Dec 13 2008

The Lone Samurai (book)

Review: Wilson WS. The Lone Samurai: the Life of Miyamoto Musashi. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 2004, ISBN 4-7700-2942-X, $24.00.

All you need for a founding figure is a name and a place.

–Prof. Jonathan Z. Smith, as quoted in Mack.

One really does not need much to build a mythic character. Take a man, a place in time, and start telling stories. The stories spread and change with repetition. The figure gains attributes both positive and negative as the story grows depending o the needs of the teller and the wishes of his audience. As a figure and his legends grow, more and more want some connection to the figure even if it is known the figure is actually mythic. Greater and greater deeds become assigned to the figure. This process applies to real historical individuals. As Prof. Smith’s observation implies, that a real figure existed has little to do with the development of the stories. If one adds up all of the places “Washington slept,” he would have missed the American Revolution. Glastonbury, England, boasts to not just the tombs of Arthur and Genievere, but Joseph of Arimethea’s staff-turned-tree. Churchill never observed that the “grand traditions of the Royal Navy” were “rum, sodomy, and the lash,” but he did admit he wished he had. A town in Iowa voted itself the future birthplace of James Tiberius Kirk, future scourge of Klingons and alien females. As Yogi Berra actually stated, “I really didn’t say everything I said!”

For some figures with little historical documentation, this process is understandable. Tellers make up a story to cover the gaps. Some, like Hammurabi, contributed directly to their myth. Supporters of Vespasian claimed he could raise the dead. A storyteller never lets something so minor as facts get in the way of a good story. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is William Wallace, even if his Battle of Stirling Bridge lacked a bridge, Wallace’s father lived longer in real life, “Longshanks” outlived Wallace, et cetera. Historical documentation does help, but one has to research and present the evidence, and the audience must care. Traditions may become so strong facts cannot stand in the way.

Thus with one of the great martial arts characters: Miyamoto Musashi. He is the invincible swordsman, peerless artisan, and wisest of writers of unfathomable yet life-changing books. As with all popular legendary characters, we know his story: killed his first opponent at the age of thirteen; fought and won over sixty duels, often using whatever was available at hand such as a stray cat; declared at the age of thirty he knew nothing of swordsmanship; commenced study and mastery of all arts, including calligraphy, sculpture, ink painting, and rhythmic gymnastics; never bathed, never took a wife; finally retiring to a mountain to dictate the greatest text on strategy which has influenced martial arts ever since and the size of cupholders in Toyota cars. Yet, was he not defeated by some monk who hung him upside down until he experience a revelation? Did he not have a woman following him from chapter to chapter and movie to movie? Are there not stories of “the one guy who” bested him in a duel at “such and such a place?” At least three different locations claim his birthplace. One of the powers of legend is its ability to contain conflicting, if not contradictory, details. All are true.

Wilson’s work offers something rare in martial arts histories: actual history. History consists of opinionated science; the historian marshals what facts he can and tries to interpret them. Other historians can judge his interpretations by evaluating his facts and reasonable inferences. Some interpretations prove more obvious and objective than others, but ultimately the credibility of the work depends on the quality of sources and the historian’s use of them. Scholars use primary sources when available. One will not find any record of George Washington’s assault upon a cherry tree, but one will find the book that started the myth. Too often, martial art historians merely parrot stories taken from secondary sources without seeking the basis for them. Part of this results from an understandable language and distance barrier. If only we all had the luxury and ability to learn the languages and travel the countries. Wilson enjoyed both through virtue of his studies of Japanese language and culture, his previous translations, and his visitations of important sites.

Historians have to exercise care to avoid “cherry picking” data that supports the figure they want. This is especially true for martial arts historians. Who does not want a founding figure to have killed a tiger and a few score bandits with his bare hands? Rational examination of historical figures does not diminish them. Which is more inspirational: a George Washington “who never told a lie,” or a shrewd man who could act to inspire dissatisfied officers to prevent them from overturning the country they defended? Wilson recognizes this in his description of Yoshikawa Eiji’s influencial novel: ” The problem for the reader is the tendency to believe that Yoshikawa’s Musashi is in fact the historical Musashi. Endlessly entertaining and instructive, it is a story we want to believe is true.”

