The speed and consistency with which Japan recovered politically and materially after its defeat in World War II, overcoming the enormous destruction from aerial bombings, two atomic bombs, and a severe demographic drain, is often a source of amazement.

Part of this effort was due to the aid received and the cultural influence exerted by the United States, combined with the preservation of a certain essential mentality thanks to the fundamental role played by a series of traditional concepts inspired by a treatise written by the ronin Miyamoto Musashi, one of the most famous samurai in history, in the 17th century. Its title is The Book of Five Rings.

This book presents an effective combination of Buddhist ideas and martial arts that, however, have practical applications beyond the warrior realm. In fact, during the difficult period known as Sengo-Nihon (postwar, understood as from 1945 until the end of the Shōwa Era, that is, the reign of Emperor Hirohito, who died in early 1989), it was adopted by all kinds of people in their daily and professional lives (in both elementary and highly skilled jobs).

Possible self-portrait of Miyamoto Musashi wielding katana and wakizashi
Possible self-portrait of Miyamoto Musashi wielding katana and wakizashi. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

We have already discussed Miyamoto Musashi in another article. The son of a renowned swordsman, he was orphaned very early and during his childhood, he originated numerous legends about an innate fighting ability, attributed with his first duel at the age of thirteen. He never lost a fight, despite traveling from place to place earning his living that way and disputing dozens of duels. His involvement in the war between the Toyotomi and Tokugawa clans, siding with the former, who ended up defeated, forced him into hiding for a time. He then reappeared and enhanced his aura of invincibility by defeating every samurai and master who challenged him.

As a ronin (masterless samurai), he led a wandering existence (Musha Shugyo, journeys for technical perfection), and when age began to weigh on him, he decided to write down his knowledge, renouncing his previous refusal to found a kenjutsu (swordsmanship) school, to be able to pass on his koryu (style) of this martial art to other generations. This, created in his later years after developing it from another he created in his youth (the Enmei Ryu) and enriched with contributions from other sources (including his father’s Tori Ryu) plus his own accumulated experience, has gone down in history as Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu.

Musashi, who also had periods of training with monks who taught him Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism, retired in 1643 to the Reigando cave, on Mount Kimpu of Kyushu Island, to live as a hermit for the rest of his days. It was there that, almost simultaneously, he wrote the two works that constitute the synthesis of his thought. One is Dokkōdō (“The Way of Solitude”), which he finished a week before his death in May 1645 and contains twenty vital precepts dedicated to his favorite disciple, Terao Magonojo, who also became a renowned swordsman.

The Reigando cave, in Kyushu
The Reigando cave, in Kyushu. Credit: STA3816 / Wikimedia Commons

The other is Go-rin no sho, “The Book of Five Rings”. It was also dedicated to Magonojo, who, however, burned the original, probably at the instruction of his master, who may have been dissatisfied with the final result.

In any case, the content survived through copies, and as we have seen, even in times as different as the present, it remains astonishingly relevant, to the point that it serves as a reference manual in the business world because, after all, it can be considered a precursor to self-help, development, and personal improvement books.

Musashi himself explains in the text that the teachings presented are useful for both duels and battles, and that each precept is more than anything a starting point that should be investigated and explored further by the reader, who should not limit themselves to learning it theoretically. This approach of adaptable and expandable strategy often seduces the marketing world in Japan, which applies it to their campaigns by extrapolating its original military nature.

Various editions of Go-rin no sho
Various editions of Go-rin no sho. Credit: Kendobr / Wikimedia Commons

Go-rin no sho, as we mentioned, is a military treatise that defines the warrior as a combination of fighter, strategist, artist, craftsman, writer, and philosopher, all using Buddhism as a unifying element despite the author himself believing in separating martial arts from faith (“Respect Buddha and the gods without counting on their help” was one of his maxims). His main idea, taken from the aforementioned Eastern religions, is that a combat involves different elements, just as there are different physical elements in life. Hence, the work is structured into five chapters alluding to these elements of nature.

The first is The Earth Scroll, which serves as an introduction and metaphorically analyzes martial arts, leadership, and training as if it were the construction of a house. It is also here that he equates the learning of the military profession with others, paying special attention to that of a carpenter because in feudal Japan, where houses were made of wood, this was fundamental. However, Musashi was a warrior and also explains which weapons (sword, naginata, spear, bow) are suitable for each environment and moment, although one must know how to handle them all.

The Earth Scroll ends with nine practical principles that samurai should keep in mind to develop their strategies, which must be combined with the twenty-one spiritual principles contained in the aforementioned Dokkōdō. Then it moves on to the second book, The Water Scroll, in which he describes the Ni-ten ichi-ryu, or “Two Heavens, One Style”, with some basic techniques and principles for achieving victory: body positions, sword grip, timing, etc. Everything must be done with the same fluidity of water, hence the title.

Miyamoto Musashi in combat (nineteenth-century illustration by Yoshitaki Tsunejiro)
Miyamoto Musashi in combat (nineteenth-century illustration by Yoshitaki Tsunejiro). Credit: Yoshitaki Tsunejiro / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

It is a chapter that exudes Buddhism, with references to spirituality, control, maintaining calm, a personal yin-yang, all of which serve to learn to hide weaknesses from the adversary. The way to reach the ideal state, he explains, is through the five correct guard postures for fencing, all of which must be mastered to avoid relying exclusively on one. During the fight, they will be adopted according to the context, as narrated in the third book, The Fire Scroll, which talks about the heat of battle and adapting to its circumstances.

It is in this third chapter that he details three methods for anticipating the enemy’s movements: the ken no sen (taking the initiative in the attack), tai no sen (feigning weakness for the opponent to take the initiative and counterattacking by surprise), and tai tai no sen (reacting when the initiative is simultaneous; Musashi is unclear in explaining this, as he himself admits), adding other complementary ones. He also addresses the importance of timing and synchronization, something Napoleon would reformulate two centuries later.

The Wind Scroll, the fourth, has a title alluding to style (which is written with the same characters as the word “wind”) and contains a comparative critique of various fencing schools for being outdated, highlighting his own for being more avant-garde and pure. There is also a play on words in the last chapter, The Void Scroll, since this term is written the same as “heaven” and Musashi considers it the essence of military tactics: the pinnacle of the warrior is to empty his spirit in combat and fight instinctively, without thinking. It is a more cryptic text, steeped in Zen philosophy.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 20, 2024: ‘El libro de los cinco anillos’, escrito por el ronin Miyamoto Musashi en el siglo XVII y cuya filosofía aplican los japoneses a sus oficios


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