One of the Greatest Warriors in History
Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645)
By Daniel DiMarzio
(Miyamoto Musashi painting c. 1800's)
Miyamoto Musashi is an ancient figure in Japanese history. As such, there are various accounts of his life and activities. There are many hypotheses put forward about this man by various different credible Japanese historians and researchers. Historical documents referring to Miyamoto Musashi do vary as is the case in most ancient documents written by various sources. Dates, times and details can and do vary.
Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshi, or as he is better known "Miyamoto Musashi," was one of the greatest warriors to ever live. Born in Miyamoto-Sanoma in the province of Mimasaka, Japan in 1584 he was a rough and wild child. As the story goes, he had a knack for causing trouble. He grew up watching his accomplished Samurai father teach and train other warriors of the age. This however, did not last long as he parted from his father during his tumultuous childhood.
At the age of twelve (In Musashi's "Go Rin No Sho," he states the age to be thirteen. If looked at by the modern system, the age would be twelve. In the ancient system a person was considered to be one year old following birth), Miyamoto Musashi had his first duel. A Samurai by the name of Arima Kihei was passing through Musashi's town. He posted a sign challenging anyone who was brave enough to come and fight. Musashi answered this challenge. At the young age of twelve, Miyamoto Musashi challenged an adult, professionally trained Samurai to a duel.
Musashi used only a wooden sword as a weapon. The Samurai pulled out his razor sharp short-sword. Musashi attacked first and the Samurai swung his short-sword at the boy. Musashi ducked and barreled into the Samurai, picking him up and slamming him headfirst into the ground. Musashi then quickly picked up his wooden sword and beat the man to death. Thus, at the age of twelve, Miyamoto Musashi was victorious in his first life-or-death duel, against no less than a professionally trained adult Samurai. This event would foreshadow Musashi's incredible journey ahead.
(Painting by Miyamoto Musashi, c. 1600's)
At the age of fifteen Miyamoto Musashi left his village on a warrior pilgrimage. He dueled again with a strong Samurai named Akiyama. The fight quickly ended in Akiyama's death by the hands of Musashi.
By the age of sixteen Miyamoto Musashi had already participated in three wars.
Musashi continued to travel and test his skills against adversaries during the next several years. He appears in historical accounts again at the age of twenty in Kyoto.
He traveled to the capital of Japan, Kyoto, to test his skills with the best swordsmen in the land. He challenged a group who was the most famous and respected, the Yoshiokas. He challenged the head of this school, Yoshioka Seijuro, to a duel. Yoshioka accepted.
Musashi was a master of strategy. This was an integral part of his military art. He often used psychological warfare to make his enemies lose their composure. This combined with his incredible strength and technical skill made for a lethal combination.
He purposefully arrived at the duel late. He left Yoshioka there waiting knowing that this would infuriate the Samurai and cause him to get agitated. After all, Musashi had initiated the duel and now he was disrespecting the Samurai by making him wait. This Samurai was the head of one of the most prestigious martial arts schools in all of Japan. Musashi was purposefully disrespecting him.
Once Musashi finally arrived Yoshioka was very upset. He supposedly verbally insulted Musashi repeatedly. Musashi just looked at him and cooly grinned.
Beforehand it was decided they would fight with wooden swords and deliver only one blow. It is reported that both Warriors struck at virtually the same time, Musashi landing a devastating blow to Yoshioka's left shoulder. Musashi wasn't touched. Yoshioka was knocked unconscious and had to be revived. He became crippled and was unable to use his left arm again. He was lucky to escape with his life. Thus, at the age of twenty, the young Musashi defeated the head of one of the most prestigious martial arts schools in the land. It was a devastating defeat for the Yoshioka family.
The Yoshioka clan would not let this embarrassment stand. Seijuro Yoshioka's younger brother Denshichiro, who was a very accomplished Samurai, quickly challenged Musashi to another duel. Musashi accepted. Once again, Musashi arrived late to the duel, agitating his opponent. He quickly tore Denshichiro's weapon from his grasp and crushed his skull with it, killing him.
The shame these defeats brought to the Yoshioka family was immense. Japanese culture at that time called for them to act or lose face. They had to kill Musashi to restore their family honor. Nothing less than Musashi's death would be acceptable. They challenged Musashi again but this time it would not be a one-on-one fight. They were planning all-out war against him. They gathered dozens and quite possibly hundreds of their warriors to ambush and kill Musashi. They were armed to the teeth with all types of weapons, including bows and rifles.
Musashi was informed of the challenge and told that the figure head of the family was now Matashichiro Yoshioka, a boy twelve or thirteen years old. This was the same age Musashi was when he had killed his first opponent in a duel. He accepted the challenge. This time he changed his tactics. Instead of arriving late to the battle site he showed up early and waited. He concealed himself in the foliage and waited for his enemies to arrive.
As his numerous enemies arrived he watched and laid in wait. He then surprised the vast group of Yoshioka men by jumping out of seemingly nowhere. He went straight for Matashichiro and cut him down. He then pulled both his swords and fiercely fought his way through the rest of the Yoshioka men to make his escape. Musashi had miraculously survived the ambush set to kill him.
