The following essay is a revised, expanded, footnoted, and illustrated version of an article that was first published in Dawn.
For centuries, the samurai warriors of Japan have been a source of fascination for both outsiders and the Japanese themselves, with many books and films having been produced about their customs and martial prowess. But few samurai are as famous or as lionised as the “sword saint” Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645), whose treatise on combat The Book of Five Rings has become a global selling phenomenon.
Unfortunately, Western publications of books on the martial arts are often marketed in a way that is contrary to the spirit of their content, and Musashi’s work is representative of this.
The 1982 Bantam Books edition of Musashi’s great treatise is a prime example. Erroneously subtitled “The Real Art of Japanese Management”, the front cover depicts a suited businessman in trench coat with umbrella and briefcase confronting a samurai warrior attired in traditional clothes with sword. One wonders how the businessman would triumph in such an unlikely conflict. Perhaps he would defend himself against the sword with the newspaper he holds aloft. The covers are sprinkled with blurbs which promise success in the manner of a chiromantic con man. Reading the mini-biographies of the translators, one suspects that none of them have any martial arts experience. The rear of the book contains a few pages of advertisements for new age, self-help, and business books.1
The introduction leaves much to be desired. One page suggests that the famous “swordsman” Takuan met and influenced Musashi.2 Except that Takuan was a priest, not a swordsman, and there is no reliable evidence that he either met or influenced Musashi.3 The introduction goes on to compare the effortless whipping up of dinner for ten people to Zen Buddhism.4 This sort of diminution of a profound and ancient religious philosophy has become popular in recent decades, leading to a spate of books with “Zen” in the title, from the pseudo-intellectual (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) to the patently ridiculous (Zen and the Art of Disc Golf).
The Thomas Cleary translation published by Shambhala in 2000 is similarly problematic. The front cover quotes the editor of a business magazine declaring that “Musashi’s teachings read like lessons from the latest business management gurus”. The rear cover categorises the book as “Business/Martial Arts”, while Cleary’s introduction reassures readers who might feel out of their depth that the book was not written solely for men-at-arms.5 This is quite a false assertion. Musashi wrote the book for his closest samurai acquaintances, not for the general public (most of whom were not samurai).6 If there were any doubt of this, the numerous pages of text describing sword-fighting techniques should have been a hint.7
Victor Harris’ translation as published by Overlook Press in 1982 also labels the book as “Business/Martial Arts”, and the cover is emblazoned with the improbable declaration: “Japan’s Answer to the Harvard MBA!”. The 1984 Flamingo edition of this translation8 removed most of the insightful illustrations and added a new blurb describing the book as a “guide to strategy – at home and at work”. Exactly which 17th century sword-fighting strategies are supposed to be used in the modern home is not explained; perhaps a reading of Musashi’s techniques will make one more adept at slicing vegetables. The introduction states that the book is used by many Japanese businessmen to aid them in planning military-like sales campaigns,9 but no facts are provided to support this contention. In fact, there is evidence that the opposite is true, as G. Cameron Hurst III points out in his informative article “Samurai on Wall Street: Miyamoto Musashi and the Search for Success”.10
Yet another version of the Harris translation bears a passing mention by virtue of its awfulness: the edition published by Axiom Publishing in 2012 with the title A Book of Five Rings & The Unfettered Mind. This edition removes entirely the introduction, notes, and illustrations that accompanied the other Harris editions mentioned above. It does include translations of works by Takuan, but the translator is not even mentioned. The table of contents does not typographically differentiate between the titles of separate works and chapter subheadings – only the notes at the end of a specific work indicate that a certain treatise has come to an end and a new one about to begin. The typeface is atrocious, paragraphs are not indented, and the rear cover describes the volume as “an ideal coupling for today’s business or spiritual warrior”.11
