The Iaido Journal  Jan 2015
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Review -- Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms

copyright © 2015 Kim Taylor, all rights reserved.

Miyamoto Musashi A Life in Arms

Miyamoto Musashi A Life in Arms by William de Lange
Paperback, 254 pages, published by Floating World Editions, 2014, Warren, CT ISBN 978-1-891640-62-9
Review by Kim Taylor

This book is the result of a decade of research by William de Lange into the life of Miyamoto Musashi. I hardly need to mention who Musashi was or his importance to modern students of the Japanese sword. Suffice to say that many highly esteemed modern instructors can be heard quoting from his writing on a regular basis. On a more personal note, I am a student of Musashi's sword art and so have a special interest in the man and his life.

De Lange has published three prior books which are translations of key historical documents on Musashi's life, specifically the Bushudenraiki, the Bukoden and a third volume of collected source materials. In addition he has published Musashi, Fact and Fiction: A Guide to the Essential Questions. In the review of this book it would have been responsible of me to read the previous four to give a sense of where they fit together and to tell the reader of this review whether or not he might need read them himself, or if this volume is sufficient. I did not, but I speculate that the questions have been stated, the source material has been translated and this book is a summary of the findings. If a summary is sufficient, your book is here. If you want to obtain as much information as possible on the life of Musashi, I would suggest that all five volumes might be desirable.

De Lange points out in his introduction that Musashi did not write much about himself. Aside from a scant few lines at the front of the Go Rin no Sho this is true, and as it should be if I read the character of Musashi correctly. It seems to me that Musashi was far more interested in his art and his way of living than he was in his own biography. One has only to read his extant, and often-translated writings to understand that he cared little for the details of his "outside" life, and much for his art. His writings were also aimed at his personal students and it would be assumed that they knew as much about his personal life as he wished them to know. In this book, de Lange has taken it upon himself to use the numerous external sources to give us the biography that Musashi neglected. Despite some impressions to the contrary, this biographical material does seem to exist.

The author states that he did the three books of translation first, before setting out to write this book which contains the biography as well as a translation of the Kokura hibun, a stone monument erected in 1654 by Musashi's son Iori, nine years after Musashi's death. This is combined with other early records including the Kaijo Monogatari which details the fight between Musashi and Muso Gunnosuke. (This episode was especially interesting to me as I study Muso's jodo as well as Musashi's sword.) The biography and translation is followed by lists of provinces, historical periods, sword schools, domains and daimyo visited by Musashi, battles and seiges, lineage charts of Musashi's sword schools, a list of websites, a glossary and a lengthy series of end notes, finishing with a bibliograhy and index. In all the extra material must cover a third of the book and is placed out of the way of the main work.

Assuming the academic writing is contained in the earlier books, de Lange has told a lovely story here by moving the academia to the end notes and giving us a familiar rendering in the style of a popular biography complete with internal dialogue and motivational assumptions which make the book anything but a dry academic listing of extant fact. In short, it is a very easy and enjoyable read and should be on the "young adult" list for any kid seriously interested in the martial arts.

Very interesting to me was the analysis of Musashi's early training. Swordsmen don't just spring forth fully skilled and yet it would seem that this is a common assumption about Musashi. His sword art did come from specific roots and de Lange does a good job of explaining them here.

Lord knows I'm not a professional historian, I have no Japanese and I'm sure that there are those who will find some fault with the current volume but I see no reason not to respect de Lange's research as the best we have at the moment. Which is all one can ever ask of history.

Miyamoto Musashi: A Life in Arms is highly recommended to my students of Niten Ichiryu, and to anyone who is interested in the biography of this most interesting fellow who has inspired generations of swordsmen and manga fans alike.

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