Wilson promises a history from the onset to the end. A quick skim shows a list of his primary sources, a map of events in Musashi’s life, including conflicting birthplaces, all the way to extensive appendices and bibliography that includes depictions of his life in film. In the Preface, he identifies the inspiration for his current work as his translation of The Book of Five Rings–Go Rin No Sho–for Kodansha: “The project turned out to be an intensive course on the very core of what might be called the Musashi myth, and on how that myth came to be.” The final point is most important. It is one thing to show that a favorite aspect of a life is a legend, it is even better to show how the legend arose. He gives an outline of the surviving sources for Musashi from, “. . . a monument inscribed with the story of Musashi’s life and erected by his adopted son Iori in 1654,” to a chronology published in 1910. “Scattered among these are records of various clans that were touched by Musashi’s presence . . . and even family records that mentioned Musashi, . . .” Wilson notes:

Because of discrepancies in time and place and the personal alliances of the various authors, these sources often had Musashi in different places at the same time, held various and even diametrically opposed opinions on his personality, talents and accomplishments and could be quite perplexing in regard to the chronology: one, for example, had his father dying years before Musashi was born.

Wilson opens his work with a description of the prologue to the celebrated and infamous duel between Musashi and Sasaki Kojiro on what would become known as Ganryujima or “Ganryu Island.” He asks and proposes to answer just how Musashi came to that point in his life and then passed into legend.

Though out this journey, Wilson describes the sources for events, weighing them to produce the most likely picture. His treatment of Musashi’s clashes with the Yoshioka clan in Kyoto serves as an example. He begins with an introduction of the history of the Yoshioka clan from the earliest member Naomoto to the members challenged by Musashi based on extant sources which include the family annals, the Yoshioka-den. He provides one of the fanciful legends concerning one of the brothers challenged by Musashi, Seijuro: “Seijuro was said to have reached such a level of concentration that, when he focused his thought on a single bird on a treetop in the forest, hundreds of birds would fly up to the treetops at once.” Such details prove important as Wilson tries to understand the motivations of Musashi: “Musashi’s decision to challenge Seijuro was not random. By defeating Seijuro, he would not only show the whole world what he could do but also demonstrate a thing or two to his father, Munisai, who was still teaching martial arts in Kyushu.” Wilson then details Musashi’s father’s successful matches with Seijuro’s father which brought Shimen Munisai renown. All of this explains the eagerness of Seijuro to accept the challenge from an apparent young unknown. In his extensive endnotes, Wilson gives some of the opposing views of Musashi’s matches with the Yoshioka such as the aforementioned family annals that try to claim Musashi proved too cowardly to show up for a duel with brother Denschichiro that other sources show he lethally triumphed.

Wilson carries on with this care through his descriptions of other events in Musashi’s life. He supplements these with details of his own field work which includes travels to Ganryu Island:

This island is still called Funa Island, as it was four hundred years ago, but anyone you ask will tell you that, yes, it is also well-known as Ganryu Island. Then they will often extend their forearms as if holding a sword, and smile.
. . . .
Just as we approach the boat, the captain leads me to a low rise. We push aside the thin trees and bushes and walk up a short path to a two-yard high memorial stone, now hidden in the overgrowth. The Chinese characters engraved on the stone are weathered and lichen-covered, but you can still make out the name: Ganryu Sasaki Kojiro. A few old coins lie in the rusted offering box at the base of the stone, and next to it has been placed–some time ago–a One-Cup Ozeki sak√© can, now half-filled with murky water. Who still comes here to offer such things?