Musashi continued to duel and test his skills after this incident. He traveled the countryside constantly engaging in life-or-death duels. He was on a search for enlightenment via having life-or-death duels with other martial artists. He constantly risked his life in order to perfect his martial art, Niten Ichi Ryu.
At the age of twenty-eight Musashi engaged in one of the most famous duels in Japanese history. He fought a very famous and powerful Samurai by the name of Sasaki Kojiro.
The fight was to take place on an island. Musashi once again used his tactic of arriving late to off-balance his opponent. On his way to the duel he took an oar from the boat and carved a makeshift sword out of it. His opponent was waiting on the island for him with a razor-sharp long sword. Sasaki Kojiro was famous for his use of this deadly weapon. Musashi planned on using a wooden stick to defeat his opponent even though his opponent had a very real, and very deadly sword.
Musashi jumped out of his boat and walked up through the water and onto the sand barefoot............brandishing his crude wooden sword. Sasaki Kojiro angrily approached with his menacing long sword, it's blade glistening in the sun. Kojiro reportedly insulted Musashi. Musashi simply grinned and said nothing. Kojiro's anger overtook him and he attacked aiming to cut Musashi straight down the middle. Musashi attacked at the same instant and his heavy wooden sword landed a crushing blow onto Kojiro's head. Kojiro's blade came so close to cutting Musashi's head that it slashed the knot in his headband. Kojiro fell to the ground instantly. Kojiro swung his sword from the ground trying to cut Musashi, slicing his Kimono. Musashi landed another devastating blow to Kojiro's ribs. Kojiro was dead. Musashi jumped back in his boat and helped the oarsman push off. He glided through the ocean water and into history.
(Miyamoto Musashi painting c. 1800's)
Miyamoto Musashi's life is too vast for any history book to cover. His amazing feats are historically documented in various places all over Japan. The accounts listed above are some of the more famous and well-known. There are often several different accounts of these stories and the details vary as is often the case in historical documents. Between the ages of twelve and twenty-seven/twenty-eight Miyamoto Musashi engaged in over sixty life-or-death duels with professional Warriors from all over Japan. He never once lost. The accounts written here only scratch the surface of what this man did. Much of what he really did is lost to history. He was also involved in at least six wars, most of which he led at the front leading the army into battle. It might be surprising to note that he was also an accomplished painter, sculptor, and poet. His works are priceless and are kept in museums to this day.
(Painting by Miyamoto Musashi, c. 1600's)
The military art he developed wasn't just about combat. As he explains in his book of strategy, "Go Rin No Sho," anyone who masters his art will be able to apply it to any field of study. His art has no limits, no boundaries. If you understand it, all is possible.
Musashi was self-taught. He states he never had a teacher in anything. He was a self-made man. He became an expert in numerous fields by self-study. I would dare say that the man skirts the realm of a genius.
His level in combat became so efficient that he basically stopped using real swords. He would often pick up a stick or anything else that was available to dispatch his enemies who were brandishing real swords. He was an expert in all things military.
I think it must be thoroughly examined and realized what it means to survive over sixty life-or-death matches. Most of these matches ended in one person dead or if they were lucky crippled for life. If that didn't happen and they were wounded, they could quite possibly die from infection. In cases like this, one wrong move could mean the end of your life. These Warriors were fighting with razor sharp swords, some of the best made in history. He survived over sixty of these matches in not only one-on-one conditions but against several adversaries at once trying to kill him. It is truly astounding to think that he walked out of it alive. But, he did.
After the age of twenty-nine, Musashi writes he had a realization. There was much more to the military arts and the "Way of the Warrior." He delved even deeper into his strategy and only around the age of forty-nine did he come to realize the true meaning of enlightenment.
(Painting by Miyamoto Musashi, c. 1600's)
Miyamoto Musashi's strategy was direct and straightforward. It was also extremely stern and austere. Towards the end of his life he named only three true disciples. Before dying he gave his disciples a simple but serious requirement for anyone who claims to be a part of his school. They must take this oath: "If I am defeated in combat by another school, I will take my own life." Thus, a disciple of Musashi's School had every reason to fight with every ounce of strength, courage, and ingenuity they could muster. Their very lives depended on it. Musashi expected no less from his students. He didn't just preach about living on the border between life-and-death, he actually did it.
(Portrait of Miyamoto Musashi, Circa Edo Period)
Musashi seems to have been a very complex man. He never married and never settled down. He traveled basically his entire life in the pursuit of enlightenment. With his reputation he could have easily settled down and become a teacher for a prominent Lord. He would have made a lot of money and lived comfortably. But, this was not Musashi. He believed in total sacrifice and self-reliance. Perhaps it is best summed up from a statement he penned roughly translated as, "Respect the Gods, but do not depend on Them."
On May 19th, 1645 Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshi died at the age of sixty-one from natural causes.
To Read About Modern-day Sword Fights, Using Live Blades (yes, it does still happen in today's world) Please See: