Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Miyamoto Musashi's squirrel – samurai wordplay

Musashi's Squirrel and Grapes (cut off slightly on the right)

The bushi were a cultured lot – some of them, anyway – and Japan was a cultured society. Nowadays, when we look at the art of great civilisations, we tend to value it for its beauty – indeed, that is one of the things that attracts us to art in many of its forms. However, there is a lot more to art than that (as a cursory glance at any display of contemporary art will tell us) – and there always was. 

As a form of communication, art has messages and meanings beyond the aesthetic. Its value as a didactic and political tool was well understood by the rich and powerful of feudal Japan. Decorative schemes in castles, temples and residences contained subtle and not so subtle messages that their audiences were practiced in reading. They were messages about power, morals, aspiration – the usual things. The artists might also include details pointing to their lineage, linking to well-known works, thus emphasising the connection with more famous predecessors. (This was happening in the Kano school, where the sidelined Kyoto branch thought it necessary to point out that they were just as much, if not more, worthy successorsto the Kano traditionthan the politically favoured blood descendants of the founder who ran the Edo branch – their paintings were also beautiful, as you can see here). Other works of art operated on a smaller scale, with more personal messages for the satisfaction of the careful viewer.

Which brings us on to an often overlooked painting byMiyamoto Musashi: Squirrel and Grapes

As a subject, it was an auspicious one, symbolising abundance and fertility: grapes are obvious images of plently, while squirrels were seen as being like mice which were known for having large numbers of offspring. Perhaps not an obvious choice for Musashi, although it could be argued that it reflects a feeling of personal well-being and satisfaction with his position in the world. Indeed, at this stage, relatively late in his life, he was a guest of the powerful and cultured Hosokawa family in Kumamoto, far from the reverses he may have suffered in trying to establish himself in the capital. However, there is more to it than that.

A typical depiction of the squirrel and grapes theme on sword mountings

The title was also understood as a play on words: the word for grapes (budo) is a homophone for budo(martial ways), while squirrel (risu) is similar to rissuru, which means something like to dedicate or discipline oneself. Thus the picture is a pun that refers to discipline in the martial arts. It is in this connection that the motif was utilised by bushi as decoration in sword mountings and the like.  

Musashi’s treatment of the theme is distinctive. Like his more well-known paintings of birds, this one emphasises poise – the squirrel balances on the vine, it’s eyes sharp, and the tail sweeping up as it prepares to hop onto the next branch or reach out for the grapes below. This sense of dynamism is portrayed through the broad curves of the tail and the body, with the more precise details of the face and claws suggesting the focus and contained energy of a body about to burst into motion.  

Musashi’s work is notable for his sparing yet powerful use of dark ink to focus and control the composition, keeping the dynamism of the subject through rough but fluent brushwork. It was a style that stemmed from Muqi and Liang Kai, both 13thcentury Chinese monk painters whose works were more admired in Japan than in their native China. Musashi’s artistic education is a matter for speculation, but his style and subject matter suggest he had seen some of these works as well as those of his older contemporaries, Kaiho Yusho and Hasegawa Tohaku, who were both influenced by these artists. Kaiho Yusho and Hasegawa Tohaku were based in Kyoto for much of their careers, and famous works by the two aforementioned Chinese painters were also held in temples in that city. 
The 6th Patriarch Chopping Wood by Liang Kai
This work is now in the Tokyo National Museum, but it is quite possible
Musashi had access to it at some time. (Lang Kai's paintings suffer greatly from
reproduction - you cannot really appreciate the subtlety in reproductions).

Crows by Kaiho Yusho. Yo can still get some idea of the power of this piece even though the reproduction is less than perfect.

Of course, early in his career Musashi spent some time in Kyoto, but what his position was is far from certain. At some time he completed some fine paintings for Toji Temple, which maintains he lived there for a period of three years or so after his duels with the Yoshioka swordsmen, and also suggests that he studied with Kaiho Yusho during this time, but this is far from certain. (The priest Takuan, who was linked to Musashi in the famous novel by Yoshikawa Eiji, was head of a sub-temple at the Daitoku-ji complex where Tohaku saw a triptych by Muqi that had a major influence on his style. Although there seems to be no firm evidence to back it up, the temple also claims a connection with Musashi – perhaps that is where Yoshikawa got the idea about Takuan being Musashi’s mentor.)

