Reviews

Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms | Kendō World, June 2015

By Jeff Broderick

Fans of Miyamoto Musashi, perhaps Japan's most famous warrior, will know that most discussions of the man begin with “Actually, very little is known about his life ...” And until recently, that would have been correct. 

Information about Musashi has always been scant, and sometimes contradictory. There has long been confusion, for example, over where he was born, what his original name was, his relationship with his father – even when his most famous duels were fought. But it turns out that all along there has been an abundance of material in Japanese, which only recently has begun to be translated into English. At the forefront of this activity is William De Lange, a martial artist, writer, and translator who in the past few years has produced the first English translations of important early biographies of Musashi, the Bukōden and Bushū Denraiki. Written by students-of-students, these works have been crucial in sweeping away the persistent myths surrounding Musashi’s life—myths that came about partly due to the popularity of Yoshikawa Eiji’s fictionalized account of his life, but also because of the sheer lack of reliable information about him. 

Now, De Lange has produced Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms, a comprehensive story of the swordsman which draws on the aforementioned biographies but also assembles snippets of information from a vast array of other sources, many of which have been unearthed only recently by Japanese historians amid the ongoing revival of interest in Musashi’s life. In writing this book, De Lange has used some 40 English texts, and remarkably, over 180 Japanese sources to paint the most complete picture of Musashi yet written in English. He also includes the first full English translation of the Kokura Hibun, the epitaph erected by his adopted son Iori in 1654. 

The book is filled with anecdotes about the exceptional warrior, drawn from these historical sources. One from the Bukōden describes Musashi’s unusual strength, even as an old man in failing health. When asked how to select suitable lengths of bamboo to use as flag poles:

Musashi asked him to hand him a bunch and, holding them at their lower end with one hand, brandished them as one would a sword, causing several lengths to break under the strain ... Master Yoriyuki laughed heartily and said, “Truly, that is a good way of selecting the right bamboo, but who on earth is able to brandish a bunch of bamboo with one hand like you?” (p. 113) 

We further learn about Musashi’s pained relationship with his father Muni, himself a nationally renowned swordsman. Far from barely knowing his father, De Lange demonstrates that Musashi spent years at Muni’s Kyushu dojo while a young man in his 20’s. We also learn something about Musashi’s desire to have children of his own: he adopted two sons, raised a short-lived daughter, and became a respected father figure to many of his own students. And unlike Yoshikawa’s picture of Musashi as a wild-eyed ruffian, we get a sense of him as a complex man with both a deep sense of humility and a delicate sense of pride; a well-loved friend to many, but also something of a loner at heart. We feel the tension between Musashi’s need for freedom, and his longing to settle down.

Much of this is due to De Lange’s vivid writing style, which is accessible and written almost like a novel where Musashi is the protagonist. This is a strength of the work, as it makes this historical tale come vividly to life. But it can sometimes be a source of mild frustration: De Lange takes pains to back up his findings with solid historical evidence (there are 45 pages of welcome notes) but at times he indulges in what seems like speculation about Musashi’s state of mind and inner conflicts. One such example concerns Musashi’s time as an advisor to Lord Hosokawa Tadatoshi in Kumamoto: 

[Musashi] had come to cherish his independence, yet it was with a tinge of sadness that at times the old swordsman observed the self-important daily hustle and bustle on the castle grounds from the veranda of his yashiki. At such times he felt compelled to leave the protective yet strangely oppressive walls of Kumamoto castle to seek peace and quiet among nature. (p.112) 

De Lange then goes on to quote the Bushū Denraiki regarding Musashi’s habit of going out of doors to pursue falconry. I found myself wondering about the basis for this insight into Musashi’s emotional state – A letter, perhaps? An account from a student? – or whether it was, indeed, just a bit of creative conjecture on De Lange’s part. 

In the end, however, I feel that if anyone is qualified to fill in the missing details of Musashi’s life, it is De Lange, who has surely done more research on the subject than any other non-Japanese. De Lange’s great achievement is in creating a work that walks the fine line between academic research and accessible writing. In doing so, he has painted a remarkably vibrant portrait of Musashi, one that reveals all the contradictions of a remarkable life full of triumphs and disappointments, thrilling victories as well as bitter losses. For all his astonishing, almost superhuman accomplishments, the lingering impression of Musashi is of someone endearingly flawed, and deeply human.

This book is unquestionably a must-read for any student of budō, and especially for those who have read De Lange’s previous translations. A Life in Arms draws together all the relevant information in a logical, readable fashion to form a cohesive portrait of a man who, perhaps now more than ever, should be viewed as one of the greatest martial artists who ever lived. 


Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms | Ichijōji Blogspot, July 2015

By Chriss Hellman

Of all Japanese swordsmen, Miyamoto Musashi is the best known, and his life story has been told in one form or another any number of times, both in print and on the screen. Many of these retellings have been coloured by Yoshikawa Eiji’s fictional account, a blend of fact, creative interpretation and fiction, which continues to exert its influence, and this is despite the years that have passed and the increased availability of documentary evidence of various aspects of Musashi’s life.

Much more of this is available in Japanese than in English, although in the past ten years or so, there have been a couple of notable works in English which sought to dig deeper into his life, and although both of these took some trouble to use historical sources, the Yoshikawa story was floating there as a shadow in the background – a kind of template from which to begin.

Perhaps this is not surprising as the story is so well-known, and Yoshikawa himself researched the subject quite deeply… of course, as a novelist, he was more interested in the story than in strict historical accuracy, but in tying together the available accounts, favouring those that fitted his story while ignoring those that didn’t, he created a work that has become common background knowledge and a starting point for almost everyone in the field.

