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.
Editor’s note: The following is the result of merging and editing two letters (September 2, 1969 and June 29, 1981), and the text was previously published in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 8:3 (1999), 34-37.
The letters’ background is this. In the spring of 1981, Smith decided to review Kodansha’s recently released translation of Yoshikawa Eiji’s novel Musashi. First, however, he asked his collaborator on Asian Fighting Arts for his opinion of the historical Musashi. The result was the following essay, most of which appeared in a typewritten aerogram dated June 29, 1981. (The 1969 letter mentioned only referred to Musashi’s underrated skill at jujutsu.)
Editorially, paragraphing was added and a few sentences were moved about. (Which is hardly surprising, inasmuch as one tends to get lax about paragraphing when typing on aerograms!) Otherwise the article’s vibrant style reflects the typically ebullient tone of Draeger’s correspondence with Smith.
Regarding Miyamoto Musashi, most historians will allow that he was a historical person, but his dates are in contention. I follow Watatani with 1584(?) to 1645. The date of death seems well established.
During his lifetime, at least four other persons are known to have used his name. Why not, with so famous a man?
The historical Musashi was foremost an enigmatic character. Most of what is written about him, or credited to him, is fiction. For example, he did not write the Gorin no sho. Those who came after and eulogized him did the writing. This was much like the Bible, Qur’an, etc., where students recalled the great man’s sayings and statements plus whatever embellishments the writers wished to add. The result was the Gorin no sho we have today.
In its recent Japanese editions Gorin no sho has been misinterpreted and recast in terms that are glowing and pleasing to modern ears. Thus it is a far cry from any original that may have once existed. Even the earliest version, the one that never gets to the public’s eyes, is far removed from the brush or mouth of its purported author. Instead it has a Tokugawa-era Neo-Confucian tone.
Musashi himself was not the strongest kengo (sword expert) of his time. He allegedly acknowledged the superiority of a Shinkage-ryu master of his own time. There were many stronger before and after him.
He did not devise the nito or two-sword manner of combat. This had already been devised and was in use about two centuries before he was born. Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu was using the two-sword method (ryo-to) in combat during the earlier Muromachi period.
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.
As for his technical skills, today’s authorities in the classical martial traditions (koryu) make nothing special of him. To them he is just another swordsman, not particularly the best, but admittedly the best advertised. That the man was famous but the details of his life largely unknown make him a fitting place upon which to hang whatever an author wants to say.
Something that puts the historical Musashi high above the run-of-the-mill armchair theorist, however, is that he was a fighting man who had seen combat on the losing side at Sekigahara. I also have found evidence that he was an extremely competent jujutsuka. The latter never gets play due to the popular emphasis on his swordsmanship.
What one finds written about Musashi today is almost wholly fiction. Kodansha’s English translation of Gorin no sho called A Book of Five Rings is technically bad. The reason it was accepted was that the publishers knew nothing about swordsmanship. Yoshikawa’s novels serialized in the Japanese newspapers during the late 1930s and recently reprinted by Kodansha are a sourcebook of errors, some deliberate, some innocent. Together they have probably permanently damaged chances for the public to ever understand the truth about the man and add up to near disaster for the scholar or researcher who is not extremely careful about his sources.
In sum, Musashi was a loner, an eccentric, a capable swordsman, and a man of artistic sensibilities about whose life the truth is not well known. Nevertheless, he lives on in the words of romantic novelists and other imaginative writers. The latter idealized Musashi satisfies perhaps all but the most critical readers as to what the ideal image of the classical Japanese warrior must be.
An Editor’s Guide to Further Reading
Although Gorin no sho literally translates as "the Scroll of Five Wheels [or Spheres]," Guy Power, the US director of the International Iai-Battodo Federation, suggests that a better contextual translation might be "The Tombstone Book." The reason is that in Japanese a gorin is a tombstone, and a gorinto is a five-tiered stupa whose geomantic configurations match those of Musashi's book. Still, the book is generally known in English as The Book of Five Rings.
There are at least four English translations currently available. Listed alphabetically by translators, they are:
Cleary, Thomas (1993). Boston and London: Shambhala.
Harris, Victor (1974). Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.
Kaufman, Steve (1994). Tokyo and Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle.
Nihon Services Corporation (1983). New York: Bantam Books.
The translation by Kaufman makes Musashi sound as if he was a late twentieth century karate teacher rather than a seventeenth century Japanese swordsman. Meanwhile, the translation by Nihon Services Corporation makes Musashi sound as if he was a graduate of Harvard Business School rather than a seventeenth century Japanese swordsman. And, as people who read Japanese well have complained that the translation by Victor Harris is not all that it should be, that leaves the translation by Thomas Cleary as perhaps the most satisfactory available.
Books that can help readers correct for the errors inherent in any translation of Musashi’s Gorin no sho include:
Cleary, Thomas (1991). The Japanese Art of War: Understanding the Culture of Strategy. Boston and London: Shambhala.
Draeger, Donn (1973). Classical Bujutsu (Martial Arts and Ways of Japan), volume 1. New York: Weatherhill.
Kammer, Reinhard (1986). The Way of the Sword: The Tengu-Geijutsu-Ron of Chozan Shissai, translated from the German by Betty J. Fitzgerald. London: Arkana.
Yagyu Muneyori (1986). The Sword and The Mind, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press.
For additional insight into how pre-World War II Japanese viewed (and translated) the text, see Mock Joya, "The Japanese Sword: The Symbol of 'Heiho,'" Japan Times, May 6, 1928, pp. 3, 6.
JCS Jan 2000