Sword Masters of Ancient Japan

By David Aguero

Kendo has a very long and rich history of development in Japan. Some of the legendary sword masters of ancient Japan left writings to explain their philosophy and methods, the following are just a few of these legendary sword masters.

Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645)
Miyamoto Musashi is the most famous of samurai because of his many duels of which he never lost, his book Gorinsho translated: “five rings” and his eccentric nature. Born in the village of Miyamoto in the province of Mimasaka (today’s Okayama Prefecture.)
Musashi’s mother died while in child birth and he was raised by his stepmother Yoshiko. Musashi’s farther and stepmother separated because of incompatibility and Mushashi spent time between his fathers and step mothers home whom he preferred to stay with. Musashi’s father Munisai excelled in a number of martial arts and trained Musashi until he was thirteen. Yosiko hoping that religious training would mellow the young Musashi’s volatile nature sent Musashi to a Zen temple in the nearby village of Heifuku that Yosiko’s uncle was head of.
It was common for samurai to travel the countryside testing their skills by engaging in duels. A roaming samurai by the name of Arima Kihei posted a request for a duel with anyone in village of Heifuku where Musashi was in religious training. Upon seeing the posting by Arima Kihei, Musashi responded and a match was scheduled even though Arima Kihei did not know that Musashi was just a child. It is said that the duel with Arima was won by Musashi armed with just a bokken (wooden sword) picked up Kihei and threw him to the ground and before he could get up Musashi struck him with the bokken killing him. This duel was the first of over sixty matches that Musashi won. The most famous of Musashi’s duels was with Sasaki Kojiro a master at using a longer than standard sized sword. The duel was scheduled to take place on a small island just off the Northern tip of Kyusho at 7:00 A.M. on April 1612. Sasaki Kojiro appeared on time with samurai witnesses for the Lord Hosokawa. Musashi arrived hours late, this enraged Kojiro who met Musashi on the shoreline impatiently throwing his sword scabbard down and haranguing Musashi for making him wait. Musashi calmly stepped out of the row boat that brought him to the island with a long bokken (wooden sword) having fashioned it from one of the boats man’s oars. Musashi won the match decisively having killed Kojiro with a blow to head.

Musashi is well known for using two swords in battle with multiple opponents yet interestingly it is said he preferred to use a simple wooden sword to destroy and otherwise dispatch his opponents. Musashi was known to have an unkempt appearance and almost never bathed. Musashi was also well regarded as a painter, calligrapher and sculptor. Musashi composed his samurai masters manual “the five rings” in the solitude of a cave, dying a few short years after the book was completed. His book "The Five Rings" is the most concise explanation of the use of strategy in Japanese swordsmanship ever known, strategy that transcends its use in swordsmanship with applications in business, and everyday life.

Yagyu Munenori (1571-1646)
Yagyu Munenori's book Heiho kadensho or "The Life Giving Sword" remains an important martial arts book today as it was when Munenori first wrote this pivotal book. Famous for being the sword instructor to the shogun Tokugawa Hidetada his son the Tokugawa Iemitsu and his close relationship with the zen master Soho Takuan, Munenori also
helped found the "no sword" school of swordsmanship.

Yagyu Munenori was born into a large family, the youngest of son of five brothers and six sisters. Munenori's father choose him as his successor, the head of the family clan and master of Yagyu Shinkage-ryu school of martial arts when he passed away at the age of seventy seven. The Yagyu family was a very prominent samuari family having established the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu school of martial arts by Menenori's grandfather and father. It is said that the Yagyu family also had roots in the ninja clans that lived in their community. Munenori was a long time sword instructor for the first two Tokugawa shoguns and at the age of forty five became the sword instructor for the future shogun Iemitsu. Munenori became very close to Iemitsu, advising him in many matters other than swordsmanship. Munenori was one of the few masters that advocated the use of an early form of bamboo shinai and an early form of kendo armor for use while practicing swordsmanship.

The influence of Zen philosophy on Yagyu Munenori was fundamental in his developing his views on swordsmanship. His life long friendship, along with teachings of the famous zen master Soho Takuan helped form the workings of the book "The Life Giving Sword". A book whose premise was that of killing evil out of necessity can be used to preserve life or give life to countless others. The life giving sword was a way of living life. The Takuan's teachings for swordsmanship was to cast away all attachment, becoming enlightened and in the state of 'No Mind'. If No Mind was reached both body and sword would move naturally. Munenori states that the goal of practicing and training is that eventually the actions will exist in your body and limbs and not in your mind. The disciplined body can move naturally without the mind, reaching the stage of muga, or No-Self.

Munenori passed away after a brief illness on March 26, 1646, at the age seventy-six.

The book of five rings by Miyamoto Musashi, The Life giving Sword by Yagyu Munenori

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