A new biography, Miyamoto Musashi, A Life in Arms by William de Lange, comes at Musashi’s life from a different perspective. Based directly on historical documents, it gives us us quite a different picture of Musashi’s life. De Lange has already published two volumes giving translations of two of the principal source documents on Musashi’s life,(reviews here and here) but this is something different. Drawing on these, as well as numerous other sources, he builds up a new version of the swordsman’s story, enlarging here, filling in there, and covering much ground that will be totally new for many.

In any work of this kind, much must be left to the judgement and imagination of the writer, and de Lange handles the details and conflicting storylines drawn from these sources with assurance, weaving them together to form a narrative that is both fresh yet also faintly familiar. Parts of the story do, indeed, form some part of the familiar tale—Musashi’s visit to Kyoto and the duels with the Yoshioka family, the visit to the spear wielding monks of Hozoin and the duel with Sasaki Kojiro—but it adds detail to these and fleshes out Musashi’s time after this in far greater detail than most accounts—I found the information on his time in the Akashi/Himeji region and his relationship with various small lords of the area particularly interesting, showing the degree of fame and influence he had obtained at a reasonably young age, and also lending ammunition to the opinion that he was fighting on the side of the Tokugawa forces both in 1600 and 1615 (although more direct evidence of this is also presented) as all these daimyo were firmly in the Tokugawa camp.

The story that emerges is, in many ways, more nuanced than previous tellings. We see Musashi as a man in some demand, a swordsman who has built a reputation, partly through his service on the battlefield and the connections he made in military campaigns, but who remains determined to retain his independence. Building on his connections, including his father, with whom he stayed close until the latter’s death, he became well-known and sought after, teaching and providing a variety of other services in the military line, including looking after the heir to Lord Ogasawara during the Shimabara campaign. He was well respected, that much is certain, and mixed with the high and mighty, but like a well-respected academic who refuses tenure, he never entered permanent service.

It is the part of the biographer to offer his/her own views and insights into the motivations of his subject, although it is understood that these are, to some extent, interpretation, not fact. In this case, de Lange was working from documents that provided little or no direct indication of Musashi’s inner life, and so he has had to apply his own interpretation more liberally than would be necessary for many other subjects. Some of these are quite insightful and provide a fresh and interesting take on the subject. He deals in some depth with Musashi’s relationship with his father, and speculates that Musashi’s refusal to become a feudal vassal owes much to the effect this state had on his father, who was ordered to execute one of his own students for a minor lapse in protocol. The subsequent sense of shame and guilt, he suggests, overshadowed the rest of his life, and engendered in Musashi a determination not to make himself beholden to any such authority himself.

At other times, although perhaps necessary for the sake of the narrative, the mixture of facts drawn from historical documents and feelings placed in the mind of the protagonist can be a little jarring, and momentarily calls into question the line between the two. Those familiar with the author’s previous books will be aware that there are plenty of contradictions between these (and other, later) accounts, and although the author has generally steered a good course between them, in this account he chooses those which suit the narrative, rather than arguing the case for his choice; if you are familiar with some of these other possibilities, their omission can, at times, seem rather glaring, but what the book sacrifices in terms of completeness, it gains in clarity. This is a minor point, however, and the well-referenced text generally clarifies the sources of most of the information.

Given the choice to rely so heavily on historical accounts. it is not surprising that the book sometimes feels a little sparse, despite its 159 pages of text and another 95 of back matter—it is not the author’s place to embroider the evidence too heavily—but that is a small price to pay for a book that lays out this hard-to-come-by information so clearly. It is certainly a valuable book, and one that has grown on me with subsequent readings. True, there are one or two places where I would question the author’s interpretation, but that does not lessen it’s value, and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in the area. 


Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms | San Francisco Book Review, May 2015

By Glen Dallas

Swords and Samurai go hand-in-hand when the topic is Japanese history. And, if you’re talking about the greatest and most influential swordsman, one name comes to mind: Miyamoto Musashi. Originator of a two-bladed fighting style that spawned hundreds of schools teaching his techniques, Musashi was a legend in his own time who has grown only more respected and revered over the centuries. But who was Musashi? How do you separate the man from the legend?

William De Lange accepted this monumental challenge, and after pouring over everything he could find–including translating previously unavailable works and sources–he has created the most in-depth study of Musashi yet attempted, one that portrays a man defined by his contradictions as much as by his actions.

Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms is an impressive work of scholarship, offering insanely detailed recounts of Musashi’s battles and movements, some so richly rendered that you’d swear De Lange was present at the time, taking notes. And, although at times he struggles to separate conflicting facts from the beloved fictions they’ve inspired, the author still manages to assemble a virtually complete timeline of Musashi’s life, rife with both victory and tragedy.


Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms | Irish Fighter Magazine, February 2015

By Paul J. O'Brian

This is perhaps one of the most vital and important texts on the life of Miyamoto Musashi. In many aspects the book was a revelation. As a student of Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu, (the art Musashi founded and developed) I try to read as much as I can about Musashi and have read many of major biographies - however many of these are as much a work of fiction and supposition as Eiji Yoshikawa's fictional masterpiece on Musashi - This is not the case in de Lange's work.

Unlike the many bio's I have read, William de Lange cites original Japanese sources such as the detailed military records kept by the various Japanese army divisions during the pivotal battles Musashi was involved in and is thus able to provide accurate information as to where Musashi was and what he did. This simply has not been done in any other biographies and as result the vast majority of publications make multiple errors and draw poor conclusions.

