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Author: Eiji Yoshikawa
Translated: Charles S. Terry
Pub: 1981 by Kodansha International Ltd.
Pages: 294-341
Ranking:Four Star Rating
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Most modern myths and legends about Miyamoto Musashi come from this set of books. Very well written and translated, these books will give you a great deal of insight into Japanese culture. I highly recommend reading these if you are interested in any of the Japanese martial traditions. Musashi is such a common figure among Japanese legends, that it's a necessity to become familiar with him if you wish to understand Japanese culture.



by Edwin O. Reischauer
(Edwin O. Reischauer was born in Japan in 1910. He has been a professor at Harvard University since 1946, and is now Professor Emeritus. He left the university temporarily to be the United States Ambassador to Japan from 1961 to 1966, and is one of the best-known authorities on the country. Among his numerous works are Japan: The Story of a Nation and The Japanese.)

Musashi might well be called the Gone with the Wind of Japan. Written by Eiji Yoshikawa (1892 -- 1962), one of Japan's most prolific and best-loved popular writers, it is a long historical novel, which first appeared in serialized form between 1935 and 1939 in the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's largest and most prestigious newspaper. It has been published in book form no less than fourteen times, most recently in four volumes of the 53-volume complete works of Yoshikawa issued by Kodansha. It has been produced as a film some seven times, has been repeatedly presented on the stage, and has often been made into television mini-series on at least three nationwide net- works.

Miyamoto Musashi was an actual historical person, but through Yoshikawa's novel he and the other main characters of the book have become part of Japan's living folklore. They are so familiar to the public that people will frequently be compared to them as personalities everyone knows. This gives the novel an added interest to the foreign reader. It not only provides a romanticized slice of Japanese history, but gives a view of how the Japanese see their past and themselves. But basically the novel will be enjoyed as a dashing tale of swashbuckling adventure and a subdued story of love, Japanese style.

Comparisons with James Clavell's Shogun seem inevitable, because for most Americans today Shogun, as a book and a television mini-series, vies with samurai movies as their chief source of knowledge about Japan's past. The two novels concern the same period of history. Shogun, which takes place in the year 1600, ends with Lord Toranaga, who is the historical Tokugawa Ieyasu, soon to be the Shogun, or military dictator of Japan, setting off for the fateful battle of Sekigahara. Yoshikawa's story begins with the youthful Takezo, later to be renamed Miyamoto Musashi, lying wounded among the corpses of the defeated army on that battlefield.

With the exception of Blackthorne, the historical Will Adams, Shogun deals largely with the great lords and ladies of Japan, who appear in thin disguise under names Clavell has devised for them. Musashi, while mentioning many great historical figures under their true names, tells about a broader range of Japanese and particularly about the rather extensive group who lived on the ill-defined borderline between the hereditary military aristocracy and the commoners-the peasants, trades-men and artisans. Clavell freely distorts historical fact to fit his tale and inserts a Western-type love story that not only flagrantly flouts history but is quite unimaginable in the Japan of that time. Yoshikawa remains true to history or at least to historical tradition, and his love story, which runs as a background theme in minor scale throughout the book, is very authentically Japanese.

Yoshikawa, of course, has enriched his account with much imaginative detail. There are enough strange co-incidences and deeds of derring-do to delight the heart of any lover of adventure stories. But he sticks faithfully to such facts of history as are known. Not only Musashi himself but many of the other people who figure prominently in the story are real historical individuals. For example, Takuan, who serves as a guiding light and mentor to the youthful Musashi, was a famous Zen monk, calligrapher, painter, poet and tea-master of the time, who became the youngest abbot of the Daitokuji in Kyoto in 1609 and later founded a major monastery in Edo, but is best remembered today for having left his name to a popular Japanese pickle.

