Master swordsman and accomplished painter


Master swordsman and painter of the Edo period (1600-1868), also known as Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke, Shinmen Musashi-no-Kami Fujiwara no Genshin (新免武蔵守藤原玄信), and under his artistic name Niten.

Miyamoto Musashi (宮本武蔵 1584-1645), born in either Mimasaka (modern-day Okayama Prefecture) or Harima (Hyōgo Prefecture), was one of the many samurai whose lords had fought on the losing side in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. Musashi thus became a ronin, a masterless samurai. He developed a sword-style of fencing called nitōryū or Hyōhō Niten Ichi-ryū, which employed both the katana (刀, with a blade length of 60 to 70 cm) and the wakizashi (脇差, 30 to 60 cm in length). According to his accounts, Musashi triumphed in over sixty sword fights during his extensive travels all over the Japanese archipelago.

In 1637, he fought for the Tokugawa shogunate in the Shimabara Rebellion (島原の乱 Shimabara no ran), a revolt of mostly Catholic peasants. In 1640, he became an instructor in swordsmanship for the Hosokawa (細川) clan in Kumamoto. He penned a classic work on swordsmanship entitled Gorin no sho (五輪書, The Book of Five Rings), which is said to have been written in a mountain cave in 1643 and transmitted to a disciple on his deathbed. It is divided into five chapters, earth, water, fire, wind, and the void, corresponding to the five elements of the Buddhist universe. Each section treats one aspect of the art: the water section deals with dress, posture, footwork, and other technical details, while the fire section expands on Musashi’s views on the spirit of swordsmanship.

Musashi was also a highly accomplished suibokoka (水墨画) painter, a form of ink wash painting, as well as a calligrapher. His paintings of eagles, shrikes, Hotei (布袋, one of the Seven Deities of Good Fortune), and Bodhidharma are characterised by bold brushwork, reflecting Musashi’s training in Zen Buddhism. His most famous work is “The Shrike Perched in a Dead Tree” (古木明確図 Koboku meikakuzu) and “Wild Geese Among Reeds” (魯山図 Rozanzu).

Musashi’s exploits have been celebrated in popular literature, such as in a kabuki play by Tsuruya Namboku, in books like Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel Miyamoto Musashi, as well as in countless manga and computer games.

References

  • Miyamoto, Musashi; The Complete Book of Five Rings, Shambhala 2010
  • Tokitsu, Kenji; Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings, Weatherhill 2006
  • Wilson, William Scott; The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi, Shambhala 2013 (repr.)