Perhaps the most damning example of this is that Musashi fought against the Tokugawa during the battle of Sekigahara. The majority of English language books and documentary's (including National Geographic, Discovery etc.) state that Musashi fought for the Western Army against the Tokugawa. Thus, he could not find a position in a samurai house after Tokugawa won and remained a wandering swordsman all his life. This is not fact however, this is nothing more than key plot point from Yoshikawa's fiction of Musashi to give the character drama. It has sadly become part of the accepted history.

By contrast de Lange asserts that Musashi was in fact not on the field of Sekigahara at all and was in fact, along with his father Muni part of the attacking force of Kuroda Yoshitaka, a supporter of Tokugawa Ieyasu ,on the plains of Ishigaki. Musashi continued to fight and distinguish himself in the taking of several castles.

This of course has a MAJOR impact on the every aspect of Musashi's life following - the fact that so many authors repeat fiction as thiugh it was fact has led to enormous errors's being made about Musahi's life.

Unlike many other author's, rather than basing his account of Musashi on fiction and commonly accepted knowledge, William de Lange has spent a lifetime translating the original Japanese accounts of Musashi's life as written by the students of his school and those samurai houses with whom he found employment. In addition to this, de Lang has also sought the original military records of the campaigns Musashi was involved with and other supporting documents to provide, the first accurate assessment of Musashi's life in the English language. He directly quotes these sources on many occasions (such as text describing Musashi's valour in the siege of Osaka castle).

William de Lang's, Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms is a MUST read for the martial artist or anyone with an interest in such an impactful figure as Musashi. The book is filled with detailed facts, supported and continuously cross referenced by multiple sources. No where have I seen such detailed information in the English language on Muni, Musashi's father who would perhaps have the strongest influence on Musahi's life, his battles, and his famous duels which serves to highlight and illuminate many aspects of Musashi's strategy.

This book is a must read and should be in every serious martial artists library.


Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms | Iaidō Journal, January 2015

By Kim Taylor

This book is the result of a decade of research by William de Lange into the life of Miyamoto Musashi. I hardly need to mention who Musashi was or his importance to modern students of the Japanese sword. Suffice to say that many highly esteemed modern instructors can be heard quoting from his writing on a regular basis. On a more personal note, I am a student of Musashi's sword art and so have a special interest in the man and his life. 

De Lange has published three prior books which are translations of key historical documents on Musashi's life, specifically the Bushudenraiki, the Bukoden and a third volume of collected source materials. In addition he has published Musashi, Fact and Fiction: A Guide to the Essential Questions. In the review of this book it would have been responsible of me to read the previous four to give a sense of where they fit together and to tell the reader of this review whether or not he might need read them himself, or if this volume is sufficient. I did not, but I speculate that the questions have been stated, the source material has been translated and this book is a summary of the findings. If a summary is sufficient, your book is here. If you want to obtain as much information as possible on the life of Musashi, I would suggest that all five volumes might be desirable.

De Lange points out in his introduction that Musashi did not write much about himself. Aside from a scant few lines at the front of the Gorin no sho this is true, and as it should be if I read the character of Musashi correctly. It seems to me that Musashi was far more interested in his art and his way of living than he was in his own biography. One has only to read his extant, and often-translated writings to understand that he cared little for the details of his "outside" life, and much for his art. His writings were also aimed at his personal students and it would be assumed that they knew as much about his personal life as he wished them to know. In this book, de Lange has taken it upon himself to use the numerous external sources to give us the biography that Musashi neglected. Despite some impressions to the contrary, this biographical material does seem to exist.

The author states that he did the three books of translation first, before setting out to write this book which contains the biography as well as a translation of the Kokura hibun, a stone monument erected in 1654 by Musashi's son Iori, nine years after Musashi's death. This is combined with other early records including the Kaijo Monogatari which details the fight between Musashi and Muso Gunnosuke. (This episode was especially interesting to me as I study Muso's jodo as well as Musashi's sword.) The biography and translation is followed by lists of provinces, historical periods, sword schools, domains and daimyo visited by Musashi, battles and seiges, lineage charts of Musashi's sword schools, a list of websites, a glossary and a lengthy series of end notes, finishing with a bibliograhy and index. In all the extra material must cover a third of the book and is placed out of the way of the main work.

Assuming the academic writing is contained in the earlier books, de Lange has told a lovely story here by moving the academia to the end notes and giving us a familiar rendering in the style of a popular biography complete with internal dialogue and motivational assumptions which make the book anything but a dry academic listing of extant fact. In short, it is a very easy and enjoyable read and should be on the "young adult" list for any kid seriously interested in the martial arts.

Very interesting to me was the analysis of Musashi's early training. Swordsmen don't just spring forth fully skilled and yet it would seem that this is a common assumption about Musashi. His sword art did come from specific roots and de Lange does a good job of explaining them here. 

Lord knows I'm not a professional historian, I have no Japanese and I'm sure that there are those who will find some fault with the current volume but I see no reason not to respect de Lange's research as the best we have at the moment. Which is all one can ever ask of history. 

Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms is highly recommended to my students of Niten Ichiryu, and to anyone who is interested in the biography of this most interesting fellow who has inspired generations of swordsmen and manga fans alike. 


