Friday, 10 September 2021

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings and the Olympic Connection


Musashi's painting of Hotei watching two 
cocks facing off - this is about as close as
Musashi got to sports, although he did
briefly mention the game commonly
known as kemari - somewhat akin to
 hacky sack in Gorin no sho

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are just over as I write this. It might seem strange to suggest a connection between Miyamoto Musashi and what is possibly the most famous international modern sporting event, but a connection there is. As anyone living in Japan is probably aware, the Olympic Games are commonly referred to here as Gorin - the same gorin (or five rings) as The Book of Five Rings or Gorin no Sho. Of course, this is just a coincidence…or is it?

When I first heard the Olympics referred to in this way, I was pleased that I recognised the term from Musashi’s work, and the online searches that brought up results such as ‘Musashi’s Olympic book’, seemed weird but amusing. Five rings are five rings, and the reference to the Olympic symbol was clear enough. Besides, this was about the time that some more serious commentary began to appear on Musashi (beyond occasional articles in Black Belt or Fighting Arts), and some quite well-known names had explained that the gorin of Musashi’s work might more properly be referred to as spheres, or elements, rather than rings. Perhaps, early translators had been influenced by the Olympics? Anyway, I put it to the back of my mind as an interesting cultural peculiarity and thought no more of it. However, with the games being held in Tokyo, it was a coincidence I couldn’t ignore.

A poster advertising the 
1940 Olympic games

For first use of the term Gorin for the Olympics, we have to go back to 1936 -Japan is looking ahead to the possibility of the first Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for 1940 (Japan pulled out two years later, deciding they needed to devote more of their resources to the war in China), and Nobumasa Kawamoto, sports editor of the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper, had been conducting interviews on the Japanese bid for the 1940 Olympics.

For a newspaper editor, space is an important commodity, and the Olympics was proving to be something of a problem, taking up six characters when rendered into Japanese using the phonetic alphabet (オリンピック), the usual practice with foreign words. Kawamoto had recently been reading the well known literary figure Kan Kikuchi on Gorin no Sho. He was impressed by Kan’s assessment of Musashi as a National treasure who should be counted amongst the great artists and philosophers, and saw parallels with the Olympics, an event that brought together the best athletes from around the world. Not only did the Olympic symbols consist of five rings, but to the Japanese ear, Gorin sounds very much like the first two syllables of Olympics (Orin in Japanese pronunciation, with equal stress on the two syllables).

Nobumasa Kawamoto (photo courtesy 
of Sasakawa Sports Foundation

Kawamoto used Gorin in the article ‘Reconstruction of the Capital on the Olympic Flame’ (August 6 1936), and it was quickly picked up by other newspapers, whose editors were pleased to be able to shorten the unwieldy オリンピック  Kawamoto continued to be closely connected with the Olympics, eventually becoming a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee after the war. By then, the use of Gorin had been standard for many years.

Yet even though Gorin is a direct reference to Musashi’s work, Musashi himself might not have recognised the title. He did not, in fact, give his work a title, merely stating, “This treatise is divided into five Ways. The quintessence for each Way is conveyed in five scrolls.” (Bennett’s translation). It seems Gorin no sho was first used by two later teachers of his school to refer to the otherwise untitled document: Nagaoka Naoyuki (who studied directly under Musashi when young, but mainly under his successor, Terao Magonojo) and his one-time attendant, Toyota Masakata, who brought together the teachings of several of Musashi’s students, and became a domain instructor. 

It is easy to understand their need to call it something – Masataka was busy collecting all the material he could about Musashi, which he was later to pass on to his son, Masanaga, who wrote one of the major source documents for Musashi lore, the Bukoden. Of course, although it is usually translated as ‘book’ in English, it was actually written as five separate scrolls, Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, Void. Early translators may well have known this, despite accessing it in book form themselves, and wisely opted for the euphonious ‘book’ instead of cumbersome alternatives such as ‘treatise’. Once again, the name stuck – The Book of Five Rings. 

