So, this was an era when you could walk around and run someone through with a sword if they annoyed you too much. I mean, we’re not talking about outright murder here, although that certainly went on, but under the guise of “being civilized” any offending chap could get a lance to the kisser if he offended ones honor.
“You, sir! This tea is tepid! Prepare to be skewered!”
But we’re not talking about Europe here, we’re talking about Japan; Feudal Japan. Although I dare say that a cold cuppa would get the hackles up and result in someone losing a head, Japan managed to take “being upset” into a fine art form. Honor could be slighted if someone looked at you funny, said something in a less than perfect manner, or happened to be semi-related to a guy from two hundred years ago, who happened to walk past a donkey, which belonged to a bloke, who once sat opposite a guy, who upset your great, great, great grandfather.
Anyway, it’s complex.
But into this little boiling pot of “just give me a reason to tetsubo your face,” one very good reason for spilling blood was if you felt that the person you were about to shank thought that he was tougher than you. Yup, some dude thinks he’s all-that in the scrapping department and you think you’re tougher? Kick the living crap out of him and prove otherwise.
Enter the Michael J. White of this era: Miyamoto Musashi, AKA Shinmen Takezō, AKA Miyamoto Bennosuke, AKA Niten Dōraku, AKA Your Neck My Sword Let’s Do This.
Musashi, as he was often simply known, was born in 1584. I won’t have you do the terribly simple math here, because we’re picking up this story when he was in his teens. Sort of … there’s some debate around his birth year. But that’s not important, because by the time he hit his teens he was swinging a sword around, storming castles and dueling the life out of would-be hard knocks.
That is correct: barely 13 and he was hellbent on demonstrating his studliness with bone severing results. What were you doing? Blowing on a Nintendo cartridge and whining about how mom screwed up the hot pockets?
I have trained in the way of strategy since my youth, and at the age of thirteen I fought a duel for the first time. My opponent was called Arima Kihei, a sword adept of the Shinto ryū, and I defeated him. At the age of sixteen I defeated a powerful adept by the name of Akiyama, who came from Tajima Province. At the age of twenty-one I went up to Kyōtō and fought duels with several adepts of the sword from famous schools, but I never lost.
— Miyamoto Musashi, Go Rin No Sho
At 16 years of age he got a hardon for beating the crap out of tough guys and went on a country-wide tour to perfect his kenjutsu skills. And when I say “perfect his kenjutsu skills,” I do mean, of course, call out would-be hard knocks and beat the crap out of them with whatever weapon seemed good at the time.
Musashi arrived in Kyoto around 21 or 22 years of age; by now he had been walking the country for five years, dueling anyone who fancied a go, and had pretty much perfected his artwork of slicing the bejesus out of a gnats arse while in mid-flight.
But he didn’t come to Kyoto because the food was good; he was here because of the Yoshioka Clan.
The Yoshioka Clan was famous for its Yoshioka Ryu, a style of kenjutsu founded in 1532 and well known across the country as being one of only eight ways to go about swinging a lump of sharpened steel.
Musashi thought otherwise. Musashi thought Yoshioka Ryu sucked donkey nads, and that he had a better way. And how do you go about convincing the world that your method of swinging a sword is better than the current top-dog in the room? Well you call them out for a duel, of course!
The master of the school was one Yoshioka Seijuro. He also happened to be the head of the entire family, and therefore the perfect candidate to point at while you snarl “Oi, you! Come get some!” Which is exactly what Musashi did.
Seijuro eagerly accepted the challenge and decided to fight outside of the Rendaiji Temple in Northern Kyoto on March 8th, 1604. Hey, what do you know, that’s the story we’re writing about today. The two had agreed that this would be a duel with bokuto, wooden swords, and therefore not to the death. Which is cool and everything, but those things aren’t exactly made of sponge, you know?
