrior whose name resounds throughout the world to this day.