It is a curious journey for an unnamed text by a 17th century swordsman to a sporting event watched by millions around the world. I suspect that although Musashi may not have entirely disapproved of the motto ‘faster, higher, stronger’ the art he developed was a world away from the sporting achievements that are celebrated at the Olympics.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Musashi’s iconic portrait – with comments by Draeger and other experts


The Shimada Museum of Art in Kumamoto is the the place to go if you want to see works of art by Miyamoto Musashi, as well as other objects closely connected to him. (You can read about my visit there almost ten years ago here). Most of the items are on permanent display, and the small, intimate scale of the museum means that you will probably be able to stay and look as much as you like. Among the works on display is the famous ‘self-portrait’ of Musashi – a striking piece that is imbued with the spirit of the master.


Amongst the portraits of Musashi, (there are several other works based on this one) and, indeed, Japanese historical portraits in general, this one stands out for its power and the unique insight it gives into the subject’s personality and his (martial) art. This one was passed down in the Terao line of Musashi’s teachings and is traditionally regarded as a self portrait. 


It has been used as a standard model for the depiction of Musashi, both for paintings during the Edo period and for more recent works, such as the statue of Musashi on the Yodobashi (Bridge) over the Yoshino River and the signboard in the Musashizuka Park in Kumamoto showing the kamae of Niten Ryu (see below).

The Musashi statue on the Yodo Bridge

Signboard in Musashizuka Park


In all likelihood, it was not painted by Musashi, but that only slightly lessens its interest. It has drawn commentary from a number of well-known authorities in the Japanese martial arts, some of which make for interesting reading. As is so often the case, these may say more about the writer than the painting (or the subject). Before getting on to them, let’s take a look at what the Shimada Museum has to say:


Portrait of a Master Swordsman
Highlights include a famous portrait of Musashi in the last years of his life. It is known to be a posthumous portrait because the subject is painted with the left side of his face facing the viewer. According to the conventions of Japanese painting, this generally indicates that the subject is deceased. The artist seems to have been familiar with the real Musashi and his philosophy. The swordsman’s facial expression and posture are captured at the moment of confrontation with an enemy, just as described in the “Water” chapter of Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. 

(Kumamoto Official Guide: Shimada Museumof Art)


So much for the official introduction. Now let’s take a look at what some other people have made of it:


Donn Draeger

Draeger needs no introduction – his love for and experience in the Japanese martial arts are well known. Given this, his comments on Musashi might seem to be unusually harsh:


Qualified authorities today regard the artifacts allegedly made by Musashi such as the tsuba, or sword guard, as not made by him, but possibly designed by him. That famous self-portrait is suspect. The reason is that the face shows, among other things, tension, rage, and defiance. These are all qualities that good swordsmanship proscribes, and are contradictory to what is considered a good budo face. Certainly they are directly contradictory to the concepts expressed in the Gorin no sho. Only the equally famed painting of the shrike on a branch may be legitimately from his hands.


Extracts from letters written by Donn F. Draeger to Robert W. Smith. Letters in the Joseph R. Svinth collection, reprinted courtesy of Robert W. Smith and Joseph R. Svinth. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.


Firstly, I am not at all certain that the painting does show all (or any) of the attributes Draeger has attributed to it. Certainly, I cannot see any sign of rage, or even anger. Tension and defiance, are, I think, quite subjective, and although there is certainly ‘emotional content’ as Bruce Lee might have said, I can’t agree with Draeger on its nature. Musashi was famous for the forcefulness of his stare, and I think that is what is depicted here.


Draeger’s comments on the authenticity of Musashi’s artworks are not entirely accurate either – although there are questions about some of the works ascribed to him, the attribution of many others is not in doubt. Neither does the fact that the tsuba were the result of a collaboration with skilled craftsmen rather than handworked by Musashi himself diminish their value. Crafts of all sorts typically involved the work of experts in different areas. The famous Yagyu tsuba were also the result of such a collaboration, initially between Yagyu Renyasai and artists/craftsmen in the Owari area where he lived.


