By arriving late, showing contempt for the opponent and the moment and then doubling down by not even having the dignity to use a real sword for a life-or-death duel he rattled his adversary. Brilliant strategy don’t you think? But, Musashi went even farther still… When Kojirō drew his sword to get things started he threw his saya (scabbard) aside in disgust, prompting Musashi to further unnerve him by commenting something along the lines of, “If you have no more use for your scabbard, you are already dead.”
Musashi had won even before the fight began because he had stacked the deck in his favor so effectively. Not only did he use psychological tricks, but he also wielded a longer weapon, something which many overlook in his victory.
Remember the scene in the Bruce Lee movie Enter the Dragon where he tricked an opponent onto a boat and then left him floating without an oar? That was inspired by another of Musashi’s dirty tricks. He may or may not have truly been the greatest swordsman of his period, perhaps even of all time, but we know for certain that Musashi was one of the most successful. An unconventional thinker, he often fought with two swords instead of one, he made extensive use of misdirection and psychological warfare, and nearly always cheated in one way or another in order to win. In fact, he was downright brilliant at his job, which like most warriors who live in tumultuous times ultimately boils down to killing people efficiently.
Unlike others of his era, however, Musashi took the time to write about what he had done, the things he had accomplished, and the strategies that made him successful in his endeavors. That’s a vital factor in what we know and think about him today. After all, he’s not the only one who lived an amazing life during that time period, but he is one of the few who documented his perspectives on what he had seen and done for posterity.
The Book of Five Rings, Musashi’s most famous writing, is a work where life experience meets genius. One surefire way to know whether or not you hold genius in your hands when you read it is to have the work span your lifetime regarding its impact. If, for example, you read the classic science-fiction book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle as a child it’s magical. To re-read it later in life brings back those magical
feelings. That’s the mark of a truly well-written book, but is it genius? No, not so much… Let’s contrast this with Musashi’s work. To read The Book of Five Rings in your youth and then peruse it again in mid-life, the sensation is not a recounting of emotion but rather a newer and deeper understanding of what has been presented. This is what you’re looking for. In fact, The Book of Five Rings is often placed alongside The Art of War by Sun Tzu, On War by General Carl von Clausewitz, Infantry Attacks by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and Patterns of Conflict by Colonel John Boyd. Each of these works has materially influenced military thinking, directly or indirectly influencing modern combat despite the fact that they were written decades or even centuries ago.
In this sense, Musashi truly was a combative genius. Small wonder that our patron sword saint crossed over to become an icon, a legend… But what drove him? What brought him there?
While he never wrote a book that we know of, Musashi’s father Munisai was a famous martial artist in his own right. His very name means, “A man unequaled.” After defeating a famous swordsman of the Yoshioka family in front of the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshiaki, he was honored with the title, hi no shita heihojutsusha, which translates as, “The greatest fighter/tactician under the sun.” He was also reported to be self-assured, aggressive, aloof, and domineering. And, he firmly believed that his son was arrogant. It is easy to see that this combination of the autocrat and the arrogant would not mix well. Night and day; oil and water… And, to be certain, it didn’t.
Musashi’s father treated him poorly, ostensibly in order to bend him to his will. It didn’t work. When he could no longer abide the strict rules of Munisai’s household and treatment that he felt was beneath his station, Musashi ran away from home.3 He was only eight years old at the time. It is reasonable to assume that he returned to his birthplace now and again, as it was a place of refuge after all, but once he had made his reputation by killing Kihei he left his hometown never to return. We do not know if he ever spoke to a family member again, but it’s likely a safe bet that he did not.
3 There are numerous (and conflicting) stories of Musashi’s childhood. In some accounts his father died when he was eight, in others his father abandoned him when he was that age, but we believe this to be the most likely explanation of what actually occurred.