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The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi

The Lone Samurai: The Life of Miyamoto Musashi

by William Scott Wilson

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The Lone Samurai is a landmark biography of Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary Japanese figure known throughout the world as a master swordsman, spiritual seeker, and author of The Book of Five Rings. A stunning portrait of a courageous and singularly determined man emerges in these pages, the first biography of Musashi to appear in English. With a compassionate yet


The Lone Samurai is a landmark biography of Miyamoto Musashi, the legendary Japanese figure known throughout the world as a master swordsman, spiritual seeker, and author of The Book of Five Rings. A stunning portrait of a courageous and singularly determined man emerges in these pages, the first biography of Musashi to appear in English. With a compassionate yet critical eye, William Scott Wilson delves into the workings of Musashi’s mind as the iconoclastic samurai wrestled with philosophical and spiritual ideas that are as relevant today as they were in his times. Musashi found peace and spiritual reward in seeking to perfect his chosen Way, and came to realize that perfecting a single Way, no matter the path, could lead to fulfillment. The Lone Samurai is far more than a vivid account of a fascinating slice of feudal Japan. It is the story of one man’s quest for answers, perfection, and access to the Way.

By age thirteen, Miyamoto Musashi had killed his opponent in what would become the first of many celebrated swordfights. By thirty, he had fought more than sixty matches, losing none. He would live another thirty years but kill no one else. He continued to engage in swordfights but now began to show his skill simply by thwarting his opponents’ every attack until they acknowledged Musashi’s all-encompassing ability. At the same time, the master swordsman began to expand his horizons, exploring Zen Buddhism and its related arts, particularly ink painting, in a search for a truer Way.

Musashi was a legend in his own time. As a swordsman, he preferred the wooden sword and in later years almost never fought with a real weapon. He outfoxed his opponents or turned their own strength against them. At the height of his powers, he began to evolve artistically and spiritually, becoming one of the country’s most highly regarded ink painters and calligraphers, while deepening his practice of Zen Buddhism. He funneled his hard-earned insights about the warrior arts into his spiritual goals. Ever the solitary wanderer, Musashi shunned power, riches, and the comforts of a home or fixed position with a feudal lord in favor of a constant search for truth, perfection, and a better Way. Eventually, he came to the realization that perfection in one art, whether peaceful or robust, could offer entry to a deeper, spiritual understanding. His philosophy, along with his warrior strategies, is distilled in his renowned work, The Book of Five Rings, written near the end of his life.

Working from original Japanese source materials, author William Scott Wilson paints an unforgettable portrait. Wilson, of course, is also the translator who brought the English-speaking world the authoritative versions of Hagakure, Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, and other classics of martial arts philosophy.

Musashi remains a source of fascination for the Japanese, as well as for those of us in the West who have more recently discovered the ideals of the samurai and Zen Buddhism. The Lone Samurai is the first biography ever to appear in English of this richly layered, complex seventeenth-century swordsman and seeker, whose legacy has lived far beyond his own time and place.


William Scott Wilson was born in 1944 and grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As an undergraduate student at Dartmouth College in 1966, he was invited by a friend to join a three-month kayak trip up the coast of Japan from Shimonoseki to Tokyo. This eye-opening journey, beautifully documented in National Geographic, spurred Wilson’s fascination with the culture and history of Japan.

After receiving a B.A. degree in political science from Dartmouth, Wilson earned a second B.A. in Japanese language and literature from the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies in Monterey, California, then undertook extensive research on Edo-period (1603-1868) philosophy at the Aichi Prefectural University, in Nagoya, Japan.

Wilson completed his first translation, Hagakure, while living in an old farmhouse deep in the Japanese countryside. Hagakure saw publication in 1979, the same year Wilson completed an M.A. in Japanese language and literature at the University of Washington. Wilson’s other translations include The Book of Five Rings, The Life-Giving Sword, The Unfettered Mind, the Eiji Yoshikawa novel Taiko, and Ideals of the Samurai, which has been used as a college textbook on Japanese history and thought. Two decades after its initial publication, Hagakure was prominently featured in the Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog.