The Real Musashi: The Bukōden | Ichijōji Blogspot, April 2013

By Chris Hellman

I have been sitting on this book, waiting for the time to give it the review it deserves, and even so, I will have to skimp a little. It is the second in the series by William Lange, the first being The Bushu Denraiki, which I reviewed here. A complementary volume, "Miyamoto Musashi: a life in arms" which looks to go into the life of Musashi in more depth, from a variety of original sources is due out soon, so perhaps this is timely. Like The Bushu Denraiki, this volume consists of a translation of one of the main source documents concerned with the life of Miyamoto Musashi, together with copious notes and explanations.

Both the Bushu Denraiki (1727) and the Bukoden (1755) were later rewritten ­– as the Heiho Senshi Denki (1782) and the Nitenki (1776) respectively, by a former pupil (in the case of the former) and the son (for the latter) of the original authors. It is these 2nd generation works that tended to be drawn on by later generations of writers, especially the Nitenki. Both the Bushu Denraiki and the Bukoden were compiled from handed-down accounts of those who had known or had contact with Musashi, and thus provide a fascinating picture that goes beyond the well known anecdotes that many of us are already familiar with. Both of them have strong connections with the followers of Musashi’s style of swordsmanship, and although they are not technical works, they are particularly recommended for those who are studying Niten Ichi-ryu, as examples of historical documents relating to their study.

The Bukoden was written by Toyoda Masanaga, who was a senior retainer of the Nagaoka (Matsui) family, who were vassals of the Hosokawa, an important daimyo family based in Kumamoto and with whom Musashi spent the last years of his life as a guest. The Nagaoka family had direct dealings with Musashi both during his early years (as sponsor for his duel with Sasaki Kojiro) and later on, and were assigned to care for him in the very last months of his life. To this day the Matsui Collection has some very impressive examples of Musashi’s artwork...as well as much else, and Toyoda Masanaga was fencing instructor to the family in Nito Ichi Ryu, Musashi’s style.

Given that he was based in Kumamoto, Masanaga’s account has more detail on the later period of Musashi’s life, complementing the Bushu Denraiki (which tends to be stronger on the earlier period), and Masanaga had access to his father’s collection of oral traditions, writings, letters and artwork. His father had also been sword instructor to the Nagaoka and had compiled his own technical treatise many years earlier.

Much of the content of The Bukoden will be more familiar to readers than was the case with the Bushu Denraiki, and there are few surprises in the general outline it gives of Musahi’s life. The anecdotes it includes are interesting, and several were completely new to me. One interesting story told how Lord Hosokawa’s attendants had, at the instigation of their lord, planned to slam a pair of sliding doors on Musashi as he bowed prior to entering the anteroom to the lord’s chambers. Musashi had placed his fan in the grooves the doors ran in and so the doors were jammed open, earning Lord Hosokawa’s praise. The same story is also told of Araki Murashige, who had earned the wrath of Oda Nobunaga, and it is possible this same story was handed down and the names changed. In this version, it was planned as a trick or a test, but in the Araki version, the intent is murderous. As well as the nature of the attack and the response, there is another connection between the two,– Musashi’s father appears to have had a close connection with the founder of the Araki Ryu (Araki Murashige’s father), and it may even be that this precaution was passed down within Musashi’s father’s teachings.

Where de Lange shines is the detail he puts into the background notes. This is a valuable resource especially where it fleshes out minor characters referred to in the text. However, the nature of this kind of material can make it somewhat hard going, and this is not helped when details are repeated or material is included which has only a passing relevance to the text (relating to the Bushu Denraiki, for example) and I think some tighter editing might have been helpful here. The same goes for the appendices, which include details which seem quite unrelated to the text, in fact.

But these are minor quibbles, and this book is a valuable addition to the field. If you want to know where all those stories of Musashi came from, this is one of the primary sources, and as such, should be on the reading list for all serious Musashi aficionados.


The Real Musashi: The Bushū denraiki | Ichijōji Blogspot, January 2011

By Chris Hellman

This was my winter reading - well a bit of it, anyway.

The commonly told of Miyamoto Musashi is a much patched version taken from a variety of sources of varying reliability, stitched together in what has become a familiar pattern, including large doses of speculation and outright fiction. Of course, much of the fiction comes from Yoshikawa Eiji's novel, which many of the subsequent movie and TV versions were based on. His version, which drew heavily from previous versions and documents, some of which contained greater or lesser amounts of reliable historical information, has become a kind of de facto story of Musashi's life.

It was only when reading through William de Lange's new(ish) translation of the Bushu Denraiki, one of these source documents, that I realised how little detail there is on these documents in English, even when you include William Wilson's 'The Lone Swordsman' and Kenji Tokitsu's 'Miyamoto Musashi: his life and writings'. While Wilson used a wide variety of sources, he steers clear of discussing them individually, and while Tokitsu is good on Musashi's own writings (and lots else besides), he gives less information on sources about Musashi's life.

De Lange is particularly good on just this sort of thing, laying the historical context out clearly and providing extensive notes and background on the major figures involved (albeit tangentially, in some cases) in Musashi's life. He gives a valuable explanation of the relationships between these major sources, which goes a long way to helping us understand the roots of the legend.

The source documents which form the basis of what we know about Musashi's life fall into two parallel streams: the Bushu Denraiki (1727) itself, written by a 4th generation successor to the Niten Ichi-ryu, Tachibana Minehira, and the Hyoho (sometimes written as Heiho) Senshi Denki (1782) which was written by a 'grand-student' of Minehira's, who had left Fukuoka and settled in Harima, one Niwa Nobuhide, and based his account on what he could remember of  Minehira's original, embroidering where necessary to fill in the gaps. This stream of knowledge was Kyushu based, and was connected with the Kuroda clan, with whom Musashi had strong connections early in his career.