The historical Miyamoto Musashi, who may have been born in 1584 and died in 1645, was like his father a master swordsman and became known for his use of two swords. He was an ardent cultivator of self-discipline as the key to martial skills and the author of a famous work on swordsmanship, the Gorin no sho. He probably took part as a youth in the battle of Sekigahara, and his clashes with the Yoshioka school of swordsmanship in Kyoto, the warrior monks of the Hozoin in Nara and the famed swordsman Sasaki Kojiro, all of which figure prominently in this book, actually did take place. Yoshikawa's account of him ends in 1612, when he was still a young man of about 28, but subsequently he may have fought on the losing side at the siege of Osaka castle in 1614 and participated in 1637-38 in the annihilation of the Christian peasantry of Shimabara in the western island of Kyushu, an event which marked the extirpation of that religion from Japan for the next two centuries and helped seal Japan off from the rest of the world.

Ironically, Musashi in 1640 became a retainer of the Hosokawa lords of Kumamoto, who, when they had been the lords of Kumamoto, had been the patrons of his chief rival, Sasaki Kojiro. The Hosokawas bring us back to Shogun, because it was the older Hosokawa, Tadaoki, who figures quite unjustifiably as one of the main villains of that novel, and it was Tadaoki's exemplary Christian wife, Gracia, who is pictured without a shred of plausibility as Blackthorne's great love, Mariko.

The time of Musashi's life was a period of great transition in Japan. After a century of incessant warfare among petty daimyo, or feudal lords, three successive leaders had finally reunified the country through con-quest. Oda Nobunaga had started the process but, before completing it, had been killed by a treacherous vassal in 1582. His ablest general, Hideyoshi, risen from the rank of common foot soldier, completed the unification of the nation but died in 1598 before he could consolidate con-trol in behalf of his infant heir. Hideyoshi's strongest vassal, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a great daimyo who ruled much of eastern Japan from his castle at Edo, the modern Tokyo, then won supremacy by defeating a coalition of western daimyo at Sekigahara in 1600. Three years later he took the traditional title of Shogun, signifying his military dictatorship over the whole land, theoretically in behalf of the ancient but impotent imperial line in Kyoto. Ieyasu in 1605 transferred the position of Shogun to his son, Hidetada, but remained in actual control himself until he had destroyed the supporters of Hideyoshi's heir in sieges of Osaka castle in 1614 and 1615.

The first three Tokugawa rulers established such firm control over Japan that their rule was to last more than two and a half centuries, until it finally collapsed in 1868 in the tumultuous aftermath of the reopening of Japan to contact with the West a decade and a half earlier. The Tokugawa ruled through semi-autonomous hereditary daimyo, who numbered around 265 at the end of the period, and the daimyo in turn controlled their fiefs through their hereditary samurai retainers. The transition from constant warfare to a closely regulated peace brought the drawing of sharp class lines between the samurai, who had the privilege of wearing two swords and bearing family names, and the commoners, who though including well-to-do merchants and land owners, were in theory denied all arms and the honor of using family names.

During the years of which Yoshikawa writes, however, these class divisions were not yet sharply defined. All localities had their residue of peasant fighting men, and the country was overrun by ronin, or masterless samurai, who were largely the remnants of the armies of the daimyo who had lost their domains as the result of the battle of Sekigahara or in earlier wars. It took a generation or two before society was fully sorted out into the strict class divisions of the Tokugawa system, and in the meantime there was considerable social ferment and mobility.

Another great transition in early seventeenth century Japan was in the nature of leadership. With peace re-stored and major warfare at an end, the dominant warrior class found that military prowess was less essential to successful rule than administrative talents. The samurai class started a slow transformation from being warriors of the gun and sword to being bureaucrats of the writing brush and paper. Disciplined self-control and education in a society at peace was becoming more important than skill in warfare. The Western reader may be surprised to see how widespread literacy already was at the beginning of the seventeenth century and at the constant references the Japanese made to Chinese history and literature, much as Northern Europeans of the same time continually referred to the traditions of ancient Greece and Rome.