It must be noted that Draeger’s opinions on Musashi seem to show the influence of his own teacher, Otake Risuke of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Ryu. Otake has spoken critically of Musashi’s lifestyle and legacy (constant duelling, no family, for example) as well as pointing out (as Draeger did) that he was one expert swordsman amongst many (and that others were more skilled). This is fair comment, although I suspect Musashi’s disparaging comments about the Kashima and Katori schools did not help create a good opinion. 


Hino Akira 

Others think more highly of Musashi. An interesting description of the portrait can be found in Hino Akira’s book Kokoro no Katachi (The Image of the Heart). Hino is an interesting figure. Coming from a ‘rough’ background, he has gone into the area of ‘budo research’ – rather than follow a particular style or teacher, he is involved in researching and developing aspects of the deeper skills in traditional Japanese martial arts, involving timing, positioning, ‘inner power’ and so on. He is/was also a jazz drummer and dancer, and teaches dancers as well as martial artists. It is an interesting combination, and he has some interesting insights to offer.


In the case of Musashi’s portrait, his description is quite individual and worth considering:


In the portrait, the head of Musashi is a little stooped forward, his spine is loose, his weight is on the whole of his feet, and the sword in his left hand aims directly at the neck or the eyes of his opponent. His left eye is in sync with his opponent’s consciousness, and his right eye hides any indication of his intention by focussing intensely on the opponent.


This pose is so-called the (sic) “machi” pose. His machi is for “sen-no-sen”. We can see “the image of Musashi’s heart” clearly in his attitude that he invites his opponent to attack him in order to perfect his machi.


Also, his way of standing is one that confuses the opponent’s sense of distance, and at the same time it allows him to move in any direction.


The portrait tells a lot.


(Footnotes in the original explain machi as “waiting”, and sen-no-sen as “the attack in the moment when the intention of attacking occurs in the opponent’s consciousness”).


Hino’s comment on the eyes is interesting, but I have no idea of his basis for that observation. I haven’t heard of any teachings which separate the function of the two eyes. His description of the portrait itself seems more accurate than Draeger’s. Of course, there is some interpretation when it comes to ‘We can see “the image of Musashi’s heart”’ – a different translation (‘we can see Musashi’s approach’) might offer some clarity…the second part of the sentence is a little confusing – is he practicing or is he fighting. Are they the same thing? Bearing in mind the title of his book (The Image of the Heart), there is an obvious link.


Roald Knutsen

Knutsen is a veteran kendo practitioner who also has broad experience in a number of bugei. He has written several books which present his perspective on the traditional martial arts. He has a deep interest and respect for all areas of the arts and is definitely one of the ‘old school’ in his attitudes towards practice and the depth of learning contained within traditional martial disciplines. 

He also has professional experience as an artist and believes that a wealth of information is contained in the illustrations that are a part of many of the mokurokuand other documents passed down by masters from the past. Thus his reading is also that the portrait of Musashi may be read for insights into Musashi’s arts. The anecdote he recounts is not about his own experience, but that of a senior kendo teacher:


…A famous kendo master explained how, after a long study of Musashi’s portrait, he realized that the swordsman’s balance was wholly on the ball of each foot, not on either set of toes or either heel. Despite this, the foot placement looked ‘normal’. Based on this realisation the ku-dan hanshi practised this seriously for several years before mastery.

(The endnotes read ‘Yunō Masanori Hanshi, in personal instruction, Tokyo, 1981.’)

Rediscovering Budo: from a Swordsmans’s Perspective


It is interesting observation, but I am not sure if that is really a conclusion that can be accurately drawn from this painting – I don’t know if the conventions employed by the artist extended to accurate weight distribution. (I am happier with Hino’s reading…I think this much can be seen.) If the artist was Musashi himself, he would naturally have been aware of  this aspect of his kamae; if it was painted after his death, I am much less sure of it. It certainly goes against the instruction presented in Gorin no sho, to “tread firmly with heels”. Of course, kendo has developed a particular style of footwork that was not part of the older bugei (the raised heel of the back foot). Knutsen is aware of this from his own experience, but I am sure a highly ranked kendo teacher explaining in person is more persuasive than seeing it written in a book. 