The irony of all of this is that the samurai class of Japan traditionally had a contempt for monetary matters and the merchant class,12 indicating how far removed from the original context and philosophy the book has been lifted. A survey of samurai texts of the era provides ample evidence of this. Daidoji Yuzan wrote that in decades past young samurai “did not speak of their own personal gains and losses, nor did they talk about prices”.13 A similar sentiment was voiced by the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo (1659-1719): “People have changed in the past 30 years. When young samurai congregate, they engage in vapid talk of money, about profit and loss, their household fiscal problems […] In the old days, samurai, even in their twenties and thirties, did not harbor such contemptible thoughts, and never talked about such things […]”.14 The thinker Muro Kyuso (1658-1734) held a similar view, and wrote: “Nothing is more important to the samurai than duty. Second in importance comes life, and then money. […] to cherish in one’s heart or even to speak of overfondness for one’s life or the worship of money may be suitable for the merchants, but it is hardly so for the samurai”. 15
To its credit, the introduction to the Harris translation of The Book of Five Rings notes the samurai dislike of merchants.16 And Stephen F. Kaufman, a martial artist whose translation was published by Tuttle in 1994 as The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings, had this to say in his introduction: “There is a significant difference between not getting a deal signed and having your head cut off. Business is mental. War is mental and physical. The true warrior has no difficulty understanding this difference regardless of all the hype suggesting that ‘business is war’. It absolutely is not. […] Taking a life is not the same as taking money.”17 The back cover drives home the point by declaring that this edition is “undiluted by a businessman’s bias”. Ironically, the publishers have classified the book as “Martial Arts/Business”, and Kaufman himself has written books with titles like The Musician’s Book of Five Rings and The Sword in the Boardroom.18
Whatever the flaws in how these books are presented, however, they do not compare to the outright preposterousness of Samurai Selling – The Ancient Art of Service in Sales, by Chuck Laughlin, Karen Sage, and Marc Bockmon. Published by St. Martin’s Griffin in 1993, this book advocates that salespeople can actually become samurai, and proceeds to provide several instructional stories about samurai behaviour, a number of them featuring Musashi. But it is no more possible to become a medieval samurai warrior by reading teaching tales than it is to become a Roman Emperor by reading a biography of Marcus Aurelius. Musashi himself killed his first opponent at the age of thirteen and spent decades of his life in training, duels, and contemplation until, by his own admission, he attained a real understanding of the Way of combat strategy at the age of fifty. 19 Yet the authors of Samurai Selling would have us believe that urban go-getters can become wise paragons of virtue after reading their book. Considering that the authors believe that the samurai philosophy can be summed up with “How can I best serve my client?”,20 and state that Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s 18th century samurai treatise Hagakure was written in the 12th century,21 one cannot help but be sceptical.22
This is not to say that only martial artists should read The Book of Five Rings, though it is reasonable to assume that practitioners of the sword will glean more insight than other readers. The book certainly does possess thought-provoking ideas that can theoretically be applied to different fields of endeavour. But this could be said about virtually any book, and it it is important to remember the context in which The Book of Five Rings was written lest one come away with misapprehensions. As Musashi himself intimates, mastering the Way of combat allowed him to penetrate the mysteries of other professions.23 However, this was a life-long effort, involving not only extensive martial training, but also a study of the classics, interchanges with scholars, much wandering, and a pursuit of numerous other activities such as poetry, calligraphy, sculpture, painting, and landscape design.24 One should also realise that not all samurai treatises are the same. The Hagakure, for example, has an air of disdain for culture25 which is in stark contrast to Musashi’s advocation that one follow the path of the arts as well as the path of the sword.26