Reigan Cave, and, finally, Musashi’s tomb. The book closes with an extensive appendix that traces the development of the stories popularly attached to Musashi from the first kabuki work, Revenge at Ganryu Island in 1737 to the many popular movies. Included is a detailed discussion of the popular and influencial serialized novel of Yoshikawa Eiji, Miyamoto Musashi:

It is through Yoshikawa’s novel and the movies that followed the story line that Musashi’s image is known throughout the world today. It was also through this book that the common view of Musashi changed radically from what it had been for hundreds of years prior to its appearance. . . .
. . . .
Typical of his other historical novels, Yoshikawa based his work for the most part on the known facts of Musashi’s life, then filled in the large gaps with his wn imaginative accounts of what could have been.

The critic who does not find anything to criticize is not doing his job. Wilson rather assumes Musashi authorship of Go Rin No Sho. Some, like Donn F. Draeger argue otherwise:

. . . he did not write the Gorin no sho. Those who came after and eulo-gized him did the writing. This was much like the Bible, Qur’an, etc., where students recalled the great man’s sayings add statements plus what-ever embellishments the writers wished to add. The result was the Gorin no sho we have today.

In its recent Japanese editions, the Gorin no sho has been misinter-preted and recast in terms that are glowing and pleasing to modern ears. Thus, it is a far cry from any original that may have once existed. Even the earliest version, the one that never gets to the public eyes, is far removed from the brush or mouth of its purported author.

The work would have benefited from a summary of a text-critical analysis of the most famous work attributed to Musashi to address these concerns. Textual criticism seeks to recover a text through analysis of extant versions known as “witnesses.” This involves study of the history of the witnesses and the variations between them. Sometimes the answers are obvious: a later version corrects the grammar of the original, or scholars have an autograph or version written by the claimed author. Sometimes, analysis demonstrates the text could not have been written in the period or by the author as claimed. For a biography that seeks to find the man behind the legends, this is a glaring omission, particularly given the wonderful care Wilson demonstrates in separating facts from legends throughout. If credible claims arose that an aid wrote Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” biographers would have to discuss such. He may discuss such matters in his previously published translation of the work; unfortunately a copy proved unavailable for review. If Wilson feels the Musashi authorship of Go Rin No Sho is established, a brief outline of the evidence would have completed the book. Nevertheless, he does provide in his Appendix a discussion of the influence and parallels to Go Rin No Sho.

A few weeks after the completion of this review, a local Japanese bookstore decided to obtain a number of copies of Wilson’s translation of Go Rin No Sho. In his introduction to the work, Wilson discusses the sources for the work. No autograph–work written in the author’s hand–exists, but existing copies agree closely with one another according to Wilson. He chose the copy considered the authoritative: a copy Musashi’s adopted son gave to their patron lord. The copy dates to within twenty years of Musashi’s death and has remained in the lord’s family. This all rather contradicts and rebuts the claims made by Draeger.

Aside from that, with a complete and current filmography, glossary, and bibliography of works in English, Japanese, and Chinese, Wilson provides a very complete treatment of the Musashi as both a historical and legendary character. The book is very well written and is printed with the quality expected from Kodansha. The book’s listed price of $24.00 for hardcover is appropriate. Discounts are available on-line which make this book a true bargain.

John David Morenski, M.D., Yondan, Uechi-Ryu


Berra Y. The Yogi Book: “I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said!” Workman Publishing Company, 1999.

The Churchill Centre. “Quotes Falsely Attributed to Him,” www.winstonchurchill.org.

“The Code of Hammurabi,” Meek TJ trans, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd. ed. Pritchard JB ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Draeger DF, “Letters on Miyamoto Musashi,” Joseph Svinth ed., Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 8 (3), 1999.

Mack B., A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Fortress Press, 1991.

Mackay JA. William Wallace: Braveheart. Mainstream Publishing Company, Ltd. 1996.

Musashi M. The Book of Five Rings. William Scott Wilson trans. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 2002.

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