Ultimately, although I admit that it is fascinating to look for clues in graphic works, I am not sure if the artist’s skill or knowledge is necessarily up to the task of showing such things.


Dave Lowry

I must admit that I used to own a much thumbed version of Lowry’s Autumn Lightning, and I can heartily recommend it. It is many years since I read it, but I owe a debt of thanks for the motivation it gave me. The excerpt below is from a different book – one composed of short essays in one of which he uses the portrait as a vehicle for his philosophical musings. In this case, he is looking at the concept of shikaku. He seems to be aiming his material at a general martial arts audience, and I have a few quibbles – with his characterisation of Musashi as an ‘eccentric’ swordsman, for example –  but it is a nicely written riff on the portrait. If anything, it suffers from the need to fit into the short essay format, by presenting a conclusion that is perhaps a little too obvious.


Gripping both his long and short swords, Musashi’s posture and countenance are electric with power. His slit-eyed stare is furious; wholly concentrated.(I think Lowry got a bit carried away here – whether or not his stare is furious, it certainly isn’t slit-eyed.)

To me, Musashi’s portrait is like some kind of koan ….. The expression on his face is, as I said, fiercely concentrated. But it does not seem to be directed at any outer enemy. It is enigmatic; fascinating the more you look at it. Musashi seems to be locked in a profound internal struggle of sorts. Perhaps it is only my imaginative interpretation, but when I contemplate his famous portrait, I see a man struggling with what must have been for someone in his profession, a fundamental obstacle. Musashi stands alone, utterly absorbed, seeking a way to overcome the limitations of shikaku. Think of it. No matter how he stands or holds the sword – even to the extent taking one for each hand – he must still contend with the dead zone. He must still acknowledge that, as a human, like all humans, he can never be completely invulnerable….Whatever kamae (combative posture or attitude) they assumed, there was always the shikaku. There was a weakness to every stance, to every position of holding the sword.

Moreover, Musashi was not merely another swordsman. He was as well an artist, a philosopher. And so I wonder if Musashi was contemplating, in this stern-eyed portrait, not just the shikaku he faced in combat but the vulnerabilities he faced in life. Was he expecting the unexpected angle of attack of an enemy’s sword? Or the surprise assaults to which all of us are susceptible: illness, heartbreak, loneliness, death?

I wonder if, in devoting most of his life to overcoming the limitations of shikaku in art of the sword, Musashi had not entered into a struggle as well on a different plane. I wonder if his training in the martial arts eventually led to a deeper understanding of the shikaku of life.


Excerpted from: Traditions: Essays on the Japanese Martial Arts (Tuttle, 2017) Dave Lowry


When I visited the Shimada Museum a few years ago, I found the portrait (like Musashi’s own paintings) to be more powerful than the reproductions. Although I haven’t any particular insights into it, my observations include the following:


In a typical reproduction such as this, the upper and lower inner garments look the same colour -in the actual painting, the upper is clearly grey, the lower, white. The detail of the pattern on the red haori – which is fine, but quite clear on the original,is often not visible in reproductions.


This detail on the haori is very visible on some of the copies that were made (see below) – obviously an important detail to them.


I always advise seeing art in the original as much as possible – the best art can have an effect which is not merely visual – it can affect the viewer far more deeply. In any case, you may see details which are not visible in reproductions, and at the very least, you will have a better idea of the scale, the colours, even the texture. With many Japanese paintings – those which are mounted as hanging scrolls – you will have the added bonus of being able to see the mounting, a detail seldom included in reproductions or even museum catalogues, but which adds greatly to the painting and can be beautiful in its own right. (I have included some examples here – they come from this blog:


The final comment, however, I will leave to Musashi. These are not strictly self-portraits, but paintings of Bodhidharma by Musashi. It is not unusual for artists to project something of themselves into the faces of the figures they paint, so I do not think it is too far a stretch of the imagination to see something of Musashi in these paintings – and that may be as close to a self-portrait as we will get.


Thursday, 31 December 2020

Happy 2021 - Year of the Ox


Fast Bull - a beautifully painted work by an unknown
painter from the Kamakura period - originally a hand scroll, 10 Fast Bulls,
it was remounted as a hanging scroll (courtesy of Tokyo National Museum).