In fairness, even Japanese culture does not harbour an untainted image of Musashi. In Japan, the most widely known image of the legendary sword-master stems from Eiji Yoshikawa’s sprawling novel Musashi, which was initially serialised in the 1930s and sold millions of copies in collected form. Numerous films have used Yoshikawa as inspiration, as has the popular manga series Vagabond, but this material often lacks historicity. A notable example is Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (1954-1956). While this epic series of films features great performances enacting a powerful tale of transformation and the quest for enlightenment, it is quite an ahistoric portrait of the real Musashi. But at least Inagaki managed to depict some of the nuances of samurai culture;27 Western discussions of the samurai are often superficial. Two of the most prominent of such films, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999), attempt to link the samurai code with, of all things, Western hitmen.28
The American re-packaging of Musashi is seemingly part of a trend to lend some justification or philosophical footing to professions that are, frankly, as far removed from the samurai ethic as is it is possible to be. In his revealing memoir Liar’s Poker, Matthew Lewis recounts the culture of Wall Street in the 1980s,29 and while he does not refer to Musashi, he does mention investment bankers reading copies of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s (1780-1831) On War for “techniques”.30 Lewis also provides innumerable examples of the crassness, ignorance, and greed that pervaded the mindsets of people who were in denial about the stark truth of what they did for a living.31 As Bruce Thomas writes in his biography of Bruce Lee (who was himself inspired by Musashi):32 “Warriorship has attractive overtones for those who have no real conception of what it entails. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see the principles of the samurai translated into business strategies for the Western boardroom. Warriorship has encouraged many business people to pursue greed and manipulation in a new disguise.”33
Those seriously interested in understanding Musashi would do better to read Alexander Bennett’s translation of the complete corpus of the sword saint’s writings titled The Complete Musashi – The Book of Five Rings and Other Works, along with Kenji Tokitsu’s biography of Musashi titled Miyamoto Musashi –
His Life and Writings.34 Both of these scholarly works contain detailed notes, feature colour reproductions of Musashi’s artwork, and are written by people with extensive martial arts experience. Also worth mentioning is a series of three books by William De Lange titled The Real Musashi – Origins of a Legend, each volume featuring annotated translations of primary source material related to Musashi.35
One must first acquire a meaningful understanding of Musashi and his times before attempting to elicit meaning from his writings – words which, far from abetting capitalistic culture, are inimical to it. As William Scott Wilson wrote in the foreword to his translation of the Budoshoshinshu: “Are we really satisfied with life as ‘consumers’? Can we not do something better with ourselves than just make money? [The samurai] were men who knew something of values, and implicit in their values is the idea that life is worth more than just serving our own materialism and greed”.36 The life and works of Miyamoto Musashi are a testament to those values.
- Bantam later issued an edition in 1992 which removed the advertisements and replaced the original cover art with a more tasteful 19th century Japanese depiction of Musashi; unfortunately, the book’s main content remained unchanged.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Bradford J. Brown (tr.), Yuko Kashiwagi (tr.), William H. Barett (tr.), Eisuke Sasagawa (tr.), The Book of Five Rings (Gorin no sho) (Bantam Books, 1982), p.xvi.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Alexander Bennett (tr.), The Complete Musashi – The Book of Five Rings and Other Works (Tuttle Publishing, 2018), p.9. Nobuko Hirose, in her translation of writings by Takuan, admits that there is no documentary evidence linking Musashi with Takuan, but inexplicably goes on to declare that the latter gave the former “a sense of direction in his life” (Takuan Soho, Nobuko Hirose [tr.], Immovable Wisdom – The Art of Zen Strategy: The Teachings of Takuan Soho [Element, 1992], p.19). Louis Frederic’s A Dictionary of the Martial Arts (The Athlone Press, 1991) makes a similar statement (p.228), one of a number of questionable assertions about Musashi. William Scott Wilson, in the introduction to his translation of Yagyu Munenori’s famous combat treatise Heiho kadensho, goes in the opposite direction, saying that Musashi and Takuan likely did meet, and that the latter may have learned something from the former; see Yagyu Munenori, William Scott Wilson (tr.), The Life-Giving Sword – Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun (Kodansha International, 2003), p.8.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Bradford J. Brown (tr.), Yuko Kashiwagi (tr.), William H. Barett (tr.), Eisuke Sasagawa (tr.), The Book of Five Rings (Gorin no sho) (Bantam Books, 1982), p.xxiii.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Thomas Cleary (tr.), The Book of Five Rings (Shambhala, 2000); p.xiii.