Wherever he developed his skill with the brush, it is difficult not to see in his works touches of his own experience, and to think that they express something of what was important to him in life.

Musashi often chose animals and birds for his subjects, and among those, it was the small and everyday varieties that he focused on. That he would choose these as subjects, in some cases strongly suggesting connections with aspects of his heiho– his martial art – rather than the powerful, regal creatures that we might normally associate with the arts of war, certainly says something about the man.

A close-up showing the squirrel and one of the well-nibbled bunches of grapes.

Can we read anything else into this inquisitive squirrel? I think we can. If we look carefully, we can see the grapes are mostly gone. Is it late in the season or has another squirrel been here already? Whatever the reason, this one seems unphased – it continues, as full of enthusiasm as ever. Is this the message then – the importance of continued discipline, even though many of the obvious rewards have gone? It would be in keeping with Musashi’s writings. But more than that, given the way the painting pulses with life, it suggests there is an enthusiasm, almost a joy in this. I would like to think that this, too, was part of his message.

Friday, 10 April 2020

When the going gets tough... a kiai shugyo

Kogan Gengei - Zen monk, student of Hakuin.
A bull fears nothing, and when he sits, he really sits; when he moves, he really movesthe ideal behavior of a Zen adept. A bull additionally stands for the mind; uncontrollably wild at first but capable of being tamed, harnessed, and eventually set free to roam contentedly wherever it pleases. 

John Stevens 'The Appreciation of Zen Art'

Some time ago I wrote about the hard training methods that developed in or were promulgated from the Meiji period (1868- ) onwards. Whether these were an authentic continuation or re-creation of the experience of bugeisha in the past is a moot point. The information I could find pointed to a strong influence from sources outside the martial tradition. 

One of the traditions I described, popularised by the Ichikukai (One-nine Society) and labelled in a general way as misogi, seems to have developed from a Shinto base and developed a fierce, Zen inspired overlay (with nods to the teaching style of Yamaoka Tesshu), involved continuous ringing of a hand bell while chanting, and which lasted for a period of several days. Tohei Koichi, the famous aikido teacher engaged in this training.

A variant, or at least, a very similar style of training is described by veteran budo practitioner Roald Knutsen in his book Rediscovering Budo from a Swordsman’s Perspective. Knutsen, whose personal experience tends to pre-date many of the current crop of writers on these kinds of things, sees this kind of training relating to Shingon mikkyo, and suggests connections through to the roots of bugei, likely renewed by individual practitioners in their personal travels and connections with esoteric teachings such as those of the yamabushi.

Much of this kind of training involves sleep deprivation, pushing trainees to the point of physical exhaustion, and fasting – mainstays of esoteric training the world over. While it is true that the founders of several ryu-ha did, indeed, withdraw to undergo shugyo in shrine precincts, emerging with new or consolidated insights and understandings of their arts, going on to found their own styles, one wonders about the extent to which these experiences were characteristic of or necessary for bugeisha as a whole.

Knutsen includes a lengthy description of a kiai shugyo similar to the ones I described conducted at the Ichikukai. It is based on the reminiscences of three budo masters of the author’s acquaintance. While there are differences – the principal one being that the chanting described in other descriptions of the misogi of the Ichikukai has been replaced by kiai – it is recognisable as essentially the same practice.

   Early on the first morning the students knelt in formal line with a few domestic dojo members behind forming the second row. Each visiting student was handed a small handbell, or ‘kane’, to hold in his left hand. they were required to throw out their arm to sound the bell and shout a loud kiai – ‘Ei – the movement timed by the slow beat of the large dojo drum. This exercise was repeated endlessly at the same measured tempo for two hours before the practise ended. That first day they had two more sessions, a total of six hours. Needless to say, their arms became very heavy and tired; their voices, too.

