Diego García de Paredes, Tlahuicole, Alonso de Contreras, Juan de Dios Aldana, Galvarino… All these names have one thing in common: they were great warriors of the Modern Era. More could be added, of course, and one of those that should not be missing is Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most famous samurai in history, who became famous not only for his skill in fight but also as a philosopher. He lived in the same epoch as the previous ones.

From Musashi, also known by other names such as Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke or the Buddhist Niten Dōraku, little is known about his youth, because he was an orphan. He is supposed to have been born around 1584 in Miyamoto, Mimasaka province, although that is perhaps the place where he grew up. Other sites have been proposed and he himself speaks of Harima province in his Book of Five Rings. He was the son of Shinmen Munisai, an accomplished fencing master, and the grandson of Hirada Shokan, a vassal of the feudal lord Shimmen Iga No Kami Sudeshige.

It is not clear whether his father died shortly after or before Musashi was born, because sources are contradictory to the extent that there are even doubts about the paternity of Minisai. There isn’t hardly any data about his mother, Omasa.

His early youth becomes confusing and points to the fact that perhaps he was the offspring of Yoshiko, Munisai’s first wife, whom he divorced, Omasa being only his stepmother. This one, by the way, was the daughter of the feudal lord. In short, Musashi’s life only becomes clearer after his seventh birthday.

At that age Omasa died and the child had to be taken in by his maternal uncle Doribo, a priest from the temple of Shoreian, who taught him how to read and write and initiated him into Buddhism. His father would have also educated him in martial arts but for a short time, since in 1592 he also died or, at least, we do not hear from him again. Legends that would circulate about Musashi even allude to that infantile stage, telling that he never bathed to avoid being caught helpless; in fact, it is probably a way of explaining a dermatological condition that affected his appearance.

Japan was then in a state of civil war because of the attempt of the daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi to unify the country, so Musashi could not escape that context, especially as he was the son of a samurai. In addition, it seems that he had a strong physical constitution and a vehement character; in fact, it is said that he took his name from a famous warrior monk named Musashibō Benkei, since in childhood he was still known as Bennosuke. He was so precocious in fighting arts that it didn’t take long for him to dispute his first duel.

It was at the age of thirteen, while he was still in the temple with his uncle, and the adversary, Arima Kihei, a follower of the Shinto Ryu fencing school, has the sad honor of being the first man to die at his hands. Many others followed. At the age of sixteen he defeated another warrior named Akiyama and at twenty-one he was a regular duelist who never lost a fight.

Kihei, for example, as if it were a sport, traveled from one place to another, smugly defying anyone who dared to oppose him (and that cost him his life).

In fact, Musashi left the tutelage of his uncle around 1599 to wander around doing the same, thus acquiring an experience that further enriched his natural talent. Some point out that, apart from what his father taught him, he studied fighting at Yoshioka-ryū School; but it is uncertain. The thing is that in 1600 a war among the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans began, in which he participated on the side of the first because the Shinmen clan, with which his family had a vassalage relationship, was allied with it.

Thus, Musashi took part in the assault on Fushimi Castle, the defense of Gifu and the Battle of Sekigahara. But luck was elusive for the Toyotomi, who lost the war, and he had to hide in Mount Hiko for a time. He reappeared at the age of twenty-one and, as we said before, focused on duels. Above all, he fought against members of the Yoshioka school, the most important and prestigious of the eight classic ones in Kyoto. In 1604, Musashi defeated their champions and even master Yoshioka Seijūrō, and then did the same with his brother, Yoshioka Denshichirō, who demanded revenge.

This made him face a band formed by dozens of relatives and friends of the Yoshioka, who challenged him on the outskirts with various weapons, including arrows and muskets. Musashi arrived early and hid, surprisingly killing a third younger brother and defending himself from the others with a sword in each hand, a long one (katana) and a short one (wakizashi), thus originating the style called Niten Ichi Ryu which, it is said, he embraced after witnessing an European duel (with robes and daggers). The stubborn duelist left Kyoto in search of more peaceful winds and, according to some sources, went to Nara to learn the art of the spear practiced by monks from the Enkoji Temple.