The other stream was connected with the Hosokawa family, with whom Musashi was close to in his later life. Tokitsu also mention this, (though he gives different readings of the names, as well as different dates). According to de Lange, the Bukoden (1755) was compiled by Toyoda Masanaga, then rewritten in an updated and clearer form by his son, Toyoda Masashige (1776) as the Nitenki (which is perhaps the source most commonly quoted from).

In addition, there is the Kokura Hibun, which is not a document as such, but a stone monument set up by Musashi's adopted son Iori in 1654. This is the earliest account of Musashi's life, and although it is generally considered accurate, it must be considered a partisan account. (There are other, contemporary, references to Musashi, but not accounts of his life).

The book The Real Musashi: Origins of a Legend - the Bushu Denraiki is valuable as being one of the earliest and purest of the accounts of Musashi's life. There are many details that will probably be unfamiliar to Musashi fans, even ones who are fairly well-read - it gives details of Musashi's involvement in a siege in Kyushu at the time of Sekigahara, rather than fighting in that battle, as well as an alternative, and quite interesting, account of the duel on Ganryujima. As the de Lange admits, although some of the stories are almost certainly untrue, there is also much that appears factual, some of which has also been corroborated by other sources - in any case, the whole combines to give a fresh and vivid impression of the master swordsman, written by someone who was concerned to give as accurate a portrait as he could, based on the stories and recollections of his own masters.

This is a nice book — it is well written and presented, with the original text and the accompanying notes clearly differentiated by the use of different fonts. It is limited in  its scope, but purposely so, which gives it a nice compactness. Although I have one or two minor quibbles, they are not really worth detailing here, but as they are particularly germane to this blog I will just mention two.... the place where Musashi fought the Yoshioka's in his final 'duel' with them, is sagarimatsu not Kudarimatsu, and the Ichijo Temple (Ichijoji) was not still standing in Musashi's day, as de Lange has it.

Overall, however, de Lange has a firm and confident hand with both the translation and the notes. (It is worth saying, however, that the notes take up as much or more space than the translation, which is not particularly long). It is certainly worth reading if you are interested in Musashi, but it is a rather specialised volume, and is probably best digested after reading some of the broader based works, such as the two mentioned above, to get a more balanced perspective. It is also a touch pricey for its size, at least the imported version was. I noticed that de Lange's accompanying volume, The accompanying volume, The Bukoden, is due out this spring, and it seems de Lange also plans a biography of Musashi. I think I will probably be getting it.

By the way, in case you were wondering, the 'Bushu' in the title Bushu Denraiki, is an early pronunciation of Musashi. The title means "The Recorded Transmissions of Musashi".


The Real Musashi: The Bushū denraiki | Amazon, July 2010

By Jim Storey  

It is a fact that Musashi dominates any discussion about famous swordsmen in Japan...and this is true regardless of sources, Japanese or otherwise. Why the fascination with this guy? After all, there have been numerous great swordsmen in Japanese history, some with perhaps even more distinguished battle experience than Musashi himself (such as Tsukahara Bokuden, whose "musha shugyo" (i.e., pilgrimage to test one's skills) was legendary and who (supposedly) ended up killing over 200 opponents in his lifetime, and dying of natural causes (as did Musashi).

Be that as it may, one would expect Musashi's name (his given name was actually Bennosuke) to be mentioned prominently among specialists in various ryuha (traditional sword schools), as he certainly carved a niche for himself both because of his sword prowess and his later artistic accomplishments, but to explain his grip over the public's imagination even today...? Well, that's another story. It's an interesting quirk of fate.

Although there were various artistic depictions of Musashi and even highly legendary heroic dramas about his exploits produced prior to the 1900s, one can probably point to a few more recent factors responsible for his popularity in Japan, and elsewhere, today. First and foremost is undoubtedly the famous serialization of Musashi's life by historical novelist Eiji Yoshikawa prior to World War II, which ended up as a best-selling novel. Yoshikawa loosely based his serialization on some (emphasis on "some") historical events of Musashi's life, weaved together with other fanciful elements (such as a fictional romance) to produce a colorful -if somewhat historically haphazard - tale of Musashi's exploits which captured the imagination of the Japanese public. It has even been called Japan's Gone with the Wind. The result afterward was a flurry of movies, short stories, and even comic books hailing Musashi as the prototypical Japanese warrior hero. And this capturing of the imagination didn't end with Japan- after an English translation of the novel was published by Kodansha, the outstanding literary flavor of the original was now available to the English-speaking world and also captured the imagination of folks attracted to Japan's warrior tradition. A second factor that undoubtedly played a part in Musashi's current popularity was the three-part movie trilogy by Hiroshi Inagaki, starring the great Toshiro Mifune as Musashi. Based on Yoshikawa's novel above, the Samurai trilogy served to accomplish in theatre form what the serialization did earlier in print form- i.e., cement Musashi forever into Japan's collective psyche as the stereotypical Japanese counter-cultural hero, rejecting conventional life and wandering out alone, demanding of himself an austere self-discipline to endure hardships, live simply, train unceasingly, and exert a laser-like focus on discovering the "essence of strategy (heiho)". Perhaps it is precisely this rugged individualism that attracts Japanese so much to Musashi, since the traditional culture itself tends to discourage individualism and places much importance on "being loyal to the team". In Musashi, then, many Japanese perhaps find inspiration in a character who dared to buck the prevailing social norms, strike out on his own, and discover himself outside social conventions.