Traveling frequently to Japan for research and pleasure, Wilson currently lives in Miami, Florida.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Musashi is primarily known in the West as the author of The Book of Five Rings, a guide to swordsmanship strategies that became a essential business-strategy manual in the 1980s. Wilson, having translated Musashi's book into English, turns for the first time to biography, with as complete a life of the man behind the sword as possible, given his legendary stature and peripatetic, largely undocumented story. Musashi lived in the 17th century and had his first match at 13 with a shugyosha (an older, professional swordsman); only Musashi walked away alive. For three decades, he wandered feudal Japan, moving from patron to patron, taking on opponents in formal and informal matches, teaching others his art and sometimes taking part in clan and regional rivalries. He eventually settled in southern Japan, where his martial art skills led organically to visual art: simple-looking, highly disciplined ink-and-brush painting and calligraphy. Toward the end of his life, Musashi synthesized everything he'd learned into the literary work he is now best known for. Wilson integrates a considerable amount of Japanese history and culture into a short, dense book with lots of specialized information. Although Musashi doesn't become fully dimensional-and given the scarcity of primary source material, he probably can't-Wilson provides an extensive appendix of other materials that have depicted the legendary swordsman over the centuries. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Samurai Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) was known for an unorthodox style that depended both on psychology--or trickery, as his opponents claimed--and on meticulous technique. Wilson, the translator of Miyamoto's Book of Five Rings, a handbook of martial Zen Buddhism, here turns his talents to Miyamoto Musashi's turbulent life as a swordsman and teacher, crisply retelling, with background for Western readers, the story known to so many Japanese. A particular contribution of this study is Wilson's account of how Miyamoto's life became legend in later centuries--in the last 100 years there have been 43 films about him! This book nicely supplements such recent works as Mark Ravina's The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, a biography of a 19th-century martyr, and Stephen Turnbull's Samurai: The Story of Japan's Great Warriors, a richly illustrated general history. Lively and balanced, it will please those who are looking for a readable but serious presentation of medieval Bushido and samurai culture.--Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From the translator of his famed treatise on swordsmanship, The Book of Five Rings, the first English-language biography of a legendary Japanese fighter, teacher, artist, and author. Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) first attracted notice at age 13, when he required only a staff to defeat a wandering swordsman whose arrogance offended him. His reputation grew as he vanquished a number of famous samurai, wielding a wooden sword against his opponents' steel. Wilson describes several of these duels, emphasizing Musashi's use of ploys-such as arriving late at the field of combat in ragged clothing. All in all, Musashi fought 60 formal duels and served in six military campaigns. Around the age of 30, he apparently decided that he no longer needed to kill his rivals to establish his mastery; in later matches he often led his opponent around the arena until it became clear that no attack could touch him. Solicited to join the courts of several powerful rulers, Musashi insisted on remaining unattached. He would stay at a sponsor's home as a guest, offering advice but rejecting formal allegiance. At the same time, he developed his skill as an artist in the difficult suibokuga style, which offers no chance to modify or correct brushstrokes. The author includes several drawings he signed with the name Niten, most showing figures from Zen mythology, often with birds; they are considered masterpieces of suibokuga. Wilson, a veteran translator and a longtime student of Japanese language and literature, shows clearly the influence of Zen on Musashi's thinking, art, and writing. Appendices document Musashi's role as a Robin Hood-like folk hero in Japanese literature and film. Excellent notes and glossaryprovide context for the swordsman's life. A fascinating glimpse of a central figure in traditional Japanese culture.

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Kodansha USA Publishing
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Read an Excerpt

The Lone Samurai

The Life of Miyamoto Musashi
By William Scott Wilson


Copyright © 2013 William Scott Wilson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781590309872