   They were in the dojo the next morning before dawn and the practice was the same but for one detail. Instead of kneeling they were now required to sit in the posture known…as ‘tate-hiza’ or half kneeling, with the left foot tucked underneath their buttocks. The handbells felt twice as heavy as the day before and the pain and the fatigue soon came flooding back, only to become considerably worse as the long day wore on. For most, their voices were cracking and try as they might they found it impossible to shout to the satisfaction of their superiors. At the second period, the dojo master clapped his hands and several young girls, all Kendo or Naginata students, came in and knelt behind each bell ringer, and gently with the tips of their fingers lightly tapped up and down the taught straining muscles of their necks, backs, and shoulders. On and on they rang and tried to croak out the kiai, cajoled and exhorted by the senpai, having to draw deep on their reserves of determination at least to get through to the end of the day. Finally, after almost drowning in the warmth and luxury of the temple bath-house, they sought their futon to sleep, exhausted.
   The third day was exquisite torture. By now, quite apart from their stiffened limbs – arms, legs, shoulders, backs – and the weight of those nightmare bells, they had no voices left, just raw throats that could raise, at best, a faint croak. the girls’ gentle tapping, far from relieving their tired muscles hurt like the devil, too…..
   The fifth morning came and most felt better for their rest although somewhat stiff. They assembled in the dojo and put on their kendo armour before continuing with the usual kiai training, but this only lasted for an hour. Then, facing them on the senior side were a number of tough-looking senior yudansha. A violent practice followed in which there was no way in their present condition they could hope to hold their own. Each of the seniors seemed to be harder than the one before … and the practices were interminable, but at last the drum called a halt. The dojo master now announced that they would all be required later to fight one-point matches, success or failure depending on the result. They were then dismissed.

Both my Kendo informants recalled the prospect of these matches as daunting and, in each case, their respective opponents looked uncompromising and hard. With little or no reserves left within them, this situation was close to facing a deadly enemy on the battlefield; desperate in the extreme. While each steadied himself for what was to come, the senpai reminded them of the teaching:
‘Don’t look with your eyes; see with your mind!’

All three masters recalled that they took standing ‘rei’ towards their opponent, they followed it with a great kiai – and the senpai at once struck the drum to signal the match was at an end!

R. Knutsen: Rediscovering Budo from a Swordsman’s Perspective pp98-100

To finish with, another swordsman's perspective:

Yamaoka Tesshu – the calligraphy reads:

Asking for
The inner secrets of kenjutsu
Is like asking me
To brush an ink painting
On the sound of the wind.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

'Do not despise the snake for having no horns...'

The ancient sages said, "Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon?" So may one just man become an army.

Nearly a thousand years ago in ancient China, at the time of the Sung dynasty, there was a cruel and corrupt government. These men riding are outlaws – heroes – who have been driven to live in the water margins of Liang Shan Po, far to the south of the capital city. Each fights tyranny with a price on his head in a world very different from our own.

The story starts in legend even then, for our heroes, it was said, were perhaps the souls reborn of other, earlier knights.

Almost anyone of my generation in the UK (anyone who liked adventure and action on TV, that is) will recognise the words above as coming from the beginning of the TV series The Water Margin. Back in the seventies, it was essential viewing for any kid with even a slight interest in the martial arts or oriental adventure.

Atsuko Nakamura as the inimitable Lin Chung

Apart from Kung Fu (and the later Monkey) it was pretty much the only TV programme touching on those interests – a kind of Robin Hood and King Arthur rolled into one, with all the wonder and strangeness of an unknown and unexplored world. From the opening credits, which showed a motley and exotic band of riders advancing over the black sands to the distinctive opening chords of the theme tune, it transported the viewer to a new and different culture.

Even for those whose interest lay less with the exotic and more with the adventure and swordplay, the lines delivered by Burt Kwouk at the beginning were to become part of the permanent vocabulary of youth – or perhaps that was just my friends.

Though the series was set in China and based on the Chinese classic Shui Hu Zhuan, the TV series was a Japanese production (by Nippon Television) which followed on from a long history of adaptations from the original. Originally translated into Japanese back in the Edo period, the 90 volumes by Kyokutei Bakin proved immensely popular. Published over a period of some years (1805-1838) it was also to provide inspiration for renowned artists such as Hokusai (who illustrated Bakin's volumes) and Kuniyoshi (who became popular through his vigorous depictions of the characters).



This television series was based on a manga series by Yokohama Mitsuteru, rather than the original, and took as its central character Lin Chung, peerless swordsman and, in this version, a paragon of chivalrous virtue. Perhaps he was a little too uncompromising for me – I preferred some of the more minor characters such as Shi Chin, the Tattooed Dragon, who was a little less perfect. As in the original, fighting for justice against corrupt officials was a major theme, and likely part of the reason for the novel's success in early 19th century Japan.