Musashi arrived late, which pissed Seijuro off royally, but this was the kind of thing Musashi liked to do … it was all part of the duel. They stood opposite each other in the guard pose, and then quicker than the eye could follow, Musashi drew and clubbed Seijuro so freaking hard with the bokuto that Seijuro’s arm was broken and he was knocked flat.
Musashi decided that a nice flagon of sake would be an appropriate celebratory drink, but what he didn’t know was that the Yoshioka Clan were not going to let this rest here. You see, part of Japanese culture was that whole thing about “my father’s father was upset because your great granddaddy walked past him with a frappuccino” thing. Yoshioka Seijuro had been dishonored: he retired from the family, the warrior’s life in general, and went to count butterflies in a forest … or whatever it is that these zen monks do. Which meant that his family behind him were also dishonored, and his brother intended to make up for this and get the family back on its feet.
Seijuro’s brother. He was a badass swordsman, the new head of the Yoshioka Family, and the new guy to makes things right. This time it was Denshichiro’s turn to mad dog Musashi until a duel was agreed upon.
I like to think that Musashi raised an eyebrow in acceptance, while remaining seated and drinking his tea, while Denshichiro got all huffy and stormed out. In my mind, that’s how all Japanese meetings go.
This time the duel would be held at a Buddhist temple called Sanjusangendo, famous for its thousand statues of Kannon, the Shinto goddess of mercy and compassion. A tad ironic, because this duel was going to be to the death. They didn’t mess about back then when it came to one’s honor.
Musashi arrived late again.
Now when I said “to the death,” I dare say that your mind went to katana and all manner of vorpal blade goodness, but Musashi once more had a bokuto, while Denshichiro had a staff reinforced with steel rings.
So, clearly, both men intended to beat the living crap out of the other.
But this is Japan and samurai-types; they don’t “beat the living crap out of each other.”
Within seconds Musashi struck like a .50 cal bullet to Denshichiro’s forehead and the new head of the Yoshioka household fell dead.
Musashi walked out: “Yoshioka Ryu, LOLZ.”
This put the Clan in a bit of a pickle, because the next head of family was a 12-year old called Yoshioka Matashichiro. Now, granted, this isn’t quite the “blowing the fluff out of a Nintendo cartridge” age, but in Feudal Japan it is old enough to be throwing around challenges for a duel, and that’s exactly what Matashichiro did.
But this one came with an odd clause: the duel was to be fought at night. Night duels were weird and uncommon. So uncommon that Musashi’s spidey sense started to tingle: something was off.
This time he headed to the duel spot early, hid out and watched to see who would arrive. Lo and behold, the young boy turned up in full armor, looking all badass, but it was the subsequent retainers, archers, riflemen, and swordsmen who also arrived that caused Musashi’s eye brows to raise; it was a set-up and the Clan clearly intended to work him over.
So Musashi did what anyone would do when faced by an entire retinue of warriors armed to the teeth, he drew his sword and charged the lot of them.
Yup, he drew his sword – not the wooden variety this time – chopped off the young boy’s head, and promptly started to Uma Therman the whole freaking lot of the retinue around him. It was here that Musashi – quite literally – introduced two-sword fighting to Japan; swords in both hands, he cut a path through dozens of men as he hacked his way through rice fields and freedom.
He left the school of Yoshioka Ryu and the family of Yoshioka as a smoking crater and his experience ultimately forged the path to what would become known as the Nito-Ryu style of kenjutsu.
He would go on to win a total of sixty duels across Japan, write “Thirty-five instructions on Strategy” and “The Book of Five Rings.”
He also went out like a friking boss:
“At the moment of his death, he had himself raised up. He had his belt tightened and his wakizashi put in it. He seated himself with one knee vertically raised, holding the sword with his left hand and a cane in his right hand. He died in this posture, at the age of sixty-two. The principal vassals of Lord Hosokawa and the other officers gathered, and they painstakingly carried out the ceremony. Then they set up a tomb on Mount Iwato on the order of the lord.”