He spent the next seven years doing the so-called musha shugyō, a kind of pilgrimage for warriors, while refining his skills. By then he was able to face any adversary, no matter what weapon he carried. And the duels continued; he disputed more than sixty and was always victorious even when many of them were against masters. In 1607 he defeated Musō Gonnosuke, founder of the Shintō Musō school, who developed a new style of fighting with a stick to take revenge; it is not known if they came to fight a second time.

In 1612 it was the turn of Sasaki Kojirō, nicknamed the Demon of the Western Provinces, whose nodachi (a long sword) proved useless against the bokken (wooden sabre) that Musashi had improvised by carving an oar. The fight took place on an island and Musashi had to flee by boat because the followers of Sasaki Kojirō, outraged by his normal tactic of arriving late to make the other nervous, which they considered dishonourable, tried to kill him.

Then the remnants of the civil war between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa were reignited. Musashi aligned himself again with the former, fighting in the so-called Osaka Winter Battle first, which ended in a draw, and then in the Summer Battle, which was the final debacle of the Toyotomi in 1615. One legend -another- says that Musashi had a singular duel with Tokugawa Ieyasu, the patriarch of the winners, but that’ s more than improbable because Tokugawa Ieyasu was already in his seventies.

However, Musashi had friends on the other side and for this reason he was not persecuted at the end of the war. On the contrary, he was quite involved entering the service of lord Ogasawara Tadanao, whom he advised on poliorectic issues in the construction of his castle and whose son he taught martial arts (especially shuriken, throwing ninja stars). Talking about sons, it seems that it was also at that time when he himself adopted one, Miyamoto Mikinosuke, who in 1626 would commit seppuku upon the death of the lord to whom he had sworn vassalage.

In this way he differed from his adoptive father, who despite serving several lords, did not last with any of them. On the other hand, he had gathered a group of disciples in his Enmei-ryū school, founded after a book he published when he was only twenty-two years old, Enmei-ryū kenpō sho, in which he described the art of fighting with two swords (katana to attack and jutte to defend oneself). Between 1623 and 1627 he continued travelling and in Edo he befriended a shogun adviser, offering his services as a master of arms but was not accepted, so he resumed his wanderings and in Yamagata he adopted a second son, Miyamoto Iori, who accompanied him henceforth.

And so, both traveled the trails of Japan until, in 1634, they entered the service of daimyō Ogasawara Tadazane to repress the Shimabara Rebellion, an uprising of Japanese Catholic peasants caused by famine and excessive taxation combined with the anti-Christian persecution to which the local lord, Matsukura Shigemasa, had subjected them, eager to earn merits to aspire to shogunate. As many ronin (lordless samurai) had joined the insurgents, the services of Musashi and his son were very well received.

In fact, Iori distinguished himself in battles and received a public office as a reward. Her father, on the other hand, was wounded by a stone and convalesced throughout most of the conflict. It was a sign that he was starting to decay. He stopped traveling and settled in Kumamoto Castle with daimyō Hosokawa Tadatoshi, devoting himself to fighting… and painting. He continued accepting duels but from time to time because his body was ageing and he had to focus on writing treatises.

Of these, the most important was Go Rin No Sho (The Book of the Five Rings), a treatise on the art of war in which he defines the warrior as a combination of fighter, strategist, artist, craftsman, writer and philosopher with Buddhism as a backdrop, even though he considered it necessary to disassociate religion from military art; “Respect Buddha and the gods without their help” was one of his principles.

He finished writing it, along with another text entitled Dokkōdō (The Path of Solitude), in 1645, two years after leaving the comfortable life he was given by the daimyō to retire as a hermit to a cave on Mount Kimpu. Just in time because feeling that his time was running out, he left the manuscripts to a disciple and died that same year, according to some experts from cancer. He was buried with his armor near another mountain, the Iwato.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on October 2nd, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Miyamoto Musashi, el guerrero invencible que ganó más de 60 duelos


Kenji Tokitsu, Myamoto Musashi. Maestro de sable japonés del siglo XVII. El hombre y la obra, mito y realidad | Miyamoto Musashi, El Libro de los Cinco Anillos | William Scott Wilson, The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi | Ian Buruma, A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture | Wikipedia

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