The stirring theme music by Godaigo was particularly evocative, both the instrumental version at the beginning and the even more dramatic vocal version that ran with the final credits. Of course, because it was sung in Japanese, we understood not a word of it. In fact, it was only recently that I went back to it to figure out what the lyrics actually were. I was pleased to find the lyrics reflected the feeling of the series as well as I could have hoped – a bitter-sweet lament resonating with nostalgia and hope.

I have never seen the lyrics written anywhere, so here they are for the first time:
Be sure to listen to the original, too.

Jinsei wa
Shireta mono sa
Umaku ittemo
Ippen no kumo yo ni
Nagaresaru dake
Naku na tomo
Kino wa kino
Sa, asa janai

Life is
but a trifle;
Even if it goes well,
You are blown along
Like a lone cloud.
Don't cry my friend;
Even if you weep
Tomorrow is a new day (lit. Tomorrow is tomorrow).
See, it is morning already.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Zen Secrets of the Spear

The letters sent by the priest Takuan are perhaps the most famous example of giving an explanation of bugei in terms of Zen (or vice versa). Of course, it is not the only one.

Bankei Yōtaku
Here is another example, from Bankei Yōtaku (1622-93). A Rinzai Zen priest, he taught what he termed Unborn Zen, which emphasised direct experience of the human state and eschewed the use of koans or highly ascetic approaches. 

Fu-shō (Unborn) by Bankei
In later life, he became the most popular Zen teacher of his day and travelled widely and often. Among his students (and patrons) was the daimyo Katō Yasuoki, Lord of the Ozu domain in present day Ehime (Shikoku). Katō (whose Zen name was Gesso) was also a keen student of the spear, and Bankei gave him this advice. (For more about the spear, see an earlier post here).

Katō Yasuoki (Gesso)

Instructions for the Layman Gesso, given at his request

In performing a movement, if you act with no-mind, the action will spring forth of itself. When your ki changes, your physical form changes along with it. When you’re carried away by force, that is relying on “self”. To have ulterior thoughts is not in accordance with the natural. When you act upon deliberation, you are tied to thought. The opponent can tell (the direction of) your ki. If you (try to) steady yourself by deliberate effort, your ki becomes diffuse, and you may grow careless. When you act deliberately, your intuitive response is blocked; and if your intuitive response is blocked, how can the mirror mind appear? When, without thinking and without acting deliberately, you manifest the Unborn, you won’t have any fixed form. When you are without fixed form, no opponent will exist for you in the whole land. Not holding on to anything, not relying onesidedly on anything, there is no “you” and no “enemy”. Whatever comes, you just respond, with no traces left behind.
Heaven and earth are vast, but outside mind there is nothing to seek. Become deluded, however, and instead this mind becomes your opponent. Apart from mind, there is no art of combat.

From: Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei by Peter Haskel

What can we read into such a description? Is it instruction in the spear or in Zen? Or are the two linked at some deep level that makes them fundamentally the same?

If we regard it simply as instruction in use of the spear, it might be boiled down to the importance of not overthinking an activity, which doesn't seem particularly unusual. Today, it would be a common-place observation. Anyone involved in sports, for example, knows that thinking too much about any one part of it will likely result in a performance that falls short of their potential. In Zen terms, we are looking at something deeper, but let's stick to the spear for the time being.

Gesso must have spent years training in the use of weapons, so we might imagine he was aware of this – the importance of not thinking. Bankei, however, was a perceptive man. While he had probably never seen Gesso use a spear, nor used one himself, it would not be difficult to extrapolate from what he knew of his pupil that this would be an aspect of his practice that was holding him back. Bankei was known for his wit and intelligence and had built a reputation for being able to engage with a range of different people and overcome them in a kind of meta-physical debate. He was at the top of his field, and in feudal Japan, the ability to read people this way was, in any case, part of the particular skill set of Zen priests.

We might also consider that both these men were involved in their respective disciplines to the extent that they were dealing with far smaller tolerances than are allowed for in normal language (or, indeed, in everyday life). The hesitation they are talking about might be so small that it would barely register to the untrained eye. For those involved in serious training, the experience of simply being unaware of some aspect of the body’s movement until it is pointed out is probably common.

Although the skills and plausibility of Zen practitioners might lend credence to their opinions, there is a danger in applying this learning too broadly. This would suggest that traditional arts did not deal with these aspects of combat, and that Zen was necessary to enable practitioners to reach the highest levels of their arts. In fact, Bugeisha seemed to have turned to a variety of religious disciplines for any number of reasons: social, spiritual, and political. If deeply involved in a spiritual discipline, they might naturally have drawn parallels with the teachings of their martial studies, but Zen was just one of many disciplines.