A third major transition in the Japan of Musashi's time was in weaponry. In the second half of the sixteenth century matchlock muskets, recently introduced by the Portuguese, had become the decisive weapons of the battlefield, but in a land at peace the samurai could turn their backs on distasteful firearms and resume their traditional love affair with the sword. Schools of swordsmanship flourished. However, as the chance to use swords in actual combat diminished, martial skills were gradually becoming martial arts, and these increasingly came to emphasize the importance of inner self-control and the character-building qualities of swordsmanship rather than its untested military efficacy. A whole mystique of the sword grew up, which was more akin to philosophy than to warfare.

Yoshikawa's account of Musashi's early life illustrates all these changes going on in Japan. He was himself a typical ronin from a mountain village and became a settled samurai retainer only late in life. He was the founder of a school of swordsmanship. Most important, he gradually transformed himself from an instinctive fighter into a man who frantically pursued the goals of Zen-like self-discipline, complete inner mastery over one-self, and a sense of oneness with surrounding nature. Although in his early years lethal contests, reminiscent of the tournaments of medieval Europe, were still possible, Yoshikawa portrays Musashi as consciously turning his martial skills from service in warfare to a means of character building for a time of peace. Martial skills, spiritual self-discipline and aesthetic sensitivity became merged into a single indistinguishable whole. This picture of Musashi may not be far from the historical truth. Musashi is known to have been a skilled painter and an accomplished sculptor as well as a swordsman.

The Japan of the early seventeenth century which Musashi typified has lived on strongly in the Japanese consciousness. The long and relatively static rule of the Tokugawa preserved much of its forms and spirit, though in somewhat ossified form, until the middle of the nineteenth century, not much more than a century ago. Yoshikawa himself was a son of a former samurai who failed like most members of his class to make a successful economic transition to the new age. Though the samurai themselves largely sank into obscurity in the new Japan, most of the new leaders were drawn from this feudal class, and its ethos was popularized through the new compulsory educational system to become the spiritual background and ethics of the whole Japanese nation. Novels like Musashi and the films and plays derived from them aided in the process.

The time of Musashi is as close and real to the modern Japanese as is the Civil War to Americans. Thus the comparison to Gone with the Wind is by no means far-fetched. The age of the samurai is still very much alive in Japanese minds. Contrary to the picture of the modern Japanese as merely group oriented "economic animals," many Japanese prefer to see themselves as fiercely individualistic, high-principled, self-disciplined and aesthetically sensitive modern-day Musashis. Both pictures have some validity, illustrating the complexity of the Japanese soul behind the seemingly bland and uniform exterior.

Musashi is very different from the highly psychological and often neurotic novels that have been the mainstay of translations of modern Japanese literature into English. But it is nevertheless fully in the mainstream of traditional Japanese fiction and popular Japanese thought. Its episodic presentation is not merely the result of its original appearance as a newspaper serial but is a favorite technique dating back to the beginnings of Japanese storytelling. Its romanticized view of the noble swordsman is a stereotype of the feudal past enshrined in hundreds of other stories and samurai movies. Its emphasis on the cultivation of self-control and inner personal strength through austere Zen-like self-discipline is a major feature of Japanese personality today. So also is the pervading love of nature and sense of closeness to it. Musashi is not just a great adventure story. Beyond that, it gives both a glimpse into Japanese history and a view into the idealized self-image of the contemporary Japanese.

January 1981


Book I: The Way of the Samarai

Wounded in the great battle of Sekigahara, Takezo (later Musashi) and Matahachi were taken in by a beautiful girl, Akemi, and her lascivious mother, Oko. After a violent confrontation with local bandits, in which he slew the leader, Takezo left his friend with the two women and traveled back to his home province of Mimasaka. There, he was accused of having murdered Matahachi. A wild and undisciplined youth, Takezo was hunted by his own townspeople, and reacted with bitter raga-until the Bud-dhist town monk, Takuan Soho, was able to capture him without a single blow. Takuan tied Takezo up in the branches of a tall tree, but Matahachi's beloved, Otsu, took pity on him and freed him. Begging him to run away with her, she forsook Matahachi forever, but the eccen-tric Takuan had an even greater power over Takezo-and led him to Himeji Castle. There, by the light of a single lamp in a windowless room, Takezo began to study Suntzu's The Art of War, the Books of Zen, and the history of Japan. Weeks stretched into months, and gradually Takezo was transformed. When the day came for him to leave, he took the name Miyamoto Musashi, and set off for Kyoto-and his first tests as a man of the sword....


