Much of Miyamoto Musashi’s past is shrouded in mystery and legends. His place and date of birth are in doubt. Apparently he was born into a samurai family in the village of Miyamoto in the province of Mimasaka. His full name was Shinmen Musashi no Kami Fujiwara no Genshin.
Reputedly Musashi’s mother died in childbirth and either his stepmother Toshiko raised him – even after his father Shinmen Munisai divorced her – or his mother's brother, a priest, raised him. He met his father occasionally and they may have sparred together. By the time Musashi was nine, his father was either dead or had totally abandoned the boy.
Musashi also apparently contracted eczema in his infancy and it influenced his appearance. One story claims he never took a bath because he did not want to be surprised unarmed. When he took his new name for adulthood, Musashi selected the name of his birthplace, Miyamoto.
According to the introduction of his The Book of Five Rings, where he states some autobiographical details, he had his first successful duel by the age of thirteen. His first opponent was an accomplished samurai Arima Kibei.
After the war was over he left for Edo. According to his adopted son Iori, in 1604 Musashi fought a victorious duel against master swordsman Yoshioka Seijuro using only a bokken, a wooden sword. Reputedly he had a grudge against Yoshioka family for how they had treated his father. After he had defeated the father, he killed both boys in duels – though the latter one was more of an ambush. Records of Yoshioka family claim otherwise.
From 1605 to 1612 he traveled extensively all over Japan in Musha-Shugyo, a warrior pilgrimage during which he honed his skills with duels. He was said to have used bokken in actual duels. He is said to have fought over 60 duels and was never defeated. Japanese historians seem to believe that he could not have won all of them alone, without some assistance from his students.
In April 14, 1612 he had his most famous duel with Sasaki Kojiro who was using nodachi, a long two-handed sword. Musashi came late and unkempt – possibly to unnerve his opponent - and killed him with a bokken that he had made from an oar.
He briefly established a fencing school in 1612.
In 1614-1615 he reputedly joined the troops of Tokugawa Ieyasu when he had besieged the castle of Osaka of the again rebellious Ashikaga family. Other accounts claim he actually served in the defending side but many historians disagree with that. 1615 he entered the service of Ogasawara Tadanao in Harima province as a construction supervisor. During his service he adopted a boy called Iori and originated Enmyo Ryu school of kenjutsu.
In 1627 he begun to travel again. In 1634 he settled in Ogura with his stepson Iori. Later they apparently entered the service of daimyo Ogasawara Tadazane when he fought in the Shimabara Rebellion.
Six years later Musashi moved to service of Hosokawa Tadatoshi, daimyo of Kumamoto Castle to train and paint. In 1643 he retired to a Reigandou cave as a hermit to write The Book of Five Rings. He finished it couple of weeks before his death around May 19, 1654.
After his death, various legends begun to appear. Most talk about his feats in kenjutsu and other martial arts. Others tell that he killed giant lizards in Echizen. He gained the stature of Kensai, “a sword saint” and various tales connect him with other contemporary martial artists.
Musashi perfected the two-sword kenjutsu technique he called niten’ichi (two heavens as one) or nito’ichi (two swords as one). In that swordsman uses both katana and wakizashi at the same time. Reputedly two-handed movements of temple drummers inspired him. He was probably able to do this due to his unusually large size. Most of his contemporaries held their katana with both hands.
Musashi was also rare in that he was a loner. He had no formal training in any of the formal kenjutsu schools – aside from dueling with their representatives. He also had a rather no-nonsense approach to fighting with no additional frills or aesthetic considerations. This was probably due to his real-life combat experience.
Especially in his later life Musashi also followed the more artistic side of bushido. He made various Zen brush paintings and calligraphy and sculpted wood and metal. Even in the Book of Five Rings he emphasizes that samurai should understand other professions as well.
Writings of Miyamoto Musashi
Yoshikawa Eiji’s famous novel Musashi – originally serialized in Asahi Shinbun prior to World War Two – is more or less based on historical events with added fictitious characters. The comic book, Vagabond is based on this novel.