From Chapter One:
The Way of the Sword: Banshu to Ganryu Island
First strike
O ne morning in 1596, just outside the village of Hirafuku in the province of Banshu, Arima Kihei, a swordsman of the Shinto-ryu, sat waiting for a formal apology. This was to be delivered by a thirteen¬year-old boy, Miyamoto Bennosuke, the local gaki daisho, or “commander-in-chief” of every ruffian in the area, and the chief instigator of every outrage in Hirafuku.
Kihei had arrived in the area a few days earlier, put up a simple bamboo fence, and erected a placard announcing in large gold letters that he would accept a match with anyone willing to enter a contest of skill with him. Why he chose to come to such an out-of-the-way place as Hirafuku is uncertain. He may have heard that a master of the sword and the jitte, a certain Hirata Munisai, lived not too far away, and hoped to attract his attention.
He was, however, to be disappointed. It was a young Bennosuke, rather than the seasoned Munisai or any other wandering swordsman, who noticed the placard. On his way home at the time from a calligraphy lesson, Bennosuke took out his brush and ink, smeared over the gold letters of Kihei’s sign and, in a fit of bravado, wrote, “Miyamoto Bennosuke, residing at the Shoren-in, will give you a match tomorrow.”
When Kihei returned to the spot and saw this bit of vandalism, he responded by sending a disciple to the Shoren-in, where the youngster Bennosuke lived with his uncle, the priest Dorinbo. As Kihei’s disciple informed the priest that his master wished to accept the challenge from this Bennosuke, the priest turned ashen and explained that Bennosuke was only thirteen and that his challenge was just an adolescent prank. When informed of this, Kihei magnanimously sent a message to Dorinbo that he understood, but would need a formal apology from the boy in order to clear his honor. The priest readily accepted these terms.
So the following morning Kihei sat waiting for the priest and the boy to set the matter right. A number of villagers who had heard of the incident also gathered, probably to witness and enjoy the humiliation of this wayward child who was always causing so much trouble.
But as Dorinbo and Bennosuke approached, people noticed that the latter was carrying a six-foot staff. Then, to everyone’s surprise, just at the moment the apology was to be made, instead of bowing in humility, Bennosuke charged. Kihei was not expecting this and may have been caught off guard, but he was a practiced swordsman. Dodging the blow, he unsheathed his sword and took a stance. Surely the onlookers must have thought that the brash young challenger had no chance at all. But after a few exchanges, Bennosuke suddenly threw down his staff and grappled with Kihei. He then picked the swordsman up bodily and threw him down headfirst. Recovering his staff, he beat Kihei to death and returned home.
Long before writing The Book of Five Rings, Bennosuke would become known as Miyamoto Musashi.
In that book he refers to this match quite simply: “From long ago in my youth, I set my mind on the martial arts, and had my first match when I was thirteen. My opponent was a martial artist of the Shinto¬ryu, Arima Kihei, whom I defeated.”
But another record, the Tanji hokin hikki, provides insight into Bennosuke’s mental attitude at the time of the match: “At this point [Bennosuke] thought, ‘I was unbeaten by the enemy because I gave no thought to my life. I simply walked in and struck.’ ”
This attitude would inform his psychology for the rest of his life and become one of the main undercurrents of The Book of Five Rings.
His “enemy,” Arima Kihei, was most likely one of the many shugyosha of that period; a sword practitioner who perfected his skills and enhanced his reputation by wandering through the provinces of Japan engaging in combat—often mortal—with other swordsmen. A shugyosha took disciples or established his own style or school, but also always hoped to be noticed by the local lord, who might offer him an official position as sword instructor to his clan. The life of the shugyosha was by no means an easy one. It involved a long list of rigorous ascetic practices: in his travels, the shugyosha was exposed to cold and hot weather, often sleeping in the mountains and fields with little shelter from the wind and rain; he bore hunger without carrying money or rations for his travels; he walked through the most inaccessible places and was always in danger of losing either his reputation or his life in a chance match along the way.
Of the unfortunate Kihei himself, almost nothing is known, but he may not have been the most exemplary of shugyosha. One account, the Sayo gunshi, published in Hyogo Prefecture in 1926, relates: “There was a certain Arima Kihei who gambled and acted outrageously. Although an accomplished swordsman of the Shinto-ryu, in town he was despised as though he were a snake or scorpion.”
His style, the Shinto-ryu, was that of the legendary Tsukahara Bokuden, a master swordsman of a generation earlier; but the word “Shinto-ryu” may indicate any number of styles or substyles. There were, and still are, the Katori Shinto-ryu, the Kashima Shinto-ryu, and the way of the sword