- The prevalence of samurai in modern popular culture may give one the impression that they numerically dominated medieval Japan, but according to Stephen R. Turnbull’s fine book The Book of the Samurai – The Warrior Class of Japan (Magna Books, 1987), the number of samurai never exceeded 7% of the total population (p.117). Alexander Bennett’s The Complete Musashi – The Book of Five Rings and Other Works (Tuttle Publishing, 2018) puts the figure at around 5-6% (p.20).
- Cleary’s translation also has a minimal textual apparatus, with a very brief introduction and only a handful of notes. His volume does include the Heiho kadensho of Yagyu Munenori (translated here as The Book of Family Traditions on the Art of War), but Cleary’s rendition seems to be incomplete when compared to the translation by William Scott Wilson. Wilson’s translation, published as The Life-Giving Sword – Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun (Kodansha International, 2003) is a fine edition, featuring a lengthy introduction, notes, and an illustrated translation of a catalogue of Shinkage-ryu sword-fighting techniques. But the front dustjacket flap states that Yagyu’s ideas are “readily applicable not only to the martial arts but to business and human relations”.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Victor Harris (tr.), A Book of Five Rings (Flamingo, 1984); pp.112; illustrated; notes; ISBN: 0006540317.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Victor Harris (tr.), A Book of Five Rings (The Overlook Press, 1982), p.22. A similar suggestion is made by William Scott Wilson in his introduction to his translation of another noted samurai text – the Budoshoshinshu of Daidoji Yuzan (1639-1730): “[the warrior class] philosophy has persisted at the back of Japanese consciousness right up to the present. This is made manifest in many levels of society, but most obviously in the world of business”; see Daidoji Yuzan, William Scot Wilson (tr.), Budoshoshinshu – The Warrior’s Primer (Ohara Publications, 1987), p.8.
- The article can be read here: https://ejmas.com/jalt/jaltart_Hurst_0101.htm. A shortened version can be found in John Donohue (ed.), The Overlook Martial Arts Reader Volume 2 (The Overlook Press, 2004), pp.223-238.
- A similarly amateurish edition was published by the aptly named Bottom of the Hill Publishing in 2010 (ISBN: 9781935785972). Their 59-page edition contains no introduction or notes, does not mention the translator, does not identify the cover image, has typographical errors, and features explanatory interpolations by some unknown editor.
- Stephen Turnbull, The Book of the Samurai – The Warrior Class of Japan (Magna Books, 1987), p.129.
- Daidoji Yuzan, William Scott Wilson (tr.), Budoshoshinshu – The Warrior’s Primer (Ohara Publications, 1987), p.64.
- Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Alexander Bennett (tr.), Hagakure – The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai (Tuttle Publishing, 2014), p.78.
- Ryusaku Tunoda (ed.), Wm. Theodore de Bary (ed.), Donald Keene (ed.), Sources of the Japanese Tradition (Columbia University Press, 1958), pp.437-438.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Victor Harris (tr.), A Book of Five Rings (The Overlook Press, 1982), p.2.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Stephen F. Kaufman (tr.), The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings – The Definitive Interpretation of Miyamoto Musashi’s Classic Book of Strategy (Tuttle Publishing, 1994); pp.xi.
- Kaufman’s translation is problematic in other respects, with a short introduction, no notes, and a translation which seems to be incomplete and feature interpolations by the translator.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Alexander Bennett (tr.), The Complete Musashi – The Book of Five Rings and Other Works (Tuttle Publishing, 2018), pp.63-64.
- Chuck Laughlin and Karen Sage, with Marc Bockmon, Samurai Selling – The Ancient Art of Service in Sales (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1993), p.2.
- Ibid., p.144.
- The book is problematic in numerous other ways: many of the historical anecdotes are unsourced, and the authors talk at length about their alleged abilities to detect other people’s “ki”.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Alexander Bennett (tr.), The Complete Musashi – The Book of Five Rings and Other Works (Tuttle Publishing, 2018), p.64.
- Ibid., p.40.