Enter the present book. The Bushu Denraiki is the earliest record in existence of Musashi's life. Needless to say, that in itself makes it an extraordinarily important piece of source material. Written in 1727 by the 5th-generation master of Musashi's Niten-Ichi school of swordsmanship, Tachibana Minehira (aka Tanji Hokin), the date places the book only two generations away from men who had known Musashi when he was still alive...in total, three generations of swordsmen away from Musashi himself. (Don't get overly excited about that yet, however — I'll explain later why caution is still in order). At any rate, the Bushu Denraiki sheds valuable new light on Musashi's early childhood, his dysfunctional relationship with his father, some early battle experiences, some famous encounters such as his battles with the Yoshioka clan and his famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro on Ganryu Island, and also the tragic death of an illegitimate daughter later in life.

Some observations in the Bushu Denraiki provide details that differ from typical recountings in the popular Musashi literature, hence are valuable to see what the earliest sources have to say. For instance, take the famous Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. This momentous battle served to end prior centuries of civil strife when Tokugawa Ieyasu succeeded in crushing opposing warlords and unifying the country. Most popular accounts have Musashi himself fighting on the losing (Western) side, which makes for colorful speculations about Musashi's later behavior and avoidance of society. Probably these popular accounts took their clue from Yoshikawa's novel about Musashi, where he is depicted as being on the losing side. However, there is no real historical evidence for this other than a few vague lines about Sekigahara in another early reference (the Bukoden) which are unclear... (by the way, author de Lange has also recently translated the Bukoden, just out for publication as of this writing...another very early source that will be eagerly awaited by fans of feudal Japanese culture). The Bushu Denraiki, on the other hand, is very clear that Musashi was actually elsewhere when the Battle of Sekigahara was occurring, joining his lord Kuroda Toshitaka in another battle on the southern island of Kyushu. Author de Lange claims this is also confirmed by recent records on the Kuroda estate.

Other examples could be mentioned, such as Musashi's famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro on the island of Funajima (also called "Ganryu" island after the famous duel). The Bushu Denraiki mentions many interesting remarks about this duel, such as Musashi being the first to arrive on the island, contrary to descriptions in other accounts such as in the Bukoden and Niten-Ki (not to mention the Yoshikawa novel and various movie depictions), plus the presence of many retainers armed with long lances from the Hosokawa Clan awaiting the outcome of the duel, who were sympathetic to Musashi. The account even mentions Kojiro probably feeling like he was outnumbered and even if he were victorious, he would not be able to escape afterwards- a pretty far cry from popular depictions of Musashi sailing over as a solitary figure, late to boot, and fighting completely alone.

The account here of the duel, and author de Lange's own commentary concerning Kojiro's rather legendary "water-mill" sword technique (mizukuruma), deserves some analysis from present-day practitioners of Musashi's Niten-Ichi school (author de Lange doesn't seem to be a practitioner). Evidently Kojiro, according to the account in the book, tripped while jumping out of the boat and fell on his knees, to the amusement of onlookers, and angrily went up to the castle's keeper and demanded, "what right do you have to be here?" While he was arguing, Musashi approached him from the rear yelling out, "I'm over here!" Kojiro then turned and slashed upward left and right, according to this account, using the water-mill technique to attack to the rear. I think kendoka and iaido practitioners will have fun discussing the likelihood of events as depicted, not to mention curious problems like why a supposedly seasoned fighter like Kojiro would not scout around and turned his back on a dangerous opponent while arguing with somebody else. Doesn't make much sense to me...

At any rate, the duel itself has been questioned as to whether or not it actually occurred, and indeed, the figure Sasaki Kojiro himself has little historical data, other than through these chronicles written decades later (he is not mentioned in Musashi's own GoRin no Sho, which is perhaps curious, given the later emphasis on this duel). The lack of data on Kojiro, and differing details on the duel itself in various sources, will no doubt surprise those who automatically assume the duel took place exactly as depicted in the novel or the movie with Toshiro Mifune. Well-known martial-arts writer Dave Lowry (who himself is a practitioner of the Yagyu school of swordsmanship), for instance, tells in an article of a nation-wide search conducted by a Japanese newspaper several years before World War II, and no markers of Kojiro's place of birth or death have ever been found. Also troubling in establishing Kojiro's history is his supposed lineage in the Kanemaki Ryu, although his name does not appear in the scrolls or record books of that ryu. The conclusion should probably be here that it is not possible to be very exact on the details surrounding Kojiro, nor his epic battle with Musashi. If indeed this duel took place (and it certainly may have), the exact details remain somewhat shrouded in mystery.

Confusion about historical accuracy concerning details of Musashi's life still remains. A huge factor in this problem is not only the easy acceptance of events that were highly romanticized in famous novels and movies about Musashi, but also the prevalence of various opinions about Musashi floating around Japan, and elsewhere, which do not always exhibit much critical scrutiny. It is somewhat fashionable in some circles to downplay Musashi's reputed ability with a sword, for instance, even though his reputation as a fighter seems to have been highly regarded down through the centuries in Japan among various ryuha. The great Yamaoka Tesshu, for instance, supposedly remarked he had finally reached a level of swordsmenship where "not even Musashi himself could beat me". If there is any weight to some of these anecdotal reports, they do serve to indicate Musashi's ability as a fighter was held in high esteem. The present-day headmaster of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Risuke Otake, remarks in his "Deity and the Sword" series that there is little doubt Musashi reached extraordinary heights as a swordsman, but Otake goes on to criticize Musashi with a common Japanese complaint- he was pretty much a single-minded individual, without regard for society nor family nor any of the concerns of ordinary people. To me, this criticism seems more germane than criticizing Musashi's sword ability- for in truth, there is little in Musashi's life that looks "normal", per se. His circumstances were a unique (maybe a better word is "severe") path that not many could be expected to follow.