Book II: The Art of War

Musashi, Otsu and Takuan are in the beautiful Yagyu Valley, unaware of one another's presence, drawn by the master swordsman Sekishusai. But a violent fight with the lords of Yagyu forces Musashi to flee-and leave Otsu behind. Outside Kyoto, Matahachi is working as a day laborer when he witnesses the brutal killing of a samurai by a crowd of workers. The dying samurai gives Matahachi a letter and a sack of gold, sending the half-starved man on a journey to Osaka, where his money is stolen from him. More destitute than ever, Matahachi learns that his former friend Takezo is traveling nearby under the name Musashi. Meanwhile, Osugi and Uncle Gon have come to Osaka, too, determined to bring back Matahachi and kill Musashi. Near the ridge of Mount Suzuka, Musashi is confronted by the brother of a man he killed years before. In Kyoto his friends, admirers and enemies are waiting for him, and so are the swordsmen of the House of Yoshioka-whom Musashi has challenged to a duel to the death...


Book III: The Way of the Sword

The most powerful swordsman of the House of Yoshioka, Denshichiro, is searching for Musashi, while Musashi has fallen in with Kyoto's rich artistic crowd. Osugi and Matahachi are reunited and meet Otsu by the edge of a steep ravine. Osugi urges her son to kill the woman who betrayed him, but when he strikes out he spills the blood of the wrong person. In the company of a strange and brilliant artisan, Hon'ami Koetsu, Musashi visits a house of pleasure, where he meets the most beautiful courtesan in Japan. But Musashi must leave her side to face Denshichiro, whom he kills in a duel. Now the Yoshiokas' very existence is threatened, and they set an extraordinary trap for Musashi. On a hill outside Kyoto he defeats their entire force, but in the process is forced to slay a young boy who is the symbolic head of the Yoshiokas. Stunned and confused, Musashi sets off for Edo. On the way he is challenged to a duel by a crude farmer and nearly loses his life. Suddenly Musashi knows his own utter fallibility-and that he has yet to learn the true essence of the samurai spirit.


Book IV: The Bushido Code

After his stunning victory over the House of Yoshioka, Musashi travels east and takes up farming with a young orphan boy named Iori. While Musashi struggles to gain a new understanding of life, his chief rival, Kojiro, is creating a stir in the new capital city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), challenging the established warriors and spreading a trail of blood and self-aggrandizement through the city. Edo is a swirl of power struggles and politics, and Kojiro quickly becomes popular. Musashi has no interest in that kind of life, but when he single-handedly defeats a band of highwaymen he receives an invitation to visit a royal house in the city. There he is reunited with Takuan, the Yagyus and Osugi, who has stepped up her campaign to smear his name. Meanwhile, Jotaro has fallen in with a band of criminals, and Otsu has come to live in the house of Yagyu Hyogo, a grandson of the famous sword-master, Sekishusai. As Musashi and Kojiro are slowly drawn toward their fated duel, Musashi is reaching a turning point in his life: He must choose between following his own difficult path toward enlightenment, or take up the role of a samurai for hire.


Book V: The Way of Life and Death

Musashi and Kojiro are now the most famous and feared swordsmen in Japan, and Kojiro who hates and despises Musashi wants desperately to kill him in a duel all of Edo will witness so Kojiro can be acclaimed as the undisputed greatest samurai in the land. Musashi through years of pain and death and contemplation has achieved understanding: The Way of the Samurai only begins with the sword. As Musashi goes to the final confrontation, he knows that Kojiro cannot be defeated by sword alone.



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