Cattle do not seem to occupy a great place in samurai lore. Though they were not uncommon in Japan, they seemed to have been used either as agricultural beasts of burden, or for pulling the carriages of nobles – neither occupation seeming to appeal particularly to the warrior class.


They appear in art in both these roles, as well as part of the 12 animals of the zodiac, and in Zen art as well. Perhaps they are best known in this connection in the 10 ox herding pictures, which provide an analogy to the path to enlightenment. These were formulated from earlier versions by Guo-an Shi-yuan (Kakuan Shien) in the 12thcentury, and illustrated most memorably by the 15thcentury priest-painter, Shubun. The pictures lose some of their charm when they are reproduced – the originals are small – intimate in their scale and detail, but I don’t think they have been equalled by later artists who tackled the subject.


No. 6 in Shubun's series of Ox herding pictures

As I mentioned in my New Year post last year, the bull also appears in Musashi’s writing – Rat’s head, bull’s neck is an entry in Gorin no Sho to describe a sudden switch in approach. I mentioned some commentary on the possibility of the original being horse, rather than bull (the two characters are very close) but given their places in the progression of the 12 animals, I think the combination of rat and bull was well known, and would thus have made sense to Musashi. The story of the order of animals also suggests some sense of a sudden change: the bull agreed to give the rat a ride to the place where the 12 animals were to meet; as they arrived, the rat jumped off the bull and so became the first to arrive.


Musashi also depicted a bull in a relatively unknown painting of Hotei. Here, he is riding on the back of one. This may have been a nod to the 10 oxherding pictures, and given Musashi’s connections, it is quite possible that he had seen Shubun’s works. Whatever its inspiration, it displays brushwork typical of Musashi, and establishes a dynamic rhythm in terms of contrast of line and volume and light and dark. Like many of Musashi's paintings, the tone seems lighthearted - they seem to be enjoying life. In Buddhist iconography, where Buddhas are depicted riding on animals, these may be interpreted as control of the physical passions. In this case, Hotei and the bull appear to have different ideas on where to go next, so perhaps his control was not as complete as he thought.

Below: Musashi's painting of Hotei Riding a Bull - this is from the book "Miyamoto Musashi no Suibokuga" (Miyamoto Musashi's ink paintings). Relatively unknown, I couldn't find any reproductions online. 



Lastly, despite my initial comment, the bushi did not totally disregard the nature of the bull – the famous daimyo Kuroda Nagamasa famously had at least two helmets made with sweeping water buffalo horns as decoration. Later generations of his family had similar helmets made, as well. This was in marked contrast to the upturned bowl design of his father, Kuroda Kanbei, who was known for his brilliance as a strategist. Although he fought successfully in several campaigns, Nagamasa lacked his father’s brilliance and may have felt that the image of a bull, powerful and straight-forward, expressed his personality better.

A Happy New year to all my readers - let's hope it's a good one!

Two of Kuroda Nagamasa's helmets - another one of his famous helmets was shaped in an abstraction of the cliff at Ichinotani, where Minamoto Yoshitsune led a charge down steep cliffs to carry the day. Perhaps Nagamasa was emphasising that he, too, was a man of action. (Click on the picture to see both helmets).

Saturday, 7 November 2020

A Matter of Distance – Musashi's duel with Sasaki Kojiro

Miyamoto Musashi confronts Sasaki Kojiro at the start of their fateful duel (from the 1973 film Miyamoto Musashi)

An understanding of distance is a fundamental part of bujutsu, but it is perhaps one of the most difficult to understand. Although it involves physical distance, it includes (at the very least) consideration of subtle angles and adjustments based on timing and an appreciation of the range of the weapons used by both combatants.


The paired kata of Japanese bugei include aspects of this, but some of the finer points may not be grasped by even quite advanced practitioners. They were designed to be absorbed rather than to be explained, and it may be that specific explanations are a recent addition to teaching – few modern practitioners have the luxury to immerse themselves so deeply that these relationships are fully revealed. Nor is there the same sense of necessity. Even though many of these kata were developed and passed on in times of relative peace, training was more severe than it is today.


