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: https://ameblo.jp/artony/entry-12061401999.html).


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.



  1. Excellent - nice comparisons. I am more in agreement with you than the others.

  2. Excellent - nice comparisons. I am more in agreement with you than the others.

  3. Excellent indeed, thank you for sharing.