An interesting example of Zen’s position as one amongst many is provided by Oishi Yoshio Kuranosuke, leader of the famous 47 loyal retainers (a.k.a. The 47 ronin). He received instruction in Zen from none other than Bankei. (According to Leggett’s book, ‘The Warrior Koans’, Bankei was said to have given him the koan of the paper sword to work on, but given Bankei's style of teaching, this seems unlikely). One might be tempted to see this as a prime mover in his actions to avenge his master, but he was also a direct student of Yamaga Sokō, a noted Confucian scholar and thinker, and it is Sokō who is usually cited as his major influence.

Oishi Kuranosuke, from a print by Yoshitoshi (courtesy of Fuji Arts)

Even for someone who accepts Zen's place as only one influence amongst many, it is not necessarily easy to ignore, and one may well ask why this should be so. Perhaps it is less to do with what Zen actually is than with what it represents. Whether this was a reflection shared by practitioners in feudal Japan, I do not know. Possibly not. But in the modern world, perhaps especially in the west, Zen is a symbol of something more than itself. It invokes a sense of the role of intuition, of the deeper levels of the mind, and in pairing it with the martial arts, it invites us to consider the importance of these faculties, of the practitioner’s inner world, not just in the pursuit of such a physical activity, but in all areas of our lives.

The facility with which Zen practitioners turned to a variety of creative arts, and the undoubted power of some of the works of art they created helps foster this connection. So too does the history of sponsorship of a wide variety of arts by Zen institutions, arts that have become associated with and coloured to a lesser or greater degree by Zen. (Although a closer inspection often reveals a mix of influences, it is often claimed that they exhibit a ‘Zen’ aesthetic.) In fact, it may be the very emptiness and wordlessness of these pieces that attract us and allow us to imbue them with meaning, to see depth and relevance that may or may not relate directly to that which was originally intended.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

2020 – Year of the Rat

A rat nibbling New Year mochi from Ehon Shuyo
of 1751 (printsofjapan.com)

2020 is, in the Japanese tradition, the Year of the Rat (or mouse...take your pick – the term nezumi covers both in Japanese). The rat is usually considered a symbol of good luck, being associated with Daikokuten, the god of wealth. This association is usually explained as rats and mice being attracted by wealth (i.e. surplus food), and so signs of rodent activity, particularly nibbled mochi at New Year, were traditionally seen as good luck. It was also believed that rats stored up food for the winter, and this added to their reputation as animals of good fortune.

Kobayashi Issa reflected something of this in the following haiku:
      New Year's shelf –
      from a dark nook
      a lucky mouse

(Toshi-dana ya kurai hō yori fuku nezumi)

Connections with the bushi are, not surprisingly, not particularly common – warriors generally took more powerful animals as their symbols. The timorous mouse seems an unlikely symbol for a class that prided itself on courage. Rats, however, can be bold: Neko no Myojutsu (The Mysterious Skills of the Old Cat) is a well-known story that concerns one such animal. A ferocious rat is wrecking havoc in the house of a samurai, Shoken.

Shoken getting serious with the rat.

The rat proves too strong for his house cat, and even Shoken himself finds himself in trouble when he confronts it, so he enlists the aid of the local cats, famous for their rat-catching skills. Alas, they are also no match for the rat. whose speed and ferocity prove too much for them.

Finally, much to their surprise, Shoken's final gamble – a famous mouser whose rat-catching days seem long gone – pays off, and the old cat succeeds in catching the rat with ease. Later that evening, Shoken overhears the old cat explain how he was able to succeed where the others failed. This explanation is an account of some of the mental teachings involved in swordsmanship, and is said to have been connected to (or even part of) the teachings of the Itto ryu. For those interested, several translations are available...mine is available here.