This control of distance was an aspect of his art for which Miyamoto Musashi was particularly well known, and an understanding of which was key to his famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro. Even if no-one can really be sure what happened, a careful analysis of what we do know provides interesting insights into some of the possibilities.


Although Musashi did not write of his fights, his writing contains references that may have a basis in specific experiences, as well as explaining broader principles. In The 35 Articles of Strategy, he wrote:


There are a number of different ways of covering distance according to established theories of heiho. Here I am speaking of something different. Whichever way it may be, it is something you will learn by much repetition. Speaking generally, you should be aware that when you can strike someone with your sword, you may be struck by their sword. When you wish to strike someone, you must forget about yourself. You should investigate this thoroughly.

(Author’s translation)


Kojiro was skilled with a particularly long sword, a skill he had developed, it is said, through acting as chief training partner to his master, Toda Seigen. As Seigen’s specialty was the short sword, it might seem strange that Kojiro used a sword that was longer than the norm. The reason, it is said, is that in refining his skill, Seigen had Kojiro use an increasingly long blade. Thus Kojiro’s skill with a long sword developed as his master’s technique grew ever better. 

Toda Seigen – 
Teacher of Sasaki Kojiro


Part of the skill he developed was the ability to keep another swordsman at bay with the length of his sword. Length itself is no guarantee of victory, but Kojiro had also developed an extreme sensitivity and ability to rapidly change the direction of his sword stroke, unusual in a weapon so long, all of which made him an extremely difficult adversary. 


Musashi would have been aware of Kojiro’s famous ‘returning swallow’ technique (tsubamekaeshi), and he staked the results of their encounter on his ability to overcome this technique. Whatever the precise nature of the technique (and there is some argument about it, although the most likely seems to be a feint and attack or combination attack) it was clear that it made use of the length of the blade and that Kojiro was also used to dealing with attempts to move inside.


Instead, Musashi chose to remain at the very edge of Kojiro’s range and defeat him with a weapon that was just a fraction longer than Kojiro’s sword. The popular story is that he carved a wooden sword from a boat’s oar as he was being rowed to the site of the duel, but it is far more likely that he had already decided on and made the weapon he was going to fight with well before the duel. After all, if his strategy depended on a slight length advantage, he would want to make sure he had got it right.


Musashi had faced long weapons before – according to the Kokura monument (erected by Musashi’s adopted son in 1654, less than 10 years after Musashi’s death, and generally considered reliable) Yoshioka Denshichiro used a wooden sword five feet in length against him – and even if the story of his duel at the Hozoin Temple is discounted for lack of evidence, a well-verified account of a later, friendly, duel with the spear expert, Takada Matabei, shows Musashi was skilled at getting inside the perimeter of a longer weapon. That he chose a different strategy attests to Kojiro’s skill.


According to the Kokura Monument, Kojiro’s sword (named Drying Pole/Laundry Pole – Monohoshizao) was 3 shaku (about 90cm, plus the hilt, to give a total of something like 114 cm in length). Although the wooden sword Musashi used no longer survives, there are (at least) two surviving wooden swords he was said to have carved at a later date in response to enquiries about the duel. One of these is in the Matsui Collection, and was given by Musashi to Matsui Yoriyuki (the adopted son and heir of the Hosokawa vassal who acted as host to Musashi during the period of his duel with Kojiro). Given the relationship he had with the family, (and the fact that the Matsui Collection includes a number of other items made by Musashi) it is likely that this is genuine. It looks similar to a regular bokken in shape, but is rather larger – 127cm (4 shaku 2 sun), which would make it a little longer than Kojiro’s sword.

A picture of Musashi's bokken from the
Matsui collection, with a regular sized
bokken below – the two photos are very slightly
out of scale, but not by much 


Another, and slightly different looking bokken exists in the care of Kato Isao of the Shunpukan Dojo in Nagoya. Among other styles, he teaches Enmei Ryu, which was the style Musashi taught in his younger days. The bokken came down from Tachibana Minehira, who was a grand-student of Musashi in the Chikuzen line of the Niten-ichi Ryu and author of the Bushu Denraiki(one of the important source documents on Musashi) and was passed to Kato as a suitable guardian by the Tachibana family. 


