The Greatest Samurai Who Ever Lived Carried Wooden Swords


Miyamoto Musashi with two Bokken (wooden quarterstaves) 1600’s — [Public Domain]
“My first duel was when I was thirteen, I struck down a strategist of the Shinto school, one Arima Kihei. When I was sixteen I struck down an able strategist, Tadashima Akiyama. When I was twenty-one I went up to the capital and met all manner of strategists, never once failing to win in many contests.
— Miyamoto Musashi, “A Book Of Five Rings”, Victor Harris translation

I have an idea about a movie I’d like to make. It would involve a polymath of sorts. This individual would be the toughest person in the country — think of a mixture of Chuck Norris, Mike Tyson, and Rambo.

He’d also paint landscapes in his free time and write poetry. Furthermore, he’d author a book which would be influential in philosophy and strategy for the next 500 years.

Wait, I’m not done yet. In proving he’s the toughest guy around, he’d travel across the land fighting others. As they brought knives, swords, and other deadly weapons, our movie star would only carry a wooden replica of a sword to defend himself. He’d be undefeated in about 60 of these challenge matches, plus fight in multiple wars, surviving them all.

I know what you’re thinking, it’s way too crazy of a concept for even fiction. Now, what if I told you this character wasn’t from a possible movie — he really lived? What’s more, you’ve seen one of his stories hidden in Bruce Lee’s “Enter The Dragon”. The section where Lee says he practices the “art of fighting without fighting” is borrowed from the life of a samurai, Miyamoto Musashi.

However, this man was much more than a warrior. He was well known for his art (paint, metal work, and sculpture), philosophy, literature, design of the garden of Akashi castle, and his school of Niten Ichi-ryu. His life is of such incredible depth, one can only briefly summarize it in an article such as this.

But before we can examine his life, it’s best we look at the world he lived in.

The Japan Of Musashi

Victor Harris explains Tokugawa Ieyasu came to be the military dictator of Japan in 1603, otherwise known as Shogun.

He and his family ushered in a time of peace of a sort. The war lords who were constantly battling in Japan no longer needed large armies of samurais. During this time Japan also had developed a rigid class structure made up of samurai (top), farmers, craftsman, and merchants (bottom).

Now, suddenly a group of people of a higher-class structure were unemployed and would wander the land. These “ronin” had a strange lot in life, being considered a top class, but owning no land. Harris describes the new life for many samurai of that age.

“They became an inverted class, keeping the old chivalry alive by devotion to military arts with the fervour only the Japanese possess.”

While he goes on to say some gave up their sword and became craftsman or artisans, many continued with the highest form of study — military arts. Miyamoto Musashi was born into the samurai class in 1584 and eventually found himself living as a ronin. During this time Kendo, known as the Way of the sword, blossomed and spread across the land.

Kendo schools popped up throughout Japan, many associated with castles controlled by the lord of the various towns. These Dojos trained the local family and retainers in the arts of war, employing skilled teachers. The dream of these ronin was to crush the students and teacher of the Dojos in order to gain name recognition and hopefully employment.

Becoming A Legendary Swordsman

Musashi was only seven when he was abandoned by his father Munisai, who fought in the reunification efforts.

William de Lange in his documentary claims the boy was hardheaded, often challenging his father. He recounts a story where Munisai became so frustrated with the child, he threw a knife at him, which Musashi dodged.

Harris says the boy was raised by an uncle on his mother’s side who happened to be a priest and former warrior. During this time, he began his study of Kendo. Musashi eventually challenged a roaming ronin named Arima Kihei, killing him with a wooden sword or stick. After his second contest win, he’d leave home on a “warrior pilgrimage”.

Musashi realized he had some talent but could only become great by learning from a master — his father. The boy sought out Munisai and found him engaged in a war. Musashi would join in this war and knew his life would revolve around the sword and battle. After spending some time learning from his father, he’d be off again to make his name by dueling the best in Japan.

In de Lange’s documentary he explains Musashi would travel to Kyoto and seek out the Yoshioka clan, renowned fencing instructors. His father had become famous for winning 2 of 3 duels against a Yoshioka family member.

Musashi would defeat the head of the family with his wooden sword while his opponent used a real sword. Yoshioka Seirjiro was severely injured in the duel and his brother challenged Musashi.

Musashi struck down the brother in the second duel. The final member of the clan ambushed Musashi, but he’d avoid it, killing him and dispersing his armed followers. In the episode he’d eclipse his father Munisai, destroying the entire clan where his father only won 2 duels against a single member.

He’d continued to travel, defeating multiple challengers while perfecting his own school of swordsmanship — known for its use of a sword (or stick) in each hand. He’d mainly use only wooden swords to prove his level of skill. However, one duel became famous among the sixty in which Musashi would use a boat ore to defeat his toughest rival Sasaki Kojiro.

Musashi arrived late for the duel and unkempt, drinking the water which was brought for him to wash with according to Harris. On the boat ride to the duel, he whittled away on a boat ore, turning it into a crude sword. Kojiro was incensed seeing his opponent arrive late, dirty, and without a real weapon.

Kojiro and Musashi charged at each other in the surf, not even waiting for the boat to land. The long boat ore struck home and crushed Kojiro. In the documentary “Samurai”, it is claimed Musashi purposefully showed up late and planned to use the ore ahead of time. A boat ore happened to be one of the few things which was longer than Kojiro’s sword.

Artistic Pursuits
Screen Painted By Musashi (1600’s) — [Public Domain]

Musashi’s art also happens to be famous throughout Japan and the world. He’s known to have painted, created sculpture, practiced calligraphy, and written poetry. Art enabled a release from the business of death pursued by the samurai and acted as a counterbalance of sorts.

However, his most famous work happens to be his strategy manual “A Book Of Five Rings” (Go Rin No Sho). He’d write this after spending time teaching in the Kumamoto castle controlled by Lord Churi. As age set in, Musashi spent more time by himself in a cave called “Reigendo” where he’d put the lessons learned in his extraordinary life on paper to pass on to his students.

This book is still widely read today and has invaluable advice on strategy for life as well as fighting. I have a copy of it myself, which I leaf through from time to time. Some of the things he wrote in the 1600’s seems to be well worthy of relearning today in our present age.

Much of the wisdom involves you challenging yourself before you challenge others. Or as Musashi puts it, “Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.”

Ink Painting Of A Bird By Miyomoto Musashi (1600’s) — [Public Domain]

A Life Of Contradiction

“He was respected by his patron, admired by his peers, loved by his adopted son. Yet he always remained an outsider. His position was reinforced by his personal appearance.”
— “Miyamoto Musashi: A Life In Arms”, William de Lange

Musashi strove for excellence and to become famous for his sword skills and eventually reached that aim. However, he never seemed to achieve contentment with his position. He rolled from place to place like a stone, never marrying, and never having a true home in the way we’d know it.

He lived in a land obsessed by status and tradition, however, he appeared to ignore both. Usually duels observed ceremony and ritual, but Musashi only cared about the practical nature of fighting and strategy. His unkempt appearance only added to this.

Musashi lived an incredible life of contradiction in a land where that wasn’t exactly common. Despite his outsider status, he became famous and left a story and text which still captures imaginations to this very day. I’ve only touched on a small portion of his life as well.

The greatest samurai who ever lived carried wooden swords, along with a paint brush, a writing instrument, and whatever clothes he felt like wearing for the day. Little else mattered.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

Bucks County, PA

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