Rats featured in other stories as well. This one is from a children's story book, Neko Nezumi Kassen (The War between the Cats and the Rats), illustrated by Utagawa Yoshitora c1840-1860, a one-time pupil of the famous Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

In the story, the general of the cats decides to attack the rats, and battle ensues...
The text for these pages reads:

On the other side there was a rat general called Lucky Rat. One day, the white rat, the general’s lieutenant, rushed in, gasping for breath, “Emergency, emergency!” White Rat: “It is terrible! Cat General Nekomata is on his way to attack us with a huge army. They are almost here.” Lucky Rat: “What? This is a crisis!” Lucky Rat immediately called on his mighty warriors among the white rats, red rats, tortoise-shell rats, China rats, mice, top-spinning rats, sewer rats, and with all others waited for the cat army to arrive. 


This battle ends happily for both sides with deus ex machina in the form of the intervention of ...Daikokuten.

Although rats and mice were not closely linked to martial culture, Minamoto Musashi's 'Rat's head – ox's neck' (or horse's neck – the character is very similar, and as the original no longer exists, it is not possible to say which was originally intended) from the Fire Scroll of Gorin no sho should not be forgotten. The contrast between these two elements is a reminder to maintain a dual perspective that sees detail at the same time as the broader picture. Musashi noted that this is important in both small and large scale combat.

Although Musashi left no examples of rats or mice in his art, several artists have found them to be fine subjects – netsuke artists in particular, took advantage of the qualities offered by the rat/mouse's
 form. However, rather than netsuke, I will finish with a painting by Watanabe Shōtei which nicely displays his controlled and elegant brushwork.

Watanabe Shōtei (1852-1918)

Friday, 28 June 2019

Victor Harris - the original Book of Five Rings


Perhaps the best cover of any version of Gorin no Sho - and the picture is one of Kuniyoshi's depictions of Musashi.

Published by Overlook Press in 1974, this was the first translation of Musashi’s work into English, and for a long time, the only one. One might occasionally pick up fragments in other works – I am particularly reminded of one story in an illustrated book on samurai in my secondary school library, a story about a fan-wielding master of saiminjutsu who managed to persuade Musashi that he was carrying a sword). It has been around for so long, certainly in my life, that it has become part of the landscape. The phrases it used, even the title itself – A Book of Five Rings (Scrolls of the Five Elements would be more accurate, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring) have become familiar. Other translators may have chosen to alter some of these classic formulations, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but the shadow of the original continues to hang over them. It is not easy to assess. But this is escaping the issue. Does it deserve respect for more than its merits as a forerunner in this genre?


First, it should be noted how well it has stood up in the forty-five years since it was first published. Victor Harris (who died in 2017) was an experienced kendoka, an expert on the Japanese sword (President of the Token Society of Great Britain), and head of the Japanese Department of the British Museum. He was deeply involved in this field. For all that, A Book of Five Rings was a relatively early work. Would he have liked to change anything? I have no idea, but I have read that he would sometimes refer to Musashi in his teaching, so I am sure his understanding and appreciation of the work deepened and matured over the many years since he first worked on the translation.


Despite the fact that I no longer use it as my translation of choice, it is still a good choice for anyone interested in Musashi’s writing, although its strengths as a book (at least in the original version) perhaps weigh stronger than the absolute qualities of the translation. Compared to all the subsequent works, it is better set out as a book – the care given to the layout and spacing of the text makes it exceptionally easy to read and consult; the front matter, although not extensive, is relevant (especially for those days when very few in the west had heard of Musashi). It is clear and well-written, and despite being somewhat dated (Musashi ‘scholarship’ has come on a lot since those days) provides a good overview of the standard view of Musashi’s life and significant duels. There is a slip in the general historical background when he confuses his shogunates, but this is a minor detail (and shouldn’t be used to judge what is a serious and well-considered work.) It has atmosphere, and this is something that is often overlooked – it shouldn’t be. There is also a good choice of art and photographic references – most of the subsequent translations have followed his lead on this – including some difficult-to-find pictures which are rarely seen elsewhere.


There are weaknesses, but these are not fatal flaws. Chief among these is the writing style, which has a tendency to be somewhat opaque. I do not necessarily feel that translations should read as if the writers were our contemporaries – given Musashi’s background and class, (and style in the original) there is a degree of terseness that is not easy to preserve in English, but in this work, the meaning is not always as clear as it might be. I feel that there is a lack of authority, perhaps because of the author’s lack of grounding in the technique (although he was a serious kendo practitioner and was later involved in older styles of Japanese sword arts, kendo and kenjutsu are different animals), as if he didn’t quite understand the finer points of the techniques he was writing about. I hesitate to say it, especially in view of his continued involvement in the field and obvious facility with the language, but it looks to me as if he was unsure of what it was Musashi was saying in some places. This is natural enough, especially in descriptions of sword technique, but translation is also an act of imaginative creation: as a writer, the translator attempts to reimagine the meaning of the words and translate their message with reference to the wording and style of the original as necessary. I feel as if Harris sometimes gives more weight to the words than to the meaning, with the result that something that is quite clear in the Japanese is suddenly open to a range of interpretations in English. But this is the translator’s art – any translation may be more or less successful at this. Some of his successors have made more informed decisions, better decisions I feel – but they also had something to work with, as Harris did not.