Kato Isao shows the other Musashi bokken on Japanese TV

One of Kato's students, (grand-student?), Akabane Daisuke  
wielding a bokken modelled on the Musashi bokken above.

The Duel

The traditional story has Sasaki Kojiro waiting on the island for Musashi, who turns up late, as he had done in previous duels. This time, he arrives in a small boat and leaps into the waves as the boat comes toward the beach. The two face off, and Kojiro draws his sword from its saya, which he casts into the waves. Musashi taunts him, saying this move shows he knows he is beaten. The two set to it, Kojiro now angry. They strike simultaneously, and while Musashi’s headband is cut, Kojiro is struck down. Musashi approaches the body and Kojiro strikes from the ground; Musashi leaps back, his hakama cut, and strikes Kojiro once more, with a blow that finishes him. Musashi then escapes on the boat he arrived in, making use of the tides to avoid pursuit.


Despite the unreliability of this account, there are elements that offer insight into the use of distance in Musashi’s strategy. Firstly, by jumping into the waves, Musashi was able to hold his bokken with the tip in the water, hiding its true length and denying Kojiro the chance to change his tactics. As he advanced, it is likely he would have kept his sword behind him, either holding it low or resting on his shoulder. In both these positions, the tsuka (hilt) would have been pointing directly at Kojiro, preventing him assessing the length of Musashi’s weapon.


Whether or not Musashi provoked Kojiro by his comment, it is likely Kojiro would have cast aside his long says in any case to allow him to fight unencumbered. Perhaps Kojiro was angered, but if Musashi made such a comment, it can only have been to harden Kojiro’s intention to use his favourite technique, tsubamekaeshi, on which Musashi had based his strategy.


There is some reason to believe that this technique utilised the tip of the sword, thus Musashi could stay outside Kojiro’s range and strike using the extra reach of his specially designed bokken only if he came very close to the edge of Kojiro’s range and struck before the 'return' part of the 'returning swallow' could come into play, which considering Kojiro's skill, would mean that the two blows would be almost simultaneous. In the event, he played it very fine indeed, Kojiro’s blade coming close enough to slice through his headband.


Kojiro’s counter was supposed to have been wickedly fast, but Musashi’s understanding of rhythm and range – his mikiri– was exceptional. It must have been, for despite the difference in weight, a wooden sword is no match for a real blade in speed. He invited Kojiro’s attack, and at the very moment Kojiro thought he had cut him, it was Musashi who struck home, using that infintessimal advantage in timing and distance to the fullest.


Musashi’s blow was timed to the instant Kojiro cut – if he had slipped the blow and got inside, he would not have needed a longer weapon. If he had waited even a fraction of a second longer, Kojiro would have countered. Thus he aimed for Kojiro’s greatest weakness, which was also the point of greatest danger. The advice in 35 Articles of Strategy seems to be written with this in mind:


… you should be aware that when you can strike someone with your sword, you may be struck by their sword.


Kojiro seems to have been lost in history, his name preserved in the tale of his final adversary. The site of his death also bears his name, Ganryujima. Even this, though, may not be as straightforward as it seems: it has been suggested that this may have originally referred to the island directly – ‘the rock in the current’ is a possible translation of Ganryu. But despite the lack of hard information about him, details of the story ring true, making an analysis like this more than simple academic. If undertaken seriously, it can bring a greater understanding of the factors a swordsman would want to have under control if he was to stake his life on a duel such as this.


Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The Daimyo's use of symbols – hawks from the Kano school

Kano Tanyu's painting from Nijo Castle - a reproduction is now on display

The beautiful paintings of the Kano school were made for patrons, many of whom were the principal warlords of the day (religious institutions and members of the Imperial family were also notable patrons) and many of these paintings formed grand decorative schemes, filling all the walls of single or multiple chambers. 