The late, great Donn Draeger (well-known martial arts expert and writer, who by the way was one of the very few Westerners initiated into the Katori Shinto-ryu above) is perhaps a good example of how even experts can succumb to prevailing ad-hoc opinions typically floating around martial arts circles. When asked his opinion of Musashi by friend and fellow-collaborator Robert W. Smith (himself a well-known martial arts author and practitioner), Draeger replied with an interesting letter back to Smith. In it Draeger made several curious statements, such as most of what is credited as written by Musashi, such as the Gorin no sho, is fiction. That's right, Musashi is wrongly accredited with writing his autobiography, according to Draeger, who claims it is probably a later "recollection" of Musashi's sayings, plus whatever embellishments the writers wished to add...much like the Bible, or the Koran. Although this speculation is certainly peppery, many historians probably won't follow Draeger here. For one thing, although no original version of the Book of Five Rings exists today, these early chroniclers such as Minehira were familiar with it and had it in their possession, as early lineage-holders in the Ryu. The Bushu Denraiki even quotes out of the "Earth" scroll. Draeger goes on to make other startling claims, such as artifacts supposedly made by Musashi, such as the famous sword guard (tsuba), probably "wasn't his". Draeger regards only the famous painting of the shrike on a high branch as possibly being legitimate- a peppery assessment that no doubt will surprise collectors and historians in Japan. Dave Lowry, the widely-read author mentioned earlier, also had some interesting speculations about Musashi in various articles, repeating an oft-seen remark that there is no evidence Musashi ever used two swords in actual combat (i.e., vs. merely as a training tool). This becomes a rather moot point concerning Musashi's early duels, since we have almost no data on any of them and therefore cannot come to an informed judgement one way or another...however, as these early chronicles show, in later life it wasn't uncommon for Musashi to meet challenges armed with only two wooden practice-swords (bokuto). And since opponents were sometimes injured or killed in these challenge matches, I don't think they should be thought of as merely "training sessions". At any rate, it is probably true Musashi developed the two-sword techniques a bit later in life, perhaps around the time of a duel with Miyake Gumbei, according to some reports.

One wonders, at any rate, how much some of these opinions would be revised if Western authors had in their possession some of these early works in English translation at the time. Peppery opinions abound about legendary martial arts figures, and basically all that results is folks tend to add to the confusion. And you, dear reader, can surely recall that well-known proverb about opinions and a certain part of the anatomy...

Regarding historical accuracy, even these early chronicles from the 1700s remain uncertain on many recollections about Musashi, and the fact they were written decades after Musashi's own life, while impressive in one sense, is problematic in another sense. Our Bushu Denraiki, for instance, in a telling comment admits, "it is lamentable that no details about the sixty or more contests (mentioned in the Gorin no Sho) have been passed down by word of mouth. Indeed, out of a hundred, only one or two have been recorded." Aye, this is indeed lamentable...we simply have little to go on regarding all the duels mentioned in the Five Rings, other than a mere passing comment by Musashi himself... Author De Lange mentions other problems in this regard, stating that in all these early (1700s) resources, many accounts are given which simply could not have taken place, at least as the authors described... So while these early works remain an invaluable source of early information about Musashi, one should also realize the authors themselves can be a bit hazy on various details. Such is the nature of oral tradition, even a few decades after the fact.

Be that as it may, works like The Bushu Denraiki are obviously important biographical material, simply because they are the closest actual sources we have to Musashi himself. William de Lange deserves much credit for translating this work and thus making it available. It shouldn't need saying that anyone interested in Japan's feudal warrior history should make these translations a part of their collection.


The Real Musashi: The Bushū denraiki | Amazon, April 2010

By Dr. A Sahal

A wonderfully accessible book. It consists of the first English translation of the Bushu Denraiki, an account of Musashi's life written some 70 years after his death by a practitioner of his sword school, and devout follower of his teachings, Tachibana Sendayu Minehira, but who never actually met the great Japanese swordsman, artist and follower of Zen ideals. The Bushu Denraiki is actually quite short but at the end of each 'chapter' (which this is conveniently split up into by the De Lange unlike the original) there is an extensive explanation and discussion of what was written which lucidly illuminates what is sometime obscured. De Lange helpfully points out inconsistencies or exaggerations that may have arisen due to Minehira's devotion to the memory and life of Musashi but I do wonder if anything, written 70 years after a persons death, without direct contact with the subject can be believed verbatim. De Lange seems to emphasise that one can, but I'm not so sure!

Anyway, a brilliant book, brilliantly translated and annotated (meaning explained rather than pictures!) and a must for the bookshelf of every Japanese swordsman and Musashi enthusiast. I unreservedly recommend this book.


