Review: Tokitsu K. Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings . Boston : Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2004, ISBN 1-59030-045-9, $34.95. (20% discount available by ordering from website: http://www.shambhala.com)
I got my first Musashi “hit” when, following class way back in 1957-58, my original karate teacher Ryuko Tomoyose, used Musashi legends to reinforce a particular karate technique’s importance or to emphasize a lesson in morality. As an impressionable nineteen year-old, I could almost visualize Musashi’s remarkable feats as Sensei described them while the two of us sipped green tea following a grueling four hour class.
The massive novel Musashi by Yoshikawa Eiji, based on his Japanese newspaper series, eventually found its way to the West and refueled my interest many years later as well as generated the super hero image of Musashi that now exists throughout the world.
When Shambhala Publishing sent me this book exactly one year ago, I began reading it and thought, “Wow, what great insights into the writings of Musashi, interpreted through the mind of another martial artist.” In scanning the chapters, nuggets of fascinating bits of information kept jumping off the pages, as though written for someone like myself. Tokitsu’s work includes an annotated translation of Musashi’s Gorin no sho ( Book of Five Rings ). The text translated by Tokistsu comes from the most common 1942 edition based on the text handed down in the Hosokawa family edited by Takayanagi Mitsutoshi. The author compared it to different versions and different transcriptions of modern Japanese. Where versions differ significantly, he gives notations.
Since Musashi wrote of abstract concepts in brief sentences, his work is very difficult to understand, especially for the Western non-martial artist. It may prove difficult for even the most patient and eloquent martial artist to describe technique and theory clearly. Based on his own experiences as an active and knowledgeable martial art practitioner and teacher, Tokistsu attempts to demystify the text and offers many new views of Musashi’s work.
Although I do not consider myself in the same martial arts category of a Musashi, I can relate, as a modern martial arts teacher, how difficult it is to describe the sometimes mind-blowing experiences that occur during a workout to those not present, even if they train. As an occasional writer, I am always trying to find ways to document or preserve something very physical, with words. Although keeping a journal of my personal physical experiences helps me relive those memories and perhaps may even have some value to another martial artist, for a non-marital artist, my words would, for the most part, be wasted. I can relate to the difficulty Musashi had attempting to define, explain, and preserve his art with words and, therefore, can value and appreciate Tokistsu’s challenge and contribution in writing this book.
I have read different translations of Gorin no sho , and while I found each interesting, earlier translations of Gorin no sho left far more questions for me as a martial artist than answers. Tokistsu’s translation makes the Gorin no sho more “user friendly” for the martial artist through his familiarity with the subject and efforts to understand the mind of Musashi. He does not simply reproduce the word structure from Japanese into English, an impossible task in any translation.
Not all historians believe Musashi deserves the accolades bestowed on him as either a scholar or swordsman. The author sites a number of them in his book. As an example, in the epilogue to his modern work on the Gorin no sho , Takayanagi Mitsutoshi criticizes Musashi’s writing skills and method of organizing his knowledge of the sword, offering a non-complimentory reason for the text being difficult to understand, in contrast to the author’s point of view:
• That the Japanese language has evolved so much since Musashi’s time.
• The limited role language and the written word plays in the martial arts.
• The fact that martial arts is transmitted through direct teaching, not the written word and that when used, the written word for the most part was simple enumerations of technical terms.
• The difficulty of communicating techniques of the body and mind in writing.
The author continues to address this issue by saying that Musashi’s critics:
… seem to have based their remarks on a distortion of the sense of Musashi’s work. They consider it a literary work, the entire sense of which is meant to be communicated by the use of words. In my view, Musashi’s text should be understood by seeing its connection to those to whom it was addressed, his students, and by understanding the role its author intended it to play for them – a guide to be used as a complement to shared practice
Despite Musashi’s reputation as one of Japan ‘s most famous duelist, the author discovered many historians who question Musashi’s reputation with the sword:
Naoki, a famous writer of samurai novels, triggered the polemic by writing that Musashi did not achieve excellence in the sword until a few years before his death. His view is that in his youth Musashi was no more than an expert in publicizing himself and that his strength in the sword was not extraordinary. He takes as his proof Musashi’s duel against Sasaki Kojiro, in which Musashi used a wooden sword so as to have a sword longer than Kojiro’s; moreover, he deliberately delayed the time of the fight in order to disconcert his adversary.