Yes, it still stands on its own merits. For anyone serious about looking into Gorin no Sho, I would recommend other versions as well, or perhaps primarily, and if your Japanese is up to it, versions in Japanese, preferably in both the modern and original Japanese. The language Musashi uses is not generally difficult (although a few sections might prove problematic) and the Japanese certainly gives a more visceral feel to the work. But if this is a step too far at the moment, you won’t go far wrong with the Victor Harris translation – a book to inform and inspire.

Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Book of Five Rings…but which one?

An imaginative recreation of Musashi in the cave at Reigendo where he wrote Gorin no Sho.

Miyamoto Musashi’s Gorin no Sho is one of the most famous books in the field of martial arts. Since the first commercial translation in 1974 (Victor Harris, Overlook Press) there have been a host of others, all of which have their own strengths and weaknesses – the publication of another translation in 2018 (Alexander Bennett, Tuttle) makes it worth considering the merits of some of the most significant of these.

Reigendo, the cave where Musashi lived for the last two years of his life.

Written in the last two years of his life when he was living in the cave Reigendo, in Mount Iwato in Kyushu, he finished it a few days before he died on the 19thday of the 5thmonth, 1645. he passed it to his student Terao Magonojo. The original five scrolls, bearing only the titles of the elements, (rather than the name Gorin no Sho) were destroyed by a castle fire less than fifty years later – fortunately several copies had been made.

When it comes to translations, it is difficult to say one version is better than another; personal taste plays a major role here – the writing style of one translator may just sit with a reader better than another does. 

So, what is it that I look for in a translation?

Primarily, fidelity to the original – in content and in tone. You might think this is pretty much a given – surely all translators try to be accurate in their work? Translation requires more tha linguistic skill, and some translators make it a virtue that their work is more approachable than the original (or previous versions). But for me, this may well make it less useful.

The brevity of Japanese gives translators a great deal of leeway, and although all of the significant translations oGorin no Sho are, for the most part, accurate (anyone can be forgiven for a minor error), for a text like this something more is required. Words and phrases in either language have a value or effect beyond their outward meaning. Some words are stronger, some more subtle, they have rhythm and energy. Some have additional connotations; a translator’s sensitivity to  these is important, particularly if they are translating a document as something that speaks to us now, rather than a historical curiosity.

Perhaps, then, it ismerely a matter of personal opinion. There are certainly inconsistencies, infelicities of language and even inaccuracies in even the best of translations, but each of those currently available have something to offer. Personally, I like to be able to hear the voice of the original writer coming through. It is true that some of Musashi’s instructions can be difficult to follow, but if I cannot begin to imagine what he was actually saying from reading the translation, I think something has been missed.

As a word or warning – don’t believe the editor and fanboy reviews you may find on Amazon or elsewhere for some of these versions. I don’t consider any of them to be more definitive than the others in any substantial way. Nor do I feel that the authors’ experience in martial arts or lack of it necessarily makes a difference…it can do, but even those practising traditional martial arts may be a long way from the kind of art Musashi was writing about.

There is also the question of familiarity: I first read Gorin no Sho at the age of about 15, and over the years, certain phrases have become familiar. Subsequent translators will naturally write in their own style; though perfectly accurate, the difference may not be to the reader’s liking if they are already familiar with the text. Alternatively, the reader may find a new translation speaks to them in a different voice and what was previously opaque becomes clearer. 

Finally, the prospective reader might also consider the design of the book. How big is it? How has it been laid out? What illustrations are there? What additional background, notes, introduction etc. the author has seen fit to include? Some books are just more pleasant or easier to read and use as reference. Others have more useful or interesting notes and explanations. It depends on what the reader is looking for, but there are significant differences.

Having laid out these brief considerations, I will look at some of my favourite versions in the next few posts.