- “Warriors extolled as being highly skilled in the arts come across as being imprudent. To become accomplished in an art necessitates a preoccupation with that activity to the detriment of all else. Such a samurai is of no value in service”; see Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Alexander Bennett (tr.), Hagakure – The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai (Tuttle Publishing, 2014), p.108. Pages 159 and 159 of the same translation express similar notions.
- Miyamoto Musashi, Alexander Bennett (tr.), The Complete Musashi – The Book of Five Rings and Other Works (Tuttle Publishing, 2018), p.65. Here Musashi also takes issue with the idea that the Way of the warrior “involves nothing more than an unwavering preparedness for death”, as the Hagakure implies. Musashi was as interested in the creative act as he was adept in the skills of destruction.
- Despite their inaccuracies, Yoshikawa and Inagaki provide informative and detailed portrayals of feudal Japan, and their works are magnificent.
- Similarly facile is Ian Buruma’s treatment of Musashi in his book Behind the Mask – On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes (New American Library, 1985). Buruma falsely states that what is known about Musashi is merely legend, which allows him to draw a brief portrait of the swordsman derived from films and comic-books. Consequently, Musashi is described as an “artist, killer and mystic” who displayed “a talent for murder”; he was a “misogynist”, a “nihilist”, and an “ageless adolescent”. Since Buruma defines the Way of the Sword as a “spiritual way of murder”, his inability to appreciate Musashi is unsurprising. One can expect little else from a book which spends half a page inaccurately describing scenes from Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy while being unable to even get the actors’ names right. See pp.136-140.
- Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker – Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street (Penguin Books, 1990; [first published in 1989]); pp.249; ISBN: 9780140143454.
- Ibid., p.125.
- In reference to those who aspired to be investment bankers, Lewis notes: “The idea that art history might be self-improving or that self-improvement, as distinct from career building, was a legitimate goal of education was widely regarded as naive and reckless” (p.25). On the declarations by investment bankers that it was the challenge, thrill, and excitement that attracted them to their professions, Lewis counters: “That money wasn’t the binding force was, of course, complete and utter bullshit” (p.30). These, and the many other observations throughout the book, demonstrate the stark differences between Wall Street money men and the warriors that they aspired to emulate.
- Lee was a voracious reader of martial literature, and a study of both Lee and Musashi indicates the latter’s influence on the former. For specific citations of Lee being influenced by Musashi, see John Little, The Warrior Within – The Philosophies of Bruce Lee (Chartwell Books, 2016 [originally published in 1996]), p.5.; and Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee – A Life (Simon & Schuster, 2018), p.202.
- Bruce Thomas, Bruce Lee – Fighting Spirit (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2002), p.354.
- This biography also includes a translation and analysis of The Book of Five Rings, as well as partial translations of some other works by Musashi.
- The first volume is The Real Musashi – Origins of a Legend: The Bushu denraiki (Floating World Editions, 2010); pp.xxvii+113; ISBN: 9781891640568. The second volume is The Real Musashi – Origins of a Legend II: The Bukoden (Floating World Editions, 2011); pp.xv+160; ISBN: 9781891640605. The third volume is The Real Musashi – Origins of a Legend III: A Miscellany (Floating World Editions, 2016); pp.xxvii+113; ISBN: 9781891640568. I have only read the first two volumes, but each follows a format which is no doubt replicated in the final volume i.e. each book contains an introduction, an annotated translation, maps, lists of important monuments and castles, historical tables, a glossary, a bibliography, and an index. These volumes are very useful in attempting to discover the truth about Musashi. The translator takes pains to confirm, disprove, or challenge the assertions made by the authors of the texts, and De Lange also provides helpful contextual information regarding the people and places mentioned. The production of these volumes is a bit amateurish, however: maps have no keys, the glossary is incomplete, there is the occasional typographical error, and the illustrations on the title pages are given no credits. Part of the introduction and notes from Volume I are replicated in Volume II, as are the maps, tables, and title page illustrations (though one volume contains a mirrored version of the image in the other volume).
- Daidoji Yuzan, William Scot Wilson (tr.), Budoshoshinshu – The Warrior’s Primer (Ohara Publications, 1987), p.8.