Harada Mukashi, another detractor, offers another of many conflicting accounts of this battle. Particularly noteworthy to me, however, was the statement where Harada writes: “Musashi won the duel, but contrary to general opinion, it was not an honorable victory.”
Harada relies on the Text of the Numata Family , which in his opinion, is the most faithful to reality, and on the Bugei shoden , which is close to it. Also based on this book, Mukashi developed a truly “original interpretation,” by claiming that in the duel Kojiro did not die from Musashi’s blow. Rather he speculates Kojiro was killed either by Musashi’s students or retainers of Hosokawa which he believed hid on the Island during the duel. This version attempts to provide some credibility for the claim that Musashi fled the Island after being chased by Kojiro’s students who learned of their teacher’s assassination.
Tokistsu presents a number of conflicting accounts of this duel, along with his own explanation as to why or why not the description is valid. In the end, Tokistsu gives the highest credibility to Harada’s interpretation of the duel and events following the fight.
As the Editor noted in reviewing this, Harada contradicts himself. If “students” or “retainers” killed Kojiro, what were Kojiro’s “students” doing at the time? If Kojiro’s students “chased” Musashi, where were his “students” and “retainers?” Furthermore, the island is tiny; Musashi would have no reason stay, and the “straw students” and “retainers” would certainly have encountered one another. Finally, Harada fails to account for the consistency between competing versions that have Musashi dispatching Kojiro. Harada merely chose two complimentary sources that support the version of Musashi he wished to sell. Unfortunately, Toketsu does not recognize these contradictions.
Regardless of which version of the battle one elects to believe, according to the author, this duel was a turning point in Musashi’s life, one in which Musashi gave up seeking individual duels. To support this point, the author examines the following passage from the Gorin no sho :
At the age of thirty, I reflected and saw that although I had won, I had done so without having reached the ultimate level of strategy. Perhaps it was because my natural disposition prevented me from straying from universal principles; perhaps it was because my opponents lacked ability in strategy. I continued to train and to seek from morning till night to attain a deeper principle. When I reach the age of fifty, I naturally found myself on the way of strategy.
Tokistsu explains with repeated examples how Musashi’s skills may have neither been universally recognized nor respected during his lifetime. He recognizes in an era where losing meant death, Musashi was, on the score sheet of life, a survivor and, therefore, a winner. There may have been times when Musashi’s youthful and energetic need to test himself and his skills ran counter to the rituals of fighting that prevailed during that era. However, what evidence for these rituals really exist? On the contrary, evidence exists against such in opponents of Musashi. In the final duel in Kyoto , his opponents intended to ambush him. Perhaps like chivalry, these rules exist more in the minds of those who wish to imagine a better past than actually existed. Whether or not duels during this era were actually steeped in such convention, Musashi would have none of this, considering victory to be the only objective. In this regard, he was considered to be the very best of his time, based on his success and survival, not necessarily on his methods.
Have not the martial arts in general experienced the same fate? Beginning as a brutal method of self-protection with no rules, evolving into a physical fitness activity with rules of engagement and rank based on style, accuracy and other fighting traits but lacking the life or death mindset that truly tests the art and the artist? As the author points out:
In the beginning, the nature of the sword was obvious. The blade was the main thing – it killed in a bloody way. Spirituality had little place in the practice of the sword. In the next phase, the sword continued to be there, but it was in a scabbard. It killed less frequently, almost not at all. Sword practice was more a matter of technique, and it coexisted with spirituality. The notion of do developed in association with the consciousness of one’s duty toward the ruler.
Continuing with this thought, the author sees the conception of the way ( do ) developing as a natural progression of budo , as the warriors disappeared and weapons were prohibited.
The author attributes much of this “practice for art sake” to the fact that once warriors were not fighting for their lives on the battlefield or in duels, their practice changed from a purely practical and physical necessity to one that incorporated the “mind” and “art.” I might add that in the process simple, powerful, and effective techniques became stylized and structured studies in movement. However, Musashi eschews such when discussing technique in his Gorin No Sho . Indeed, he stresses practical application to the point of confusion for the non-martial artist. Harris gave up in his translation, stating that the reader would have to study kendo to understand Musashi! Thus, while Musashi may have made the “practical” an “art,” he insisted in keeping the art practical.