Bokuden’s style as well. All of these came from the eastern provinces at that time and were offshoots of one basic tradition. (Interestingly, there was also an Arima Shinto-ryu created by a certain Arima Yama¬to no kami, and it may be that Kihei was either a member of that family or a disciple of the school.)
Nothing else is clear: only that Kihei was killed by the thirteen-year¬old Bennosuke (it should be noted in Kihei’s defense that, according to some accounts, Bennosuke had the stature of a young man three or four years older).
For his part, Bennosuke coolly returned to the Shoren-in to continue his studies in calligraphy, Confucianism, and Buddhism under the loose—and perhaps, after this turn of events, timid—direction of his uncle Dorinbo. He also studied some painting, probably on his own; when he departed the temple for good, he left a painting of the Zen patriarch, Daruma, presaging his emergence some thirty-five years later as one of Japan’s finest india ink painters. But, for the three years following the match, he lived now at the Shoren-in near Hirafuku, and now with his sister, Ogin, in the village of Miyamoto, close to the provincial border in Sakushu. Finally, in the early spring of 1599, he deeded all of his family’s possessions—weapons, furniture, and family tree—to his sister’s husband, Yoemon, and walked out of Miyamoto and up into the hills with one of his friends. At Kama Slope, having been presented with Bennosuke’s staff as a keepsake, his friend turned back to Miyamoto and obscurity. Bennosuke—who from this point became known as Miyamoto Musashi— walked out of obscurity and on to become Japan’s most famous and singular swordsman.
There is nothing particularly remarkable about the low mountains and hills between the villages of Hirafuku and Miyamoto. In the late 1500s, the area contained scattered farming villages dotted with houses and fields and, in Miyamoto, a river of no very great size. Yet while the landscape was generally one of peace and tranquility, if a traveler climbed the Kama Slope, as Musashi did on his departure, he would come out onto a pass in the middle of the mountains. This was the highway between Harima (Banshu) and Mimasaka (Sakushu), which during the ensuing Edo period (1603–1868) was part of the road used for the sankin kotai, the journey to Edo (Tokyo) taken by the daimyo every two years. The road itself was an ancient one, probably used as a trail first by the bear and deer that had inhabited the forests, later by hunters, and finally by merchants transporting wares from the western seaboard to the capital. No doubt it would have been a thing of wonder to a small boy of great curiosity and imagination, growing up in one of these otherwise remote country villages. It was the road out.
Harima, however, did have a colorful history. The Akamatsu clan had settled there early in the twelfth century, eventually building Shirahata Castle and establishing itself as the local daimyo family. The Akamatsu were descended from a Minamoto Morofusa, who in turn came from the Genji line of the Emperor Murakami, and thus the clan could consider themselves distant relatives of the imperial family. The Akamatsu did well in the area for three hundred years, but came to their end in 1441 when the head of the clan, Mitsusuke, made the great tactical error of assassinating the Ashikaga shogun, Yoshinori. Although the shogunate itself was not very strong at the time, other daimyo led by Hosokawa Mochiyuki took this opportunity to destroy Mitsusuke and his clan’s castle.
The Bessho, a junior line of the Akamatsu, survived this disaster and prospered enough to built several castles in Harima. One of these castles, commanded by a Bessho Shigeharu, was attacked and fell in 1578; Shigeharu escaped by the skin of his teeth to the village of Hirafuku, where he changed his name to Tasumi, literally “one living the way of the sword in the fields.” It was Shigeharu’s daughter, Yoshiko, who gave birth to Musashi in 1584, thus linking him to the Akamatsu, to the Minamoto or Genji, and, anciently, to the imperial line.
Musashi’s father was Hirata Munisai, a landed samurai with the status of senior vassal to the Shinmen clan, whose last name he was eventually given permission to use as his own. The Shinmen family was a pillar of the warrior community in Mimasaka and its progenitor was Tokudaiji Sanetaka, the twenty-eighth-generation descendant of the famous Fujiwara Kamatari. Involved in the attempted restoration of Emperor Godaigo between 1334 and 1338, Sanetaka was exiled to Awai-no-cho in Mimasaka. His son, Tokuchiyo, went to Kyoto and asked for absolution (shamen; 赦免) of the family’s crimes. This was granted, and the clan was given the status of warrior and changed its name to Shinmen (新免), or “newly absolved.” Tokuchiyo, now called Shinmen Norishige, married the daughter of Akamatsu Sadanori, the governor of Mimasaka; his son Naganori also married into the Akamatsu clan.
Finally, Munisai’s father married into the Shinmen clan and Munisai’s first wife, Omasa, was the daughter of Shinmen Munesada, the fourth-generation Shinmen. It is in light of this genealogy that Musashi sometimes stated his full name to be Shinmen Musashi Fujiwara Genshin.