The Real Musashi: The Bushū denraiki | Kendō World, February 2010

By Jeff Broderick

Miyamoto Musashi is a legendary figure, well known to nearly every martial artist, but particularly to those of us who study Japanese sword arts. He is considered by many to have been the greatest swordsman of his day; he is certainly the most famous swordsman in Japanese history, having been made the subject of dozens of folktales, puppet plays (bunraku), novels, movies, television dramas, comic book adaptations, and even video games. The story of his life, however, began to get distorted not long after his death, as folktales and woodblock prints started to depict him battling other legendary swordsmen that he could never have encountered (such as Tsukahara Bokuden, who died before Musashi was born) and even slaying giant monsters.

The most popular account of Musashi’s life was the serialized novel Miyamoto Musashi written by Yoshikawa Eiji, and published in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper starting in 1935. Although based somewhat on fact, the novel invents a number of characters and dramatic sub-plots. Subsequent films, television dramas, and comic adaptations have largely followed Yoshikawa’s fictionalized tale, and the image of Musashi that exists in the minds of most people, both in Japan and abroad, is the one painted by Yoshikawa’s rather fanciful brush.

The actual facts of Musashi’s life, however, are every bit as gripping as the fiction. Gifted with great martial skills and an apparent total lack of fear from an early age, Musashi killed his first opponent in a duel at age thirteen, and as a teenager travelled across Japan engaging in martial contests; according to most accounts, including his own, he never lost a duel. Although it is clear that he received some amount of martial training from his father, an exceptional swordsman, Musashi largely taught himself. He fought highly esteemed opponents from numerous well-regarded ryuha, and established at least three separate schools of swordsmanship at different periods in his life (the Musashi-ryū, the Enmei- ryū, and the Niten Ichi-ryū) and influenced the creation of others. By the time he reached the ripe old age of thirty (the life expectancy in the early Edo period) he had fought sixty times and had never known defeat.

The reliable historical records concerning Musashi’s life are not numerous, and in particular, the ones available in English are extremely scant. These have been limited to the various translations of Musashi’s famous Gorin no Sho, commonly called “The Book of Five Rings” – the distillation of his thoughts on combat, written for the benefit of his direct students in the Niten Ichi-ryū. Many of these translations have been well-annotated, and include smatterings of information from other accounts of Musashi’s life, such as the Niten-ki, a collection of the reminiscences of Musashi’s students, compiled after the master’s death. The Niten-ki is the most well-known second-hand story of Musashi’s life, and frustratingly remains unavailable in English. The publication of Origins of a Legend: The Real Musashi: The Bushu Denraiki therefore, is a real cause for celebration for anyone interested in the truth of Musashi’s life. William De Lange has translated and added commentary on the Bushū Denraiki, which he convincingly argues is the most reliable of the four main biographies made by direct students in Musashi’s Niten Ichi-ryū tradition of swordsmanship.

Written in 1727 by Tachibana Minehira, who later took the Buddhist name of Tanji Hōkin, the Bushū Denraiki is based on the reminiscences of the third and fourth headmasters of the Niten Ichi-ryū. Hōkin himself became the fifth headmaster of one of the many lineages. The Bushū Denraiki clarifies a number of popular misconceptions about Musashi’s exploits. For example, while the novelist Yoshikawa placed the duel with Sasaki Kojirō towards the end of Musashi’s duelling career because of its obvious dramatic value, the actual fight took place before Musashi’s feud with the Yoshioka family of Kyoto. Nor did Musashi escape the fight unscathed. According to De Lange’s translation:

"Picking up Kojiro’s sword, he [Musashi, going by his youthful name Bennosuke] jumped aboard and rowed back across the water. He had held his hakama aloft to show to the gathered crowd that it was cut, but in the fierceness of the encounter no one had seen that he had been hit in the neck. And while it had only been the flat side of Kojiro’s blade, due to the force of the blow, blood was oozing out of the wound so that Bennosuke pulled up the collar of his undergarment to hide the wound."

The book is full of interesting revelations about Musashi, and includes many lively anecdotes, which depict Musashi as somewhere between blood-crazed killer, and transcendental sword-saint. Equally valuable is De Lange’s well-researched commentary, which is generally excellent. At times, however, it seems as though the author is jumping to conclusions. For example, he provides a detailed theory about the nature of Sasaki Kojirō’s mizu-kuruma, or “water mill” technique. What this explanation is based on is anyone’s guess, but those of us who study iaido, for example, know the dangers of reverse-engineering a technique based on the name alone. (“Turning over fish scales” or “One step of the tiger” anyone?) If it is based on an analysis of Sasaki’s Gan-ryū sword techniques, it behoves De Lange to say so. Overall, however, the book is excellent. The translation is readable and the additional information is very welcome. What is really remarkable about this translation of the Bushū Denraiki, however, is how long it took to reach its English language readership. Musashi is virtually the patron saint of swordsmanship; to really stretch an analogy, it almost feels as if a new book of the Bible were only now being translated from the ancient Greek and published in 2010. Which in turn demands the question: When can we expect full translations of the remaining three chronicles: the Niten-ki, the Bukōden, and the Heihō Senshi Denki? Mr. De Lange has his work cut out for him, and I can envision a future edition which combines all four accounts into one single volume.

In conclusion, this is one of those rare books on the martial arts that really deserves the title “Must-read”. Not only does it shed much-needed light on the facts of Musashi’s life, but it brings us that much closer to getting a picture of the man behind the legend — a man who, at the end of the day, remains frustratingly distant. Perhaps my favourite quote from the Bushū Denraiki comes from one of Musashi’s students, a man named Ogawa Gondayu Rōshin, who at the end of yet another incredible tale of the master, explains wistfully, “Yet, however much I talk, it is nigh on impossible to make people understand what Musashi was really like.”


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