In some cases, the theme was the message – tigers and birds of prey were obvious choices for military men, while flowers and birds often decorated the chambers of women of important households. Yet there was also much overlap, with many temples using the same motifs as the warlords, and the decorative schemes of castles employing multiple elements to different effect depending on the use of the room (and the type of visitors that might be expected). In fact, temples took on a number of roles and functions, and often played host to important figures when they travelled.

A good example can be seen at Nijo Castle in Kyoto. The paintings and other decorations were completed under the auspices of Kano Tanyu, the head of the Edo Kano School. He painted many of the major paintings himself, and other members of the family, and the Kyoto Kano School worked under him.

A visitor of the warrior class, on arriving at Nijo Castle, the Tokugawa shogun’s official residence in Kyoto, might be shown into a room gloriously decorated with tigers prowling through a bamboo grove, putting him in mind of the power and the potential danger represented by the shogun. If granted an audience, he would be shown into a chamber decorated with majestic pine trees in whose branches perched imperious eagles or hawks. They would have looked even more impressive in those days, as they would have been viewed from a seated position, and much of the time the visitor would be keeping his head lowered in deference to the shogun. In any case. He could not fail to identify these motifs with the powerful man before him.

Nijo Castle with reproductions of the original paintings

An imperial envoy, on the other hand, would be granted an audience in a room decorated with flowering cherry trees, showing that the shogun was also a man of culture, worthy of the position bestowed on him (by the emperor, who really didn’t have much choice in the matter, especially after the position had become hereditary).

Aimed to impress through cultural legitimacy rather than intimidation.

These motifs were certainly symbolic, though perhaps only in a general way. In some cases, the motifs were far more specific in the symbols they employed. An interesting example of this can be seen at Zuiganji Temple in Sendai, whose patron, the powerful warlord Date Masamune, maintained strong associations with the temple. The decorative scheme of one of its rooms, the Taka no Ma (The Hawk Room) is more direct. Serving as a waiting room for Masamune’s vassals, when he visited or was staying at the temples, it incorporates a number of motifs that illustrate sayings meant to instruct the vassals on behaviour proper to the bushi class.

Below are some of the paintings showing the parts in question with a short explanation of their message. The originals have been replaced with modern replicas (painted by experts in the copying of historical paintings – some art colleges still have this as a department), so they probably look pretty close to how they would have appeared in their prime, though losing much of the atmosphere of the faded originals.

All of these illustrate well-known sayings, and Date Masamune’s interest in this kind of thing may well have stemmed from the rigorous education he received from the monk Kosai Soitsu. Two of them are puns, while two of them are direct illustrations of sayings.

Bushi shouldn't allow themselves to be made fools of.  This contains a play on the word kamo, which means both duck and to be made a fool of.

Bushi should not be involved in fraud. Similarly, this contains a play on the word sagi, which means both a heron or egret and fraud.

If the pheasant didn’t cry out, it wouldn’t get shot. In this case, the pheasant has revealed itself and a hawk is in hot pursuit. Obviously a lesson on the value of keeping quiet. Even today, the proverb, ‘the nail that sticks up will be hammered down’ is often put into practice.

If you chase two rabbits, you won’t even catch one. It’s difficult to tell if there is a second rabbit from this picture (or even a first one if you don't know what you're looking for - it's the white thing directly below the eagle). Nonetheless, the meaning is clear. Note also the similarity in pose to the hawk in the Nijo Castle painting at the top of this blog. Training in the Kano school made much use of the copying of standard models – this was an important part of maintaining standards and reproducing the school's signature style.

For comparison, here is a picture of how some of the original paintings in Zuiganji looked before they were replaced. Although I appreciate the original paintings, I must admit that the venue does make a big difference to the effect on the viewer. I haven't been to Nijo Castle for a few years, but, depending on the weather, the paintings certainly didn't always show very well. Visitors couldn't get very close, and there was a constant pressure to move on, rather than stand and look. Perhaps they are better in the attached museum where the selection on view can be examined at close quarters. However, it could also be argued that there is nothing quite like the experience of seeing art in situ as it has been for hundreds of years.

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.