Munisai thus became a minor power in the area and was invested with a small fief; his house in Miyamoto was an old-style mansion, surrounded by a good bit of land enclosed by walls of stone and no doubt including a fine dojo. It was here that Musashi played as a young child, climbing the trees and roaming the low mountains. His older sister, Ogin, married into the nearby Hirao family, and in the garden of that house today stands a zelkova tree that is said to be the second generation of one from which the young Musashi took a branch to make into the first of his many wooden swords.
An instructor to the Shinmen clan, Munisai was a master of several of the martial arts including the Two-Sword Style, the use of the jitte, jujitsu, and the proper use of armor.6 He was known in particular as a skilled practitioner of the Tori-ryu of swordsmanship, a style he would use to good effect against Yoshioka Kenpo in Kyoto. Munisai also taught jujitsu to Takenouchi Hisamori, who stayed as a guest at the Hirata house when Musashi was about four years old and who would later establish the Takenouchi-ryu of that art. Thus, Musashi was raised in a household that placed a great emphasis on the martial arts and he most likely began receiving some instruction from his father at an early age. Certainly weapons of all kinds were constantly around him and he must have often sat enthralled at the conversations of the talented men who came and went, gathering around the stern Munisai for instruction and edification.
But Musashi’s childhood was not a happy one. Not long after he was born, Munisai divorced his second wife, Yoshiko, who was Musashi’s mother, and she moved back to her home in Harima. Munisai then married yet again, and Musashi seems not to have gotten along well with his new stepmother. In addition, there were hurtful rumors that his real mother was not Yoshiko at all, but in fact was Omasa, Munisai’s first wife—a claim that the village of Miyamoto (now Miyamoto, Ohara-machi, Aida-gun, Okayama Prefecture) officially makes to this day. When he was about eight years old, Musashi’s relationship with his father began to deteriorate to the point where the young boy began making the difficult trip over the mountains to visit Yoshiko and her family, eventually dividing his time between Harima and Mimasaka. It was at about this time that his formal education was placed in the hands of his uncle, the priest Dorinbo.
One day, the situation with his father came to a head. The following story is found in the Tanji hokin hikki:
Bennosuke watched his father’s martial arts from the time he was quite young. As he got older, he gradually started to voice critical remarks. Munisai began to think that this child was not very likeable, despite the fact that he was his own son. One day, while Munisai was carving a toothpick, his son approached and began criticizing his jitte technique. Angered, Munisai took the dagger he was using to carve the toothpick, and threw it at his son as though it were a shuriken. Bennosuke dodged the weapon and it lodged in the pillar behind him. Munisai became all the angrier, took out his short sword and used it too as a shuriken. Bennosuke dodged this as well and fled outside. After this, he never returned to the house but, rather, lived with a priest related to his mother in Banshu. Thus he abandoned his hometown.
Musashi now considered Hirafuku to be his real home, and it may be for this reason that he declares in The Book of Five Rings, “I am a warrior born in Harima.” But local records in Miyamoto copied as far back as 1689 clearly state that Musashi—officially, at least—lived in that village until 1596, and so would have retained a strong sense of its rhythms and environment. One of his favorite haunts would have been, just as it is to village children in Japan today, the local shrine, with its wide spaces and old trees. In ancient times, the Aramaki, or Sanomo shrine, had once stood at the top of the mountain to the rear of the village—hence the village’s name: Miyamoto, “at the foot of the shrine.” The shrine was later moved to the base of the mountain, close to the northern side of the Miyamoto River. Here the young Musashi would have watched the Shinto priests as they beat a huge drum throughout the day; at night he would have drifted off to sleep to the same sound: that of two drumsticks


Excerpted from The Lone Samurai by William Scott Wilson Copyright © 2013 by William Scott Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Shambhala, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Meet the Author

William Scott Wilson is the foremost translator into English of traditional Japanese texts on samurai culture. He received BA degrees from Dartmouth College and the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies, and an MA in Japanese literary studies from the University of Washington. His best-selling books include The Book of Five Rings, The Unfettered Mind, and The Lone Samurai, a biography of Miyamoto Musashi.

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