Tokitsu unfortunately demonstrates a major deficiency in critical thinking when he claims mystical powers on the part of Musashi . He writes that Musashi demonstrated in his later fighting “no touch” or “no action” to win duels. This is especially interesting, since this phenomenon continues to be used by modern “masters” of martial arts and attributed to a mysterious energy force developed by these “masters’ . I do not recall an example of Musashi claiming this in Gorin No Sho . Out-thinking your opponent, developing intuition, doing more than one action at once . . . yes! Not this! Leave aside the lack of actual evidence for such paranormal feats on the part of Musashi; the author describes this phenomenon in a manner that gives credibility to something that any magician or scientist could debunk. I mention this because at the 2000 SummerFest that I host, we were actually able to invite one of these “masters,” who was willing to submit to a scientifically validated, double blind test where these powers were absolutely shown to be a function of the participants’ controlled-mind rather than any power or skill on the part of the “master.” To date, no one has successfully shown evidence of such phenomenon under properly controlled conditions. The laws of physics remain intact.
Rather than consider more terrestrial explanations, Tokitsu accepts the fanciful stories without critical examination. This is not history. Tokitsu describes a number of instances where Musashi uses this “mind” device to overwhelm his opponent and further claims this ability is used by modern Kendo and other martial art masters to dominate their opponents without any apparent movement. The Editor and the Nobel Committee would welcome any documented case of a legitimate match won by such nonsense. Not surprisingly, Musashi himself never claims this ability, and his Gorin no sho certainly does not mention it. On the contrary, his work stresses the very practical aspect of fighting.
Here is an example of one of Toketsu’ claims:
Musashi’s combats during the years of his maturity recall what is known today in kendo as kizeme , literally “ ki offensive ,” at its highest level. Toward the end of his life, Musashi fought his duels by dominating his adversaries without striking a blow. This way of defeating an adversary would in the future become the ultimate goal of the Japanese martial arts, in the form they acquired during the Edo period.
The author goes on to further claim in his “One Life, One Art” section of his book that, “Toward the end of his life, a unique approach to combat became second nature to him: to defeat the adversary without striking a single blow.” The ability to fly would also be a “unique approach.” The author continues: “Defeating the adversary without striking is a paradox that develops in the realm of awareness. The person who is defeated without having been struck is in reality struck by a sensation of energy that overwhelms him and makes him have a sense of an inner void.”
As the Editor reminds, and I can attest, the martial arts abound with mythic founders. Believe some of the stories of my style’s founder, and he achieves perfect Sanchin just as he died of kidney failure! Perhaps we want our founders to be superhuman. This detracts from the humanity and real achievements of such men.
That flaw aside, this remains a book you will take your time reading. Every page brings a new perspective to the life of Musashi. Aside from possibly disagreeing with a couple of Tokitsu’s suppositions relating to Musashi’s actions , martial artists will be especially impressed by Tokitsu’s new view of the man and his ideas. The author has examined and includes all of the conflicting information, dates and stories in his work and provides compelling evidence for what he considers to be the most reasonable explanation for the conflicting stories, dates and names.
Also of interest is the author’s coverage of:
The main periods in the history of Japanese swordsmanship.
Musashi’s childhood and his first duel.
The founding of Musashi’s School of Two Swords.
Musashi’s influence on contemporize practice and
The evolution of budo, or martial arts practiced for self-cultivation.
Musashi was also a respected artist, and the book contains color reproductions of his own calligraphies and paintings, supplemented by commentary from the well-known art historian Stephen Addiss. Of particular importance to the martial art student are the very excellent Appendixes, Notes, Glossary and Bibliography, each worthy of its own review.
No matter how many books you’ve read on Musashi, if you are a martial artist, you should add Tokitsu’s to your library.
Harada Mukashi. Shinsetsu Miyamoto Musashi (The Truth about Miyamoto Musashi) Fukuoka : Ashi shobo, 1984
Morenski JD, Glasheen WP. An Empty Force: (http://uechi-ryu.com/articles)October, 2000.
Musashi M. A Book of Five Rings: the Classic Guide to Stategy. Harris V, trans. New York : The Overlook Press, 1982.
Takayanagi Mitsutoshi. Gorin-no-sho . (Edited with commentary). Tokyo : Iwanami, 1942; rev. ed., 1969.
George E. Mattson
International Uechi-ryu Karate Federation
Mount Dora , FL 32756